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Morning tip: 'Mentally weak' label no longer applies to Wizards

Morning tip: 'Mentally weak' label no longer applies to Wizards

The Wizards teams that advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals, with the long-since departed Trevor Ariza and then Paul Pierce, had a closeness that aided them in winning first-round series despite lacking homecourt advantage. But those teams often lacked discipline during the regular season that prevented them from holding home-court advantage.

That's also why they never won more than 46 games and couldn't get higher than No. 5 seeds. The Wizards are 20-6 at Verizon Center without the same type of veteran support behind John Wall and Bradley Beal. There was no way to anticipate these would be the results, but in a way that was the point to test their mettle as leaders. Gone are the questions about their mental toughness, observed by Ariza and Al Harrington and then co-signed by current starting center Marcin Gortat who said they were "mentally weak" after repeated losses to inferior teams on the heels of important wins.

"I'd even say even (more confidence now than) the playoff teams," Beal said after Tuesday's 117-101 destruction of the New York Knicks. "The joy that we have and the fun we're having is amazing. It's always positive in here and we want nothing but the best for one another. It's great camaraderie. We just take it all on the floor. We play for each other, don't care who scores, who gets the most points. We don't care who has a good night, who has a bad night just as long as it's a win at the end of the night."

Those moments weren't frequent last season, when the Wizards missed the playoffs for the first time in three years at 41-41. The effort to keep that bond between the 15 players in the locker room never waned but it was a challenge because of so many injuries and a locker-room wide rift with then-coach Randy Wittman. Those team-financed gatherings only if all 15 players participated still happened. 

"We kept it the same last year," Wall said. "It was frustrating and more difficult when you're not winning. We still hung out. We still did the other things that we did with all the others. It was nothing that we changed."

They gathered for a team dinner before a five-game upset of the Bulls in Chicago in 2014. They went bowling in Toronto before the sweep of the Raptors in 2015. To Wittman's credit, he encouraged them all to learn "police" and "coach" one another and have in-game conversations to smooth out the rough spots. Accepting criticism from teammates was a sore spot for yeras because some players took things too personally, but those experiences appear to have made Wall and Beal better. They don't defer to veterans anymore, and Gortat, for instance, is more than happy to let them run with it even though he's the oldest at 32.

Those Wizards playoff teams may have been more talented top to bottom, but could this team be better at 28-20?

[RELATED: Wizards won't rush to beat trade deadline]

This version of the Wizards, now with the second-longest home winning streak in franchise history at 15 games, toyed with the Knicks. In their first meeting this season Nov. 17, a 119-112 victory was actually a blowout, it looked more competitive because the Knicks scored 47 points in the fourth quarter. That lack of focus in closing out a game was typical of those earlier Wizards teams and the Wizards earlier in this season.

Since that 2-8 start, they've developed a better killer instinct that would make Ariza, Pierce and Harrington proud. The starters are playing the best basketball of their careers. All five scored in double figures for the 17th time which leads the NBA. 

They came out in the third quarter following a closer-than-expected first half and stomped out the Knicks with an immediate 16-2 run. Markieff Morris, who was acquired at the trade deadline a year ago, is blossoming into the stretch four they envisioned after failed experiments with Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley that shook everyone's confidence.

Morris had 24 points and 10 rebounds Tuesday. If the Wizards are able to reach that next level -- for Wall that would be the conference finals -- it'll be because of Morris who at 6-10 can post up other bigs or face up smaller players and beat them off the dribble. The Wizards have never had that, and even Morris hasn't always brought the kind of efficiency to the table.

"I just feel like rebounding now," said Morris, who has six double-doubles with five of them coming since the start of 2017. "Something woke up in there."

The three ball from Morris has opened the floor with Beal and Otto Porter already deadly from long range. 

"We started off the season without a legit four. We had Jared Dudley at the time. Then we were trying to play guys out of position, trying to put Kris Humphries at a stretch four," Wall said about the differences between last year and this group "Brad was going through injuries and stuff. Right now we have the luck of being healthy, then we got a legit four that can battle against these other fours we have problems with, like Paul Millsap, Patrick Patterson and all those guys. I think that makes a heck of a difference. Otto (Porter) is playing at a heck of level. Then me and Brad, this probably the first time we've both been healthy and playing at a high level."

The Dec. 6 loss to the Orlando Magic, who scored an uncharacteristic 124 points, marked the turning point. That ruined Wall's career-high 52 points, and it also was the last time the Wizards lost at Verizon Center. They don't panic late in close games. They erase double-digit deficts with ease and are producing better starts for a bigger cushion to make closing easier.

"When we started 2-8, that wasn't us and we knew it. We were adjusting to one another and adjusting to the system," Beal said. "We weren't playing with one another. Now we've figured it out. We figured out our defense and our offensive schemes. We're just playing with a lot of confidence right now. We're the team that we knew we could be at the beginning of the year."

