No. 6 NC State starts year as ACC favorite

No. 6 NC State starts year as ACC favorite

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) North Carolina State went from rebuilding to Atlantic Coast Conference favorite so fast that coach Mark Gottfried is already having to manage expectations in his second year.

It could be the biggest challenge for the sixth-ranked Wolfpack in a potential-filled year.

``That's the one thing I tell our guys that we can control: we can control how driven we are every day,'' Gottfried said. ``It's easy to talk about it, it's a little bit harder to do it at practice. I can't control a lot of things nor can our guys, but we do have the ability to control that, so that's what we're trying to do each day.''

It's been a stunningly fast rise for N.C. State, which hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2006 before Gottfried's arrival last season. The Wolfpack (24-13) had a late-season surge and took eventual finalist Kansas to the final seconds in loss in the NCAA round of 16, ending the program's winningest season in 24 years.

Now Gottfried has four returning starters to go with a recruiting class of three McDonald's All-Americans, making the Wolfpack the preseason ACC favorite for the first time since the 1974-75 season. N.C. State's No. 6 ranking is the program's highest since reaching sixth in December 1983.

It's easy to see why expectations are soaring amid a rabid fan base hungry to challenge heavyweights Duke and North Carolina for control of the league despite the fact the program hasn't finished in the top three in the ACC since 2004.

``I'll go around town and people will say to me, `Wow, coach, what a great year last year,''' Gottfried said. ``And the truth of the matter is, it wasn't a great year. It was a great finish. We had a really fun finish. And it was exceptional for our group. But our year wasn't great. We were just OK. So we have to be a lot better than we were, not just at home, but start to finish.''

Then again, this is also the same coach who announced during a public scrimmage this month that the program's goal is to ``play on Monday night in April.''

``I don't want to shoot myself in the foot and say, `We're going to go out there and do this,''' senior forward Richard Howell said. ``I just feel like we have the right pieces to reach whatever goals we feel that we need to. ... I feel like we definitely have enough to finish stronger than we did last year.''

Everything starts with juniors C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown.

Leslie, a 6-foot-9 forward, made huge gains with his ballhandling and shot selection last year to average about 15 points and seven rebounds. He decided to return to school instead of entering the NBA draft and was the ACC preseason player of the year.

Brown thrived in his first year at the point, averaging 13 points, five rebounds and six assists.

Howell (11 points) gives the Wolfpack some toughness and rebounding, while senior Scott Wood (12 points) is a career 40-percent 3-point shooter.

That experienced group will likely ease the burden on the incoming freshmen, who are led by hometown star Rodney Purvis - the preseason pick for ACC rookie of the year.

Wolfpack fans were so excited about the guard's decision to play for Gottfried that they made a habit of attending his high school games at Raleigh Upper Room, where he went on to become The Associated Press men's prep basketball player of the year in the state.

Forward T.J. Warren and guard Tyler Lewis round out the recruiting class, giving the Wolfpack plenty of depth along the perimeter.

While 7-foot reserve Jordan Vandenberg is back from a shoulder injury that cost him most of last year, N.C. State is thin up front behind Leslie and Howell - who battled foul trouble in several key games last year. N.C. State lost DeShawn Painter to Old Dominion via transfer for family reasons, robbing the Wolfpack of a reliable post defender and rebounder.

The losses of veterans C.J. Williams and Alex Johnson also means the Wolfpack must replace oncourt leadership - something that will be critical for a team that isn't used to wearing a bullseye on its back.

Until then, at least, Gottfried won't let his players get overwhelmed by it all.

``He tells us all the time: `How do we deal with this?''' Leslie said. ``We practice hard. We ignore (outside expectations) and we do all those things that great teams do to be great. ... We've got to listen and we've got to be focused and jump on it from the start.''


AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary contributed to this report.

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Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

The Wizards' selection of Troy Brown of the University of Oregon with their first round pick has been met with a strong reaction among fans, many of whom argue he doesn't play a position of need, that it was a luxury pick when other areas could have been addressed, most notably in their frontcourt. Big man Robert Williams of Texas A&M, for example, was still on the board. 

The Wizards, though, did address needs by picking Brown. And really, they arguably filled more pressing needs in the short-term than those at power forward and center.

Though the Wizards clearly need some help at big man in the long-term, as both of their starting bigs are on expiring deals, they need help immediately at both shooting guard and small forward. Brown, though he is only 18 years old and offers no guarantees to contribute right away, can play both of those positions.

Shooting guard is where he can help the most. The Wizards have one backup shooting guard in Jodie Meeks and he is due to miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even when Meeks was available this past season, he only helped so much. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three. Head coach Scott Brooks often chose to rely more on starter Bradley Beal than go to Meeks as his replacement. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any player in the NBA.

