With his team having blown a 19-point lead and in need of a big shot to quiet down a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd, Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. drew up a play that called the number of the least experienced player on his projected regular-season roster.
Rookie Corey Kispert was billed as the best shooter in the 2021 NBA Draft after a four-year career at Gonzaga University in which he shot accurately from three, with volume and across a large sample size. Though it was the preseason against the Knicks on Saturday, this offered Unseld Jr. a chance to see Kispert do it on the NBA stage.
Aaron Holiday threw the inbound pass as Kispert cut around a Daniel Gafford screen. New York's R.J. Barrett was slowed just a bit and just enough for Kispert to get an open look, which he casually knocked down as if this was a non-conference college game for the Zags.
"It felt great. I knew I had a chance when [Unseld] drew up the play, it was designed really well. Just wanted to make sure I gave it enough. I was fading away," Kispert said.
While Kispert suggested the play could have resulted in someone else taking the shot, Unseld Jr. described his approach with Kispert very much in mind. Kispert is especially good on catch-and-shoot threes, so this moment made sense for him with Washington at the time down 113-110 with 15.8 seconds left in the fourth quarter and its starters on the bench.
"I think he’s been put in that spot in different situations, obviously in high school and college. But to do that on the NBA stage and obviously with 13,000 people in New York, it’s gotta be a good feeling," Unseld Jr. said. "I felt comfortable. He’s a shot-maker, he’s made those plays in practice. It was good to see him have success in that moment. He was able to maintain his poise and he knocked down a big shot for us."
The shot was exciting and memorable, but so was what Kispert did after. He sort of skipped to the bench, waving his arms back-and-forth. It may have been more of a gallop than a dance, but it was definitely a celebration.
"To be honest, I don’t even remember what I did. It just kind of happened. I didn’t want to go too crazy because it was a preseason game," Kispert said.
The Wizards hope to have plenty of future moments from Kispert with cause to celebrate and that shot was the result of him being ready when needed. One of the ways Kispert has stood out early in his NBA tenure is his preparation.
Wizards forward Anthony Gill is widely known as one of the hardest-working players in the organization, if not the hardest. Even the notoriously devoted Russell Westbrook said as much last year.
So, Kispert has been drawn to Gill, especially when it comes to the extra conditioning work Gill does after practice.
"I walked into the gym and I wanted to take notes on who’s doing what. I want to attach myself to the hardest worker in the room and A.G. is atop that list," Kispert said.
"We have a bunch of guys like that here. Just the way I play, too. I’m a high-energy guy, I run around a lot," Kispert said. "I cover a lot of ground during games and I need to be in really good shape to be on the floor. I figured A.G. was the right man to talk to and, of course in A.G. fashion, he pulls up a bike and we pedaled together. I’m really thankful for him to let me in on that one."
Kispert had a mostly solid preseason as he dealt with inconsistent minutes in a deep rotation of Wizards wings. He had nine points against the Knicks, hitting 3-for-5 from three. The previous game against the Toronto Raptors, he topped out at two points. Overall, he averaged 6.3 points while shooting 37.0% from the field and 27.8% from long range.
Those are numbers he will hope to improve, but there were some finer details about his preseason that were encouraging. Against the Raptors, his two points came on a catch-and-go drive where he finished through contact at the rim on Toronto big man Khem Birch. Kispert had to hang in the air for a window to release his shot and executed the play smoothly.
Kispert believes those types of plays will make him a more effective outside shooter.
"It’s been a work in progress over the last couple of years, but anybody that has watched college basketball the last couple years knows that’s part of my game. It’s no secret," Kispert said. "That’s the counter to my three-point shot. Just being able to do that at the next level is probably the next step. I can do it just fine, but being able to put it on the floor and make plays at this level is the next step for me. I’m glad I showcased that a little bit to keep defenses on their heels a little bit more."
Unseld Jr. pointed out how that play was a good representation of the difference between college rules and how the NBA is enforcing foul calls moving forward. Birch kept his hands up and avoided a whistle, when in other circumstances the contact may have sent Kispert to the free throw line.
Unseld Jr. also spoke from the perspective of defensive game-planning and how Kispert being able to make plays like that will open up other areas for the Wizards' offense.
"Being able to finish through contact, finish on verticality over the length, that’s just going to add to his effectiveness," Unseld Jr. said. "Once he gets more comfortable putting the ball down, changing directions, maybe playing a little bit of second side pick-and-roll. To be able to catch-and-go, that’s a tough play to guard, especially when you’re closing out to the guy on a live bounce, a guy who can stretch the defense."
The Wizards play their first regular season game on Wednesday at Toronto. Though Kispert says he's excited to travel for his first NBA game, it's unclear whether he will play or how much he will see the floor given the veteran depth the Wizards have at his position.
But Kispert is clearly taking the steps to make sure he's ready when his name is called again. The next time it will count.