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Jasonn Hannibal's road to Wizards' Summer League team about as unusual as it gets

Jasonn Hannibal's road to Wizards' Summer League team about as unusual as it gets

Jasonn Hannibal's last stint as a professional basketball player before he earned a spot on the Wizards' 2017 Summer League team was in Iran, a full 18 months before the Wizards brought him to Las Vegas and assigned him the No. 64 jersey number. The sport of basketball had already taken him from his hometown of Mississauga, Ontario in Canada to the University of Portland in Oregon to Slovenia for two years then to Kosovo, then to two different teams in Mexico and finally the Middle East, a region of the world generally associated with many things, basketball not one of them.

Hannibal, 29, had experienced plenty of bumps in the road, including in Slovenia where he tore his meniscus while playing in his league's All-Star Game. But Iran, though shortlived, altered his life in numerous ways.

For one, the lifestyle was an unrelenting culture shock. Hannibal learned that quickly on a broiling day in January. After walking outdoors in shorts his general manager pulled him aside and told him that was prohibited. So was making any sort of physical contact with women in public.

[RELATED: Wizards match $106M offer sheet from Nets, re-sign Porter]

Hannibal, who was the only non-Iranian player on the team, remembers one experience early on that truly opened his eyes to just how far away from home he was.

"We were driving to the gym one day and a bus rode by. I saw all the women sitting in the back and the men sitting up front. I asked one of my teammates ‘what’s going on over there?’ He said ‘that’s how it is.’ In North America, we’re used to different things that are normal to us. When I go over there, I see things that are odd to me but are normal to them," he said.

Hannibal was in Iran just weeks before he received a call from his mother at three in the morning. She was distraught. His father had passed. Now he had to travel over 6,000 miles to attend the funeral.

It took several connecting flights for Hannibal to reach Ontario and by the time the services were done, his team in Iran had already moved on.

"I tried to get back to my team but they didn’t want me anymore. Because I didn’t have stats, I was only there for a month, [my agent] couldn’t get me on another team," he said.

[RELATED: Some positives in Wizards' first Summer League loss to Grizzlies]

It would be natural to doubt the future and Hannibal surely did. It had been nine months since he left Iran when Andrew Nicholson, then a forward for the Wizards, invited Hannibal to watch some preseason games in Washington. Hannibal and Nicholson are close friends, having both grown up in Mississauga. 

Hannibal and some of his buddies packed a car and drove down to D.C. After one of those Wizards' exhibition games, he ran into Tommy Sheppard, the Wizards' senior vice president of basketball operations.

"Tommy was surprised I wasn’t playing anywhere because I’m so big. I told him I am still looking and hopefully I would be able to get on a team somewhere. He basically told me that if I helped them for the whole year in player development, that he would put me on the summer league team. That’s how it came around," Hannibal said.

So, Hannibal did just that. For the entire 2016-17 season, he served as a player development intern on the Wizards' staff. He rebounded and passed to set up John Wall, Bradley Beal and others during pregame shooting drills. He played in pickup games in practice. At 6-10, he could help simulate opposing big men by defending the rim.

Player development and coaching is something Hannibal enjoys and hopes to do once his playing days are over. But they aren't over. This past year he never considered his career as a professional basketball as finished. The Summer League remained a goal he worked on tirelessly in his spare time.

At night, hours after Wizards practice was over, he would return to the gym to work on his conditioning on an exercise bike. He played in pickup games with Wizards players and staff members whenever he could. He battled video coordinator Jimmy Bradshaw and other staff assistants in full court games of 1-on-1. 

[RELATED: Oubre cleared to practice again after right knee procedure]

Over the summer, Hannibal trains at a gym called FITS in Toronto. After the Wizards' season ended, he returned there to get ready for Summer League. Once the trainers found out what was next, their directives were simple.

"They were like ‘get on the track. Get on the track, get in the stairwell.’ And that’s it. Running up the stairs, jumping up the stairs, shuttles, all kinds of stuff," he said.

Hannibal is also now driven by a new motivation.

"Unfortunately, my father is not still here. But now I feel like I have a different why for what I do. Every time I’m on the court, even if I’m a little tired, I think ‘I’ve gotta do this for dad.’ Just sprint a little harder or go a little harder," he said.

Hannibal has the height of an NBA big man and, as a member of the team staff, was often wearing Wizards gear this past season. That would cause confusion at home games where just about every night fans would ask him for autographs or mistake him for Ian Mahinmi or Daniel Ochefu. Sometimes he would oblige at the urge of a kid's parents. Once he signed one, the autograph requests would come in droves.

He is 6-10 and goes by the imposing name of 'Hannibal,' yet Jasonn has the demeanor of a gentle giant. His response to those asking for autographs or pictures would sometimes be: "I'm just a rebounder."

He wasn't actually on the team. Now, with the Wizards' Summer League squad, he can't say that anymore.

[RELATED: Bradley Beal on his summer and the Wizards' offseason]

 

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Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

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USA TODAY Sports

Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

Before meeting with local basketball media following his pre-draft workout with the Washington Wizards on Thursday at Capital One Arena, George Washington forward Yuta Watanabe first addressed a swath of reporters from his home country of Japan. Then, while he talked to the American contingent, cameras from Japanese news outlets trailed him from a distance, documenting even the media part of his experience.

