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Finding diamonds in the rough will be more important for the Wizards this offseason than ever

The Wizards have a lot of salary tied up in just a few guys, they will need to rely on their scouting department to find them impact players on the margins.

Washington Wizards v New Orleans Pelicans
Garrison Mathews shooting for the Wizards
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Washington Wizards President of Basketball Operations Tommy Sheppard has tried to improve his team’s roster by “buying low” on players and hoping that a change of scenery jumpstarts their careers. He brought in players like Moritz Wagner, Jerome Robinson, Isaac Bonga, Anzejs Pasecniks, and Chandler Hutchinson with limited success (although I still liked Wagner’s contributions more than most).

Sheppard was more successful with this strategy when he turned Aaron White into Davis Bertans and Troy Brown Jr. into Daniel Gafford. They ultimately overinvested in Bertans so that move looks less productive in hindsight but at the time it was a very good trade. Still, beyond those two players, Sheppard has not had much luck improving the roster through fringe acquisitions.

Much of the Wizards’ salary cap next season will be tied up in Bradley Beal (just assuming that happens), Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and so on. Because of that, I believe, that the Wizards should focus more of their effort and resources on scouting players who are likely to go in the late first round, second round, or undrafted.

Tomas Satoransky is the only player the Wizards have drafted in the second round in the last decade to make any real impact on the court. The second-round picks that Sheppard has traded for, Admiral Schofield and Cassius Winston, haven’t exactly been needle-movers either.

(Author’s note: I’m intentionally not trying to turn this particular article into a discussion about Sheppard’s success with lottery picks. That’s a whole separate can of worms that I want to discuss in more detail closer to the draft. Plus, lottery picks aren’t exactly cheap from a contract perspective so that’s another reason to save that conversation for another day).

Washington Wizards v Detroit Pistons
Admiral Schofield celebrates for the Wizards
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

If you look at the top six teams in the Eastern Conference, they are all getting valuable contributions from players drafted well outside the lottery or who weren’t drafted at all. Having homegrown talent that didn’t require major draft capital is one thing.

Many of these players are not just valuable because of their on-court production, but the fact that they were producing while on extremely team-friendly deals allows their respective teams to overpay to keep stars, survive otherwise bloated contracts, or even trade better draft picks for established players.

The Miami Heat have been able to flip Precious Achiuwa (20th pick in 2020) and Josh Richardson (40th pick in 2015) for more established stars (Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler, respectively). Both of them were productive players taken outside the lottery who produced on team-friendly deals and had value around the league. They can also afford to give up young players because they have a track record of finding more.

Duncan Robinson makes a lot of money now but he was an undrafted player in 2018 who earned a roster spot based on a good Summer League performance. Gabe Vincent (undrafted in 2018) and Omer Yurtseven (undrafted in 2020) are the next crop of Heat players who will drastically outperform their contract and draft status (or lack thereof).

The Boston Celtics, specifically under Danny Ainge, have taken some criticism for squandering some of their first-round picks on players who didn’t turn out but they could afford to miss more than most teams because they hoarded so many picks for so long. This year’s Celtics relied on valuable contributions from Robert Williams (27th in 2018), Grant Williams (22nd in 2019), and Payton Pritchard (26th in 2020).

The Milwaukee Bucks have slightly strayed from this formal but still have benefitted from having non-lottery pick players in the rotation. Of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo wasn’t a lottery pick but 15th is still a higher draft pick than we are talking about here. The Bucks selected Malcolm Brogdon 36th in 2016 and eventually turned him into draft capital which they then used in future trades (some in the Jrue Holiday trade, I believe).

Jordan Nwora was selected 45th in 2020 and is a valuable floor-spacer for the Bucks. Beyond Nwora, the Bucks bought low on players who were selected later for other teams. Grayson Allen (21st in 2018), Jevon Carter (32nd in 2018), and Semi Ojeleye (37th in 2017) should all be in the rotation come playoff time.

In 2020, the Philadelphia 76ers selected Tyrese Maxey (21st), Isaiah Joe (49th), and Paul Reed (58th). Maxey is clearly the standout from that group but Joe and Reed have both shown promise and could contribute in the playoffs if called upon. Other notable 76ers picks from the last eight years include Landry Shamet (26th in 2018), Richaun Holmes (37th in 2015), and Jerami Grant (39th in 2014).

The Chicago Bulls have had success drafting with the 38th pick specifically. In 2021, they selected Ayo Dosunmu, which is a clear steal for them, and in 2019, they selected Daniel Gafford, who they unwisely traded away. Thanks, Chicago!

Chicago Bulls v Washington Wizards
Dosunmu bringing the ball up against the Wizards
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

I could spend the next thousand words just talking about the success Toronto has had building their team with a series of unheralded players. Fred VanVleet (undrafted in 2016), Pascal Siakam (27th in 2016), OG Anunoby (23rd in 2017), Chris Boucher (undrafted in 2017), and Malachi Flynn (29th in 2020) are just a few of the more prominent success stories.

Wouldn’t it be nice to look at the Wizards’ roster and point to a few similar success stories that Tommy Sheppard and staff actually discovered? Granted, Garrison Mathews ended up being a pretty good find but they chose not to retain his services for reasons that are still unclear to me.

The Wizards are likely to end up with the 9th pick in the NBA Draft (again) and that will rightfully warrant a lot of discussion and analysis. We’ve been doing weekly Draft Prospect Profiles on the Bleav in Wizards podcast to help prepare fans for their potential candidates. But based on the above examples, I will focus a lot of my draft focus between now and draft night (June 23rd) on guys who could contribute while on potentially team-friendly contracts. I think the Wizards’ front office would be wise to do the same.