More depth at shooting guard will help relieve Beal of some of that workload. That would be great for keeping him fresh throughout the season and help him be at his best when they need him most in the playoffs.

The Wizards also have some urgency at small forward. It is their strongest position in terms of one-two on the depth chart, but they have no logical third option. That was magnified in the playoffs once Otto Porter got injured. They were left with Kelly Oubre, Jr. and had to trot out Tomas Satoransky, who has limited experience at the position.

Brown can play both shooting guard and small forward, giving them much needed depth. If he can play well enough to earn a rotation spot, the emergency situations the Wizards encountered last season could be avoided in 2018-19.

The Wizards still need to find long-term solutions at power forward and center, but they were going to need to find answers at shooting guard and small forward as well. Both Meeks and Oubre have one year left on their deals. Brown helps solidify the long-term outlook at wing.

Now, there's no denying the Wizards already had considerable talent at both shooting guard and small forward with Beal, Porter and Oubre. That begs the question of how much Brown can offer particularly in the first year of his career. But the Wizards would like to play more positionless basketball and to do that requires depth at wing.

The Boston Celtics have helped make positionless basketball famous and their roster shows that the one player-type you can't have enough of is similar to Brown. Boston has Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. All are around 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 and offer versatility on both ends of the floor.

The Wizards also now have four players of that size and with positional versatility in Brown, Porter, Oubre and Satoransky. They can roll out different combinations of those guys and possibly have an advantage on defense with the ability to switch seamlessly on screens.

In the age of positionless basketball, players of Brown's ilk have become major assets especially for teams that have many of them. There is such a thing as having too many point guards or centers because they can't coexist on the floor. Versatile wings, in most scenarios, can play together in numbers.

It's different but in a way similar to certain positions in other sports. In baseball, you can have too many catchers but you can't have too many talented pitchers and utility players. In football, you can have too many running backs or tight ends, but you can't have too many defensive linemen. 

Brown gives them options from a roster perspective in the long-term. Oubre has one year left on his contract and if he continues his trejectory with a strong 2018-19 season, he could price himself out of Washington. Brown could move up the depth chart as his replacement one year from now. The Wizards also now have the option to consider trades at the position given their depth.

The problem, one could argue, with drafting Brown over a Williams-type is that it limits their options at center in particular. Drafting Williams would have made it easier to trade Marcin Gortat, for instance, because they would have had depth to deal from. Now, it's more difficult to trade Gortat, whom they have shopped on and off for months, without a plan to replace him. Finding a Gortat substitute in free agency with the limited resource they have would not be easy.

But big man wasn't their only need and in Brown the Wizards may have found a solution at other areas where they clearly needed help.


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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did


Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

The first round of the NBA Draft played out expectedly for what the Wizards had planned for the night. In Troy Brown, they clearly got the guy they wanted all along, seeing as there were many interesting prospects they passed on to choose him.

The second round was a bit more chaotic. Team president Ernie Grunfeld said there were a few players picked just ahead of them at No. 44 that they had their eyes on. They contemplated trading up, but no perfect deals were presented.

So, they decided to think long-term, like really long-term. In choosing Ukrainian point guard Issuf Sanon, the Wizards understand it may be years before he plays in the NBA.

"We hope to have him developed in a few years," Grunfeld said.

Sanon, just 18, plays for Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia. He may stay in Europe into his 20s before he comes to the United States.

The Wizards have utilized the draft-and-stash model with other players. Their 2015 second round pick, Aaron White, has been playing in Europe for the past three seasons.

Sometimes those players never convey and contribute for the Wizards. But sometimes they do and Grunfeld pointed to a player already on their roster as a model to consider.

"We drafted Tomas [Satoransky] at an earlier age, he went overseas [and] he played at the highest level and it got him ready for the NBA," Grunfeld said.

The difference between now and then is that the Wizards have a G-League franchise starting this fall, the Capital City Go-Go. Because of that, it seemed more likely going into the draft that the Wizards would use the second round pick on a guy who can play there right away. 

Grunfeld, however, opted for roster flexibility. By keeping Sanon in Europe, the Wizards can have another open roster spot. They could either fill that spot, or leave spots on the end of their roster open as they did for much of last season.

"We want to preserve a roster spot, so just because you draft someone in your second round, if you sign him, he still has a roster spot even if you let him play for the GoGo," Grunfeld said.

Sanon may have a bright future. He is a 6-foot-4 point guard with impressive athleticism who doesn't turn 19 until October. He said he models his game after Russell Westbrook, as a guard who can score the ball. More will be known about him once he plays for their summer league team in July.

The Wizards passed on several interesting prospects to pick Sanon. Still on the board were Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Hamidou Diallo of Kentucky and Svi Mykhailiuk of Kansas, three players they brought in for pre-draft workouts. But instead, they went with a long-term investment, hoping they found the next Satoransky.


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