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Morning tip: How Wizards plan to develop another young player in Chris McCullough

Morning tip: How Wizards plan to develop another young player in Chris McCullough

The phone kept ringing, and even when Chris McCullough's agent told him that he had been traded to the Wizards the 6-10 big man didn't believe it.

"It definitely caught me off-guard. It was unexpected," said McCullough, who arrived after the Wizards practiced Thursday and joined them for their first post-All-Star Game at the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday. "I was sleeping when it happened. My phone just started ringing, ringing, ringing. I finally answered it. I got a text saying I was traded to the Wizards. I thought my agent was messing with me."

McCullough, who was acquired in a deal that also sent Brooklyn Nets teammate Bojan Bogdanovic to Washington, has spent most of his second NBA season with the Long Island Nets, playing for the D-League. He had to take a pair of two-hour flights to get to D.C. from Grand Rapids, Mich.

Before he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in a game January 2015, five months before the NBA draft. The Nets still took him 29th overall in the first round. 

"People had projected him as a possible lottery pick," Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. "He’s still coming back off of that injury. He’s 6-foot-10, runs the floor well, he can shoot the basketball, very athletic and he has some upside. We’re going to try to develop him. We’re going to try to work with him and how much he develops we’ll see. It’s really going to be up to him."

MORE WIZARDS: 5 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT CHRIS MCCULLOUGH

McCullough's NBA experience is limited because of the injury. He was able to recover in time during his rookie season to play in 24 games. He averaged 4.7 points and 2.8 rebounds when he averaged 15.1 minutes. This season, under a new coach, he only has played in 14 games and averaged just 5.1 minutes in 2.5 points and 1.2 rebounds before logging most of his action in the D-League.

"I’m going to try to do the little things, be the guy who hustles the most, diving on the floor for loose balls, anything to (help) my team win," McCullough said. "I like to run the floor, rebound. Hopefully John Wall throws me some (lobs). I’m ready for it."

Just turning 22, McCullough is the type of player the Wizards are willing to invest time in under coach Scott Brooks (see undrafted rookies Danuel House, Daniel Ochefu and Sheldon Mac). They were less likely to do it previously because then-coach Randy Wittman preferred proven veterans. 

Development is a major part of Brooks' lure.

"I did not know much about him. He has good size. Athletic, working on his outside shot," Brooks said. "He's a young, developing player. We don't know what he can be. But I know with myself and our staff, and how we approach all of our players, we're going to push him and demand that he keeps getting better and improving and see how far we can get him. It's not just a throw-in (for the trade). It's somebody we're going to see how good we can get him and we go from there."

McCullough sees himself developing into one of the league's most sought-after assets.

"Be a stretch four," he said. "I think I’m that now. ... I have no idea how good I’m going to be yet."

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The longterm case for the Wizards to not trade Bradley Beal is more compelling than you might think

The longterm case for the Wizards to not trade Bradley Beal is more compelling than you might think

We know teams remain interested in snagging Bradley Beal.

There’s no explanation required why true contenders or wannabes would covet a 25-year-old two-time All-Star coming off a near All-NBA season. With Anthony Davis dealt to the Lakers, Beal becomes arguably the top prize in the trade market.

Before shipping the Wizards’ leading scorer out of the DMV for long-term assets that would signal a rebuild, consider the alternative. No talking points are needed for the concept of keeping Beal, but doing so brings up the larger picture.

Assuming the Wizards remained fiscally disciplined this off-season, the team can enter the summer of 2020 with a relatively clean balance sheet and actual roster optimism.

At that point the Wizards would have Beal possibly coming off a third All-Star appearance along with 2018 first-round pick Troy Brown, a player selected with the ninth overall pick in Thursday’s Draft and a 2020 lottery pick.

Add to that the return of John Wall. It’s conceivable the five-time All-Star rejoins the team late next season, but it likely would take additional time to gauge his physical status following the devastating Achilles injury that required surgery in February. If Wall appears close to his prior form, the Wizards have an interesting starting point with those pieces.

In addition, the expiring contracts for Ian Mahinmi ($15.4 million) and Dwight Howard ($5.6) come off the books. Beal, Wall and Brown are the only current players under contract beyond next season.

This season also provides the next front office leader a chance to establish a cultural baseline for a team that dealt with locker room squabbles last season. The Wizards remain without a general manager after firing President of Basketball Operations on April 2.

Tommy Sheppard has run the front office on an interim basis since. While logically the Wizards would hold off making any splashy moves like dealing Beal until a permanent GM is named, owner Ted Leonsis is the one needing convincing regardless.

Leonsis famously told reporters last season the team “will never, ever tank.” Rebuilding doesn’t have the same negative connotation as that four-letter T-word, but dealing Beal would offer the perception of a team focused on the long haul above all.

That’s not necessarily the wrong approach. The Wizards can always head into that direction ahead of the 2020-21 season. Beal’s value would remain high. Holding him now also allows Washington to wait on Wall, clean up their salary cap and restart the contention process. The organization can also explore signing Beal to an extension this season (3-year, $111.8 million) or next.

None of this means anything to other NBA teams hoping to pry Beal away.

The New Orleans Pelicans dialed up the Wizards. The San Antonio Spurs are interested.

Logically so are the Celtics, Nets and several other teams looking to make a bold move now that the Warriors suffered two crushing injuries and the Lakers already went all in. The Knicks could enter the trade talks should Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant bypass the Big Apple.

Regardless, the Wizards appear cool with keeping their best player and with good reasons.

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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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