It’s almost January and the 2018-19 NBA season is nearly halfway over. And while lots of attention is already being paid to Zion Williamson and the 2019 NBA Draft class to-be, let’s look back to June and the 2018 NBA draft and grade the rookies on their performances thus far, while making an educated guess about how their rookie seasons might wrap up.
This article checks in on all of the top 10 picks in the 2018 NBA Draft, along with some surprisingly strong performers who fell outside of the top 10. We’ll predict the likelihood that each player wins Rookie of the Year and/or is named to an All-Rookie team by examining their stats and their net effect on their respective teams thus far.
Deandre Ayton: 16.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.0 block per game
Rookie Season Projection: First Team All-Rookie
Ayton is having a strong rookie year that looks better with each passing month. His PER is currently 21.3 and he has logged 21 double-doubles through 34 game – more than twice what the next best rookie has done. He has flown under the radar more than he would have in most recent seasons thanks to the exquisite play of fellow rookie Luka Doncic. While Ayton looks a bit lethargic at times – particularly on defense – he has also been nearly automatic when he catches the ball in good position.
What’s more impressive – Ayton is averaging 20.8 points and 15.6 rebounds in his five most recent games, demonstrating a growing comfort and understanding. Ayton has star written all over him and should develop into a double-double machine at the very least.
Marvin Bagley III: 12.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game.
Projection: Second-Team All-Rookie
Unfortunately for Bagley, he will probably always be seen as the Greg Oden to Luka Doncic’s Kevin Durant – albeit a more successful and hopefully far more durable one. But that’s not to say that Bagley hasn’t had his share of early successes. Bagley is posting a PER of 18.4, and he is second amongst all rookies in offensive rebounds and third in free throw attempts despite playing only 23.1 minutes per game – significantly less than other rookies ahead of him. Furthermore, Bagley has scored 15 or more points in 12 games and has posted four double-doubles. While ROY is probably out of the question, the focus for Bagley and the Kings should be to close the season strongly and develop positive habits.
Luka Doncic: 19.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists
Projection: ROY and First Team All-Rookie
There was a lot of speculation about Doncic coming into the 2018-19 season. Despite incredibly high expectations, he has not disappointed. Beyond the stats listed above, Doncic has hit numerous buzzer beaters, the most recent of which forced overtime last week against the Portland Trailblazers. Doncic does not shy away from big moments. He is almost certainly the most prepared rookie we have seen since LeBron James in 2003, and possibly the most skilled, too. At 6-foot-7, his blend of size, skill and court vision are virtually unparalleled. And he’s only 19 years old.
Warriors guard Steph Curry is no stranger to strong play. And yet he too seems to be impressed with Doncic’s early play.
“He’s found a way to impose his will most nights. It’s going to be good to see him develop into a star,” Curry said.
That’s some high praise from someone at the pinnacle of the sport.
Jaren Jackson Jr.: 13.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists
Projection: ROY Runner-Up and First Team All-Rookie
Jaren Jackson was always going to be a lower-profile rookie given his Tim Duncan-esque presence and the fact that he relocated to Memphis, one the NBA’s smaller markets. But his impact on the game is about as big as any rookie’s.
Despite a slightly wonky release, he is connecting on 34.1 percent of his three-pointers and 56.8 percent of his two-pointers. At 6-foot-11, Jackson is a versatile offensive and defensive player who has a high ceiling and a high floor. And he still has room to grow – just think, he is presently the second youngest player in the league.
The Grizzlies —who are a veteran team led by two former NBA All-Defensive players and All-Stars – are 7-4 when Jackson plays more than 30 minutes. They have a losing record when he plays less than 30. That in itself speaks volumes about Jackson and his effect on the game. Jackson could be a transcendent talent, part Kevin Garnett, part Tim Duncan and part Anthony Davis.
If he maximizes his potential, the Grizzlies nabbed a future franchise cornerstone to bridge the present and the future.
Trae Young: 15.4 points, 7.2 assists and 3.9 turnovers per game
Projection: Second Team All-Rookie
Trae Young opted to avoid engaging in a discussion about the 2018-19 NBA Rookie of the Year, saying he’d prefer not to speculate. Unfortunately for Young, it probably won’t be him. While he looked surprisingly effective early on, Young has since come back to earth. He seems to be a bit flummoxed by either the deeper NBA three-point line or the speed of the defense; he attempted 6.7 three-pointers per game in October, 5.4 in November and only 3.6 throughout December – all the while, shooting only 24.6 percent on threes for the season.
