BOSTON — Tyus Jones has hardly walked into a room over the past few weeks without an awkward sense that, wherever he went, whomever he was talking to, somebody was avoiding something.
“You can’t escape it, really. It’s kind of always the lingering thing,” Jones said. “You can tell people want to say something or ask something, you know what I mean?”
That thing was Jones’s name swirling in every Wizards trade rumor since early January. But after Washington made just one move Thursday that sent Daniel Gafford to the Dallas Mavericks for Richaun Holmes and a 2024 first-round draft pick, there Jones sat at shoot-around Friday morning ahead of a 133-129 Wizards loss in Boston. Finally, that awkwardness had vacated the premises.
“Happy to be here,” he said in an interview, by way of greeting.
Jones’s presence is perhaps the clearest indication of where Washington (9-42) is as an organization and how its first-year front office thinks. His leadership, his steadying presence and his connection with interim coach Brian Keefe — on top of his basketball talent — are worth more to them than a couple of second-round picks.
Yes, the 27-year-old point guard is on an expiring contract, meaning the Wizards could lose him over the summer without reaping anything in return. But Monumental Basketball President Michael Winger and General Manager Will Dawkins were comfortable taking that risk.
Logistically, Washington can offer Jones something he might not find elsewhere in free agency: a place in the starting lineup, which is a gig Jones has become accustomed to and could be an incentive to re-sign with the Wizards. He enjoys the leadership responsibilities that come with his role as much as he relishes the challenge of matching up against the best guards in the NBA every night.
“I don’t take it lightly. I take that personally, continue to want to lead by example, continue to lead vocally and continue to help us move forward, take steps in the right direction,” Jones said. “So, yeah, I don’t take that for granted at all. I appreciate [the team] for valuing me the way they do.”
Practically, the Wizards need Jones in the locker room and on the court as they move through the early days of their rebuild.
“He’s very important to what we try to do with his leadership, the way he controls the game. He’s super unselfish,” Kyle Kuzma said.
With Keefe prioritizing remaking Washington’s defense, he’s able to pass some of the nightly task of running the offense to his starting point guard. Coach and player have a strong bond already because Keefe has been responsible for working out Jones since the start of the season, and Jones’s understanding of the game and shared vision mean Keefe doesn’t have to worry about minor details on court.
“I have tremendous trust in Tyus. He’s my coach on the floor,” Keefe said when asked Friday how much freedom he has allowed Jones on offense. “He reads the game, sees situations. I trust him to make the right plays. He’s been doing it for a long time. I have tremendous faith in him leading us on offense.”
Jones helps Keefe hold the Wizards to a high standard. The point guard said Washington backslid in losses against the Suns and Clippers because they gave too much deference to their opponents; in Boston, there was no such problem.
The Wizards took the first few minutes of the first quarter to settle in but after that charged hard, using their speed and heaving passes downcourt to catch Boston in transition and hit easy buckets.
“We’re learning how to do it, play at that pace,” Keefe said. “We talk about it as a group constantly . . . our running habits. We got out, we were looking to pass the ball ahead, and we did that quite a bit tonight.”
Washington played smart enough to build a seven-point lead heading into halftime behind those easy paint points and hot shooting from beyond the arc — the Wizards buried a season-high 20 three-pointers. The Celtics (40-12) are the best team in the NBA for a reason — they possess a higher gear the Wizards don’t and used that to their advantage in the third, closing the quarter on a 19-4 run to take control of the game even as Washington fought back in the fourth quarter thanks to 12 points from Deni Avdija.
Jayson Tatum led Boston with 35 points, and former Wizard Kristaps Porzingis had 34, including 14 points at the free throw line.
Avdija led the Wizards with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Corey Kispert matched him with 24 points off the bench, and Bilal Coulibaly had a career-high 21 points in his fourth career start.
Jones, quarterbacking it all, had 17 points and nine assists.
There’s nothing like matching up against a lineup featuring 6-foot-9 Al Horford and 7-foot-2 Porzingis to demonstrate just how undersized the Wizards are — especially without a true center on the court.
Washington went without a traditional five-man Friday as Marvin Bagley III missed his fourth straight game with a lower back contusion and Holmes, who was acquired Thursday in the trade that sent Gafford to Dallas, wasn’t yet with the team. Third-string center Patrick Baldwin Jr. was also out with an ankle sprain.
Keefe switched up his starting lineup to compensate, opting to start Kuzma at center and giving Coulibaly the start alongside Avdija, Jones and Jordan Poole. The starters did very well once they leaned hard into their speed shortly into the first quarter to keep Boston’s defense off-kilter and give themselves good looks at the three-point line. The starting group had 10 three-pointers in the first half to help give the Wizards a 71-64 lead heading into the locker room.
“Our execution was pretty good for about 36 minutes,” Keefe said. “The third quarter was a little tough, but what was great for our group is we responded in the fourth and we were resilient, and those are things we talk about a lot.”
Don’t be surprised if Keefe turns to this starting group more and more in the second half of the season. The Wizards would like to get Coulibaly even more quality experience against NBA first-stringers, and the front office was clear when Bagley arrived from Detroit in January they envision him as an anchor of a bench unit.
Poole bounces back for a half
Poole bounced back from his scoreless outing against Cleveland with 19 points, all of which came in the first half. He made 7 of 19 overall but was 0 for 4 after halftime.
“I was just involved,” Poole said. “We were swinging the ball earlier in the first half. I was just taking advantage of open looks. I don’t know what happened in the second half. We just kind of stopped swinging and getting really one-on-one, and we’re not good when we play like that.”
Friday was something of a family affair for the visiting team. Both Keefe and Dawkins, who traveled with the team for the game, hail from Massachusetts and had large groups of relatives in attendance. Dawkins’s family had more than an hour to travel, and Keefe, from nearby Winchester, Mass., grew up about eight miles from TD Garden.
“Huge Celtics fan growing up. I know the whole history of the team. Family’s lived in this area for a very long time,” Keefe said. “So I think personally, yeah, it’s obviously a big deal. Pretty cool feeling.”