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Even in defeat Nene proved difference-maker

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Even in defeat Nene proved difference-maker

One look at the Wizards against Atlanta on Wednesday and instinctively anyone watching knew things were different. Obviously, the final result remained the same as Washington fell to a franchise-record 0-10 start following a crushing 101-100 overtime loss to the Hawks. Yet during his 19 minutes, his first live game action since August 8, Nene's on-court impact proved obvious.

"He was huge," guard A.J. Price said. "Regardless of his stats, just his presence on the floor alone gave us confidence - almost a new found confidence for me in my first time playing with him. A confidence I don't think we had at all this year. You could just feel the difference with him on the court."

Following Friday's practice, Wizards coach Randy Wittman said of Nene, "He showed me a lot because basically he hadn't played a basketball game since [August 8] when Brazil got beat in the Olympics. That was his last 5-on-5, that's a long time to come back in the end of November and play the way he did."

Coming off the bench against the Hawks, Nene scored 12 points and grabbed three rebounds while sinking 8 of 10 free throws. Best of all, no physical setbacks, no re-aggravation of the plantar fasciitis injury in his right foot that kept the 30-year-old out of the lineup for the first nine games and out of practice until last week.

 "My quads are sore, that's the news," Nene said on Friday, having wrapped up final minutes of practice with an assortment of ice bags covering his legs. "I tried to compensate on my left cause my left is my strong leg so my quad's a little sore. That's going to take a while...I was out that long, I need to be patient."

As for simply playing in a game that counted, Nene said, "It was good. I'm going to do everything to help my team. I'm going to give my best on the court. When I do that, inside, I know I feel OK. Now we need to win. When start to win, I'm gonna start feeling great. So now, I feel OK."

Heading into Saturday's home game against Charlotte, Wittman said he is still mulling over his starting lineup options, having used a different five in three of the last four games. While Shaun Livingston and Kevin Seraphin started along side Jordan Crawford, Jan Vesely and Bradley Beal, Price had 14 points and seven assists coming off the bench for the first time this season. In his initial appearance a member of Washington's second unit,Trevor Ariza tallied 12 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.

Not only did Nene not start against Atlanta, he also did play in the extra session. Wittman acknowledged he had his primary interior presence on a minutes count with 20 being the outer limit. Technically Nene's overall run clocked in at 19:43, meaning Wittman had a few seconds to play with.

"I probably should have put him out there for the [overtime] jump ball and then taken him out," the coached cracked, before discussing the delicate balance he faces regarding Nene's minutes. "I've got to be careful. It's hard. The impact he has on our team and how he helps our other players especially from an offense standpoint, we've got to be smart too."

That smart talk includes the team's play in the final minutes. Even without Nene on the court, Price said the confidence he provided, "carried over to the end of the game. We were playing hard still, but we still didn’t execute at the end of the game the way we should’ve and, that’s on us.”

“We’ve got to learn to win games down the stretch,” said Wittman, who also reminded his team of the one game they truly never competed in this season.

"We owe them," the coach stated at the end of practice, referring to the Bobcats. Washington lost at Charlotte 92-76 on Nov. 13. Not only is the margin Washington's largest in defeat this season, it also stands as its only game truly decided before the fourth quarter.

While Nene practiced, Trevor Booker sat out with a right knee strain. The 6-foot-8 forward did play against Atlanta after suffering an injury late in Monday's home loss against Indiana.

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Wizards GM search: Resetting the potential candidates

Wizards GM search: Resetting the potential candidates

The Wizards general manager search reset needs a reset.

We head into the holiday weekend with the local NBA team still lacking a permanent front office leader. Zero reports of interviews of any kind since last week’s meeting with Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly.

At least we can cross off the idea of flirting with Portland’s Neil Olshey. The Blazers’ President of Basketball reportedly signed an extension one day after NBC Sports Washington reported interest from the Wizards.

For now, we wait, though be prepared for a hire any day – or not. At this point, here are the names to consider.

Tommy Sheppard – The Wizards VP of Basketball Operations began running the show on an interim basis following the firing of President of Basketball Operations on April 2. That he’s making the calls from inside the house, running the pre-draft process and showing a Wizards world with him in charge gives Sheppard an inside track over all other candidates.

To call him the favorite, however, might be a stretch at this point based simply on the fact that he has not been hired despite his in-house status. Sheppard is well respected around the NBA and league voices would tell frustrated fans they shouldn’t consider him Grunfeld 2.0.

Theory: If Sheppard gets the nod, the Wizards promote Go-Go general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu to serve as Sheppard’s number two and then promote the benefits of their G-League investment beyond player development.

