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Home crowd succumbs to Kobe Bryant's aura

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Home crowd succumbs to Kobe Bryant's aura

The day before the L.A. Lakers came to town, John Wall found himself watching a documentary on Kobe Bryant. Wednesday night, he saw him up close and personal as they dueled and the 20-year veteran won in a dramatic showdown. 

The chatting between the two during dead balls was frequent. Even before halftime of what would become a 108-104 win for the Lakers, just their third in 18 games, the affinity they had for one another was evident. It was a 37-year-old legend, global icon and five-time NBA champion being honest with the 25-year-old lightning-fast point guard in his sixth season eager to soak up any wisdom he could. 

"He told me, 'I wouldn't catch you 10 years ago and I wouldn't catch you now' when he grabbed me one time on a foul," Wall said.

Wall realized in Kobe Bryant's Muse, released earlier this year, that Bryant had the same banter with Michael Jordan.

"A lot of people say he's an ***hole," Wall, who had a game-high 34 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and two steals. "Just playing against him, understand when you step on the court with him, you shouldn't be friends with nobody. You should want to try to rip somebody's head off and be the best player on the floor, in the world."

"We talked and certain things like that. Try to pick people's brain as much as possible. He was asking Jordan questions in the middle of a game. When I have an opportunity to guard or play against him, I'm not real friendly when we're playing but like a timeout you might say something."

Bryant did most of his talking during game action. He had a season-high 31 points. After a strong start when he scored 18 in the first half, he was dormant until the fourth when Bryant dropped in 12 points. The teams traded turnovers and it led to Bryant's three-pointer to break an 87-all tie with 5:56 left.

Bryant missed his next shot as he backed down the smaller Bradley Beal to the mid-post and Wall pushed the tempo to get a layup as the Wizards (7-9) regained the lead. Then it was two free throws by Wall, a drive to the basket for a layup by Bryant, a floater over the 7-2 Roy Hibbert by Wall and then a crossover dribble for a pull-up jumper for him over Hibbert again. 

Ultimately, however, it was Bryant who won out. Wall made four consecutive foul shots, Bryant drained a three with 59 seconds left, Wall made a feed to Marcin Gortat to tie the score at 101 and Bryant's isolation play for a bucket over Beal to put the Lakers ahead for good.

With D.C. being a transient city, there's a melting pot of fans. When cornerstone franchises like the Lakers and New York Knicks come here, there always will be a disproportionate amount of cheers for the visitors. 

But this was different. The more aggressive Bryant became in the fourth quarter, the louder the cheers. And more people among the sellout of 20,356 joined.

The writing was on the wall long before that. The Wizards had erased a 19-point deficit and took the lead on a three-pointer from Wall with nine minutes left in the third, 62-61. 

Applause? Not even a faint one. There were bigger cheers for the children playing a game on center court for halftime entertainment. By the time Wall went to the foul line to shoot a pair of free throws to trim the deficit to 98-97, boos overtook the venue. Even those rooting for the Wizards at the beginning, or so it seemed, turned in favor of the "heel" as the saying goes in "pro" wrestling. They rooted against the supposed good guy in Wall -- a two-time All-Star and who led the Wizards to an upset of the Cleveland Cavaliers the previous night, turned this franchise from a loser to a winner and has given of his time and money exorbitantly to D.C. that the NBA honored him last month -- and got behind Bryant.

Showing appreciation for Bryant is one thing. Booing the franchise player for the Wizards who is trying to win a game is another. Fredo Corelone displayed more loyalty.

At least Bryant enjoyed himself.

"It was really great. It was fun," said Bryant, who was saluted as he left the floor at the end. "Felt really good to play the game in front of the fans and have that amount of appreciation and love is just really a beautiful feeling.

"It seems like it has pumped some life into us to play with some more energy. For myself, I hope I can stay injury-free."

The Bryant who was a surly, steely-eyed cutthroat killer all of his career with the Lakers is gone. His last three seasons have been riddled with injuries and over the weekend he finally made it official he's retiring. The atmosphere humbled him though it came at the expense of demoralizing the Wizards.

