Fans might have seen point guard John Wall score 26 points, despite suffering a knee contusion in a prior game, against the Miami Heat Monday. Or they might have seen guard Bradley Beal’s 21 points or for that matter, even (forward) Otto Porter’s 14 rebounds. But it is guard Gary Neal’s consistent under-the-radar performance for the last seven games that has been the most noteworthy. He has been firing off shots and scoring in double figures game after game right off the bench consistently. His clutch three-pointer shot assisted by Beal with a second left on the shot-clock and one minute left in the game helped the Wizards simmer the fire off the Heat in Miami and win Monday night, 114 -103 at American Airlines Arena.
This is not to say that what Wall and Beal are bringing to the Wizards is nothing but incredible. However, add a reliable third shooter like Neal, with his 46.4 percent shooting on three-pointers, averages of 10 points per game on 50 percent shooting this season in 21 minutes off the bench and that’s going to be impactful. Not to mention, the Baltimore native can also play defense. In the Miami game, in 36 minutes, he scored 21 points, two rebounds, two steals, three three-pointers and a career-high of four assists. No one can say this 31-year old journeyman, who signed with the Wizards for one year, has not been a vital part of the second-unit on both ends of the court.
His play this year is just as compelling as his story. A high-school basketball star that averaged a triple-double per game while at Aberdeen High School in Maryland, Neal led his team to 21-4 record and a state championship. He finished his senior year at Calvert Hall College High School and they went 22-9.
Averaging 18.6 points a game at La Salle University and their leading scorer, Neal built his reputation as a leading shooter at the collegiate level. After his sophomore year and as a result of a rape allegation from a female counselor at a basketball camp in Philadelphia, he was suddenly dismissed from the team.
Soon after, Neal transferred to Towson University, without a scholarship and while awaiting the decision in the pending rape case. With no athletic aspirations at this point and his dreams halted, Neal still believed in himself. So did the coach at Towson who gave him a walk-on spot on the men’s basketball team… pending the outcome of the case.
Once acquitted from the allegation, Neal landed a permanent spot on the team and became an instant hit at Towson, finishing fourth in the nation scoring as a senior.
Again, Neal suffered another setback when he went undrafted in 2007 but it didn’t halt his future. He took his talent abroad and played in Turkey, Spain, Italy and then in Spain again. In 2010, his perseverance paid off. He signed a three-year deal with the San Antonio Spurs at 26 years old.
Neal played 80 games and averaged 9.8 points per game, 2.5 rebounds, scored 80 percent of his free throws and 41.9 percent of his three-pointers. He helped the Spurs force a Game 6 against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. He posted eight points, five rebounds, an assist and a steal in 22 minutes but unfortunately, the Spurs lost to the Grizzlies in that game.
In 2012, Neal had an appendectomy and was assigned to the Spurs D-League. He sprung back the following year and scored playoff career highs, with 24 points and seven three-pointers from the field. He went nine of 17 from the field and six of 10 from the perimeter.
That year, he would sign with the Milwaukee Bucks and then the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) in 2014. Finally, in July of this year, he signed with the Washington Wizards.
Washington knew they needed help with shooting even though Beal was averaging 20 points per game. Beal couldn’t do it alone nor could Wall. They needed a scorer to come off the bench and put up big points in big games.
Neal is just what the Wizards needed this year, a reliable shooter and threat right off the bench who can score quickly.
Head Coach Randy Wittman certainly realizes Neal’s value.
“He was probably the most consistent guy we had,” he said after Monday night’s win. “He gave us a big lift.”
Gary Neal has made a living as a backup. Right now however, he is more than that for the Wizards… maybe because he’s finally playing back home.