Troy Weaver –The Thunder assistant general manager met with the Wizards twice. Weaver, long considered a rising front-office star, worked with Wizards coach Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City and flashed his recruiting skills at Syracuse when he landed Carmelo Anthony. The D.C. native still has ties to the area.

Danny Ferry – Like Weaver, Ferry met with the Wizards twice in Washington. Throughout the search process, multiple league sources told NBC Sports Washington that the former Hawks and Cavaliers general manager is the best candidate for the Wizards’ opening even over Connelly. The Hawks won 60 games during the 2014-15 season and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.

Some question the strength of his candidacy based on any lingering controversy stemming from comments he made as Hawks GM regarding Luol Deng’s heritage in 2014, of which an independent investigation stated Ferry's intentions were not racially motivatedThis week former Georgetown coach John Thompson Jr. vouched for Ferry’s character on a local radio show.

Neither Ferry nor Weaver was likely to have heard back from the Wizards since Connelly’s involvement as of mid-week, according to sources familiar with the situation. Like the rest of us, they wait for news. 

Larry Harris – There’s no official reporting linking the Wizards to Golden State’s assistant GM. Washington and New Orleans both used the same consultant, Mike Forde, during their front office searches. Many of the same people have interviewed for both jobs. Harris, the former Bucks GM who joined the Warriors in 2008, met with New Orleans before the playoffs began.

That the Wizards appear patient with their search may suggest they are waiting for someone still in the playoffs.

Masai Ujiri – Speaking of an executive whose team is still in the playoffs… Ujiri’s Raptors are one game away from reaching the NBA Finals. NBC Sports Washington previously reported Ujiri showed interest in Washington. However, expectations of high salary demands and compensation from the Raptors for their President of Basketball Operations stunted any serious movement.

Bonus names -- Bucks assistant GM Milt Newton was part of the Wizards front office from 2003 to 2013. … Celtics assistant GM Mike Zarren was deemed a candidate by the New York Times early in the process. One Boston-based source believes that Zarren would prefer remaining with the team he grew up rooting for rather than pursue most open GM jobs. … Spurs assistant GM Brian Wright, another D.C. area native, just completed his third year with San Antonio. 

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2019 NBA Draft prospect profile: KZ Okpala

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2019 NBA Draft prospect profile: KZ Okpala

The Washington Wizards will have the ninth overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects who could fall around where the Wizards will select...

2019 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: KZ Okpala

School: Stanford
Position: Forward
Age: 20
Height: 6-10
Weight: 210
Wingspan: 7-2
Max vertical: 37 in.

2018/19 stats: 16.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.5 bpg, 46.3 FG% (5.9/12.7), 36.8 3PT% (1.1/3.0), 67.1 FT%

Player comparison: Kyle Kuzma, Gerald Green

Projections: NBC Sports Washington 25th, NBADraft.net 23rd, Bleacher Report 27th, Sports Illustrated 29th, Ringer 41st

5 things to know:

*Okpala is a tall, lanky wing who loves to drive from the perimeter to the rim. He made the All-Pac-12 team this past season after improving his scoring average from 10.0 points as a freshman to 16.8 points as a sophomore. He also increased his rebounds per game average from 3.7 to 5.7.

*He is arguably one of the most athletic players in this class. At 6-foot-10 in shoes, he has great size for a wing player and measured at the NBA combine with a 7-2 wingspan. He also has an impressive vertical leap of 37 inches which would be good even for a point guard. He is also fast in the open court. Teams will be enticed with his ceiling on both ends of the floor.

*Okpala scored a lot in college but has a raw offensive game. He isn't fully there as a ball-handler and has an improving, but still inconsistent outside shot. The fact he made a leap from his freshman to sophomore year as a three-point shooter was a very good sign. His 36.8 three-point percentage on three attempts per game is encouraging but does not offer any guarantees that he can stretch the floor at the next level. His 67.1 free throw percentage doesn't help his cause.

*He is just the third player from Stanford to leave for the NBA before his junior season, joining the Lopez twins, Brook and Robin, who were first round picks in 2010.

*Okpala is the son of two Nigerian immigrants. He had a 4.4 GPA in high school.

Fit with Wizards: Okpala would fill a need for the Wizards in that he is a forward and they don't have many of those under contract for next season. He would also give them a young player with high upside, something they currently lack.

But Okpala also seems to offer decent bust potential. Ever since Kevin Durant came into the league, there have been a lot of players like Okpala to come along, ones that are tall enough to play inside but prefer to work on the perimeter.

Sometimes that can work, like with Giannis Antetokounmpo or Brandon Ingram (sort of). But for every success story, there seem to be a lot of guys like Perry Jones and Thon Maker.

Okpala seems very much like boom or bust, and the Wizards may not be able to afford taking a chance like that.

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