WASHINGTON (USA TODAY Sports) -- The highlight, like so many from the Washington Wizards' past four seasons, starts with John Wall running in transition. The dynamic point guard builds a full head of steam, pulling three Minnesota Timberwolves defenders with him into the paint before any teammates catch up.
Then he passes. And Bradley Beal makes a three-pointer from the corner. And the Wizards go on to win the November game 104-100. And that's the difference.
Wall, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 NBA draft, and Beal, picked third in 2012, have forged an immediate bond on the court and given Washington basketball life for the first time since the Gilbert Arenas era folded under the weight of drama involving a gun, immaturity and injury. The backcourt of the future has arrived, and the Wizards entered Wednesday 32-24 when Wall and Beal play together over the past two seasons, 17-49 when either is out.
"He knows where I am on the floor; I know where he is," Beal said Wednesday. "And that duo is really tough to stop."
Defenses have found that out over the past year. Wall missed the first 33 games of last season with a knee injury, and the result was a 5-28 start. Beal, who has missed 32 games in his two seasons because of various injuries, lacked confidence for the first half of his rookie season, unable to carry a team that needed him.
But he also lacked a point guard, as the Wizards tried A.J. Price, Shaun Livingston and others as fill-ins for Wall. The connection was instant, with Beal scoring 16 points in Wall's return game Jan. 12, 2013. And the numbers attest to the difference a playmaker can make: Beal, in his two seasons, has shot 46.6% on three-pointers with Wall on the court and 34.4% without Wall.
"As a rookie, he didn't understand that we needed him to be more aggressive at the time, especially with me and Nene being injured," Wall said of Beal. "The last two weeks before I came back, he started to find his role. When I came back, I just helped to elevate his game a lot more."
The Wizards entered Wednesday's game against the Boston Celtics tied for the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference at 20-20. The franchise hasn't reached the playoffs since 2008, with Wittman being the team's fourth coach (including 2008-09 interim Ed Tapscott) in that span. The entire roster has been turned around.
And for the past three seasons, Wall has been the face of a losing franchise. The former Kentucky star struggled with shooting and decision-making, often forcing up difficult shots at high speeds as one of the fastest players in the NBA.
But during the 2012 offseason and his time away with a stress fracture in his right knee, Wall began to put together a more intelligent game plan. He came back more efficient last January, reducing his turnovers and improving his field goal percentage. His free throw percentage has increased every season of his career, from 76.6% as a rookie to 84.3% this year.
Mostly, he's playing within the context of his team.
"He's Speedy Gonzales, man," Wizards veteran small forward Martell Webster said. "But he realized that the rest of us, we're not as fast as him. So he had to slow it down. And that's kind of scary when you think about it: He's actually slowing down. ... That's part of the maturation process."
The improved play led the Wizards to hand Wall a maximum-level five-year contract extension, a deal scrutinized because of the team's lack of success since drafting him. But Wall has validated it with a season likely to put him on the Eastern Conference All-Star team.
"They put their commitment in me just like I put my commitment in them," he said, making clear the contract has not changed his playing style.
There's another effect to giving Wall that kind of deal: The Wizards haven't had much stability over the years, but they now have a true cornerstone to build on. And his partner is encouraged.
"It's good for the team," Beal said. "He's the leader. He's the head of the snake. It just makes my decision that much easier, if I want to continue to play with him over the next couple of years."