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Wizards 'unstoppable' if this is Markieff Morris' NBA playoff form

Wizards 'unstoppable' if this is Markieff Morris' NBA playoff form

Two years ago, Markieff Morris played for a 39-win team headed nowhere in the Phoenix Suns. At best he was a spectator as the Wizards, then the No. 5 seed and starting Nene at power forward, upset the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 of the conferrence semifinals only to then have Paul Millsap say this: "Internally, we felt like we won the game."

Fast forward to Sunday, when Morris was playing in his first playoff game in six NBA seasons. It was his first full season in Washington. A matchup problem for Millsap whenever they're matched up this season, Morris dominated. Though statictisally it didn't look lopsided, it was indeed. 

Millsap isn't getting under their skin as much as Morris appears to be getting under his.

 "The ball is like gold now. Every possession counts, so I'm going head-first every play," said Morris after 21 points on 8 of 19 shooting, seven rebounds and four blocks. "We're going to jostle the whole series and that's what it's going to be."

Morris picked up his first foul 17 seconds into the game on Millsap's move to the basket. Despite that, he was able to stay out of trouble and on the floor. Millsap had the better first half in terms of scoring with 12 points, but Morris closed strong.

He made all three foul shots after Millsap ran into him on a three just before the halftime buzzer and had words with his foe on the way out. Then Morris emerged from the locker room more edgy than when the game started, when he had consecutive blocks on Millsap and Dwight Howard in the second quarter.

"We've been telling him in the second half of the season, he's not going to get open unless he creates opportunities to get open," coach Scott Brooks said. "He's been doing that the last couple of games of the season." 

[RELATED: John Wall took over vs. Hawks, kicked offense into high gear]

Morris' three, then a jumper and floater put the Wizards ahead for good as they erased what had been an eight-point first-half deficit for good to win Game 1, 114-107, at Verizon Center. 

The edge Morris had goes beyond numbers. When Atlanta allowed Howard to defend him, Morris can pull him so far away from the basket it opens up the floor for the willing passer. Howard tends to be reluctant to vacate and that's how Morris made one of his three-pointers. 

Nene was valuable for the Wizards, particularly three years ago when they won their first playoff series. Then-first-timers John Wall and Bradley Beal didn't play well and he carried them. But when the Wizards went up against the Hawks the next year, the aged 7-footer was playing out of position trying to chase around Millsap. Drew Gooden wasn't up for the task. And when the Wizards tried to to make Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley stretch fours, they didn't match up well with Millsap, either. 

Morris does. The biggest mismatch with Atlanta comes when Ersan Ilyasova tries to stay in front of Morris who is too good off the dribble and facing up. He can get to his spots at will and it forces Atlanta to help. Kelly Oubre's three-pointer to give the Wizards a 95-83 lead in the fourth came off such a play, when Morris reversed the ball to Brandon Jennings in the opposite corner who then found Oubre spotting up. 

"Like I said last year when we first got him, I was excited. He changed everything right away for us," Wall said. "We didn't have to go big in the post anymore. If any team had a four man that could score, we could go right back at him and he can score on their man in the post. He changed our team a whole lot and he understands that. But most importantly, he was one of those guys that bought in. He had never been to the playoffs before. He shied away from getting a lot of shots at times but he's doing everything to help our team win."

Morris doesn't require such help if he's defending Ilyasova, who also can stretch to the three-point line, or Millsap. That means the Wizards don't have to leave shooters open to compensate for a deficiency like they used to do. Millsap had four turnovers, a key one to start the third quarter as Morris inspired a game-changing run. He went up to draw contact that Morris avoided, left his feet and came down with the ball for a traveling violation. A 48-45 halftime deficit became a 57-52 lead three minutes into the third and the Wizards would never look back. 

"It's incredible, man. He's been telling me that he's been ready for this moment since he was drafted," Oubre said of Morris. "He hadn't had the opportunity for seven years, but now that the opportunity is here, it's time to go take it. It don't matter if it's your first or your seventh year, when you make it to the playoffs you're going to make a name for yourself. That's what he's doing. That's what we're all trying to do."

Wall had his career-playoff high with 32 points and 14 assists. The entire starting five seemed to be back to their pre-All-Star break form. Each scored in double figures. 

"When he's playing as well as he did today for us," Wall said of Morris, "we're unstoppable."

[RELATED: Oubre on Morris vs. Millsap: 'Keef is better than him']

 

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Drew Gooden, Justin Kutcher to highlight NBC Sports Washington Wizards broadcast team

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Drew Gooden, Justin Kutcher to highlight NBC Sports Washington Wizards broadcast team

Drew Gooden was nearing the end of his second 10-day contract with the Wizards in the 2014 season when he went off for 21 points against Brooklyn. 

