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One season ago, Raul Neto was a backup point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers. Now, he's set to face his former team in the playoffs, serving in a much more expansive role playing for the Washington Wizards.
It wasn't planned to be that way. When the Wizards signed Neto to a one-year free-agent deal last fall, it was to be their third point guard. They saw him as a defensive upgrade to their bench, but behind Ish Smith on the depth chart.
Neto, however, ended up being the Wizards' most versatile player this season, serving as a point guard, two-guard and at the three. He has started 22 of his 64 games and finished the year with career-highs in scoring (8.7 ppg), rebounds (2.4 rpg) and effective field goal percentage (53.9).
He has been the defensive stalwart the Wizards were aiming for, all while posting the best offensive numbers of his six-year NBA career.
"Work, confidence, I think. Being able to go out there and take those shots, shots that I wouldn’t take in the past. I have the confidence and I have the trust from my teammates and coaching staff to do it," Neto said.
It's not all that often you see players raise both their volume and efficiency to the degree Neto has. The Wizards gave him a larger role than any of his previous teams were able to offer, and he ran with it.
The door opening for Neto had some to do with injuries. He was able to play extra early on as starting point guard Russell Westbrook sat out in back-to-backs. Then through injuries to Bradley Beal, Deni Avdija and others, Neto was always ready to step in, no matter what position or what the Wizards asked of him.
Through it all, and through a litany of injuries, Neto has been one of the Wizards' most consistent performers all season. That has stood out in a year where the team was anything but consistent. Through injuries, a Covid outbreak and extreme highs and lows in the win/loss column, Neto has been reliable on both ends of the floor.
"He didn’t say nothing. He took every practice as a serious commitment to making him part of the rotation early on," Brooks said. "We signed him as a third point guard and that says a lot about him. It’s kind of mirrored and mimicked our season in general. He was definitely an out-of-nowhere guy."
Neto's effort has been a calling card for him all season. Time and time again he's made energy plays that helped change the tenor of games. He's constantly punching above his weight against bigger players, whether it be when going for a loose ball in the open court or finishing through contact around the rim.
"Every time I go out there, I just leave everything, play as hard as I can and try to help the team," Neto said.
It was that hard-nosed spirit that helped Neto stand out to general manager Tommy Sheppard over the years. Sheppard first saw Neto play in Brazil in 2014 when he traveled down there with Nene, who was then a starting big man for the Wizards. Neto helped Brazil beat rival Argentina with a big scoring effort and his trademark tough defense.
Neto played for the Jazz and Sixers before coming to Washington, where he has thrived and likely made himself a nice raise this offseason. Now, he gets a crack at his former team. The Sixers flipped a lot of pieces over the offseason, as new team architect Daryl Morey took over the front office. But the main players are still there and Neto believes his experience playing with them could help the Wizards in their first-round series.
"I know every one of them; how they play, how they mentally approach the game. So, I think I’m going to try to use that during the series and try to help my teammates if they need to know something else," he said.
Neto said he is also feeling much better after dealing with a hamstring issue late in the regular season. After going scoreless in the first play-in game, he bounced back with 14 points (5-8 FG) and two steals in the second one against Indiana. He said he feels good enough that he doesn't think about the injury anymore when playing.
Neto looks ready to go as the Wizards aim to pull off the unlikely upset, as the No. 8 team over the No. 1 seed. He may not be one of the marquee players in this series, but if he were to make a larger impact than expected, it wouldn't be the first time.
Coverage of the Wizards vs. 76ers first-round series starts Sunday at 12 PM on NBC Sports Washington.