Nationals

Mid-major hoop stars thriving in return to school

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Mid-major hoop stars thriving in return to school

Murray State's Isaiah Canaan, Lehigh's C.J. McCollum and Creighton's Doug McDermott are making headlines for mid-major programs instead of trying to find supporting roles as NBA rookies.

The three Associated Press preseason All-Americans all returned to school instead of entering the NBA draft. They knew there was a good chance they could have fallen out of the first round, making it even harder to succeed in the league without a guaranteed contract. Instead, they're focused on helping their teams top last year's runs to the NCAA tournament - which could ultimately help their pro prospects, too.

All three are averaging better than 21 points per game while their teams are a combined 29-4 to start the year.

``I don't regret not going to the NBA,'' Canaan said. ``I've got five young guys with me and I know it's not going to be the best early, right now. But we're not worried about early. We want them to be at their best in the later part of the season. I'm trying every day to make them better because I'm going to need them, we're going to need them.''

Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations, said the odds of a player making an NBA roster drop significantly if he slides out of the first round and misses out on the guaranteed three-year contract that comes with that perch.

Blake said Canaan and McCollum, now seniors, would've fallen into the risky late-first/early-second category in a strong draft after last season. NBA rules prohibit Blake from talking about McDermott, who is a junior.

``My philosophy is if you're projected as a low first-round or second round (pick), that means you may not get drafted,'' Blake said. ``That's how the variable is in the NBA - especially in last year's draft.

``Then again, it's not that big of a deal if you're enjoying college, if you're able to hone your skills and improve and so forth. I think that adds a lot. Maturity adds a lot.''

It's guys like Canaan, McCollum and McDermott - experienced players with developed games - that fuel March Madness as the scary upstarts facing big-name programs often led by young talent. Just ask Duke.

McCollum scored 30 points to lead the 15th-seeded Mountain Hawks past the Blue Devils in Duke's home state last March.

The 6-foot-3 guard became the Patriot League's all-time leading scorer earlier this season. He entered the week leading the country by averaging 24.9 points per game on 51 percent shooting.

McCollum, who was held out of Lehigh's 90-75 win over North Texas Thursday night with a sprained ankle, said last year he returned to school because he had promised his parents he would earn his degree. In addition, his family was financially stable and didn't desperately need the money that comes with an NBA contract.

He said he got ``mixed feedback'' on his pro prospects, though it was hard to learn much considering the deadline to stay in the draft came before prospects were allowed to work out for teams.

``Some scouts said I should strike while it's hot and leave school,'' McCollum said. ``Some said I should stay and try and improve. ... With the way the draft is set up now, you can't get workouts unless you're all the way in. That put us at a disadvantage. It really hurts.''

McDermott, a 6-8 forward, wasn't in a rush, either. After averaging nearly 23 points and eight rebounds last season while leading Creighton to the third round of the NCAA tournament, he's averaging about 23 points and seven rebounds this year for the No. 17 Bluejays.

``I had my mind made right after the season,'' McDermott said. ``I knew I wasn't ready for (the NBA) quite yet and there's a lot of stuff I still want to accomplish here at Creighton. ... I think we can do some special things and take this program where it's never been before, so that's my main priority.

``It's hard not to think about the next level, but for now I'm still in college and I'm going to make the most of it.''

His father, Creighton coach Greg McDermott, also pointed out that his son ``doesn't have any bills to pay, so he doesn't have to be in a hurry.''

``These years could very well be the best years of his life,'' Greg McDermott said, ``so he's enjoying every second of it.''

Canaan, a 6-1 senior, averaged about 19 points to lead Murray State's charge into the national rankings last year. He's upped that average to around 21 points this year for the Racers.

All three ranked among the nation's top seven scorers entering the week.

There's no guarantees the trio's decision to return will pay off with a first-round draft selection in June. Canaan and McCollum don't have a lot of size, while McDermott doesn't possess elite athleticism.

Still, staying in school can't hurt if things go well the rest of the year.

``It's a long process,'' Blake said. ``I mean, it's a grind. It's a year of playing more basketball. It's a year of being more consistent, a year of ups and downs, a year of game toughness and maturity. If a player can improve through his freshman season, think about what someone can do in four seasons. If you continue to prove yourself, you'll get those opportunities.''

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AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston in Philadelphia contributed to this report

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Nats rookie Juan Soto makes second MLB debut, retroactively hits HR on first-ever MLB at-bat

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Nats rookie Juan Soto makes second MLB debut, retroactively hits HR on first-ever MLB at-bat

The Washington Nationals hosted the New York Yankees to finish a once-suspended game, tied at 3-3 in the sixth inning. Though it seemed like just a makeup, it was anything but for rookie Juan Soto.

