Gambling on prospects isn’t unusual for Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld. Although he is responsible for the selections of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., Grunfeld has also swung and missed. Remember Jan Vesely? The No. 6 overall pick in 2011 averaged 3.5 points before being traded to Denver in his third season.
However, Grunfeld should roll the dice again with the No. 15 pick in Thursday’s draft (7, ESPN). The Wizards should take Mitchell Robinson, a 7-foot-1 center with boom-or-bust potential.
Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith might be a safer choice, but safe won’t get Washington back in the title chase. Wall and Beal make up a great backcourt, and Porter provides the “3-and-D” on the wing necessary in today’s NBA. It’s the frontcourt that needs work.
Robinson’s height and 7-4 wingspan leave coaches salivating. But he has no college experience. Robinson spent two weeks with Western Kentucky before deciding to leave. Rather than sit out as a transfer — he was linked to Kansas and the University of New Orleans at one point — Robinson, 20, decided to hire a trainer and go pro.
Although he left Chalmette High School in Louisiana as a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, Robinson has red flags. On top of his abrupt departure from college, he also backed out of the NBA draft combine.
That said, 7-1 can’t be taught. Plus, Robinson already has a 3-point shot. His athleticism could make him more than a rim-runner and shot blocker, and think of all the lobs Wall could throw his way.
Marcin Gortat, 34, has one year left with Washington at most. The veteran center may even be traded away ahead of tonight’s draft. Gortat is most valuable setting picks and snaring rebounds, but he refuses to adapt to a game that’s trending toward speed and perimeter shooting.
If another team wants to deal for the 15th pick, it will have to accept Gortat’s contract to help the Wizards clear cap space. That could help Washington make an unlikely run at LeBron James or Paul George in free agency.
Because the draft is loaded with big men — most notably Deandre Ayton from Arizona, Marvin Bagley III from Duke and Mohamed Bamba from Texas — a center with Robinson’s skills could be available at No. 15 or lower.
If Robinson’s year of training has prepared him for the NBA, the Wizards could once again be battling for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference. Washington could be a 50-win team, competing with Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and even Cleveland, depending on James’ next move.
If Robinson turns out to be another miss by Grunfeld, well it wouldn’t be his first.
Wall, Beal and Porter should have the Wizards in the playoffs again. But Washington mustn’t be satisfied with its recent mediocrity.
Grunfeld seems to have earned eternal loyalty from owner Ted Leonsis. But given that Leonsis’ Capitals just won a championship, maybe the owner will be less patient with his basketball team. That’s why gambling on Robinson makes sense.
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