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NBA Draft: For European prospects, tread lightly with the hype

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NBA Draft: For European prospects, tread lightly with the hype

Honest admission time: Like most reading this article, I don't know much about the two international prospects expected to hear their names called early in Thursday's NBA Draft.

Now, there's been ample due diligence done on this end in preparation for mock draft season. Yet because the Wizards are out of play with the 19th pick, I haven't gone wild researching Latvian forward Kristaps Porzingis or Croatian sharpshooter Mario Hezonja.

Recent suspect history of European prospects selected early, that much I know.

Porzingis and Hezonja are both likely to be the first prospects from Europe without any U.S. college experience drafted in the top 10 since the Wizards selected Jan Vesely in 2011.

The new guys should be judged on their merits rather than previous failures. Highlights of the 6-foot-8 Hezonja draining 3-pointers for his team in the second-best league in the world certainly stands out. Same for intrigue of Porzingis, who some believe could come off the board second overall.

Best of luck to them and the teams that select them. Based on the lottery picks tabbed since Pau Gasol went third overall in 2001, they'll need it.

2002: Denver Nuggets selected Nikolz Tskitishvili fifth overall. The 7-footer from Georgia, located where Eastern Europe and Western Asia intersect, only played 172 games during his four-season NBA career.

2003: With the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade available, the Detroit Pistons infamously selected Serbian big man Darko Milicic with the second pick after the Cleveland Cavaliers took LeBron James. Milicic spent a decade in the league, but never developed into anything resembling an All-Star.

2006: Italian forward Andrea Bargnani is selected first overall by the Toronto Raptors. Productive offensively throughout his still active career, Bargnani sports a career average of 15 points per game. However, the 7-footer is a liability in most other aspects of his game when he's healthy enough to play. He averages fewer than five rebounds and one block over his career -- and just 34 games played over the last four seasons. Most famous recently for his way-out-of-line contract, which expired this past season after he played only 29 games with the Knicks.

2008: Health is perhaps the only thing holding back Danilo Gallinari. Drafted sixth overall by the Knicks and traded to the Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony deal, the 6-foot-11 forward has only played more than 65 games twice in seven seasons. Impressive athlete and shooter, but played just 59 games since averaging a career-high 16.2 points during the 2012-13 season.

2009: The Minnesota Timberwolves, using a pick acquired in trade some in these parts may remember, selected Spain's Ricky Rubio fifth overall. The super-hyped point guard arrived stateside for the 2011-12 campaign. At times Rubio looks like passing savant and a defensive presence. At most times he's a perimeter shooting liability that can't stay healthy. Certainly not a bust, but also hasn't lived up to the headlines quite yet. Rubio certainly has the chance as Minnesota continues adding No. 1 overall picks.

2011: Enes Kanter (Jazz), Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors) and Vesely (sixth) went third, fifth and sixth respectively. Only Valanciunas remains with his original team. Utah traded the offensively potent, but defensively challenged Kanter this season in a three-team that netted the Jazz a 2017 first-round pick and perhaps more importantly removed the unhappy big man from the roster. Washington shipped Vesely to Denver for Andre Miller before the 2014 trade deadline. Blessed with athleticism and cursed with zero confidence when handling a basketball offensively, Vesely played this past season in Turkey.

That's some dubious list. Since then, Ukrainian center Alex Len is the only European player selected in the top 10, but he doesn't make the list because of two seasons spent at the University of Maryland

None of this means teams should automatically pass on Porzingis or Hezonja. The Lakers, 76ers and Knicks have room for a 6-foot-11 shot maker like Porzingis. The Magic and Pistons are in the market for a swingman with Hezonja's perimeter.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jusuf Nurkic, two of the more impressive young players in the league, were drafted just outside the lottery over the last two seasons. Perhaps on some level their impressive play in the league boosted draft values for Porzingis and Hezonja. Maybe the new guys are simply all that. Just remember, previous European prospects also entered the NBA with plenty of buzz.

