City Paper is not for tourists
Two days before the 2019 NBA Summer League began, at around 11 p.m., Anžejs Pasečņiks received a call. Pack your bags and fly to Las Vegas to join the Washington Wizards, his agent told him.
The instructions caught Pasečņiks by surprise. After being selected in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, who ultimately renounced their draft rights to him last July. The 7-foot-1 Latvian calls that moment “the lowest point” of his NBA journey and figured he’d spend this season competing for a team in Europe.
“It’s been a long way ’cause I had a feeling like I made it two years ago when I get drafted,” Pasečņiks says. “But the things didn’t turn [out] so well, and now I’m happy for that because I have to overstep all that, and it made me mentally stronger.”
He eventually joined the Wizards’ G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, and on Dec. 17, signed a two-way contract with the Wizards. Pasečņiks, 24, is one of two rookies, along with Garrison Mathews, on a two-way contract with the Wizards this season. Both have received extended playing time recently due to the team’s many injuries.
Bradley Beal (lower right leg soreness), Rui Hachimura (groin injury), Thomas Bryant (right foot stress reaction), Davis Bertans (right quad strain), Moritz Wagner (sprained left ankle), and C.J. Miles (left wrist surgery) have all spent significant time on the inactive or injury list. Five time All-Star guard John Wall is rehabbing a left Achilles tear and it’s unclear if he will return to the court this season.
In their place, lesser-known and infrequently used players like Pasečņiks and Mathews have shined. Mathews averaged 6.6 points over 14 games with the Wizards before spraining his right ankle against the Boston Celtics on Jan. 6. Pasečņiks made his NBA debut on Dec. 18 against the Chicago Bulls and is averaging 7.8 points and 6.5 rebounds over 11 games. According to the Washington Post, the Wizards are considering converting Pasečņiks to a standard NBA contract before the Jan. 15 deadline to do so.
Neither player envisioned playing significant NBA minutes this season.
“It’s rare,” says Go-Go head coach Ryan Richman of two-way players receiving heavy NBA playing time. “The league is so much about opportunity, and it’s unfortunate in a lot of ways that we’ve had these injuries, but the silver lining is that these guys have been able to step up and contribute, and it will only make everyone stronger in the end.”
Facing the Miami Heat on Dec. 30, Mathews scored a career-high 28 points against the third-ranked defense in the league. By the end, fans at Capital One Arena began to chant “MVP!” at the undrafted rookie.
“Just hearing the crowd, and even when I checked back in the second half, everybody went crazy. It sent chills down me,” Mathews says.
Mathews, 23, played at Lipscomb University, a mid-major program in Nashville, Tennessee, and did not expect to get drafted. He had 14 NBA Draft workouts scheduled, but only completed seven before suffering a stress reaction in his shins right before Summer League began. The injury forced him to miss six weeks.
Still, Mathews impressed the Wizards with his work ethic and shooting ability and they signed him to a two-way contract in June.
“Garrison is somebody you need to kick out of the gym, or lock the gym, and maybe he’ll leave the gym,” Richman says. “You know, maybe he won’t come if you do that. He’s like that type of guy.”
During a week-long stretch recently, Mathews played six games in seven days between the Go-Go and Wizards. Players on two-way deals, Mathews says, typically find out which team they’re playing for the day before a game, leading to a potentially hectic schedule.
“The challenge is just getting rest,” he says. “I go from having six games in seven days, playing Detroit, fly back and play in the G League, then play for the Wizards, then the G League. It’s really just getting rest. It’s tough for sure, trying to find a way to let your body recover. [But] it’s not for me to think about. It’s for me to do my job.”
Both Mathews and Pasečņiks have been part of the energetic second unit led by journeyman point guard Ish Smith. Against the Denver Nuggets, the second place team in the Western Conference, on Jan. 4, the pair of rookies combined to score 20 of the franchise-record 92 bench points. Two days later, against the Boston Celtics, one of the best teams in the league this year, Pasečņiks scored seven points and set consistent screens for Smith, who scored 27 points.
“He’s really growing right in front of our eyes and it’s great to see,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks says of Pasečņiks. “His feel around the basket, he can finish with either hand … Defensively he has pretty good verticality. His screen setting is really high level for a younger player. Him and Ish, their synergy on pick-and-roll is pretty impressive.”
Two-way contracts, which began in the 2017 offseason, stipulate that players cannot spend more than 45 days with their NBA teams. Due to the injuries, the Wizards have decided to front-load Mathews and Pasečņiks’ schedules.
Asked if he feels more pressure now to prove his worth in the NBA, Mathews keeps his unexpected NBA rookie season in perspective. A year ago, he says, he would have laughed if someone told him he’d be playing significant minutes in the league.
“I feel like I’ve made a good case for myself, but nothing is guaranteed here,” Mathews says of earning a guaranteed spot on an NBA roster. “To be honest with you, I try not to be too concerned about that. Just try to everyday to see what I can do to get better. And if I work as hard as I can, I don’t need to worry about all that stuff.”
Pasečņiks also wants to stay in the moment instead of thinking too far ahead. Six months ago, he was in Latvia, unsure of when his next chance at the NBA would be, so he leaped at a chance in the G League.
“I felt I wanted to be here,” he says. “I have to do everything, whatever it takes to get to the NBA, so that was the only way. It was the hard way but we choose it. It’s a little bit risky too, but we went that way. Now it seems like it was the right decision.”