The first time vs. the Chicago Bulls, Sheldon McClellan started out of necessity because the Wizards were without John Wall and Bradley Beal. It was far quicker than coach Scott Brooks anticipated, or even wanted, to play the rookie but now that he's earning rotation minutes the message has gotten through.
McClellan has had a small but significant impact on the Wizards' last two wins. He's gotten the call off the bench instead of veteran Marcus Thornton and there doesn't appear to be a reason to go back.
“I like what Sheldon has been able to do. He plays hard," Brooks said. "When you play hard it gives you a chance to stay on the court and make good things happen for your team. I think he does that. He has that play-hard gene that I like. It helps him. Last game I thought he had some big moments. He hit a couple big shots. He just didn’t rely on the jump shot. He went to the basket. He’s a talented player. I think he’s getting better as the season goes on.”
It was in a Nov. 16 loss at the Philadelphia 76ers when McClellan quickly slipped into Brooks' doghouse. The Wizards fell 109-102 and McClellan started with Beal out with a hamstring strain and Wall on a minutes restriction. He missed two open three-point shots badly and picked up a charging foul with the Wizards in striking distance. But that's not why McClellan didn't make an apperance in 16 of the next 17 games. In the one game he did play, it was one minute of mop-up duty.
The Wizards were 2-8 after that loss to the Sixers, but McClellan learned his lesson from the "players' coach" in Brooks, who is far more stern than some recognize. He showed McClellan what he did wrong.
“It’s film and seeing how hard I play and how hard I run to my spots. Just the little things that help me stay on the court," McClellan said. "I remember one game in Philly coach told me I was playing so cool and I got backdoored. I didn’t play for like 10 games. Ever since then, now when I get on the court, I think about that game and I just try to compete as hard as I can to earn myself a couple more games.
“It was just my body language. The way I look sometimes. It’s something I’m still working on. I just want to look engaged at all times."
McClellan averaged 16.3 points per game as a senior at Miami. He got up his share of shots and never averaged more than 1.9 assists in college, including his first two seasons with Texas.
"You go from college where you can make a lot of mistakes and still stay in a game, you know you’re not coming out," McClellan said. "I don’t have to hunt for shots anymore. They come. They don’t? You just make the right read."
The Wizards entered the fourth quarter vs. the Minnesota Timberwolves last week down 85-80. A 9-0 run helped them regain the lead as McClellan passed up shots to get Kelly Oubre a three-pointer and Jason Smith a mid-range jumper. In Sunday's win at the Milwaukee Bucks, it was a stepback jumper, a steal and a three-point play conversion to push the lead to 89-83 in the fourth. McClellan then took a charge from Jabari Parker that gave the Wizards an extra possession that led to Markieff Morris' jumper for an eight-point lead.
As long as he keeps this up, Thornton, who hasn't played in either of the last two games, will find it tough getting back on the court. Thornton takes too many risks on defense and gets caught out of position on screen-action. He also requires taking shots to be effective, and that sometimes will mean less for Oubre and Smith.
McClellan's recent play can help bridge that gap to fortify an inconsistent second unit.
"I love passing the ball. Just come down and making the right basketball play, making that extra pass from a good shot to a great shot. That’s what I’m doing," McClellan said. "Do the small things to stay on the court."