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NBA fans think Zion Williamson could save their team. He's just trying to have fun at Duke

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NBA fans think Zion Williamson could save their team. He's just trying to have fun at Duke

CHARLOTTESVILLE - Zion Williamson knows they’re watching.

Fans. Haters. NBA scouts. Reporters. Madison Avenue. LeBron James. 

The attention won’t impair Duke’s freshman force from pursuing the primary goals during his likely one on-campus year: a national title and enjoying the ride.

Already part of the rare first-name-only-required fraternity, Zion puts the power in power forward. The good-natured 18-year-old with a staggering athleticism and size combination generates seismic buzz even for a basketball program with six national Player of the Year winners and 33 NBA first-round selections since 1986. 

Imagine trying to stop future NFL Hall of Fame Adrian Peterson with a rulebook outlawing tackling and the already jacked Peterson built like a linebacker. That’s the dilemma defenders face when the athletically fierce 6-foot-7, 285-pounder comes charging in the open court or rises at the rim.

“I’ve never seen a player that size, that strong that can move and jump that high,” Duke assistant coach and lead Williamson recruiter Nate James told NBC Sports Washington. “Right away I was like we have to get this kid.”

That's the mindset for lottery-bound NBA teams and their beleaguered fan bases desperate for a franchise-altering talent and a box office bonanza and putting their faith in a teenager. 

Barring the unforeseen, Williamson will become the first selection in the 2019 NBA Draft this June.

The all-eyes attention began during the Spartanburg, South Carolina native’s prep career when his soaring dunks became the stuff of YouTube legend, and only intensified playing for one of college basketball’s national powers. 

Perhaps that explains why Williamson appeared immune to the chaotic scene following no. 2 Duke’s 81-71 road win over third-ranked Virginia Saturday. As hurried adults holding audio recorders and video cameras rushed into the visitor’s locker room inside John Paul Jones Arena, the teenager displayed chill and cracked wise. 

Williamson calmly sat on a bench next to teammate Mike Buckmire, a rarely used sophomore guard. He respectfully answered perfunctory questions about the big win (“Great feeling.”) and the scorching Blue Devils draining 13 of 21 three-point attempts (“That really opened the game for us.”).

Folks also wanted to know what he thought of LeBron James, one of the most famous people on the planet, seated courtside.

“LeBron was out there? Nah, I didn’t see LeBron,” Williamson feigned without any winking mannerisms. 

***
Nobody jokes about the level of prospect we’re witnessing, and the damage Williamson might inflict on the next level. 

“He’s an explosive guy, a lot like I was,” Basketball Hall of Famer and fabled dunker for the Atlanta Hawks Dominique Wilkins told NBC Sports Washington. 

There are other intriguing 2019 draft prospects on Duke’s roster. R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are projected among the top four selections in June’s draft. NBA front office executives and fans covet them. 

With rare exceptions, those dreamers unflinching crave Williamson. 

The only ACC player ranked top five in scoring, rebounds, blocks, steals, and field goal percentage deftly handles the commotion.

“I just try to give the media what they want,” Williamson said of the avalanche of attention. “It is a little odd at times.”

Thousands have been selected since over the decades since the inaugural 1947 draft. Only a select few can appreciate Williamson’s odd feeling: The nearly universal top pick whose shoulders carry the fate - or at least hope - of an unknown franchise.

“It’s a mind-blowing experience you go through,” said Wilkins, the third overall selection in 1982 by the Atlanta Hawks.

Few players received more notoriety during their college career than Patrick Ewing. The centerpiece of Georgetown’s 1984 national title team was no. 1 overall selection in the 1985 NBA Draft.

“The hype was insane,” Ewing told NBC Sports Washington.

Ewing reached three national title games during his legendary four-year career with the Hoyas. His selection by the Knicks started the draft lottery era and created a frozen envelope frenzy. New York did not enter the lottery with the best odds, but it lucked into the top selection, which meant the rights to select Ewing and dream big

“[We] didn't have the internet,” Ewing said of the early 80’s era, “but I was out there enough.”

Part of Ewing’s college lore occurred in a “Game of the Century” matchup against another storied big man, one who was part of the packed crowd for Saturday’s clash.

“I had the pressure every year to go out or not go out,” former UVa star Ralph Sampson, the first pick in the 1983 NBA Draft, told NBC Sports Washington. 

“Social media [makes it] totally different,” Sampson said of his experience compared to Williamson’s. “But he’s a great athlete. We’ll see what happens. He just has to deal with [the expectations] every day.”

