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No. 11 Tar Heels putting the pieces together

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No. 11 Tar Heels putting the pieces together

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina coach Roy Williams knew what last year's team could accomplish before the season. The Hall of Fame coach has more questions than answers this time.

``Last year we were picked first (in the Atlantic Coast Conference) and I thought that was fine because I thought we could be the best team,'' Williams said. ``I don't have any idea what the ceiling could be for this team. And I don't think we'll know until we get into conference play.''

The 11th-ranked Tar Heels (32-6) must replace NBA first-round draft picks Harrison Barnes, John Henson, Kendall Marshall and Tyler Zeller from a preseason No. 1 that went on to win the ACC regular-season title and reach an NCAA regional final.

Left behind is a forward who struggled most of his rookie season before coming on late in the year, a veteran guard, two players returning from serious knee injuries and several youngsters stepping into significant roles. That means UNC, picked to finish third in the league, will have less room for error.

``We won games last year when we didn't play great,'' Williams said. ``This year, we've got to play closer to our potential or we're not going to be successful.''

It has been a bumpy offseason for the Tar Heels. After the NBA defections, they lost longtime assistant Jerod Haase, who became head coach at UAB.

Then, a month before practice started, the 62-year-old Williams had surgery to remove a tumor from his right kidney. Tests eventually determined it was a benign growth - as was a similar one on his left kidney - but Williams has had to go easy during the first several weeks of practice as he recovered.

Now they're preparing to find out if sophomore James Michael McAdoo is ready to pick up where he left off late last season.

McAdoo, a 6-foot-9 forward, often looked lost through his freshman season as a reserve. But he averaged about 11 points and five rebounds in the ACC and NCAA tournaments when pressed into more minutes due to Henson's wrist injury.

The former McDonald's All-American is a preseason all-ACC pick entering the year. He's the closest thing the Tar Heels have to a proven frontcourt presence.

``I know there were certain things I just had to realize I had to do, and that's focus in each and every day in practice,'' McAdoo said. ``Practice makes perfect but perfect practices help even more. I think that's something I had to work on. It's not something that just all of a sudden clicked. It's something I really started to work on at practice in late January or early February, but it didn't show up until late March.''

Junior guard Reggie Bullock also returns to provide outside shooting and long-armed perimeter defense, while he's joined by two guards - Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland - returning from torn knee ligaments.

McDonald, the team's best outside shooter in 2011, redshirted last season after he was hurt during a summer-league game. While McDonald has had more than a year to recover, Strickland was injured in January and is still working his way back to full strength.

If both players return to form - Strickland was the team's No. 2 ballhandler and best perimeter defender - the Tar Heels will have three veterans in the backcourt along with the return of sophomore guard P.J. Hairston.

``With Kendall, Harrison, John and Z leaving, that's the majority of the points,'' Hairston said. ``It's up to us, the upperclassmen and the freshmen that just came in to step up. If we step up and do everything we're supposed to do, it can be a good season and we can do anything we want to do.''

Replacing Marshall at the point, however, will be the toughest challenge, one that will likely fall to freshman Marcus Paige. The 6-foot, 157-pound lefty is a McDonald's All-American, and Williams has said he expects Paige would have the first shot at the starting job.

Freshman forward Joel James (6-10, 260) could provide some needed bulk up front alongside McAdoo, while the Tar Heels also brought in 6-9 forward Brice Johnson and 6-5 wing J.P. Tokoto.

The pieces are there for another strong season. And after his recent health scare, Williams is going to enjoy putting the puzzle together.

``I really want to enjoy the journey a heck of a lot more myself,'' Williams said. ``I preach that every year to my kids and particularly the fans as well. My wife tells me I always do the worst job of it, but I'm really going to try and do a much better job of that myself.''

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On the move? Why moving up or down in the 1st round of the draft is a realistic possibility for the Caps

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On the move? Why moving up or down in the 1st round of the draft is a realistic possibility for the Caps

The NHL draft is fast approaching. The first round will take place on Friday and it could be a busy night for the Capitals.

Washington currently holds the 25th pick in the draft. It will be the highest pick this team has had since taking Ilya Samsonov 22nd overall in the 2015 draft. The question, however, is will they stay there?

The more you look at the team’s situation, the more a move in either direction looks like a realistic possibility for the Caps. Here’s why.

Why the Caps could move up

In most situations, an NHL team should pick the best player available. Since most NHL prospects, including most players taken in the first round, will take years to develop before they see NHL action, it does not generally make sense to draft for an immediate need. When teams become fixated on drafting a certain position, it can lead to those teams passing on elite talent at other positions.

For Washington, however, they no longer can afford to ignore the team’s need for a difference-maker at forward.

You have to go all the way back to 2014 to find the last time the Caps drafted a forward in the first round when they drafted Jakub Vrana. Since then, however, they have drafted a goalie, two defensemen and have traded out of the first round completely.

The dearth of forward talent among the team’s prospects is starting to catch up to it. In a year in which the Caps need forward depth but have very little money to fill it, an ideal solution would be to plug any holes on the bottom six with cheap prospects.

Without any top-end forwards in the system, however, that is not really an option.

Riley Barber (sixth-round pick) is an unrestricted free agent and said he does not see himself re-signing with Washington. Nathan Walker (third-round pick) is also a UFA and, though he sounded more open to re-signing with the Caps than Barber, there is no guarantee he does not leave in free agency. Shane Gersich (fifth-round pick) and Garrett Pilon (third-round pick) still look like they need another year in Hershey. Axel Jonsson-Fjallby (fifth-round pick) has a whopping 16 games of North American experience and it is hard to know what exactly to expect from him. Kody Clark (second-round pick) and Riley Sutter (third-round pick) still need time to develop.