[RELATED: Draft Profile: Terry Rozier]

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Wizards sit in a good spot at the All-Star break after rollercoaster first half

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USA Today Sports Images

Wizards sit in a good spot at the All-Star break after rollercoaster first half

The Washington Wizards did not make any significant changes to their roster over the summer and valued continuity, knowing they had a solid group of young players on the rise. That sort of stand-pat approach could have resulted in a boring first half of the season, but the Wizards managed to ride quite the rollercoaster from October to the All-Star break. 

A lot of things happened. Some were good and some were bad, but the eventual result as we sit here today is the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference and a 33-24 record, good for a 47-win pace. That's solid, especially considering the dramatic lows this team had to navigate through.

PODCAST: BREAKING DOWN THE WIZARDS' FIRST HALF

Here is a look at the biggest storylines of the 2017-18 Wizards season before the All-Star break...

Injuries played a role

During the 2016-17 season, the Wizards' starting lineup missed a combined 17 games. That group of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat logged more minutes than any other starting five in the NBA. In terms of health, that season was one big best-case scenario and it wasn't to happen again this season.

The Wizards ran into injury troubles before training camp even began when Morris needed sports hernia surgery. By November, Wall was dealing with a left knee injury and Porter has had hip issues all season. Beal and Gortat played in all 57 games, but Wall missed 20, Morris missed nine and Porter was out for four of them. This year their depth was tested much more than it was just one season ago.

RELATED: BEAL SHOWS HE BELONGS ON ALL-STAR STAGE

Inconsistency was a problem

For much of the first half, the Wizards just couldn't get out of their own way. They would rise up to play and often beat the good teams, then turn around and suffer terrible losses to some of the worst teams in the NBA. Many teams go through those types of issues, but the Wizards took it to an extreme. In the first half they beat the Celtics, Rockets, Raptors, Timberwolves and Thunder, yet lost to the Nets (twice), Mavs (twice), Lakers, Hawks and Hornets (twice).

It was a maddening trend and one the players and coaches were well aware of. As it kept plaguing them through the month of January, the Wizards appeared to have no answers, but they rebounded nicely in the final weeks leading up to the All-Star break and some of their losses to teams that were sub-.500 at the time now don't look so bad. The Wizards, in fact, sit 19-9 against sub-.500 teams at the break. Only four teams in the East have more such wins. And the Clippers and Jazz, who were struggling at the time they beat the Wizards, rallied to now hold winning records and be factors in the playoff race.

Oubre and Satoransky emerged

The development of two young players in the first half of the season has vastly changed the Wizards' outlook in the short- and long-term. Kelly Oubre, Jr. took another step and gives them starter-caliber production off their bench. And Tomas Satoransky is now not just a replacement level backup point guard, but a real strength on their roster. 

Oubre continues to cut out his youthful mistakes on defense and has become one of their most consistent offensive players. He is third on the team in double-digit scoring games (38) with an average of 11.7 points, nearly double his output from last season. Satoransky is using his size and athleticism to affect games while making few costly errors. He has the best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team and leads the Wizards with a 46.8 three-point percentage. Both Oubre and Satoransky are providing value on both ends of the floor, have high ceilings and are on bargain contracts.

RELATED: BEAL DOESN'T LAST LONG IN THREE-POINT CONTEST

They rallied without Wall

The Wizards were dealt some news in late January that could have crippled their season. They learned that Wall, their best player, would be out up to two months following arthroscopic left knee surgery. He would likely miss well over 20 games and the Wizards had been significantly better with him than without him in the previous months.

The Wizards, though, responded exceptionally well. They won seven of their final nine games before the break after Wall went down. The others in their starting lineup stepped up and Satoransky proved he was more than just a placeholder. They likely won't be able to keep up the 7-2 pace, but the Wizards showed they can still compete and win while Wall is out. That will be important with a tough schedule coming up out of the break.

Locker room disagreements

The Wizards entered this season with heightened expectations and as a result couldn't tolerate some of their early season woes. There was a team meeting that didn't go as planned. There were things said in the media. Then, when Wall went out and the Wizards started playing better, people got carried away and said that Wall was holding the Wizards back. Wall even thought that sentiment was suggested by his teammates and aired his grievances publicly. 

