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Troy Brown Jr. reflects on his first season with the Wizards

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Troy Brown Jr. reflects on his first season with the Wizards

CHICAGO -- Troy Brown Jr. arrived at the 2018 NBA Combine a tad overwhelmed. That was certainly an understandable feeling considering the stakes. His draft stock would rise or fall based on his work on the court and during interviews with teams. 

“I wouldn’t say I was lost, but I didn’t know what to expect,” Brown said. “I was just kind of going about things, trying to do everything the best I could. …I knew I was going to get drafted, but it was more about the work that I put in. Is it going to happen? I want to go this number (in the draft). There’s a lot of stuff running through your brain.”

One year later, the Washington Wizards’ 19-year-old swingman returned wiser and calmer. There was no need to impress scouts or front executives this time. The one only skill set required, penmanship.

While the class of 2019 went under the pre-draft microscope, the 15th overall selection in the 2018 draft focused on inking his name to dozens of trading cards.

“It’s surreal, getting paid for your presence,” Brown told NBC Sports Washington. “People flying you out just to sign (trading) cards. You get paid for being here and for whatever you sign. It’s definitely fun. Never in a million years did I think I’d be getting paid to show up. It’s fun, especially at a young age.”

One year prior the Las Vegas native and University of Oregon product had no clue he would begin his NBA career on the East Coast or sign a contract with the Wizards. Brown did not even meet with Washington at his Combine. 

The two sides would connect swimmingly the following month during Brown’s workout at Capital One Arena that also featured the player eventually selected 16th, Zhaire Smith.

“All I remember is going in (to Washington), and I killed my workout against some of the top guys,” Brown said. “My interview when I was leaving was really good. I really hit it off with them.”

Perhaps the wildest difference from a year prior, beyond the experienced gained from an NBA season and another trip around the sun is Brown’s status with the Wizards. 

Immediate expectations for his rookie season were not lofty mainly because of the veteran pieces already on the roster. Now ahead of the 2019 draft, Brown is the second-most-interesting healthy player behind Bradley Beal in terms of the long haul despite a limited role for the 32-50 Wizards. 

No disrespect to the 6-foot-6 Brown, but that interesting claim is mostly a function of expected player turnover. More than half of last season’s final roster is entering some form of free agency.

“It’s definitely weird not knowing who is going to be back and knowing our whole roster (might) be different,” said Brown, who averaged 4.8 points and 14 minutes in 54 games last season. 

Granted, the Wizards spent nearly all of the 2018-19 campaign flipping the roster via trades and numerous signings.

“At the same time, you know it’s a business,” Brown continued. “I’m kind of use to it now. I had 24 teammates in one year.”

Current teammates on guaranteed contracts for next season include Beal, John Wall, Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard. Of that group, Brown is perhaps the best bet to play next season in Washington. 

Beal, coming off a near All-NBA season, is the subject of trade rumors with two years remaining on his contract. Wall might miss the entire season following February’s Achilles injury. 

Using the stretch provision on Howard’s $5.5 million salary would remove the center from the roster one year after injuries limited him to nine games. Mahinmi’s expiring contract perhaps offers value in a trade as a matching salary. 

Who knows what to expect for an organization that has yet to replace Ernie Grunfeld even though the long-time President of Basketball Operations was fired more than two months ago. 

The Wizards currently own the ninth selection in the 2019 Draft. There’s a belief Washington’s draft plans include buying into the second round. Free agency comes around ten days later. Maybe the Wizards keep free agents like Tomas Satoransky, Thomas Bryant and Jeff Green. Regardless, new guys are showing up.

Brown’s role remains uncertain coach Scott Brooks’ watch. Certainly do not write predictions in pen seeing as Brown rarely received meaningful action during the season, though he averaged 10.4 points in 30 minutes over the final ten games once the Wizards fell out of the playoff race.

Regardless, Brown recognized his growth over the last year after checking out prospects set to join him the pro ranks.

“Now with that experience under my belt with that one year, I know what to expect, what I’m capable of and the position I’m in,” Brown said. “It’s definitely a good feeling to come back and see guys I played against a year ago now going through the Combine.”

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Unsung LaToya Sanders’ two-way play has Mystics one game away from WNBA Finals

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Unsung LaToya Sanders’ two-way play has Mystics one game away from WNBA Finals

On a stacked Mystics team, LaToya Sanders knows her role. 

The 6-foot-2, 170-pound wisp of a center is asked to guard far bigger opponents throughout the season and still complement her teammates on the offensive end. It’s a lot to deal with. She does so without complaint. 

Sanders, the most unheralded of Washington’s five starters, did it all on Thursday night in a 103-91 WNBA semifinal win over the Las Vegas Aces at the Entertainment and Sports Arena. 

She finished with 17 points on a night when WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne (14 points, 5 of 15 shooting) struggled given her lofty standards. Sanders also played the kind of defense that left coach Mike Thibault insisting she should have been named WNBA first or second-team All-Defense. 

“My job is probably the easiest on the team,” Sanders laughed. “My job is basically to hit wide-open jumpers and lay-ups. Pretty sure I can do those two things.”