But Hawks legend and vice president of basketball, Dominique Wilkins, reminds us that future seasons should look better than the current one.
“I think Trae Young is going to be a heck of a player,“ Wilkins said. “He’s only one year removed from high school. People need to give him time to develop and learn.”
And Young was always going to need time to acclimate to the NBA. He is only six feet tall and 180 pounds. It would have been highly unusual for him to hit the ground running as an under-sized point guard – probably the hardest position to transition to in the NBA. If Young can regain his confidence and get back to his prolific shooting, he is a sure-fire star. If he doesn’t, he will struggle as an undersized point guard who isn’t overly engaged on defense.
But Wilkins was quick to point out that the Hawks should have no regrets about swapping Doncic for Young and the Mavs’ 2019 first-round pick.
“No, man,” Wilkins said. “You can’t go back and look at what should have been or possibly could have happened because we got who we wanted.”
Mo Bamba: 6.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.4 blocks per game
Projection: No rookie accolades
Bamba entered the draft with high expectations… and maybe to an unfair degree. Scouts and the media were hypnotized by his length — seven feet tall with a 7-foot-9 wingspan — and his ability to shoot from deep.
But Bamba was clearly a project, albeit one with a relatively high floor. Bamba is only 220 pounds and will be significantly better after adding some needed weight. Through 33 games, Bamba is shooting 31 percent on 1.8 three-point attempts per game – better than Trae Young, Wendall Carter and a number of rookie guards who should theoretically be better shooters.
As much as Bamba needs to hit the weight room though, he also needs playing time. Unfortunately for Bamba, he is stuck in a crowded Magic front court playing only 16.9 minutes per game behind Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Isaac. He isn’t nearly a disappointment, but he hasn’t been given the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities just yet either.
Wendell Carter: 10.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.5 blocks
Projection: Second Team All-Rookie
Carter has been mostly as advertised. He has netted some highlight blocks, posted six double-doubles and is second amongst all rookies in rebounds and blocked shots. Furthermore, Carter appeared to hit his stride as we entered November. He had been playing more than 25 minutes per game in October and November and he scored in double figures in 14 of the Bulls’ 20 games between Oct. 27 and Dec. 4. He even posted a career high of 28 points on Nov. 30 against the Pistons.
But the end of Carter’s streak coincided almost perfectly with the return of Bulls’ star Lauri Markkanen, with Carter’s minutes dropping to just over 21 minutes since Markkanen’s return.
Carter, like Bamba, is in the unfortunate situation of being drafted onto a team with a fair amount of young talent at his position. His well-rounded game clearly translates to the NBA nicely, but we’ll have to wait to see just how well.
Colin Sexton 14.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists
Projection: First Team All-Rookie
Sexton has been about as polarizing as expected. He began the season slowly and inefficiently, averaging only 12.0 points per game and shooting only 14.3 from three-point territory. But he’s steadied quite a bit since then, scoring 16.1 and 15.1 points per game in November and December, respectively. Additionally, his three-point percentage is up dramatically since October. He is currently fourth in points per game and fourth in assists. He is lighting fast and plays with an unusual confidence for a rookie. He has drawn comparisons to De’Aron Fox, which come off better now given his Fox’s sophomore season than they did earlier in the year. Sexton must work on distributing and learning when to use his speed, as opposed to playing at full speed all of the time. But Sexton clearly has the potential to be a multi-time Allstar.
Kevin Knox: 12.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and .9 assists per game
Projections: Second Team All-Rookie
Knox was viewed as a second-tier prospect after Ayton, Doncic, Young and Bamba entering the 2018 Draft, but he caught the attention of just about every NBA scout and executive with his performance in the Vegas Summer League. He suffered an early-season ankle injury but has been impressive since returning to the Knicks’ lineup. In fact, he has scored 15 or more points in each of his last eight games and has averaged 17.9 points per game on 41.8 percent shooting in December. Knox must continue strengthening his lower body and work on remaining locked in throughout 48 minutes – but considering his versatility and the fact that he’s the third-youngest player in the entire league, Knox could easily grow into an All-NBA player.