[RELATED: Brooks' methods are welcomed change for Wizards]

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2019 NBA Draft prospect profile: Bol Bol

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2019 NBA Draft prospect profile: Bol Bol

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: Bol Bol

School: Oregon
Position: Center
Age: 19
Height: 7-3
Weight: 208
Wingspan: 7-7
Max vertical: N/A

2018/19 stats: 21.0 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.0 apg, 0.8 spg, 2.7 bpg, 56.1 FG% (8.2/14.7), 52.0 3PT% (1.4/2.8), 75.7 FT%

Player comparison: Kristaps Porzingis, Thon Maker

Projections: NBC Sports Washington 12th, NBADraft.net 18th, Bleacher Report 9th, Sports Illustrated 17th, Ringer 12th

5 things to know:

*Bol has a chance to be perfectly suited for this era of NBA unicorns. He is over 7-feet tall, yet is highly skilled for his size. He can run the floor, make plays off the dribble and shoot from outside. He is also an adept shot-blocker with the instincts to maximize his height and length.

*Bol is the son of former Bullets player Manute Bol. His father was drafted by Washington in 1985 and played three seasons with the team to start his career. He later returned to play for the Bullets in 1993 for another year. The elder Bol was 7-foot-7 and is among the tallest players in NBA history. He famously was teammates with Muggsy Bogues, who stood just 5-foot-3.

*He only played in nine games with Oregon due to a stress fracture in his left foot. A stress fracture is always ominous for a basketball player, but especially for a big man. If it weren't for the injury, Bol would probably be in the top-five range. Whichever team takes him will be going high-risk, high-reward, not unlike the Nuggets with Michael Porter Jr. last June.

*Bol unsurprisingly turned heads at the NBA Combine. He measured in about 7-foot-3 and with a 7-7 wingspan. If it weren't for Tacko Fall, those each would have led this year's class. Bol also has a 9-foot-7 1/2-ing standing reach. That means he can nearly touch the rim without jumping.

*Perhaps the most interesting stat when it comes to Bol is his three-point shooting. Though it was a small sample size, he shot 52 percent from long range and on nearly three atempts per game. For a guy his size, having any sort of three-point shot is noteworthy and to shoot at that clip is exceptional, no matter the position. 

Fit with Wizards: Bol would be a great fit for the Wizards in some regards in that he plays a position of need and would offer star potential. He also would add rim protection, which the Wizards sorely lack. And it would be a nice story, Bol beginning his career with the same franchise that his father did.

But Bol is the type of risk that the Wizards may not be in position to take. They ideally would get someone who does not have injury concerns, someone who could step right in and represent a legitimate building block for the future. 

Maybe that changes if the Wizards' medical team gives him the clear. But Bol seems more likely to fit with the Wizards if they pull off a trade to adde more picks. If they moved back from ninth and got another first round selection, taking Bol wouldn't be nearly as risky.

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Tim Connelly won’t take top Wizards job, to stay in Denver

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Tim Connelly won’t take top Wizards job, to stay in Denver

There won’t be a Tim Connelly reunion with the Washington Wizards after all.

Connelly passed on the opportunity to become the Wizards President of Basketball Operations, and instead will remain in the same capacity with the Denver Nuggets, a source confirms to NBC Sports Washington. ESPN first reported on Connelly's decision.

Washington received permission to meet with Connelly late Thursday evening. He left the NBA Combine in Chicago and flew to Washington Friday for a discussion with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, a source told NBC Sports Washington. On Friday, Connelly reportedly received the offer to fill the front office vacancy created by the firing of Ernie Grunfeld on April 2.

While the interest in the Wizards was genuine from the Baltimore native, Catholic University alum and former member of Washington's front office, Connelly could not leave the "stable" situation with significant promise in Denver, a source told NBC Sports Washington.  

Connelly, 41, was named Denver’s general manager in 2013. The Nuggets won 54 games and finished the 2018-19 regular season as the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. The roster, headlined by All-NBA center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray, is the second-youngest in the NBA. "Tough to give that up," the source said. "Too much to risk."

The Wizards are coming off a polar opposite campaign that ended with a 32-50 record. Significant uncertainty exists going forward with five-time All-Star John Wall expected to miss a large chunk of the 2019-20 season as his four-year, $170 million supermax contract extension kicks in.

Leonsis began a deliberative search process for a new President of Basketball Operations after dismissing Grunfeld, who held the position for 16 years.  While other candidates were interviewed during the process, including interim GM Tommy Sheppard, Connelly’s name was linked to the opening almost from the start.

Connelly considered Leonsis' handling of the discussions first class, according to a source.

Sheppard, former Hawks GM Danny Ferry and Thunder assistant GM Troy Weaver are the other known primary candidates.

In April, NBC Sports Washington first reported Connelly considered the Wizards his “dream job,” according to sources. The Catholic University alum began his NBA career as an intern with Washington in 1996 before holding various full-time front office positions under Grunfeld. He left for New Orleans in 2010.

The Wizards face significant challenges before re-entering contention in the Eastern Conference. With Wall injured, two-time All-Star Bradley Beal is the only healthy returning starter. 2018 first round pick Troy Brown Jr. is the only other valued long-term asset beyond the ninth overall selection in the 2019 NBA Draft,

More than half of last season’s roster is entering some form of free agency. Washington could have limited salary cap space depending on which players return.

The situation requires the kind of roster-shaping creativity Connelly demonstrated in Denver. The Wizards now must look elsewhere for their new front office leader.