"He didn't look like an old guy. I said that a month ago. A week ago. It's not about the Lakers or other players. It's about one guy who can get hot one out of 100 games," Gortat said. "And hopefully he's not going to get hot against us. I jinxed it."

Asked about the overwhelmingly pro-Kobe crowd when the game ended, it was a mixed bag of emotions for Gortat, too.

"It felt bad," Gortat said when asked about it being a road game at home. "It's Kobe Bryant. It felt bad that we lost but it was just amazing what he did. I was fortunate enough to play during his legacy. You're talking about one of the greatest in history. Just as people speak about Michael Jordan, that's how we speak about Kobe Bryant."

Wall, who had a history of injuries early in his career, believes Bryant can still play at this level skillwise. The health part of the equation is tricky.

"I feel like he can play five more years. It's just about physically can he do it," Wall said. "A person that puts so much into this game of basketball, has the footwork, has the angles and knows how to get to where he wants to be he doesn't have to be athletic or be faster than anybody anymore. ... That's why he's Kobe Bryant."

All of the chaos Wednesday begs this question: If you're Bryant in his prime or a superstar free agent from the outside looking in, does this make you more or less inclined to consider coming to D.C.?

The 800-pound elephant in the room can't be ignored. The other 29 teams in the NBA who will compete with the Wizards for those same free agents will bring it up in the recruitment process. 

Like players say the day after a bad performance, "Film don't lie." Neither does the soundtrack.

"He hadn't been playing well, hadn't been shooting well, got to the fourth with basically the whole damn crowd him," said Wizards guard Garrett Temple who guarded him some. "It's been like that the last three and a half years I've been here. Whenever a good team comes in, a historic team comes in, you're going to have a lot of fans go for that team. ... We knew what we were getting into."

Cheering Bryant for what he has done for the game? Totally acceptable. Showing him more support than the franchise player for the home team that's struggling to get back to .500? Shameless. 

John Wall deserves better than that. 

[RELATED: Photos: Kobe's last game at Verizon]

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Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

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USA TODAY Sports

Yuta Watanabe is chasing NBA dream, hoping to lead the way for Japanese basketball players

Before meeting with local basketball media following his pre-draft workout with the Washington Wizards on Thursday at Capital One Arena, George Washington forward Yuta Watanabe first addressed a swath of reporters from his home country of Japan. Then, while he talked to the American contingent, cameras from Japanese news outlets trailed him from a distance, documenting even the media part of his experience.

Watanabe, who played four years for the Colonials in Foggy Bottom, is now chasing an NBA dream with an entire country's hope on his shoulders. He is aiming to become just the second Japanese-born player to reach basketball's pinnacle.

It's a responsibility he carries with pride.

"I know there was only one Japanese player who played in the NBA like a long time ago, so he was the only one," Watanabe said. "If I can make it, I know that’s a really big thing in Japan. That would make young guys come to the U.S. and play basketball in the U.S. I want to be one of the pioneers for younger guys."

The only player to make the NBA from Japan in the history of the league was Yuta Tabuse, who appeared in four games for the Phoenix Suns in the 2004-05 season. Four games, that's it. If Watanabe can carve out an extended career in the NBA, it would be a first for Japan, which like many countries outside of the United States has begun to produce more basketball talent in recent decades as the game has expanded globally.

Watanabe grew up in Miki, Kagawa, a town in the southwest of Japan. He had American basketball idols growing up, including Kobe Bryant who was the NBA's biggest star when Watanabe was a kid.

Now, as Watanabe has set his sights on the NBA, he has focused on others to model his game after. He said he watches film of Jazz forward Joe Ingles because he sees similarities in their game.

"I see myself trying to be like him. He’s a lefty, a great shooter and a great defender. I’ve been watching his tape a lot," Watanabe said.

Watanabe has also been consulting with Hawks forward Joe Cavanaugh, his former teammate at George Washington. Cavanaugh went undrafted last summer, but caught on in Atlanta and appeared in 39 games as a rookie.

