Wizards

Justin Smith questionable for 49ers

Justin Smith questionable for 49ers

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois has been preparing all week to start in place of All-Pro Justin Smith on the NFL's second-ranked defense.

The 49ers remain uncertain whether that will actually happen Sunday night in their NFC West showdown against the Seattle Seahawks.

Smith's availability is in question after he missed practice Friday for the third consecutive day because of an elbow injury, placing his streak of 185 consecutive starts in jeopardy.

The 49ers listed Smith as doubtful on an injury report they submitted to the NFL office Friday morning. He was upgraded to questionable later in the day, even though he didn't participate in the team's afternoon session.

Coach Jim Harbaugh, who indicated earlier in the week he expected Smith to play against the Seahawks, didn't elaborate on Smith's status other than to say ``he's done quite a bit, rehab, strengthening, conditioning.''

Smith has the third-longest active starting streak in the NFL behind Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber (213 consecutive starts) and Washington's London Fletcher (197). A 12-year veteran, Smith hasn't missed a start since early in his rookie season with Cincinnati.

Jean Francois is ready if Smith misses this one.

``Just another start,'' Jean Francois said. ``I'm not going to be sitting on the bench, not able to get in the game. So the preparation this week was a little different. I'll see a lot more action.''

Jean Francois ended up playing 48 of San Francisco's 92 defensive plays last week in a 41-34 victory over New England. Smith left that game early in the third quarter, got his elbow taped in the locker room and returned to the San Francisco sideline. But he never went back in the game.

The Patriots scored 28 straight points with Smith on the sideline to erase a 31-3 San Francisco lead, rolling to touchdowns on consecutive drives of 73, 86, 66 and 92 yards.

But Jean Francois and left tackle Ray McDonald both came up with big plays as the 49ers stopped New England on its next two offensive series late in the fourth quarter after San Francisco regained the lead.

Jean Francois and McDonald had back-to-back sacks of quarterback Tom Brady to halt New England's momentum on the first of those series. Jean Francois beat New England left tackle Nate Solder on third down for his second career sack, forcing New England to punt for the first time since the second quarter.

``Ricky played well,'' 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. ``He had a critical sack there when we finally got them stopped, which were critical drives. He's a well-rounded player that can play both the banging game and he's got a little bit of athleticism, too. He's the one guy on our front that can play all three spots and nothing will change with him in there.''

Jean Francois has started at both nose tackle and left tackle in San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme since being drafted by the 49ers in 2009. Smith's presence on the right side hasn't given him many opportunities there.

Jean Francois has become a regular part of San Francisco's defensive line rotation that includes McDonald and starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga. His 34 tackles this season already are a career high, and Jean Francois had 11 tackles over a two-game stretch in September which included one start in place of an injured Sopoaga.

``I'm just trying to show my coaches that I'm someone you can trust when the times get really tough,'' Jean Francois said. ``You can put me in and the ball will never drop. That's the biggest thing, just making sure the ball keeps rolling whether it's Ray out or Justin out.''

Smith is a key cog in San Francisco's third-ranked rushing defense that will collide Sunday with Seattle's third-ranked rushing offense. Smith's 130 tackles rank third on the team behind All-Pro linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis.

But if Smith's not there, the 49ers are confident Jean Francois can hold the line.

``Ricky's a very good player who could start for a lot of football teams in the NFL,'' said 49ers Pro Bowl offensive tackle Joe Staley, who lines up against both Smith and Jean Francois in practice. ``He fits the scheme really well and he knows exactly what he's doing. Obviously, Justin is Justin Smith, one of the best players in the NFL. But Ricky does a terrific job going in there, and if he's in there we expect him to do great things for us.''

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Despite place in standings, Wizards believe playoffs aren't a pipe dream

Despite place in standings, Wizards believe playoffs aren't a pipe dream

WASHINGTON -- This may be the most realistic and self-aware Wizards team we have seen in a while. It wasn't long ago they had a penchant for talking big about what they believed they could accomplish. Nowadays, knowing where they are in the standings, their expectations are much more measured.