This team needs a high-end forward prospect, if not for this year then for the near future. It needs that guy who can infuse a bit of youth and excitement, as well as skill, back into the lineup when he gets a call-up. We are not talking about the next Connor McDavid here, just a top-six forward to add to the system because right now it does not appear Washington really has any top-six forwards besides the guys already in the NHL.

That needs to change.

There is value to be found late in the first round of the draft—Marcus Johansson was taken 24th overall in 2009, Evgeny Kuznetsov was 26th overall in 2010 and Andre Burakovsky was 23rd overall in 2013 just to name a few—but waiting for a good forward to drop into their laps this year may not be the ideal strategy knowing they need to pick a forward in the first round.

Moving up the draft will ensure they can grab one of the top forwards available. If they move up high enough, perhaps they could even snap someone who could potentially be ready to help the team in the latter half of the season, though that is a lot to ask of a young forward.

The point is Washington cannot afford to go with the usual “best available” mentality and see who falls to 25. General manager Brian MacLellan will have to get proactive and move up to ensure he gets the best available player at the position of need. We may not be talking Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, but even moving up to the mid-round can dramatically affect the quality of prospects available.

Why the Caps could move down

Elliotte Friedman had an interesting note on the Caps in his latest 31 Thoughts column. He listed Washington among one of the most aggressive teams in trade talks saying generally of the NHL “we could see some frenetic attempts to move up and down.”

Friedman also wrote, “Other teams believe the Capitals are in total ‘go for it’ mode.”

When a team is in “go for It mode” and trying to win a Cup, the first-round draft pick can be useful trade bait to help bring in a significant piece and bolster the roster. Granted, Washington has very little cap room available so any trade would likely include sending salary with the pick which would, in turn, lower the value of return, but this team is just one year removed from winning the Cup. It is not as if they need to make a major addition to be a contender.

Trading away a first-round pick would be the exact opposite of addressing the team’s need for high-end prospect forward talent as written above, but it is hard to build a team for now and for the future. With Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Co. all in their 30s, it would be understandable why MacLellan would choose to go all-in on winning another Cup in the next few years.

Whether the Caps move up, down or stand pat, we will have all the latest analysis on NBC Sports Washington’s coverage of the draft starting at 8 p.m. on Friday.

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With John Wall's injury in mind, defense should be big priority for Wizards in 2019 draft

With John Wall's injury in mind, defense should be big priority for Wizards in 2019 draft

The Wizards will not truly know what they have in John Wall following his Achilles surgery until he returns to game action, and that may not be until the 2020-21 season. He is expected to be out at least 11 months, but there is a chance he misses a full year and owner Ted Leonsis has already endorsed the idea, if it is the best course for his recovery.

The Wizards, though, can start taking measures for Wall's return as soon as this week with Thursday's NBA Draft. Using the draft, trades and free agency, they can begin to build a roster around Wall to increase the odds he comes back an effective player.

Much of the analysis of how Wall will be affected by the injury has focused on the offensive end and whether he will lose some of his trademark speed. But there is an argument to be made that the defensive end will be a larger concern and the best area to find Wall some help.

Offensively, Wall will still have strengths to play to even if he is no longer the fastest, quickest player on the court. He is one of the league's best passers. When committed, he rebounds well for his position. And he could expand his game to the post with a size advantage over most of his opponents.

Would a more consistent three-point shot help? Sure, but he can still be effective.

Defensively, it might be a struggle and especially early on. He will be tasked with staying in front of cat-quick point guards like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker. Wall already had his defensive issues before the surgery and matters will only be more difficult now after an injury known for affecting lateral quickness.

What the Wizards can do is try to build a defensive foundation around Wall to mitigate those potential problems. They can surround him with physical perimeter defenders and install rim protection behind him. Then, Wall would be asked to do less. He could focus on playing sound team defense and directing his opponents into traffic created by his teammates.

The problem is that the Wizards will essentially have to build their defense from scratch. Though they have some capable defenders like Bradley Beal and Troy Brown Jr., and though Dwight Howard's rebounding will help, the Wizards are coming off a year in which they had one of the worst defensive units in the league. 

The Wizards were 27th in defensive rating and 29th in points allowed. They gave up the fifth-most three-pointers and at the fourth-highest percentage. And they surrendered more field goals within five feet of the rim than any other team.

Defense has been highlighted as a major long-term need by the Wizards' current staff, though they still hold the 'interim' label until further notice. Under head coach Scott Brooks, the team has made strides on offense but has lost their way defending the ball. They want more balance moving forward.

Several of Brooks' assistants are not under contract for next season and the team has explored hiring a defensive specialist, according to a person with knowledge of their plans. One assistant who could be replaced is Maz Trakh. He is in contract limbo and has not been present at the team's pre-draft workouts.

NBA coaches, though, can only do so much. A defensive renaissance will have to come from the players.

The Wizards will have some options that could help when they are on the board with the ninth overall pick in Thursday's NBA Draft. It could be a shot-blocker like Bol Bol, Brandon Clarke or Jaxson Hayes. Nassir Little would add toughness to the perimeter. Sekou Doumbouya would give them versatility.

Revamping their defense probably wouldn't include re-signing Bobby Portis or Jabari Parker, the latter of which has a team option the Wizards are likely to decline later this month. Thomas Bryant and Tomas Satoransky aren't lockdown defenders, either, but do offer some upside on that end.

With limited money to spend, free agency won't offer any quick fixes for the Wizards. The best they could likely do is find cheap players to help begin an overall culture change. 

When it comes to the draft, the Wizards do not have the luxury to draft solely for need. They have to get the best player available, no matter the position. That could even be a point guard, despite Wall being due $170 million over the next four years.

But it might be smart to favor defense over offense and the same applies to free agency and beyond. That approach could come in handy once Wall is ready to go.

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