Watanabe's best bet may be a similar path. He is currently not projected to be drafted, but there are many avenues to the NBA, as Cavanaugh has shown. He was signed for 2017 training camp by the Hawks, then cut. Then, he inked a two-way contract which was later converted to a regular contract.

Along the way, Cavanaugh spent much of his time with the Erie Bayhawks of the G-League. Watanabe may have to go that route to make the NBA. For now, he's trying to prove what he's capable of and that has not been easy. The Wizards were his second workout and Watanabe isn't happy with his performance thus far.

He is dealing with an ankle injury that has affected his conditioning, he said, and his shots haven't been falling.

"To be honest, I didn’t shoot well. I didn’t really do well in the 1-on-1s or 3-on-3. I know I have to do better on that if I want to make an NBA team," he said.

Watanabe, who stands at 6-foot-9, said he also needs to get stronger. If defense is going to be his calling card, he can't be pushed around by bigger players in the NBA.

"I know I can defend one through four. Today, I didn’t shoot well but I know I can shoot and I can handle the ball, I can pass. I think versatility is one of my strengths," he said.

The Wizards could use depth at the small forward position and will be in the market for a host of undrafted guys to fill out their summer league team and new G-League team. Perhaps Watanabe will land in one of those spots.

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Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

Michigan's Moritz Wagner could be Wizards' solution for a stretch-five

The pre-draft workout process can be an exhausting journey for players, with so many flights, hotel rooms and NBA arenas that they can all blend in together. Michigan big man Moritz Wagner, though, may have felt a sense of comfort in Washington for his pre-draft workout for the Wizards on Wednesday.

It was just over a year ago that his Michigan Wolverines cut down the nets at Capital One Arena as champions of the Big Ten conference.

"It was good memories, man. Never gets old," he said while glancing around the stadium.

Wagner, 21, will be seeing a lot more of Capital One Arena once he joins the NBA ranks and it is conceivable he ends up in Washington. They hold the 15th pick in the first round and the 44th pick in the second round and Wagner could be within their reach.

Wagner had an impressive workout in Washington and could provide what the Wizards need. He is a big, mobile and can spread the floor. Wagner was terrific at stepping out to hit threes off pick-and-rolls at Michigan and that ability would work well with Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall.

Wagner measured in at just under 7-feet at this month's NBA Combine, fifth-tallest among those who attended. He averaged 14.6 points as a junior this past season and made 39.4 percent of his threes on 4.1 attempts per game.

With three years of college experience and an NBA-ready jumper, Wagner believes he can step right in and help the Wizards.

"I think what we did at Michigan, sharing the ball and playing as a team, very organized basketball, that can help big-time," he said. "It's basically pro basketball I was playing on a different level."

As Wagner will tell you, he is very confident in his abilities. He is comfortable in his own skin and that includes openly discussing his faults. He feels good about his ability to score at the next level. Defense is where he needs to prove himself.

Despite his size, Wagner wasn't much of a rim protector in college. He averaged just a half-block a game as a junior. The Wizards need rim protection badly and he likely would not provide that.

Wagner, though, believes he can bring more to the table defensively than the numbers would suggest.

"I think I've been an offensive guy all of my life, but the more that you mature as a player, you understand that both sides are important. Without defense, you aren't going to play at any level," he said.

"I think the most important thing that I wasn't able to show in college is that I'm able to switch the ball-screen, especially with the way the league is going. Switch on everything and stay in front of guards as a big guy."

Wagner is from Germany and looks up to Mavs legend Dirk Nowitzki, who is entering his 21st season and will be in the Hall of Fame someday. Nowitzki's game has always been built around shooting and, though he developed into a decent shot-blocker in his prime, was never an elite rim protector.

Wagner hopes to follow in his footsteps playing a similar style.

"He was my MJ. He kind of shows you 'okay, this is possible and this is doable.' It's just basketball," Wagner said. "It gives you a lot of hope. It gives you a lot of belief and motivation."

Hear more from Wagner in his one-on-one interview with Chris Miller in our latest Wizards Tipoff podcast. His interview can also be found in the video above:

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