They know they are 12th in the Eastern Conference, even after beating the Pistons on Monday. They know their 14-28 record, which is 14 games under .500 and has them on pace to win 27 total games, isn't good.

But the Wizards are allowed to dream and they say making the playoffs is still something they would like to do.

"That's the goal, that's every day for us. [It's] in the back of my mind," shooting guard Bradley Beal said.

"I watch the games, I watch the standings and everything. We're not talking about it," head coach Scott Brooks said. "If that comes into play [we'll see]. The seventh and eighth seeds, the records aren't great."

There is certainly a case for that. The two teams currently occupying the bottom two playoff spots in the East have sub-.500 records. The seventh-ranked Magic are 20-23 and the Brooklyn Nets are in eighth with an 18-24 mark.

Last season, the Charlotte Hornets held up the Eastern Conference playoff bracket with a losing record as the eighth seed. They went 39-43, not good but still a much better pace than the Wizards are currently on. To win 39 games, they would have to go 25-16 the rest of the way.

Though they have shown some positive signs, going 4-4 in their last eight games, that would require going to a completely different level in the second half of the season. Still, there is no harm in maintaining their goals.

Beal, for one, has envisioned a way it can happen.

"Especially once All-Star hits, that second half is just flying. We have to tighten up and try to get some wins here before the break because that's usually the time when teams like to ease off the pedal a little bit. We have to take advantage of [that], that advantage of our schedule, take care of our bodies, and rally together," he said.

If the Wizards really, really wanted to go for the playoffs, they could try to add some pieces before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. But that should not be expected. In fact, this year's deadline for the Wizards likely won't be affected much at all by the playoff picture.

It's hard to envision them being buyers and they may not be able to be true sellers, either, due to injuries and other factors. Also, there is a belief in the front office that keeping a close distance in the playoff race could be a nice incentive for their young players, that having something to work for later in the season could help their development.

If the Wizards did somehow make the playoffs or even get close, that would be quite the surprise and it would say a lot about the direction of the organization. But in the long-term, it would seem to be more beneficial if they continue on their current course and end up with a top draft pick.

The Wizards right now have the fifth-worst record in the league. That would net them a lot of ping-pong balls for the draft lottery.

It seems likely that's where this season will end. But it doesn't hurt to try.

"We just want to play. We just want to finish the second half of the season playing better," Brooks said.

The Wizards are only 4 1/2 games back in the playoff race. Stranger things have happened.

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Yu Darvish lauds Rui Hachimura for 'exceptional' accomplish playing in the NBA

Yu Darvish lauds Rui Hachimura for 'exceptional' accomplish playing in the NBA

Rui Hachimura has attracted the best athletes Japan has to offer in his rookie season in the NBA. 

From Shohei Ohtani to Naomi Osaka, Hachimura has impressed both on and off the floor, including Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish. He stopped by to see Hachimura's Wizards beat the Pistons Monday. 

"That's right," Darvish said to the Wizards' Japanese website. "We are going to dinner after the game so I stopped by."

Darvish and Hachimura are represented by the same agency and are two of the biggest Japanese stars in American sports. Darvish has had two down years with the Cubs in 2018 and 2019, but he's still considered one of the best pitchers to ever come out of Japan. 

Hachimura, while sidelined with a groin injury, flashed plenty of potential as a rookie for the Wizards. Before going down, he was averaging 13.9 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 48.2 percent. 

Darvish admitted he didn't know much about basketball, not even what stats are good to use. But he only cares that Hachimura is having fun. 

Selected with the ninth pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Hachimura became the first Japanese born player to be drafted in the top-10. Japan has produced a number of great baseball players but hasn't been able to produce as many hoopers. 

"You don't have to be tall or big to play baseball," Darvish said. "But when it comes to basketball, you have to be tall and athletic and contribute to the team on a nightly basis. I think what he's accomplishing is more exceptional."

Scott Brooks isn't sure if Hachimura will return before the beginning of February and the team has yet to provide a timetable beyond that. Hopefully, we'll see him back on the floor soon because an entire country outside of the US is watching and can't get enough. 

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