In the one-and-done era, there’s no doubting Williamson’s mindset. Asked if there’s a specific part of his game that needs improvement over the remainder of the season, Williamson replied, “Not really. I’m going to let Coach K (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski) and hopefully whatever NBA team I go to really tell me what I need to work on.”

Those that have walked in Williamson’s shoes offered advice and insight.

“You can’t think about [the next step],” said Ewing, now in his second season coaching his alma mater. “All you can do is think about finishing this season. Your play in this season will prepare you for the future. The things that you’re going through is what will make you better for what lies ahead.”

Wizards forward Jabari Parker, another Duke product and the second pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, believes finding a proper balance with school and basketball helps ballyhoo prospects prepare for the next step. “It keeps you busy mentally. It doesn’t get you sidetracked.”

There’s also nothing wrong with occasionally embracing the spotlight.

“I guarantee he’s a little nervous too. If you’re not a little nervous, something’s wrong,” said the 59-year-old Wilkins, now a Hawks television analyst. “That’s a great experience. Man, when you’re a young kid coming out of college, and you know you’re going to be one of the top players in the draft, probably number one. Man, there is no better feeling in the world than that.”

***

The physical display is why we watch Zion. That alone does not draw in the masses. Not everyone has the “It” factor.

“You may watch a player and recruit. You may say he has intangibles, he has the size, talent, everything, but he doesn’t have ‘It,' ” James, the Duke assistant, said. Those guys who really embrace the moment. Want the ball in their hands. Can make the play, who can affect the game in so many ways. [Zion is] the ultimate winner.”

The “It” factor and poise showed Tuesday. Williamson brushed aside foul trouble and No. 16 Louisville to finish with 27 points and 12 rebounds in Duke’s 71-69 road win after trailing by 23 points. 

Williamson's impact extends beyond the court.

“Kinda of reminds of a Shaquille O’Neal type if personality,” James continued. “Just very affectionate knows who he is. People are drawn to him. He just embraces it. He’s like an everyday kid.”

Duke freshman Tre Jones witnesses Williamson’s balancing act daily. 

“[Zion] handles it tremendously,” Duke’s point guard said. “You hear it all. Whether they’re fans or haters, you hear both sides of it."

***

The wow factor popped at Virginia. Williamson’s supernatural block of Virginia’s DeAndre Hunter’s attempted corner 3-pointer dropped jaws coast-to-coast. 

Those electrifying plays explain the hype. As draft day nears, scouts and internet thinkers will begin picking nits.

Some already fear his joints may struggle to handle his massive frame over the course of long NBA seasons. Williamson’s physical gifts will not overwhelm the league’s professional skywalkers or intimidate men a decade older. 

There is also room for growth, and game beyond those viral highlights.

“What he has that a lot of college players don’t have is footwork on the block. He knows how to post up down there and force you to foul him, and he makes plays from the block,” said Wilkins, the 13th all-time leading scorer in NBA history. “He’s going to be a problem for that position.”

Scouts ascend upon Duke games to make their observations. Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk and Wizards vice president of player personnel Frank Ross were among the talent evaluators in Charlottesville Saturday. 

“I don’t even pay attention to none of that,” said Williamson. “Coach K told us to live in the moment. Enjoy this because you only get this once so just try to make a run toward the national championship.”

Tony Robbins created a self-improvement empire because many people struggle living in the moment. Somehow this teenager existing in a fishbowl existence figured out the formula.

“It’s not easy for some people, but I find it easy,” Williamson said. “I don’t want to look back on my college career saying, ‘Oh, I was thinking about the NBA Draft the whole time. I’m living each moment.”

Even for a kid focused on focus, some moments grab him, like an all-time NBA legend seated in the front row.

“Yeah, I saw [LeBron],” Williamson finally admitted. “It really caught me off guard. It was dope.”

When the game ended and the media rushed his way, the NBA’s next big thing maintained composure and focused on the current ride.

Amid the locker room chaos, a reporter asked Williamson if he was enjoying himself despite all eyes on him.

Williamson turned his head, and massive torso left in the direction of Buckmire and smiled.

“Are we enjoying this, Buck?” Williamson asked semi-rhetorically. “Yeah, we are. Having a lot of fun here.”

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An important summer of decisions for the Wizards, from free agents to Scott Brooks

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An important summer of decisions for the Wizards, from free agents to Scott Brooks

With the 2018-19 season in the rearview for the Washington Wizards, we at NBC Sports Washington are analyzing the five biggest questions of what should be the most consequential offseason they have had in years...