It was a game that changed his career, led to being signed to the team for the remainder of that season and ending his career as a Washington Wizard two years later. “My career was totally reborn as a veteran leader on the Washington Wizards,” he said. “And that’s something I never would have thought would come full circle.”

And now? Gooden will serve as the game analyst on NBC Sports Washington’s Wizards broadcast this season. NBC Sports Washington announced on Wednesday he will join new play-by-play announcer Justin Kutcher as part of the Wizards' game broadcast team. Chris Miller will return in his role as sideline reporter.

“It’s a dream and I never thought in a million years I would have retired a Wizard and that out of all my teams that I played for, that Wizards would be the favorite organization that I played for, never thought I would be a color analyst for NBC Sports Washington,” Gooden said. “All of this is a dream.”

And while Kutcher may not have the same playing resume that Gooden does, he promises to bring the same passion Gooden does to broadcasts.

During the early days of his career, Kutcher wasn’t just the voice of (and practice player for) the Boston University women’s basketball team. He was such a passionate fan that he was the one making the most noise on the team bus after a big win or a big loss. Now, after decades in the business, he’s not sure he’ll go to that extreme – but Wizards fans can expect him to be “a fan who’s calling the game,” he said. “I say that about myself all of the time. I think of myself as just this incredibly lucky person that gets to call a sport that I love. When I have a reaction, it’s a genuine reaction. So, I’ll keep everything professional, but I’ll get excited.”

Kutcher has 17 years of experience as a play-by-play announcer, having spent the last seven years at Fox Sports where he led national coverage of NCAA basketball and football, the NFL and MLB. Prior to FOX Sports, Kutcher served as a play-by-play announcer for ESPN for four years. During that time, he led live coverage for a variety of sports, including basketball, football, baseball, softball, volleyball and hockey, across professional, college and high school leagues and conferences. He also appeared on studio shows during his tenure with ESPN. In addition to FOX Sports and ESPN, he has also called collegiate events for CSTV, now CBS Sports Network, for two years, as well as BTN, and contributed to MLB.com digital programming.

“I have known Justin since he was a runner for us at FOX Sports,” said Joe Buck. “He’s gone from working hard behind the scenes to one of the best, young voices in sports. Wizards fans are getting a great broadcaster and a better person .”

Here’s five more fun facts about Kutcher and Gooden.

1.    Kutcher’s worked the past five Westminster Dog Shows. “I get more ticket requests for that than any other event I go to,” he said. But, at first he wasn’t sure he was going to stick with it. The first year, he said, was a little tough. “I called my dad after it airs and he said that it was my mom’s favorite thing that I’ve done.” But, he stuck with it. And now? “I love it,” he said. 
2.    His favorite thing in DC is … the breakfast at Ted’s Bulletin. “They have a breakfast burrito that I get, I eat two of them at a time and people can’t believe it,” he said. Oh, and also his family. His family in the area includes a 3-year-old nephew, who when asked for real estate recommendations in the area, declared “you can live at our house!”
3.    Meanwhile, you can find Gooden at his favorite crab shack. “Quarterdeck in Arlington is my favorite, favorite restaurant,” he said. In the two years he’s known about the crab spot, he’s eaten there, he estimates, “800” times. 
4.    Good news for Wizards fans: He thinks the Wizards will be a team everyone sleeps on – and that’s great for them. “They’re going to have the opportunity to surprise a lot of people early,” he predicted. 
5.    Kutcher expects Rui Hachimura to … “be one of the steals of the draft.” Kutcher covered the new Wizard as a play-by-play announcer during Hachimura’s college career. “I would not be surprised if you see Rui average 15-18 points per game and close to 8 rebounds per game. I think he’s that type of player, he’s a really good kid, when I saw the Wizards drafted him I said that’s a great, great pick,” he said.
 

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Wizards' 2019 top prospects rankings: Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr. lead the way

Wizards' 2019 top prospects rankings: Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr. lead the way

Though the maturation of the G-League has brought the NBA closer in line with MLB and its minor league farm system, there has been one noticeable element missing for those of us who follow the two sports closely. In baseball, multiple media outlets publish top prospect lists both league-wide and team-specific, yet the equivalents are nowhere to be found in basketball.

Prospect rankings are a great window into the future and they are fun to revisit years later to see who was right and who was wrong. But, so far, they haven’t become widespread in basketball.

The reason why may be rooted in semantics. Generally, basketball players are considered prospects before they are drafted. After they join teams, they just become regular players.

