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Gonzaga Basketball

Corey Kispert is improving, even if his shooting numbers aren’t

Former Gonzaga standout Corey Kispert is becoming a more well-rounded player in the NBA for the Washington Wizards despite dips in his shooting percentages.  (Jonathan Newton/Washington Post)
By Ava Wallace Washington Post

SEATTLE – Some of the warmest welcomes Corey Kispert has received in his young NBA career have come roughly 2,800 miles from Capital One Arena.

The Washington Wizards’ annual sojourn to Moda Center to face the Portland Trail Blazers is as close to a home game as the Seattle-area native and Gonzaga graduate Kispert gets, which means friends and family usually pack into a section of the stands and Bulldogs fans in the crowd show their support.

This year, Kispert got a proper homecoming when he popped up the coast between the Wizards’ loss Monday in Sacramento and their game late Thursday night in Portland to have his King’s High No. 24 jersey retired in Shoreline, Washington.

Off the court, he returned to the Pacific Northwest as a native son done good. On the court, he is a perfect poster child of the Washington Wizards’ rebuild – meaning he has had a positive season that doesn’t quite show up in the obvious numbers.

Kispert’s points per game are down just a tick from last season – he entered Thursday averaging 11 points per game after averaging 11.1 in 2022-2023 – and his shooting from both the field (45.2%, down from 49.7%) and from the 3-point line (38.1%, down from 42.4%) have dipped.

But watch him play, and his improvement as a playmaker, an off-ball mover and a smart shooter is undeniable. He embodies what the Wizards have always said this year is all about: development without living and dying by results.

“The growth doesn’t change no matter what my output says in the box score,” Kispert said this week. “I still feel it. I still know it. Obviously, I can’t let it discourage me. But some things are just out of my control as a player, and that’s just kind of the way things go.”

Kispert’s most apparent area of growth is how aggressive he is when the ball comes to him.

He is either immediately driving to the basket with force behind his 6-foot-6 frame or releasing for a hair-trigger 3-pointer. In an effort to improve efficacy and lean into his greatest strength, he has ignored the midrange jumper in his arsenal this year, creating a shot chart that looks like a smiley face, with a thick band around the arc and two dots right under the basket.

According to the statistical website Cleaning the Glass, which eliminates garbage time from its computations, 59% of Kispert’s shots come from behind the arc and 26% are at the rim. Shots defined as “short mid,” meaning they’re from between roughly 4 and 14 feet from the basket, account for 15% of his shot profile.

“He’s being more aggressive about hunting 3s, which is something I know I’ve been on him about since I got here,” point guard Tyus Jones said, echoing what Wizards coaches have been telling Kispert since he arrived in Washington as the No. 15 pick in the 2021 draft. “His ‘open’ and a lot of other people’s ‘open’ need to be different. His ‘open’ should be if he can see the rim and he’s able to get the shot up. That needs to be his mentality. ‘They’re letting me shoot the ball? I need to shoot it.’ ”

Kispert is listening, and he entered Thursday averaging 5.4 3-point attempts per game, up from 5.2 last year despite playing fewer minutes – 23 per game this year down from 28.3.

The fact that his 3-point shooting is down from a career-high percentage last season isn’t really the point. Kispert started 45 games last year and is coming off the bench this year, meaning he is not always sure when opportunities are coming. He is also working within an offense that doesn’t always involve him in the action.

“There’s a lot of things that affect the scoring that are out of my control,” Kispert said.

When the offense is humming and flows toward him, he has games such as the 23-point performance he turned in against Indiana on Dec. 15.

Otherwise, his numbers can look meager even if he is active off the ball: He scored just seven points in Sacramento on Monday and six in Phoenix last Sunday.

Kispert is focusing instead on what he can control, such as being in the right spot so that he is ready when the offense does tilt his way, taking every sliver of opportunity he sees to shoot a 3-pointer and increasing his aggression. The number of fouls he is drawing has nearly doubled thanks to his increased drives, and he is working to be more of a pest on defense.

He laid the foundation for a defensive uptick in the offseason weight room, increasing mobility in his hips, ankles and knees so he could move more freely and not have to compensate in other areas to keep marks in front of him.

“I felt like last year, my brain would be telling my body what to do and my body couldn’t quite get there because of limitations,” Kispert said in an interview earlier this season. “And then a lot of it, too, was just guarding guys in the offseason who are quicker and faster than I am …”

Wizards coach Wes Unseld Jr. points out Kispert’s willingness to take on defensive challenges above all else, even his efforts to become more efficient offensively.

Because Kispert is a proven shooter, Washington isn’t as worried about his numbers – especially this season, when racking up wins is secondary to development.

Turning the 24-year-old into a more dimensional player is the ultimate goal.

“Just seeing him continue to grow is positive,” Unseld said this week. “… He’s shown the ability to score at a high rate and shoot with efficiency, so I think that water will find its level.”