WASHINGTON -- Late draft picks are stealing the show in the first round of this year's NBA playoffs. While a portion of the league has tanked to the bottom, hoping for some luck in the lottery, contenders in both conferences are winning with help from players they selected well outside the top tier of the draft.
Relative newcomers like Jordan Poole (Warriors), Tyrese Maxey (Sixers), Jalen Brunson (Mavericks) and Desmond Bane (Grizzlies) are making their presence known. The highest draft pick among them was Maxey, who went 21st in 2020. Poole was the 28th overall pick, Bane went 30th and Brunson was drafted in the second round.
Then there are the undrafted guys in Miami; Duncan Robinson, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent. And, of course, the all-time draft steals like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, who have accounted for the NBA's last three MVP awards and may make it four very soon.
If you only watched the NBA playoffs this year, you might think finding talent late in the draft is not only a bonus, but a requirement for contention. Just about all of the teams have hit a home run outside of the top-5 picks and some teams wouldn't still be playing if they didn't.
The Wizards would like to see the same progression for their own young players. In an ideal scenario for them, they would be back in the playoffs next year with their recent draft picks playing key roles.
While much of the focus has been on their recent first-round picks - Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert - the Wizards also have two second-round picks developing in their system. They selected point guard Cassius Winston in 2020 and forward Isaiah Todd in 2021.
Both Winston and Todd spent the majority of their time this season with the Capital City Go-Go and helped them reach the G-League playoffs for the first time. Winston played seven games with the Wizards, while Todd appeared in 12.
Winston would have logged more playing time if it weren't for a hamstring injury that held him back in December in January amid significant turnover on the Wizards' roster due to COVID-19. It was bad timing for him. Todd also experienced some adversity this season, having been suspended by the organization for conduct detrimental to the team.
As Winston looks ahead to Year 3 and Todd his Year 2, they will each get for the first time a full NBA offseason to improve. Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. is looking to see significant progress from both of them.
"It's a big offseason for those two. It's a big offseason for all of our young guys. You're going to have a season of ebbs and flows. Consistency is the thing we're searching for and that's one thing that young players at times have difficulty with," Unseld Jr. said.
"I thought Cash had some really good moments. Not a ton of sample size with the Wizards, but even with the Go-Go. Both he and Isaiah had big games and great opportunities to learn and grow."
Winston, 24, came off the bench for the Go-Go this season and thrived in that role. He averaged 12.7 points and 4.6 assists per game while shooting 47.8% from the field and 39.5% from three. He saw his G-League minutes slashed from 30.3 per game in 2020-21 to 17.7 this season, yet averaged nearly the same amount of points (12.7 ppg compared to 12.8) because he was much more efficient.
Todd, 20, also saw his G-League numbers stagnate year-over-year from his first season with G-League Ignite, but across more minutes because his shooting percentages dropped. He averaged 12.1 points and 5.2 rebounds, shooting 38.3% overall and 28% from deep.
Barring an unforeseen roster move, both Winston and Todd should be in the mix for the Wizards' Las Vegas Summer League team in July. There should also be a quick camp before that.
Unseld Jr., though, would like to see the Wizards' young players around the team's practice facility more often this summer. While that is not required of the players, as they can train wherever they want, he sees benefits in them doing their offseason work in Washington.
"Of course, you want guys to get away and regroup, get their bodies right. But it's important to stay connected to us because I think our staff, our coaches, our player development department, we not only know their individual game but how it translates to the team game, better than anyone else. So, I think it's important to take full advantage of these opportunities over the next few months to move them forward and get more out of them," Unseld Jr. said.
The Wizards will have two more draft picks join the mix this summer. Their first-round pick is contingent on the draft lottery, as they have the 10th-best odds. They also have a second-round pick coming over from the Mavericks in the Kristaps Porzingis trade.
Next year, the Wizards hope to be back in the playoffs with their own young talent on display.