It’s true that Soto struck out as a pinch hitter in his first-ever game on May 20. Since then, the 19-year-old has caught fire, batting .312 with five home runs and 12 RBI in 23 games this season.

But the makeup of the suspended game took place on May 15, five days before Soto was called up to give the Nats an extra bat. Soto would make his major league debut once again.

Though it’s uncommon for a player to compete in a game prior to his major-league debut, it’s been done before. Barry Bonds hit a go-ahead single in a suspended game that dated a month before his debut. Closer Jeff Reardon threw a scoreless inning and picked up a win in a suspended game nearly two months before his debut, as well.              

After Anthony Rendon hit an opposite-field single in the bottom of the sixth, Soto pinch hit for Matt Adams who has missed the previous two games with a hand injury.                                                  

And Soto, with a chance to change his first career at-bat from a pinch-hit strikeout to anything but, did just that. He turned on a fastball and sent a rocket to right field. Aaron Judge took a few steps before looking up toward the bleachers. The ball landed in the second deck.

Talk about a first career at-bat. A no-doubt, two-run shot to give the Nationals the lead in a game that took place before his first major-league debut.

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Texas A&M big man Robert Williams likes potential fit with Wizards, John Wall

Texas A&M big man Robert Williams likes potential fit with Wizards, John Wall

In terms of the needs on their roster and the guys most likely to be available when they are on the clock at No. 15 in the first round, few players in this draft class seem as obvious a fit with the Washington Wizards more than Robert Williams of Texas A&M. So, it was no surprise that he not only visited them in Washington on Monday, but received the only individual public workout they have held during this year's predraft process.

Williams could be the answer to their longstanding quest for an athletic big man. No need to bring in five other guys for the usual six-player workout when Williams deserves a longer and more extensive look than most prospects they are considering.

The 20-year-old was put through a variety of drills Monday afternoon, just days before the 2018 NBA Draft. He likes the fit with Washington, if that's how things end up sorting out.

"I definitely feel like they could use a big like me, a defensive-style athletic big like me. I definitely see myself fitting here," he said.

Williams is one of the best big men in this year's draft. He is 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds with a 7-5 wingspan. He used that length to dominate in the paint at the college level.

Williams averaged a modest 10.4 points for the Aggies in 2017-18, but also 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. That was his sophomore year. He averaged 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as a freshman.

He was a shot-blocking force the day he stepped on campus and believes those skills will translate to the professional ranks. In the NBA, Williams believes he can thrive because his defensive versatility will be even more valuable in a day and age where switching is paramount.

"I feel like I can guard all positions. That’s one of my biggest attributes," he said. "It’s just about embracing it, having fun stopping a guard. Once you’re comfortable with it, you can do it."

Williams may adapt to the NBA quickly on the defensive end and that's where the Wizards need help the most. They haven't had a consistent rim-protector in years. Last season, point guard John Wall led the team in blocks per game.

Offense is where the questions lie with Williams. He wasn't a big scorer in college and does not have much of an outside shot. The fact he shot just 47.1 percent from the free throw line this past season suggests he has a lot of work to do before he can stretch the floor.

Williams will need to find a niche offensively, likely as a rim-runner off pick-and-rolls. He sees a lot of potential in a possible pick-and-roll pairing with Wall.

"He’s an elite passer and an elite guard. Coming off a pick-and-roll, you have to pay attention to him as well as have to pay attention to me as well. It’s a win-win situation," Williams said.

Williams believes his offensive game will open up with more space at the NBA level. The Wizards have Wall surrounded by three-point shooters in Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Markieff Morris. Toss Williams into the middle and he could go to work in the paint doing the rest.

If Williams were drafted by the Wizards, he could look at Clint Capela of the Houston Rockets as a model to follow. Like Houston, the Wizards have two All-Star guards. An athletic big man who doesn't need plays run for him could be the perfect complement.

No one needs to tell Williams that, he is well-aware. He said that at nearly every stop during the predraft process Capela's name has come up.

"I knew that’s what you were going to say," Williams said to a reporter (raises hand) who asked about the Capela comparison.

Williams continued to say they are different players and it's not entirely fair to compare them. That exchange showed Williams has an edge to him, sort of like Morris. He's clearly not afraid to be honest when some players would not.

Despite downplaying the comparison, Williams can see what makes Capela successful.

"I’ve watched him. He’s a great player," Williams said. "He is around the right people. He just plays his role. He runs off a lot of screens. He gets up there and does what he has to do."

Williams is gearing up for Thursday's draft and trying to decide who he will walk the stage with, as the NBA has introduced a new tradition of each player walking with two people. He said it will likely be his mother and sister. Perhaps by the end of the night he will also walk that stage wearing a Washington Wizards hat.

For more on Williams, check out our extensive draft profile on him.

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