During the second half of Tuesday night’s game between the Wizards and Hornets, you could almost sense the panic from Charlotte players every time they transitioned from offense to defense.
Where is he? Did he cross halfcourt yet? Put a body on him NOW.
No, it wasn’t two-time All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beal, who’s fifth in the league in scoring at 27.4 points per game, sending the Hornets into a frenzy. It was fourth-year forward Davis Bertans, who hadn’t averaged more than six field goal attempts per game prior to this season.
Bertans nearly burned down the nets at Spectrum Center, scoring a career-high 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting from the field and 8-of-12 shooting from the 3-point line (plus two 4-point plays). After Bertans’ sixth bomb from deep, which came two steps off the line with Nicolas Batum right in his grill, Beal had to be resuscitated on the opposite baseline.
When Beal thought about the best shooters he has ever played alongside, Bertans jumped to the top of the list.
“Let’s see. Probably No. 1, honestly,” Beal said after the game. “I think Trev [Ariza] had a really good year. Martell [Webster] had a good year one year, but in terms of the way he shoots it, he’s No. 1, for sure.”
That’s because Bertans’ outburst in Charlotte was no fluke. Through 20-plus games, the “Latvian Laser” is shooting an insane 46.5 percent on 8.6 3-point attempts per game. These aren’t just your standard catch-and-shoot looks with an inept big man losing track of Bertans on the perimeter (though he is the top catch-and-shoot scorer in the league). He is running off screens and firing in the blink of an eye.
Of his 198 3-point attempts this season, Bertans has taken 175 less than two seconds after touching the ball, per NBA.com tracking data.
“Coming off screens, that’s what I really like to do, and I feel like that’s the best part of my game,” Bertans said. “They’ve been using me that way here, and guys have been looking for me. Making shots helps. The more shots you make, the more plays [there are going to be] for you.”
And he’s made a lot of them. Bertans is fourth in the NBA in 3-pointers (92) behind only James Harden (117), Devonte’ Graham (103) and Buddy Hield (94) despite playing far fewer minutes off the bench than those guards. Bertans won’t be confused for Harden any time soon, but opposing teams know exactly how the possession will end if he finds a sliver of space.
That gravity can open up the floor for his teammates.
What separates Bertans from other stretch-4s — and really most shooters, period — is his ability to catch on the move, maintain his balance and rotate his body toward the basket in one fluid motion.
“The great big shooters, the wings, they have the knack. It seems like they’re squaring up in midair,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “The Reggie Millers, the Ray Allens, Mark Price — those great shooters, they just have the knack that range is not a factor. Their legs, their mechanics, their angle of entry on the arc is always right at the same level.
“He’s one of the best, definitely one of the best shooters.”
Bertans believes he’s always had this rare ability at some level, but he elevated it playing in Serbia under Partizan Belgrade coach Dule Vujosevic. A hand in the face is nothing compared to what Bertans encountered overseas.
“A great, but crazy coach in Serbia, he put in some ridiculous drills,” Bertans said. “Some other coaches holding some brooms, giving me gardening gloves to wear when I’m shooting, putting an eyepatch on one eye — stuff like that. I’ve seen it all. Sometimes when the defenses are playing a lot closer, it’s just another day that I’ve been through before.”
This sudden emergence has helped fuel Washington’s top-five offense, but with the Wizards outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture at 7-16 overall, it also presents some interesting questions about Bertans’ future.
When the Wizards acquired Bertans in a trade with the Spurs this past offseason, they knew they had added a good player, but they couldn’t have expected this kind of performance. (Gregg Popovich is probably still fuming over the deal that led to the Marcus Morris debacle of 2019.) Bertans is currently on a bargain contract, earning just $7 million this season, but he will enter free agency in 2020. Any team in the league could use a 6-10 forward who can shoot the lights out, so there will be competition for his services.
At 27 years old, Bertans fits nicely with Beal’s timeline (26 years old) and is exactly the kind of player Washington should want next to Beal and John Wall, whenever he returns from injury. He is a floor-spacing shooter, of course, but Bertans is also smart with his off-ball movement, doesn’t swallow up too many possessions and plays decent positional defense despite his athletic limitations. His impact is felt whenever he takes the floor.
“I keep saying it, he’s not just a shooter,” Brooks said. “He’s a basketball player, an elite basketball player.”
The Wizards could take an alternate route, though, and gauge Bertans’ value on the trade market, particularly if the team continues to slide down the standings prior to the Feb. 6 deadline. Bertans is the type of player who could potentially swing a playoff game with a hot quarter of shooting, so contenders would have no trouble matching that $7 million number in a trade, and Washington could obtain a valuable asset rather than risk losing Bertans to a team willing to overpay next summer.
How the Wizards handle the next two months will be key. Despite Bertans’ shooting display, the Wizards still lost to the Hornets, and they are likely to continue losing if they maintain the dubious title of league’s worst defense.
“It’s great that he’s able to do that, but if we want to win and be in the playoffs and be that type of caliber team, we can’t just depend on DB to make those shots,” Beal said. “But it’s great that he does.”
Regardless of where Bertans is doing it by the end of the season, you can bet opposing players will be on high alert.