Indeed, she was efficient hitting 7 of 10 shots and all three free throws. Sanders also had to guard Vegas’ 6-8 center Liz Cambage, a big ask given their size difference. Cambage did have 23 points and 10 rebounds, but she only took 11 shots. 

Sanders and her teammates tried to make it as hard as possible for the Aces to get the ball inside for easy baskets in their two wins this week. Washington won Game 1 of the series 97-95 on Tuesday, a game that left Cambage visibly frustrated. She also earned a technical foul in Thursday’s game on a rough play underneath the Vegas basket.  

“When you’re LaToya Sanders and you’re 6-3 and you’re relying on your long arms to guard people, she takes a beating every night,” Thibault said. “She guards Camabge and [Phoenix Mercury center Brittney] Griner and [Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia] Fowles and all those people. And every night she wins a lot of those battles.”

But the really unsung part of Sanders’ game is her mid-range jumper. Thursday she was on when some of her higher-profile teammates like Delle Donne didn’t quite have their shot dropping. 

Sanders had six points in the third quarter as the two teams battled back and forth in a tight game and that set the stage for the decisive run that tilted the game toward the Mystics. She also had a hot start to the night with two baskets in the first quarter. 

“[Sanders is] a really good player. She's just on a team with so many other good players that she doesn't get as many shots,” Vegas guard Kelsey Plum said. “But she plays her role as good as anyone in the league. She's a vet. She rebounds the crap out of the ball. I just think that she does a great job for them. Everyone made us pay."

Thibault referenced a rebound Sanders grabbed in traffic to stifle a Vegas possession when they were trying to get the lead under 10 points in the fourth quarter. Instead, Washington was able to work the clock at the offensive end and score a knockout blow. It’s the little things that matter most when a team is pushing for a championship. The Mystics are one step closer. 

“Cambage is a talent, she’s a big girl,” Sanders said. “I just do what I can to try to make it difficult for her, but she’s going to hit some buckets here and there. I try to dish it out, but not take it.”  

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Mystics take Game 2 and put Aces on brink of elimination

Mystics take Game 2 and put Aces on brink of elimination

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Mystics beat the Las Vegas Aces 103-91 in Game 2 of the WNBA Semifinals on Thursday night. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Before Thursday's game, as she was accepting her second WNBA MVP award, Elena Delle Donne explained how she had learned in the four years since winning her first MVP trophy the importance of making her teammates better. That approach paid off in Game 2, as the Aces' defense swarmed to limit her to just 14 points, well below her 19.5-point average, and to 33.3 percent shooting.

Delle Donne made sure she was effective in other ways. She grabbed 10 rebounds, blocked two shots and used her length to eliminate passing lanes. Though she wasn't making shots, she created space for others by drawing Las Vegas' tallest defenders to the perimeter.

Delle Donne wasn't the star of the box score, but her approach and execution were pivotal in a Mystics win, one that gave them a commanding 2-0 lead as the five-game series shifts to the desert.

2. What many on the Mystics predicted entering the playoffs has come true through two games that Emma Meesseman would be a major difference-maker after she missed last year's postseason run that ended with a loss in the Finals. After dropping 27 points with 10 rebounds in Game 1, she was back throwing haymakers in Game 2, posting 30 points, six rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Meesseman (6-foot-4) isn't nearly as big as Aces center Liz Cambage (6-foot-8), yet she attacked the lane consistently to look for her shot and to set up others. She had a play midway through the second quarter where she spun around Cambage and finished through contact with her right hand for an and-1. It got many fans out of their seats and some emphatic fist pumps from Wizards guard Bradley Beal who was sitting behind the basket.

Meesseman's toughness and craft are perfect for postseason basketball. She can score inside and out and is a disruptive defender despite not being a major rim protector.

3. The Aces' defensive adjustment after Game 1 was clearly to take away the three-point shot. The Mystics made 11 threes on 28 attempts on Tuesday, but by halftime on Thursday had only seven shots and two makes. Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud had a combined two attempts.

Washington missed their first three shots from long range to open the second half before Meesseman got one to fall. The Mystics finished 8-for-20 (40 percent) from the perimeter.

4. Meesseman's contributions were crucial and the same for LaToya Sanders, who played well above her regular season level on offense in Game 2. She had eight points in the first nine minutes of the first quarter, more than her season scoring average (6.1). She had 17 points with six rebounds and two steals by the time it was over.

Sanders' main priority is defense and has been tasked with checking Cambage so far in this series. But she can affects games on offense as well and the Aces paid for forgetting that. They left her open on midrange shots and long twos, banking on her to miss because she rarely even attempts threes. Sanders, though, knocked them down and gave the Mystics an unexpected lift.

5. It was only the second game back for guard Kristi Toliver, who is still sporting a leg brace after missing over a month due to a right knee contusion and MCL strain. Though she has practiced and is now back in-game action, it will naturally take time for her to find a rhythm and to get back into game shape.

In Game 2, she showed some rust by getting into early foul trouble. She picked up her third foul late in the second quarter after just eight minutes of action. That forced head coach Mike Thibault to go deeper into his bench and give Shatori Walker-Kimbrough some playing time. Walker-Kimbrough did not play at all in Game 1.

Toliver was able to get going later on and ended up with 10 points and three assists, including a three late in the third quarter where she turned and cupped her ear to the crowd before it swished through the net.

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