NO. 3: WHICH FREE AGENTS AND COACHES WILL RETURN?

The Wizards enter this summer with only six players under contract for the 2019-20 season and that includes Jabari Parker's team option worth $20 million that is certain to be declined. With Parker accounted for, that essentially gives them eight impending free agents to decided on.

Eight players is more than half of a 15-man NBA roster and that is not to mention Dwight Howard's player option worth $5.6 million. If he opts out, they could have nine open spots.

Whomever the Wizards choose to replace Ernie Grunfeld as team architect will determine who will stay and who will go. Before they make that call, and they remain relatively early in the process, it is difficult to project which players will be back.

If they promote senior VP of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard from interim general manager to long-term status, that will mean a different course than if they go completely outside of the organization. Everyone has their own philosophies and a brand new voice would have no ties to those currently on the roster.

The same could apply to the coaching staff. Head coach Scott Brooks was not assured of his return at the end of the season and owner Ted Leonsis indicated that would be up to the next GM.

As far as the players go, each will present pros and cons. Some have more upside while some are older. Some will be more expensive to retain while some might be worth bringing back based on their relative cost.

Some could also depend on what the Wizards accomplish in the draft. They have the sixth-best odds and could luck into a top-four pick. Most mock drafts have this year's class top-heavy with wings and forwards. A top pick could affect how they view others at the same position.

Here is a look at each of the Wizards' free agents...

Tomas Satoransky, PG (RFA): Satoransky has a good chance of coming back because he can be a restricted free agent and most teams would like to have a player like him. He's versatile, committed on defense and an unselfish passer.

If Sheppard assumes the full-time GM role, expect signing Satoransky before he hits restricted free agency to be a top priority. Even if an outside person takes over, Satoransky could very well still come back. But what could end Satoransky's time in Washington is his price tag. Will he get starting point guard money, or will he be had at a lower price?

Thomas Bryant, C (RFA): Like Satoransky, Bryant may be immune from a new GM wanting to move on and make change for the sake of change. The reasons to bring him back far outweigh the reasons not to. He's only 21 (he turns 22 in July) and has obvious potential. He's a young big man who gives an honest effort every night and has a great attitude. Those guys don't grow on trees.

Bryant also loves playing in Washington. But as a restricted free agent, he could field some nice offers and cash in on what was a breakout year. As a former second round pick with only two years of NBA experience, his contract situation could also be very complicated.  

If Sheppard takes the reins moving forward, signing Bryant will be a major goal. But even if someone from the outside comes in, it seems likely the Wizards will make an effort to keep him.

Jabari Parker, PF: Parker really genuinely enjoyed playing in Washington and would like to return. He proved a good fit offensively as a complement to Bradley Beal and has potential to get better at only 24 years old.

But Parker's price will be important and difficult to gauge until he starts talking to teams. Will anyone pay him $10 million-plus annually? It's really hard to tell based on how his stock has fallen and his injury history. Also, a new GM could choose to move on in favor of defense or something else.

Bobby Portis, PF/C (RFA): Portis is likely to be the most expensive of all of the Wizards' free agents to keep. The fact he can be a restricted free agent helps their cause, but he is reportedly looking for upwards of $16 million annually and it's just hard to see the Wizards paying that.

Now, Portis may also have the highest upside of any of these guys. He's only 24, is fast, can rebound and shoot. In fact, he can shoot very well for a big man and could turn into one of the more accurate stretch-fours in the league. But is that enough to pay him a big deal?

Trevor Ariza, SF: The biggest questions for Ariza's future center around price, whether the new GM wants to win now and whether Ariza wants to play for a contender. He made $15 million this past season which would be way too much for the Wizards to pay to bring him back. If that price comes down considerably for a guy who turns 34 in June, then maybe. 

But if a new GM wants to tear it all down and start over and sees missing the playoffs next season as not the worst thing, Ariza wouldn't help that cause. And Ariza may very well want to chase another ring this summer, something he couldn't do in Washington. That said, as he moves into his mid-30s, money may be the most important priority, as he only has so much time left to make an NBA salary.

Sam Dekker, PF (RFA): Dekker was in and out of the rotation, but overall played some of the best basketball of his young career so far during his four months with the Wizards. Helping his cause to return are a few things. For one, he is young and turns 25 in May. Secondly, he might be cheap and the Wizards will need some inexpensive players to fill roster spots next season.

