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Stanford players rally around Powell in tough time

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Stanford players rally around Powell in tough time

STANFORD, Calif. (AP) One of the most important road trips the Stanford men's basketball team will have made this season never shows up on the schedule, in the team's record or total miles traveled.

In September, the Cardinal gathered around to support one of their own after junior forward Dwight Powell lost his mother. The coaches and several players flew to Toronto for the funeral.

Jacqueline Weir died on Sept. 13 in Boston after a short fight with cancer, three months shy of her 54th birthday. Powell's coaches visited the hospital in the Boston area, where Weir worked and lived. And Stanford received permission from the NCAA to fly the players from Powell's recruiting class to Canada to be there for him at the memorial.

``It was important, for sure,'' Powell said. ``My friends in my life are my family. The team is my family, so it meant a lot for them to come out there. I have a really good support group in Toronto as well, some guys I played with in high school.''

Coach Johnny Dawkins realizes the importance of everyone supporting Powell, an only child attending college so far from home. Dawkins already had a close-knit group on the reigning NIT champions, who hope last season's special run is only a preview of bigger things for the program this March in the NCAA tournament. Stanford hasn't been since 2008, and not yet under fifth-year coach Dawkins.

Powell will be an integral part in getting Stanford there. Keeping him in the right frame of mind as he continues to mourn his mother has been a joint effort.

Dawkins considers the trip to Toronto one that showed Powell just how much support - and how many brothers - he has within his own locker room, and on campus.

``Absolutely,'' Dawkins said. ``That's what it's about. It was very unfortunate what happened to his mom, and very sudden. It really puts it in perspective when something happens to a young man and a family. The players understand that. His teammates and his coaches are a big part of his life. It's important to rally around him.''

The Cardinal (6-3) are finishing up their annual two-week break for final exams before returning to the court to host UC Davis on Saturday, the first of four remaining nonconference games ahead of Pac-12 play. Stanford is picked fourth in the conference.

Powell has led Stanford in scoring three times already, including going off for a career-high 29 points in a 71-58 victory against Denver on Dec. 2. He is averaging 14.2 points per game, second to Chasson Randle's 14.7, while also pulling down 6.9 rebounds.

``This is the best place for me to be right now. First of all, it's a different country, so I don't even have too much family except for the team,'' Powell said. ``I can't really think of anyone else I'd rather lean on right now than my teammates. Regardless of what goes on, they can take my mind off things. They can put my mind on the things I need to think about sometimes and help me talk things out, just be there.

``I feel very lucky to have the team that I have, just for that reason. It also translates onto the court, that closeness, that trust.''

The 6-foot-10, 235-pound Powell always felt comfortable on The Farm and in the Bay Area. He chose Stanford over Harvard and Georgia Tech.

Yet Powell was a late bloomer when it came to basketball, first playing volleyball and competing in the high jump in track. Once Powell picked up hoops, he moved to Florida at age 16 to attend the IMG Academy and prepare for college.

He emerged as an impact player late last season for Stanford, averaging 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds during the Cardinal's five-game NIT title run while shooting 65.4 percent from the field. He started just 11 times but played in 35 games and averaged 5.8 points and 4.6 rebounds overall.

Powell's biggest challenge so far with an increased role and more responsibility has been keeping his emotions in check. In a 70-62 loss to Belmont at home in Maples Pavilion on Nov. 18, Powell fouled out in only seven minutes - sitting down for good early in the second half.

``He's playing with a heightened focus,'' Dawkins said. ``He's just so focused right now that my biggest thing is that he stays level and doesn't get too emotional. I talk to him a lot about it and how you approach the game - never get too high or too low.''

Powell attended Canada Basketball's senior men's national team training camp in late August in Toronto. By the time he returned to Boston to see his mom, she was hospitalized and deteriorating quickly. The breast cancer had spread to her liver.

``I think she had a feeling for a couple of months but she didn't want to burden me,'' Powell said. ``She kind of left it unattended.''

Teammate and roommate Josh Huestis was the one to tell Powell he would have dear friends coming to Canada to help him in the grieving process.

``We're all really close with Dwight. He's one of my best friends,'' Huestis said. ``Our coaches talked to us and proposed that we go out there for the funeral. All the guys thought it was a great idea. I can't imagine what he was going through. It was the right move. He was in Toronto and I had been talking to him. I told him we would be coming out there and he was really thankful for that, just to have some familiar faces around, especially in such a hard time.''

It's no surprise that before and after each practice Stanford's players gather for a cheer of ``Family!'' These guys truly consider themselves brothers.

That Toronto trip only helped cement the bond.

``The fact we were able to go out there just brings us so much closer together,'' Huestis said. ``It shows we're not just a team but a family, too.''

The Cardinal were thrilled to capture a national championship and get the taste of winning their final game, but both Powell and Huestis called it ``bittersweet.''

There have been many important messages for this bunch over the past year.

Earlier this season, Stanford shot a video in the locker room after practice and sent it to NFL star Ray Lewis, who paid the team a surprise visit at Madison Square Garden and delivered a spirited speech before the NIT semifinal game against Massachusetts. The Cardinal players wanted to encourage the injured Ravens linebacker and spiritual leader in his rehab from a torn triceps after he did so much to pump them up before a key game. Stanford went on for a commanding win against Minnesota in the championship game.

Not that Powell needs much to inspire him at the moment. Huestis sure won't question his teammate's motivation.

``The passing of his mom put everything in perspective for him. Nothing's given in life, nothing guaranteed,'' Huestis said. ``Obviously his mom is in the forefront of his mind.''

Exactly, Powell said.

``Everything I do is in her memory,'' he said, ``absolutely.''