And while Rookie of the Year is likely too tall an order, don’t tell Knox or his teammates that. Mitchell Robinson had plenty to say about Knox in the ROY race.
“I got to say my teammate Kevin Knox,” Robinson said. “He’s also blocking shots and playing good defense (in addition to his offense).”
Knox also alluded to his candidacy when asked about his pick for Rookie of the Year.
“If I wasn’t going to say myself then I’d have to go with Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton,” Knox said.
So while most people have likely counted Knox out for ROY, he hasn’t given up hope just yet.
Mikal Bridges: 7.6 points on 33.3 percent from three-point range
Projection: No rookie accolades
Mikal Bridges had a disappointing start to the 2018-19 season. He wasn’t able to solidify a place in the Suns’ lineup at first, but that has since changed. He averaged nearly 33 minutes per game in December. His play has improved slightly since securing a spot in the starting lineup. He’s averaged 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game as a starter. He is shooting a respectable 33.3 percent clip from deep, and he has a defensive win share of 0.6 and a defensive box plus/minus of plus-0.5 – which is almost identical to teammate Josh Jackson and significantly better than fellow rookie Kevin Knox.
But Bridges was the traditional high floor-low ceiling player. He’s already 22 years old and unlikely to develop at the same rate as most of the players selected ahead of him. But with work, he could develop into a Robert Covington-type player — which is to say he can become a mainstay in the starting lineup of a perennial playoff team.
Other Notable Rookies:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 10.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists.
Projection: First Team All-Rookie
Gilgeous-Alexander was the 11th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He is one of the few lottery picks logging consistent minutes on a winning team. Gilgeous-Alexander has had an up and down season so far, alternating between strong games and poor ones. His PER is subpar (13.2), but so are most rookies’ PERs. He averages 2.9 assists and 1.7 turnovers in 27.4 minutes per game. But he thrives when in a larger role: 16.8 points, 3.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game when he plays at least 30 minutes. Gilgeous-Alexander has all the tools to grow into an All-Star, but first he has to prove he can be effective more consistently.
Rodions Kurucs: 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds per game
Projection: Second Team All-Rookie
Since joining the Nets starting lineup recently, Kurucs is averaging 12.9 points on 55 percent shooting, along with six rebounds per game in 29.2 minutes. The 40th overall pick has had a strong effect on the game. He even posted a double-double in back-to-back games. He fits in nicely and at 6-foot-9. He is an athletic and versatile rebounder and finisher. He will probably never grow into an All-Star, but he moves the needle when on the court and doesn’t require touches or plays to be drawn up to him.
NBA Daily: Admiral Schofield Set On Building His Own Reputation
Admiral Schofield’s mindset carried him throughout his four-year career with the Tennessee Volunteers, and it will continue to take him to new heights in the NBA. Spencer Davies writes.
Admiral Schofield lives for the late-game heroics.
“A lot of people talk about the clutch gene,” the former Tennessee forward told reporters at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago with a grin. “ I don’t think it’s a gene. I just think it comes from a mindset, comes from your preparation and how you approach the game.”
On March 9, 2017, Schofield had an opportunity. With the ninth-seeded Volunteers down by two to the third-seeded Georgia Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament, he hoisted a shot for the victory from the left elbow.
To everyone’s dismay, Schofield’s attempt fell short. Tennessee was eliminated and their season was over. Then a sophomore, he and his teammates were scrambling to find somebody to take it. He admittedly was not ready to be in that spot.
That’s when something clicked in his head.
“I think my mindset changed to ‘I will never be in a position where the last shot is decided for me and I won’t make it,’” Schofield said in a farewell video post on Twitter back in March.
“I just want to contribute to winning,” Schofield said at the Combine. “Whether it’s defending for the last shot being on the defensive end, whether it’s taking that corner three or taking that kick-out three or making a play, I’m that guy. I want to be that guy…”
Ever since then, that mentality has stuck with him.
Do a quick Google search on Schofield. Amidst the highlight-reel flashes of athleticism, it’s guaranteed that you’ll find more than a handful of different moments where the fearless 22-year-old stepped up during crunch time.