Watanabe, who played four years for the Colonials in Foggy Bottom, is now chasing an NBA dream with an entire country's hope on his shoulders. He is aiming to become just the second Japanese-born player to reach basketball's pinnacle.

It's a responsibility he carries with pride.

"I know there was only one Japanese player who played in the NBA like a long time ago, so he was the only one," Watanabe said. "If I can make it, I know that’s a really big thing in Japan. That would make young guys come to the U.S. and play basketball in the U.S. I want to be one of the pioneers for younger guys."

The only player to make the NBA from Japan in the history of the league was Yuta Tabuse, who appeared in four games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-05 season. Four games, that's it. If Watanabe can carve out an extended career in the NBA, it would be a first for Japan, which like many countries outside of the United States has begun to produce more basketball talent in recent decades as the game has expanded globally.

Watanabe grew up in Miki, Kagawa, a town in the southwest of Japan. He had American basketball idols growing up, including Kobe Bryant who was the NBA's biggest star when Watanabe was a kid.

Now, as Watanabe has set his sights on the NBA, he has focused on others to model his game after. He said he watches film of Jazz forward Joe Ingles because he sees similarities in their game.

"I see myself trying to be like him. He’s a lefty, a great shooter and a great defender. I’ve been watching his tape a lot," Watanabe said.

Watanabe has also been consulting with Hawks forward Joe Cavanaugh, his former teammate at George Washington. Cavanaugh went undrafted last summer, but caught on in Atlanta and appeared in 39 games as a rookie.

Watanabe's best bet may be a similar path. He is currently not projected to be drafted, but there are many avenues to the NBA, as Cavanaugh has shown. He was signed for 2017 training camp by the Hawks, then cut. Then, he inked a two-way contract which was later converted to a regular contract.

Along the way, Cavanaugh spent much of his time with the Erie Bayhawks of the G-League. Watanabe may have to go that route to make the NBA. For now, he's trying to prove what he's capable of and that has not been easy. The Wizards were his second workout and Watanabe isn't happy with his performance thus far.

He is dealing with an ankle injury that has affected his conditioning, he said, and his shots haven't been falling.

"To be honest, I didn’t shoot well. I didn’t really do well in the 1-on-1s or 3-on-3. I know I have to do better on that if I want to make an NBA team," he said.

Watanabe, who stands at 6-foot-9, said he also needs to get stronger. If defense is going to be his calling card, he can't be pushed around by bigger players in the NBA.

"I know I can defend one through four. Today, I didn’t shoot well but I know I can shoot and I can handle the ball, I can pass. I think versatility is one of my strengths," he said.

The Wizards could use depth at the small forward position and will be in the market for a host of undrafted guys to fill out their summer league team and new G-League team. Perhaps Watanabe will land in one of those spots.

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Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

The pre-draft workout process can be an exhausting journey for players, with so many flights, hotel rooms and NBA arenas that they can all blend in together. Michigan big man Moritz Wagner, though, may have felt a sense of comfort in Washington for his pre-draft workout for the Wizards on Wednesday.

It was just over a year ago that his Michigan Wolverines cut down the nets at Capital One Arena as champions of the Big Ten conference.

"It was good memories, man. Never gets old," he said while glancing around the stadium.

Wagner, 21, will be seeing a lot more of Capital One Arena once he joins the NBA ranks and it is conceivable he ends up in Washington. They hold the 15th pick in the first round and the 44th pick in the second round and Wagner could be within their reach.

Wagner had an impressive workout in Washington and could provide what the Wizards need. He is a big, mobile and can spread the floor. Wagner was terrific at stepping out to hit threes off pick-and-rolls at Michigan and that ability would work well with Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall.

Wagner measured in at just under 7-feet at this month's NBA Combine, fifth-tallest among those who attended. He averaged 14.6 points as a junior this past season and made 39.4 percent of his threes on 4.1 attempts per game.

With three years of college experience and an NBA-ready jumper, Wagner believes he can step right in and help the Wizards.

"I think what we did at Michigan, sharing the ball and playing as a team, very organized basketball, that can help big-time," he said. "It's basically pro basketball I was playing on a different level."

As Wagner will tell you, he is very confident in his abilities. He is comfortable in his own skin and that includes openly discussing his faults. He feels good about his ability to score at the next level. Defense is where he needs to prove himself.

Despite his size, Wagner wasn't much of a rim protector in college. He averaged just a half-block a game as a junior. The Wizards need rim protection badly and he likely would not provide that.

Wagner, though, believes he can bring more to the table defensively than the numbers would suggest.

"I think I've been an offensive guy all of my life, but the more that you mature as a player, you understand that both sides are important. Without defense, you aren't going to play at any level," he said.

"I think the most important thing that I wasn't able to show in college is that I'm able to switch the ball-screen, especially with the way the league is going. Switch on everything and stay in front of guards as a big guy."

Wagner is from Germany and looks up to Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki, who is entering his 21st season and will be in the Hall of Fame someday. Nowitzki's game has always been built around shooting and, though he developed into a decent shot-blocker in his prime, was never an elite rim protector.

Wagner hopes to follow in his footsteps playing a similar style.

"He was my MJ. He kind of shows you 'okay, this is possible and this is doable.' It's just basketball," Wagner said. "It gives you a lot of hope. It gives you a lot of belief and motivation."

Hear more from Wagner in his one-on-one interview with Chris Miller in our latest Wizards Tipoff podcast. His interview can also be found in the video above:

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