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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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Bradley Beal's dominant scoring run ends as Jazz finally prove he is 'not Superman'

Bradley Beal's dominant scoring run ends as Jazz finally prove he is 'not Superman'

WASHINGTON -- Bradley Beal probably said it best himself after the Wizards' 116-95 loss to the Utah Jazz on Monday night, the first time in three games he had not scored 40 points. 

"I’m not going to score 40 points every night," he said. "I’m not Superman.”

For a few days there, that was easy to forget. Beal had been the basketball equivalent of a superhero, with two 40-point games, and with seven threes or more in each of them, all in a span of about 26 hours.

On Monday, though, he met his match in the Jazz, who boast one of the elite defenses in the NBA. They are physical and cohesive and have the personnel to take away all three scoring levels.

Usually, if the perimeter is swarmed, Beal can attack in the midrange or at the rim. But the presence of Rudy Gobert, the 2017-18 defensive player of the year, limited his options. 

Gobert can block layups and dunks but also extend to close out on jumpers well beyond the lane. He has a 7-foot-9 wingspan and quick hands that allow him to alter many shots throughout the course of a game.

What the Jazz did to Beal is increasingly rare. After making threes in a career-high 47 straight games, he went 0-for-3 against Utah.

Beal hadn't gone without a three since Dec. 3. His 47 games were tied for the 29th-longest streak in NBA history.

Beal scoring only 15 points is also not something we see often. That is about half of what he had averaged in the previous 21 games (29.9), equal to a quarter of the season.

He entered the game averaging 26.2 on the year overall. Only four times in 71 games this season has he been held to 15 points or fewer. And this was the first time all season he has scored 15 or fewer points with zero threes. 

Gobert gave the Jazz security on the back-end, but much of the credit for stopping Beal goes to Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell, Royce O'Neale and Ricky Rubio.

Ingles, in particular, hassled him all over the court. Ingles is three inches taller and is no stranger to defensive dirty work. He never let Beal out of his sight and bumped him as they ran all over the floor. When Ingles was out of the game, O'Neale replicated his approach.

Rubio and Mitchell do not have the size advantage, but they have quick feet and were committed to getting low and close to Beal whenever he touched the ball. When he went up for shots, they reached out to block his sight.

Beal said that was done more times on Monday night than in any game he's played in many years.

"They face guarded me the whole game," Beal said. "Not since high school [had it been done that often]."

The Jazz also made a consistent effort to pick Beal up quickly at the start of Wizards possessions. Beal said he would have a defender immediately after the Jazz shot the ball. Whether it was a make or a miss, they wanted to know where Beal was at all times.

When Beal did get past his defender, the Jazz clamped him with double-teams. 

"You're not going to guard a player of his caliber with one guy, so I think we had a good awareness," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said.

On their double-teams, the Jazz closed quickly enough to affect his passes. Beal finished with only two assists. 

Usually when teams double him, Beal can make them pay by setting up his teammates, but not in this game. Plus, no one stepped up to shoulder the scoring load. No Wizards players reached 20 points on the night and the team shot 29.6 percent from three.

With John Wall and Dwight Howard injured, and a roster full of players who haven't been here long, the Wizards need Beal to be at his best to win. Sometimes even when he is at his best, they still lose. On Friday, in the first of his 40-point games, the Wizards lost to the Hornets.

Many teams have tried to stop Beal, to cut off the head of the snake. Many have failed. The Jazz were one of the few teams to succeed.

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    Donovan Mitchell's Jazz roll past Wizards with 21-point thumping

    Donovan Mitchell's Jazz roll past Wizards with 21-point thumping

    The Washington Wizards lost to the Utah Jazz 116-95 on Monday night. Here are five observations from the game...

    1. The Washington Wizards, despite their injuries, have proven at least good enough to compete with most teams in recent weeks, and especially when playing at home. Against only a select few opponents have they been completely over-matched to the point of a blowout.

    Monday against the Utah Jazz was one of those games. The Jazz served a humbling reminder to Washington, who had won three of four entering the match-up, that they are an above average NBA team and the Wizards most certainly are not. 

    The Jazz held the Wizards to only 95 points. Washington shot 42 percent overall and 29.6 percent from three.

    The Wizards were held to under 30 points and outscored in all four quarters. It was a thorough beatdown. Now the Wizards head to Chicago to begin a back-to-back set with the Bulls on Wednesday. 

    2. Apparently the Jazz didn't want Bradley Beal to drop 40 on them.

    After he posted two straight games with 40 points and seven-plus threes apiece, the Jazz overloaded on Beal to prevent any of that from happening again. As one of the NBA's best defensive teams, they had the tools to hold him in check, at least to an extent.

    Beal was held to 15 points and to zero threes. That snapped a career-best streak of 47 straight games with at least one triple. 

    Utah made it tough on him with physical perimeter play headed by Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio. They harassed him and when he got a step, others closed in for double teams.

    Attacking the rim was basically not an option for Beal, either, with Rudy Gobert lurking in the lane. The reigning defensive player of the year had 14 rebounds and two blocks to go along with 14 points.

    The only good news about Beal's night is that he played 31 minutes. He could use the rest.

    3. No one would mistake the Wizards for being a good defense, but usually they at least know who they should try to stop. Most often, they will sell out to guard the players they should, just to no avail.

    But on Monday, they appeared to completely overlook Ingles and his ability to knock down threes. Ingles went off for 16 points with four assists in 24 minutes. He shot 4-for-8 from three, many of them wide open looks.

    The Wizards just didn't close out and he made them pay.

    4. It was another night of microwave buckets for Jabari Parker. He came off the bench and quickly got hot with 10 points and five rebounds in his first 11 minutes. He finished with 19 points and shot 8-for-13.

    Seeing Parker do this against the Jazz was interesting because they might be a good fit for him this offseason. Assuming the Wizards back out of his team option and he becomes a free agent, Utah is a team that needs another scorer and theoretically could use a guy like him. Parker also happens to be of Mormon faith, which is why others have made the connection between him and Utah in the past.

    The Wizards, of course, may want to keep Parker, depending on how the rest of this season goes and his asking price. But the Jazz would make a lot of sense for him.

    5. Though Parker was a standout, at least early, the rest of the bench was not. The Jazz had a 55-44 edge in bench scoring and showed why their depth is part of what makes them so good.

    Jae Crowder went off for 18 points and five boards. Kyle Korver added 10 points and shot 3-for-6 from three.

    Meanwhile, on the Wizards, Troy Brown Jr. had a rough night with two points (1-6 FG). And Thomas Bryant wasn't himself with five points and five rebounds.

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