On December 8 this past year, Schofield led then-seventh-ranked Tennessee to a win over the top-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. En route to a career-high 30 points, he caught fire in the second half and knocked down the go-ahead three from the top of the perimeter with 22 seconds left in the game.
The story didn’t change in conference play. A month later with his team up by two on Florida, Schofield went to the right corner and hit a dagger with 41 seconds to play. In a one-point affair vs. Ole Miss later in the season, he took a game-clinching charge.
When the NCAA Tournament came around, Schofield stepped up once again. Tussling in the first round with an upset-minded Colgate squad, he nailed two triples from the same right corner spot with less than two minutes to go. Before getting eliminated in overtime by Purdue in the Sweet 16, he drained a deep three above the break to give the Vols the lead with five minutes left in regulation.
“I mean if you ask guys like Kobe [Bryant], they won’t tell you it’s a clutch gene. It’s just the thousands of shots. It’s another shot that he shot a thousand times,” Schofield said at the Combine.
“It’s the same thing for me. I stay in the gym. I work on my mindset. I work on situational things in the gym and [I’m] always staying ready, staying prepared for the next shot and being prepared for that big shot. And I just feel like in that moment in time, I think I’m the best option.
If you can’t tell by the infectious smile, Schofield is beaming with confidence—and why wouldn’t he be?
When he arrived in Knoxville in 2015, things weren’t great. The coach that recruited him to come to Tennessee, Donnie Tyndall, was fired after his lone underwhelming season for the program. Rick Barnes came in as a replacement and the results were poor in his first couple of seasons, too.
But over the last two years, the Volunteers are 57-15. They’ve appeared in back-to-back March Madness tournaments and won the regular season SEC Championship in 2018. For the first time in school history, they were ranked No. 1 in the country during the month of January. It was the first time they had been the nation’s top team in over a decade.
The turnaround was monumental, and Schofield realizes how big of a piece he was to that puzzle.
“It felt great because, to be honest, I was part of that foundation building that culture,” Schofield said. “And to be on top in the end really is just a testament to the hard work. And everything that we built in those first two years, it really started to pay off in those last few years.
“But to say that I was one of the guys that helped start that is a blessing. We had a great year. We had a great run.”
Transitioning to the next level, Schofield feels as ready as anybody. Under Barnes, he says everything was “pro-structured.” The Vols were constantly pushed. They were always prepared. Perhaps most importantly, everybody was held accountable, which is essential when players are going to be on their own in the pros.
Because of his experiences, Schofield believes in himself. It’s not about him simply sticking around the league. He desires much more than that.
“I think I can contribute to any team or any organization that brings me in, not just with my play,” Schofield said. “But just being a great teammate, being an ambassador for that organization and for that community, really coming in and being a positive influence, having some type of leadership. Not saying I’ll come in and be ‘the guy’ or ‘the leader.’ There’s many ways you can lead.”
In discussing his character, it’s hard not to bring up one of the most selfless moments in his college career. With Tennessee and Iowa knotted up prior to heading into overtime, Schofield—who was one hack away from fouling out—told Barnes to take him out in favor of teammate Kyle Alexander.
Cold from the field and in danger of being disqualified, Schofield made the request knowing Alexander would be a game-changer. It paid off in a victory.
“I’m a winner,” Schofield said after the 83-77 win in extra time. “At the end of the day, if I don’t have to be on the floor to win, that’s fine.”
While there’s plenty of other times he’s put his leadership on display, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect example of Schofield’s team-first outlook. Combine those intangibles with the skill set and you have yourself one hell of a basketball player.
Schofield views himself as a positionless player with the ability to guard two through four or five, switching and slowing down scorers and doing the little things on the defensive end. Within offensive sets, converting on shots from the corner, coming off pin-downs and utilizing dribble hand-offs are his forte. He also has incredible athleticism, whether it’s skying for a huge dunk or swatting an opponent.
NBA teams can clearly see the 40 percent rate from three over the last three years. Still, there’s more than meets the eye to that, according to Schofield.
“[I want to] show ’em that not only can I shoot the ball, I can defend and do multiple things – create a little bit for others and pass the ball well,” Schofield said. “I don’t credit for how well I pass the ball either because I haven’t been in many situations at Tennessee to pass the ball. But I do pass it pretty well.”
