A little more than 30 hours after a report this week that the Washington Wizards and Houston Rockets had discussed a trade involving John Wall for Russell Westbrook, Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said nothing had changed about the franchise’s plans to welcome back its all-star point guard.
“We’re really excited to get those guys going in training camp. We’ve got a little side trip in free agency for a couple of days and then training camp will be here,” Sheppard said in an early-morning news conference Thursday after Wednesday night’s draft. “Can’t wait to see all these pieces, how they come together.”
It was not an effusive commitment to Wall — Sheppard was also speaking to reporters after 3 a.m. — but the Wizards’ top basketball executive was clear. The plan is for Wall, who is owed more than $130 million over the next three seasons, to reunite with Bradley Beal and lead a cadre of young players when the season begins in late December.
Still, the 30-year-old Wall also hasn’t played in an NBA game since Dec. 26, 2018, which means that no matter how sharp he looks in the myriad clips from scrimmages and workouts that have cropped up online in recent months, any Wizards plans for Wall will involve easing him back into action.
Sheppard said before the draft that Wall won’t be playing heavy minutes anymore after averaging just under 36 minutes per game since coming into the league as the No. 1 overall pick out of Kentucky in 2010.
“With the schedule that we’re being told may have up to 14 back-to-backs, we’re going to have to be real selective, but I can’t see him playing in every one of those back-to-backs,” Sheppard said. “. . . We’re going to do everything that we can, with John’s health. We’re going to be conservative as he comes out the starting blocks and really make sure we’re always a step ahead of him a little bit. If it was up to John, he’d play in every game, play every minute out there.”
Backup point guard Ish Smith, 32, will be called on to lighten some of Wall’s load. The laid-back veteran started 23 games for the Wizards last season and became a team leader when Washington played in the NBA bubble in Orlando, Fla., over the summer.
The team’s third point guard, Sheppard said, must be equally as capable for those nights Wall rests completely.
Enter Cassius Winston.
The Wizards acquired Michigan State’s four-year point guard Wednesday in a draft-night deal that sent the rights to Washington’s No. 37 pick (Vit Krejci) and little-used forward Admiral Schofield to Oklahoma City for Winston, the Thunder’s pick at No. 53, and a future second-round pick.
Winston has the tools to thrive in Washington, which will need its third point guard to have a steady hand almost above all else. The Detroit native averaged 18.6 points, shot 44.8% from the field and 43.2% from three last season. The 22-year-old also has both basketball and life experience beyond many NBA rookies. He played in 108 games in four seasons with the Spartans and continued to lead his team as a junior after his younger brother Zachary died by suicide in 2019.
Winston played through the trauma to reach his third straight NCAA tournament and pushed his team to the Final Four — a tournament that included a now well-known pit stop at Capital One Arena.
Winston reeled off 20 points, 10 assists and just one turnover in Michigan State’s 68-67 win over Duke in the regional final that ended Zion Williamson’s college career.
“That’s crazy, that’s probably one of the games that got me here,” Winston said in a news conference Friday.
What Winston gained in a long college stay was a trust in his own abilities. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds, he was far from the most athletic ballhandler in this draft class, but he appeared clear-eyed Friday about the adjustments he’ll need to make to thrive in the NBA.
It starts in upping the intensity level in everyday activities such as workouts, pushing himself on his own and paying extra attention to conditioning and nutrition. On court, Winston believes he’ll be able to handle to any situation thrown at him.
“I’m battle tested; I know I’m battle tested. I know I’ve seen some good talent. I know I’ve played against the best of the best for [the level] I was at... I’m going to go out there and I’m going to trust myself,” Winston said. “. . . I think that happens from being at a program, being doubted before, being young with people telling you what you can and can’t do and stuff like that. You’ve got to learn how to trust yourself, trust your work and go out there and make it happen.”
He’s excited at the thought of gaining Smith, whom Winston watched play in Detroit from 2016-19, and Wall, who Winston has watched “since forever,” as mentors.
“Actually going out there on the floor with some guys I watched on the big screen, that I looked up to... when it’s my turn, I want to make sure I take full advantage of it.
The Wizards will depend on him to do so.