GM Tommy Sheppard says Embiid versus Wizards center trio will be 'a huge part of the series'

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Wiz GM: Embiid vs Wizards center trio will be 'a huge part of the series' originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

Coming into the 2021 season, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard was confident his front office had built a playoff-contending team. Their offseason moves, headlined by the acquisition of Russell Westbrook for the former No. 1 pick in John Wall, were expected to raise a historically rigid ceiling in the Eastern Conference for Washington. 

But things didn't go exactly as planned. After losing their starting center Thomas Bryant 10 games into the season, and piecing together just 15 wins before NBA trade deadline, there was no playoff picture for the Wizards at times. Yet, they'll begin their first round battle with the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday - coverage starts at noon ET on NBC Sports Washington.

Led by arguably the NBA's grittiest, most competitive backcourt duo in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, the Wizards showed a different side of themselves in the second half of the season. But the roster adjustments, particularly under the basket, were as vital to this comeback as a shift in attitude.

"Our vision was to start the season we had Thomas Bryant. He was our starting center, [Robin Lopez] was our back up," Sheppard said. "As the season went on and things happened and injuries happened, somebody else comes in. Alex Len came in the door, and that was a great blessing for us. In finding Alex minutes, he was able to compliment well and plugged a hole. And then at trade deadline we were able to find Daniel Gafford."

Immediately, Len and Gafford made a huge difference. Len, who passed through waivers after getting cut by the Raptors in December, and Gafford, who struggled to find minutes in Chicago, came to Washington with a lot to prove to themselves and their former employers. But the pressure to prove yourself as a competitor with Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook as the standard-bearers pushed them both to new heights and helped create what Sheppard called a "three-headed monster" at center.

"If you could put them all together, I imagine that player would probably be a supermax player. I think each one of them has individual talents that we really utilize throughout the game. And as Scotty says, 'if you gotta do it by committee, you guys gotta all do what you do well. Robin, don't try to catch lobs like Daniel. Alex don't try to do the jump hook like Robin. Stay doing you and when you do you that's what's going to help us win and those three have been able to do it.'"

Sunday, they'll have to do it against MVP candidate Joel Embiid in a matchup that the 76ers are heavily favored to win, per NBC Sports betting partner PointsBet.

"[Embiid] is definitely the MVP of the NBA," Sheppard said. "He's a tremendous player. Everything that Philly does, starts and ends with him." 

Though the Wizards haven't been blessed with a stretch-5 superstar like Embiid, Sheppard says their center trio is poised to go to battle with the 7-foot, supermax contract playmaker. 

"I think they're going to be a huge part of this series, no question, because Joel Embiid is a huge part of the series. But it's going to take all 15 guys in uniform every night for us," Sheppard said.

Game 1 of the Wizards' first-round Eastern Conference series with the 76ers is set to tip off at 1 p.m. ET. Only then will we get to see if Sheppard is right about his center trio.

Tune in to Wizards Pregame Live Sunday, noon ET to watch the full interview with Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard ahead of NBC Sports Washington's live coverage of Game 1 between the Wizards and the 76ers.