Schofield maintains he deserves to be picked in the first round. As one of three draft hopefuls from Tennessee who hopes to hear his name called Thursday night, that’s what he’s aiming for.
If he gets his wish, Admiral will become the second professional athlete in the Schofield family. His older brother, O’Brien, is an NFL linebacker who was a part of the 2014 Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
“He’s helped me a lot,” Admiral said of his O’Brien. “But more than anything, I’ve just been very observant seeing how he did things, even though it was football. Just got a little taste of that type of spotlight, him being an NFL Champion, playing on the Seahawks.
“Just seeing the process of that, seeing what it takes to win on that level, seeing some of the things that they did—I was able to implement that at the University of Tennessee, but I also I’ll be able to take that with me going forward when I get to the league.”
Individually, there’s always room to get better. You can develop better dribbling, improve your passing or tweak your jumper. But can you make an impact on winning?
And that’s what will separate him from the rest.
NBA Daily: What’s Next For The Lakers?
With Anthony Davis onboard to make them a contender, the Lakers must decide how they will spend their money this summer, write Matt John.
The NBA season ended literally just days ago, and we already may have seen the most significant move made this offseason.
The Los Angeles Lakers went all-in when they traded 95 percent of the farm on Friday for Anthony Davis, pairing him up with LeBron to make up one of the most fearsome duos in the league.
There’s a lot of risk going into this. LeBron will be 35 in December, and Davis doesn’t have a whole lot of playoff success to his name. Many think the Lakers may have overshot their hand when they made this deal. They traded almost all the young talent they had – plus, three picks and two pick swaps is a king’s ransom for a guy on an expiring contract.
Let’s not mince words. LA definitely paid more than they could afford in the long run with this trade, but Anthony Davis is the type of guy you overshoot your hand for. When you have one of the league’s top players in the game, and you have the chance to add another one, you pay the piper.
Now all that remains is what to do with the rest of the roster. All props need to go to Rob Pelinka for creating a title window for the Lakers when the clock was ticking, but let’s not overlook that the roster he constructed last summer turned out to be a complete disaster. It was an intriguing idea to put a bunch of playmakers around LeBron, but the lack of spacing manifested a clogged toilet offense.
Even after adding Anthony Davis and his $25+ million contract, the Lakers will still have plenty of cap room at their arsenal this summer. If getting the Lakers their 17th title is truly his concern, he needs to build the best roster he can around LeBron and AD. In order to do that, the Lakers have two options to go to
Get The Third Star
Now it’s clear as day that this is what the Lakers are hoping for. Shortly after the Davis trade was announced, Marc Stein reported that the team will make Kemba Walker its primary target in free agency.
Having a third star has been LeBron’s MO for every destination he’s gone to since “The Decision.” First, it was Chris Bosh in Miami, and then it was Kevin Love in Cleveland. Neither matched the production that they had with their previous teams before they joined LeBron, but they did give the team an undeniable edge that helped them win a championship.
Getting that third banana takes the pressure off of James and Davis to produce on a nightly basis, and it can help stagger minutes for James who, all things considered, isn’t getting any younger.
Now, Davis can handle a fair amount of the load as James continues to age, but a third star would only make his life easier. As we all know, Davis wasn’t exactly happy that he had to carry much of the scoring burden in the Big Easy, so having someone else pick up the slack would not make it feel like a repeat of what happened with the Pelicans.
Luckily for the Lakers, this summer has one of the best free agent classes of all time. Kevin Durant, who’s still getting the max with or without a healthy Achilles, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and Walker. Adding one of those names would solidify the Lakers’ odds as the title favorite (if they aren’t already).
The only problem with getting this third star on presumably a maximum contract is that, with all that money invested in James, Davis and Player X, there is little money to spend elsewhere. The only other contracts that can be handed out are the Mid-Level Exception and veteran minimum contracts. This summer, a lot of teams are going to have cap space, and not everyone is going to have that happy ending this offseason.
Because of that, expect lesser players to get paid far more than what they are worth. That’s going to make it difficult for the Lakers to get valued rotation players on veteran’s minimum level contracts.