Granted, a new GM from outside of the organization could want to clear out anyone that they can in order to start over with their own players. Dekker could be seen as expendable.

Chasson Randle, PG (RFA): For Randle, it is much of the same as Dekker. He's a young player with some upside to get better and he's not going to cost much. That is extra important for him as a point guard, it would seem, with John Wall set to miss most of, if not all of, next season due to injury. They can only apply so many resources to the position.

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How the Wizards' new GM could shape the organization's future this summer

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USA Today Sports

How the Wizards' new GM could shape the organization's future this summer

With the 2018-19 season in the rearview for the Washington Wizards, we at NBC Sports Washington are analyzing the five biggest questions of what should be the most consequential offseason they have had in years...

NO. 2: HOW WILL THE NEW GM PUT THEIR STAMP ON THE ORGANIZATION?

Predicting which direction the Wizards will go this offseason when it comes to trades and free agency is a pointless exercise right now, as nothing can be projected until we know who will be in charge of the front office. Owner Ted Leonsis, with help from consultant Mike Forde, is still in the evaluation process of his organization, top-to-bottom. They have yet to begin interviewing candidates to replace dismissed team president Ernie Grunfeld.

Once Leonsis makes that hire, the future will become a little more clear, though any new GM may take time to truly make their mark. The Wizards have limited financial flexibility and only one draft pick. It may be a year or two before the roster truly feels like theirs.

That said, by the end of this summer, we should know plenty about what makes the new team architect tick. They will explain their philosophy at an introductory press conference and demonstrate it in decisions they make. 

The most telling in the short-term will be how they handle the large group of players set to hit free agency. That list includes Trevor Ariza, Tomas Satoransky, Bobby Portis, Thomas Bryant, Jeff Green, Sam Dekker and Chasson Randle. There is also Jabari Parker, who has a $20 million team option for 2019-20 that is a lock to be declined, no matter who takes over.

If the Wizards move forward with interim GM Tommy Sheppard, who was Grunfeld's No. 2, that likely means Satoransky and Bryant are coming back. They are both restricted free agents and Sheppard was integral in acquiring them. 

He scouted Satoransky as a teenager and helped convince him to leave Europe for the NBA. He had a first round grade on Bryant when he came out of Indiana in the 2017 draft and took a strong stance in favor of claiming him as soon as the Lakers put him on waivers last summer.

Sheppard staying in place could also increase the likelihood Ariza, Parker and Portis return, though any of those three would have to be for the right price. A new GM could conceivably want to clear those players out and bring in his own guys.

Also telling will be how the new front office handles Bradley Beal's contract in the event he makes All-NBA and qualifies for a supermax. It projects to be worth about $194 million over four years, a ton of money to commit with John Wall already signed to a supermax that begins next season. If it comes to that, perhaps the new GM will determine a trade is the best course of action, to turn one player into multiple assets and rebuild for the future.

Also on the docket will be Ian Mahinmi's contract. The Wizards can either ride out the final year of his deal and shed $15.5 million off the books next summer, or use the stretch provision to spread that money out over the next three seasons and free up about $10.3 million more to work with this summer.

A major decision for the new GM will be the Wizards' first round pick this June. They have the sixth-best lottery odds and will know their selection on May 14. If they get lucky and land the No. 1 pick, there will be no mystery, as Zion Williamson is the clear-cut star of this class. But any other pick will require a difficult decision, including whether to draft a point guard with Wall under contract for the next four years.

If the Wizards do not find lottery luck and vault into the top four, it would probably be smart to trade back. They have a dearth of draft assets and a new GM will likely want more of them. This year's draft class doesn't appear to be a deep one. Trading back from eighth, for example, to pick up an extra first or a pair of second rounders might be the move to make.

There are other ways the new GM can shape the organization's philosophy, ones that will be less noticeable to the public. They could either invest more or differently in analytics, for example. 

Though they have a fairly robust operation led by VP of basketball analytics Brett Greenberg, a sharp, young Duke grad who may someday be a GM himself, and though they also use outside consultants, there are other teams (like the Sixers) that employ more people with that focus.

Also, Greenberg oversees salary cap management as well. Perhaps a new GM has expertise in that realm or adds staff with those duties.

Speaking of staff decisions, there will also be one made about head coach Scott Brooks. His status is currently in limbo.

Even with little resources to overhaul the Wizards' roster in a major way this summer, the franchise is about to undergo significant long-term change. The next few months will give everyone the first major signs of what is up ahead.

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