Part of that perception is simply because NBA players can impact their teams at a much younger age. While it is very rare to see a 19-year-old in the majors, it is commonplace in the NBA.

The Wizards, though, may be the perfect team to get this started with. They have a collection of players that are now out of college but have yet to establish themselves in the professional ranks. They are essentially prospects by baseball's definition.

So, in the interest of doing something new here, let's rank them...

1. Rui Hachimura, F

Age: 21
Strengths: midrange shooting, offensive versatility
Areas to improve: three-point shooting, passing

The ninth overall pick this past June, Hachimura is the highest draft pick the Wizards have selected since Otto Porter Jr. in 2013. He is 21, but young in basketball years because he didn't pick up the sport until Age 13. Yet, with three years of college under his belt, he comes in with the experience to likely make a difference right away. And with the Wizards' current roster state, he should have a big opportunity for minutes and shot attempts as a rookie.

Hachimura appears to have several NBA-ready skills, particularly on offense. He makes smart decisions with the ball in his hand and can score at all three levels. His outside shooting needs to be more consistent, but he can knock it down enough to be a threat. Defensively is where he will need to grow the most, but the potential seems to be there for him to develop until a versatile player on that end of the floor. 

Passing is another area he can improve. He didn't record many assists at all in college or in the Summer League. 

2. Troy Brown Jr., G/F

Age: 19
Strengths: rebounding, passing
Areas to improve: outside shooting, turnovers

Though Brown was drafted one year before Hachimura, he is still a year-and-a-half younger. He also didn't crack the Wizards' rotation until late in his rookie season. That makes him still very much a prospect as he enters his Age 20 campaign looking to make a much bigger impact in his second season than he did in his first.

The good news for Brown is that the minutes should be there. At this point he looks like at-worst the second small forward behind C.J. Miles and he should have a chance to battle for the starting job in training camp. With Isaiah Thomas' checkered injury history (he only played 12 games last year), there is a good chance Brown sees time at point guard as well, maybe even some starts there. We'll see.

Brown's passing and rebounding are up-to-speed for his size and position, but he needs to cut down on the turnovers and improve his three-point shot. Though he dominated in his brief time in the Summer League, he still only shot 40.6 percent from the field. Also, the Wizards could really use a leap from him on defense because he has a relatively high ceiling on that end of the floor and most of their players do not.

3. Moe Wagner, C

Age: 22
Strengths: outside shooting, free throw shooting
Areas to improve: defense, rebounding

The path to minutes isn't quite as clear for Wagner, who is probably going to be stuck behind Hachimura, Davis Bertans and Thomas Bryant in the frontcourt. But the way he can crack the rotation is by hitting his threes, something he was not able to do as a rookie for the Lakers last season or in the 2019 Summer League for the Wizards.

Wagner presents intriguing long-term upside because of his shooting and his knack for getting to the rim off pump-fakes. But he needs to learn how to affect more shots around the rim, even if he can't block shots. And his rebounding could use some improvement, as his 9.8 rebounding percentage last season wouldn't even stand out for a wing player, much less a seven-footer.

4. Admiral Schofield, F

Age: 22
Strengths: outside shooting, team defense
Areas to improve: defense against taller players, ball-handling

The expectations should be low for Schofield in his rookie season, despite the fact he played four years in college and has an NBA-ready frame. Most second round picks don't make much of an impact early on and he is slotted to be on the outside of the rotation looking in.

Schofield's fastest way to NBA playing time is through his defense and three-point shooting, the two biggest reasons the Wizards drafted him. If he can provide toughness and an edge in the midrange, it will give the Wizards something they have lacked in recent years. And he shot at both a high percentage and for volume from three at Tennessee, and you can't have enough perimeter shooting these days.

5. Justin Robinson, G

Age: 23
Strengths: outside shooting, passing
Areas to improve: finishing around rim, turnovers

Like Schofield, Robinson is probably going to spend a good deal of his time with the Capital City Go-Go this season. But working in his favor is the team's lack of depth at point guard. They have Thomas, who again has some injury concerns. And they have Ish Smith, but there appears to be an opening at the third point guard spot.

Brown could fill the void and so could Jordan McRae. The Wizards could even give Bradley Beal more of an extended look running the offense. But the door seems to be open for Robinson to make an impact and early. He needs to focus on taking care of the ball, playing physical defense and making his open threes. The Wizards don't need Robinson to be a big-time scorer, but he can add spacing if he shoots from three as he did in college.

Honorable mention: Garrison Mathews, Isaac Bonga

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