That’s why it could be better for LA to consider the other option.
Get Reliable Role Players
The Lakers have two of the league’s best players. As long as they stay on the court, LA should be one of the best teams in the league. With the Warriors appearing to disband this summer, the NBA will have some parity for the first time since 2016. Now that the next title may be up for grabs, LeBron and Davis could be enough star power alone to power the Lakers to a title.
Emphasis on star power. Of course, they can’t win a title without any productive players in their rotation. They could get them, but that would probably mean they wouldn’t be able to add a third banana. Then again, maybe that’s not the worst thing in the world.
If we learned anything from the Warriors from the last few weeks, it’s that a lack of depth can really kill you in the Finals. One of the reasons why Toronto won so handily – besides the unfortunate injuries – was because of its full-balanced attack against Golden State. The Warriors may have had the edge in star power, but Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell took advantage of the Warriors’ lack of versatility as a team.
You need those types of players to win the championship. No one knows that better than LeBron. Things didn’t start out great in Miami, but after the team added the likes of Shane Battier, Ray Allen and Chris Andersen, the HEAT got that extra push to win a championship.
Ditto for Cleveland. The Cavaliers didn’t have the greatest start when he came back. Then they added JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, Timofey Mozgov and Channing Frye- and that made a huge difference.
Something that we all know by now is that LeBron thrives when he has players who can shoot. The Lakers could bring back some of their designated “shooters” from last season, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Mike Muscala and Reggie Bullock, but there are better options this summer
Danny Green, Nikola Mirotic, JJ Redick, Trevor Ariza and Darren Collison to name a few are all guys who can shoot the rock that on paper would be an excellent fit next to LeBron. At the very least, they would help LeBron play the type of basketball that he loves to play in.
The problem is, those guys can’t be asked to do more than what their specialty is. If and when LeBron and Davis are having an off-night, you can’t rely on a sharpshooter to carry the team when it’s down.
There’s always the possibility that the Lakers, even if they don’t sign a star player, believe they have their third banana in Kyle Kuzma. That’s a lot of pressure for a third-year player, but Kuzma has been exceeding expectations since he came into the league. Maybe he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.
There is no wrong answer for the Lakers here. It’s exciting enough that with Davis on board, they now have options this summer. They no longer have to bank on the cavalry coming in the near future because the cavalry has arrived. They’re not a finished product, but they finally have a product on their hands.
All that said, which door do you think the Lakers should choose?
NBA Daily: Could Masai Ujiri Revive the Wizards’ Missing Magic?
Masai Ujiri has proven to be an elite front office executive. Shane Rhodes explores whether he could conceivably bring some magic back to the Washington Wizards.
Masai Ujiri has accomplished quite a bit in his short time with the Toronto Raptors.
Named Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets in 2013, Ujiri was shortly thereafter named General Manager of a Raptors team that looked destined for rock bottom. But, undeterred, Ujiri cobbled together a roster that ended a then five-year, postseason-less streak in Toronto.
Big names – Andrea Bargnani, Rudy Gay, etc. – were sent packing under Ujiri’s watch, but the Raptors managed to excel all the same. It was never easy – the up-and-down nature of the Raptors’ regular versus postseason play has been strange, to say the least, over the course of these last six years – but Ujiri and Toronto managed to do the best with what they had.
And now, after the biggest gamble of his career, Ujiri has accomplished the ultimate; an NBA Championship, the first in the history of the 24-year-old Raptors franchise.
While the future of Kawhi Leonard has always seemed a question mark, any argument against Ujiri’s decision to trade then franchise face DeMar DeRozan for the disgruntled Spurs star is now moot. Ujiri built a champion and, regardless of wherever Leonard should play next season, it still will have been worth it to bring the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.
But Leonard may no longer be the only Raptor with an uncertain future. Ujiri himself, his work now done, a championship realized, could be off in search of the latest challenge to his managerial ability and basketball vision.
And a team with that sort of challenge is already prepared to make him a lucrative offer.
With ties to the Washington D.C. area – and a potential boon to his work outside the NBA (Ujiri is the director of “Basketball Without Borders,” – the Ujiri connection is, at the very least, an interesting one. The Washington Wizards, meanwhile, are a team desperate for change, not unlike that Raptors squad Ujiri took over for in 2013.