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Bradley Beal thinks Rui Hachimura will be a small forward long-term

Bradley Beal thinks Rui Hachimura will be a small forward long-term

Whether it actually matters is debatable, but what position Rui Hachimura best profiles for long-term has been a point of contention among fans and media members ever since he was drafted by the Wizards ninth overall last summer. He is what not long ago would be described as a 'tweener,' or somewhat of a cross between a small forward and a power forward.

Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal has put some thought into it and has now weighed in. He thinks Hachimura will be a small forward.

"Honestly, I think Rui is going to end up being a three. When his career is over with, he's going to end up playing the three," Beal explained during Sunday's Wizards-Nets broadcast on NBC Sports Washington.

"I don't know what that's going to look like next year or what we're going to jump to, but you can see spurts of it. You can see he can handle the ball, he's comfortable with handling the ball. Obviously, we can improve that and make that better. He shoots the three comfortably."

That last point could probably be picked apart a bit and it does hold some importance in the argument. If Hachimura is indeed going to be a small forward, he will need to add some perimeter skills to his game.

Three-point shooting would be included in there and so far there certainly seems to be room for improvement. This season, he is shooting just 27 percent from three on 1.7 attempts per game. 

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In the three games the Wizards have played in Orlando, Hachimura is 0-for-1 from long range. He didn't attempt any threes at all in their first two games of the restart.

The reason why it is an interesting debate is Hachimura doesn't fit the traditional norms for either the three or four position. And that could be a good thing, as former teammate C.J. Miles pointed out in November. When you don't match up perfectly with opponents in any specific position, sometimes that means you are a mismatch for anyone who is guarding you.

Beal himself went on to rave about Hachimura's versatility.

"He's super athletic, so he can use his size to post up. So, the versatility is there. It's just a matter of what we want to mold him into," Beal said. "I think the sky's the limit. He has the ability, he has the work ethic, so I'm definitely excited to see."

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Hachimura not having a true position could be an advantage. What the Wizards will need to determine, however, is how to complement his skillset with other players as they continue to build their roster. 

Whether Hachimura is a three, a four or even a small-ball five, the best way to maximize his strengths will be to fill in the gaps around him. Putting a rim protector alongside him, for instance, would allow him to roam and switch on defense. Having teammates who space the floor will create openings in the midrange, where he is very effective scoring the ball.

Those involve more important questions than what position Hachimura will ultimately be defined by. But it's still a fun debate to have and now even Beal has been drawn into it.

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If the Capitals want to go far in the playoffs, they have to get physical

If the Capitals want to go far in the playoffs, they have to get physical

The first half of Monday's game was a struggle for the Capitals. While both Washington and the Tampa Bay Lightning were initially feeling out one another, the Lightning seemed to get their legs first and jumped out to a 2-0 lead. It looked like the game was headed in the wrong direction...and that's when things got physical. Up to that point, the Caps were playing without any intensity to their game at all. When T.J. Oshie dropped his gloves against Yanni Gourde, however, the goals soon followed. This game was a good reminder for Washington that if they want to go far in the playoffs, they will have to get physical.

"I think that’s what we pride ourselves on," Brenden Dillon said. "When we’re playing our best hockey, we’re playing physical."

There are a lot of ways to win in the playoffs. If there was only one formula for it, everyone would just do that. For this Washington team, however, the key is to be physical.

In 2018, the Capitals came up against a Tampa Bay team in the conference final that was better. Momentum from beating the rival Pittsburgh Penguins carried the Caps to a 2-0 series lead, but the Lightning took over to win the next three and push the Caps to the brink of elimination. Washington responded with one of the most physical games I have ever seen. Not recklessly physical, but purposeful. In my estimation, Game 6's 3-0 win over the Lightning was the greatest playoff game in franchise history. It was a complete victory, but the key was the way in which the Caps bullied Tampa Bay. They pushed them around. The Caps battered, bruised and beat them into submission, outscoring Tampa Bay 7-0 in the final two games of the series.

Washington has incredible skill, they have speed, but at their core, this team is at its best when it is playing physical hockey.

"That’s a big part of our identity as a team, no fun to play against and yet still have the ability to execute skill plays when we get in those situations," head coach Todd Reirden said. "But for us, the physicality that we can bring on a nightly basis, we feel that really allows us to have success and tilt the ice in our favor."

RELATED: OBSERVATIONS FROM THE CAPS' LOSS

This isn't just about 2018, it was evident again on Monday.

When it comes to just pure talent, the Caps are a little behind Tampa Bay. When the game was being played with little intensity and skill was able to take over, the Lighting had the edge. From the first shift of the second period, Tom Wilson clearly came in trying to change the momentum and spent his first shift hitting everything that moved. It did not stick, however, until Oshile's fight.

Down 2-0, Oshie dropped the gloves with Gourde. Less than five minutes later, the game was tied at 2.

"We started to create some momentum in probably the second half of the second and then really took it to a different level after T.J.'s fight really inspired our group and then we just built on that," Reirden said.

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He added, "I just felt like as we got going now we were finding our stride a little bit more and then eventually we were able to wear them down a little with our physical play. I thought the more we invested physically, then we were able to see some benefits of it."

For the Caps to win a Stanley Cup, several factors will be important. Alex Ovechkin will have to continue to be elite, the defense will have to improve from what we saw in the regular season, Braden Holtby will have to be at the top of his game, etc., etc. But the key to all of it, just like in 2018, will be the Caps playing a physical game and wearing down their opponents.

"When we’re playing our best hockey, we have the skill to go with it and the speed as well," Dillon said. "Come playoff time, we know we’re built for this style of game."

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