That's what happens when teams have big goals and hit adversity, they point fingers and problems ensue. The Wizards, though, don't seem to have any major, untenable issues. However, their concerns need to be communicated better, not through social media or in front of cameras. That's what makes what could be considered normal locker room strife into national news.

RELATED: 2018 NBA MOCK DRAFT HAS STACKED CLASS

 

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Bradley Beal makes most of his opportunity in first All-Star Game

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Associated Press

Bradley Beal makes most of his opportunity in first All-Star Game

Bradley Beal may have had a slow start in the three-point contest on Saturday night, but in Sunday's All-Star Game he worked quickly to make the most of his relatively small window of playing time.

Beal checked in for the first time with 5:45 left in the first quarter and less than 25 seconds later had his first points on a two-handed dunk assisted by LeBron James.

In his All-Star debut, Beal helped lead Team LeBron to a 148-145 victory over Team Stephen as the league utilizied a new format for the annual showcase.

RELATED: BEAL BOUNCED EARLY IN THREE-POINT CONTEST

Beal finished with 14 points and a steal in a productive night. He shot 5-for-10 from the field and an impressive 4-for-8 from long range. 

Beal also tried to get a travelling call from the refs on Karl-Anthony Towns. Yeah, that's not likely to happen in an All-Star Game:

Beal more than held his own and only played 16 minutes, which was good considering he has logged the fifth-most minutes of any player so far this season. A realistic best-case scenario was a strong showing and a short night and that's exactly what he got.

Not only does Beal play a lot of minutes, the Wizards need him now more than ever with John Wall's injury. He needs whatever rest he can get during this All-Star break.

Speaking of Wall, he was in the house despite being in the middle of his rehab from left knee surgery. Per usual, Wall was shining bright:

RELATED: BEST WIZARDS/BULLETS MOMENTS ON ALL-STAR SATURDAY NIGHT

The All-Star Game wasn't all about Beal, of course. Here are some other things that stood out...

*The new format and increased financial incentive were intended to make the game more competitive and that's what happened late in the fourth quarter. Usually, that's how these things go where the players will start trying at the end. But this time it seemed to be up a few levels and it was fun to watch. 

Both teams scored in the 140s, so it wasn't exactly a defensive battle. No matter what the league does, the players will only try so hard for so long. The main goal of everyone's is to not get injured in a game that ultimately doesn't count for anything. Still, this was different and appears to have been a success.

*While everyone was focusing on the reunion of LeBron and Kyrie Irving the best beef was Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook. Those two have traded waves to taunt each other at the end of wins in head-to-head matchups and it was clear on Sunday they still don't like each other. Westbrook tried to dunk all over Embiid in the first half, only to get blocked at the rim.

Westbrook's determination to dunk on Embiid was out of the ordinary for an All-Star Game. It was obvious what was on his mind:

*Irving's handles are simply ridiculous. Check out this fake behind-the-back move he pulled with Giannis Antetkounmpo guarding him. Yes, it didn't fool the defender but it was impressive nonetheless:

*LeBron is 33 years old, yet he was still running up and down the court faster than anyone and leaping above the rim to thrown down alley-oop after alley-oop. It is truly amazing and everyone should enjoy watching him while they can, regardless of whether they like the guy or not.

This was one of his dunks:

LeBron took home MVP with a game-high 29 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and a steal.

*The pregame show was quite bad. It was anchored by comedians Kevin Hart and Rob Riggle and, though they had some funny jokes, it lasted nearly 30 minutes. The whole thing was pretty much universally panned on social media. Fergie's national anthem was also roasted by the masses.

*The halftime show was much better. It began with N.E.R.D taking it back to their older days with 'Lapdance,' went to Migos performing 'Stir Fry' and swung back to N.E.R.D. who did their latest hit 'Lemon.' 

RELATED: LATEST 2018 NBA MOCK DRAFT