In fact, on the surface, the current iteration of the Wizards isn’t that different from those Raptors.
Both teams had the look of franchises on the decline; last season, the Wizards finished, 32-50, last in their division, while those Raptors finished just two games better at 34-48, also last in their division. Toronto, saddled with the contracts of Bargnani and Gay, were stuck over the salary cap, much like Washington, stuck with the massive contracts of John Wall and Bradley Beal, is projected to be.
Likewise, Toronto and Washington have both experienced their fair share of losing. The pre-Ujiri Raptors had toiled in losses and, at best, mediocrity since their inception, despite the presence of greats such as Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.
And, while they experienced success – and even won a title (then as the Bullets) – in the 1970s and 1980s, the Wizards’ recent history has looked like much of the same, rife with poor play and wasted opportunities. In 16 years with former General Manager Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards amassed a paltry record of 568-744 and made the postseason just eight times, with their own five-year drought to show for it.
Of course, the teams do have their differences. The NBA has seen a salary cap explosion in recent season – the salary cap was set at just over $58 million for the 2013 season, while next season it is expected to reach as high as $109 million. Both teams saw some unwanted contracts on their books, but the deals the Wizards are stuck with, John Wall’s, namely, are larger and more immovable.
So, could Ujiri work his magic once again? Would he even want to try, after winning a championship in Toronto? It’s hard enough to bring a franchise back from the brink, but could he pull it off a second time in Washington?
It would be difficult, to say the least.
To reiterate, the Wizards aren’t exactly Ujiri’s primordial Raptors when it comes down to their financials. While Ujiri was faced with the $16 and $10 million deals of Gay and Bargnani in 2013, respectively, those pale in comparison to what he would face with the Wizards. Wall’s massive deal – a contract that the Wizards, for all intents and purposes, will be stuck with for the next four seasons – combined with his 15% trade kicker, for starters, would prove a major inhibitor to any move that Ujiri would want or need to make.
Wall, who signed a four-year, $170,912,000 supermax contract with the Wizards in 2017, is expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season after suffering a torn left Achilles. A complete non-factor set to earn $38 million (nearly 34% of the Wizards cap space) was not a problem Ujiri faced in Toronto.
There is also the situation with Beal – a franchise star making big money for a team that doesn’t seem close to contention. Despite the fact that he is set to earn more than $27 million next season, Beal is Washington’s best asset. Only 25 years old, and already a premier player at the shooting guard position, Beal has only just entered his prime and could conceivably improve on the stellar 25.6 points, five rebounds and 5.5 assists per game line that he posted a season ago.
Should Ujiri take the job, he would have an extremely difficult decision – a la the DeRozan trade – to make right away. Beal is young enough, and under contract for long enough, that he could theoretically make it through a rebuild and still be a star that could help the next iteration of the Wizards compete for a title.
However, while it may not propel the Wizards to a title like his DeRozan-for-Kawhi swap last Summer, were Ujiri to find the proper return for Beal, the Wizards would be set up for some major success down the line. Either way, his decision would almost certainly be the most contentious and scrutinized one he would have to make.
And then, of course, there are decisions to make on the rest of the roster: which free agents would the Wizards retain or let walk? Which players would they pursue in free agency or on the trade market? How would the team view and move forward with their draft haul (assuming Ujiri were to take the job after next week’s NBA Draft)?
It took Ujiri six uneasy seasons to build Toronto up from an afterthought into an NBA Champion. While there has been some serious reported interest on the Wizards’ part, could he really be the man to right their sinking ship? And on the flip side, there has been nary a comment from the Raptors or Ujiri on that reported interest to this point; would he even want to leave all that he has accomplished in Toronto for a Washington team that is trending in the wrong direction?
It would be difficult, for sure, but Ujiri has proven himself up to the task, more than once. One of the most highly respected minds in the NBA, Ujiri, both in Denver and now with Toronto, has done more than impress as he has put his roster building prowess and future vision on full display.
Whether he would want to leave that realized vision in Toronto is anyone’s guess. But, should he choose to take his leave of the frozen north, Ujiri is almost certainly the man with a plan; the one to revive some of the long-lost magic of the Wizards in Washington.