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What kind of impact would Zion Williamson have on D.C.?

What kind of impact would Zion Williamson have on D.C.?

The Washington Wizards have a nine percent chance of landing Zion Williamson in the 2019 NBA Draft.

There's a 99 percent chance the basketball-playing phenom, even with any anti-Duke baggage, becomes the most mesmerizing athlete playing in D.C., should the Wizards get lottery lucky.

The 6-foot-6, 280-pound dunking force of nature dominated non-NBA basketball stateside in a way rarely seen. It's bonkers comparing Williamson to LeBron James considering everything achieved by the four-time league MVP and three-time champion.

As seismic-shifting talents and personalities entering the league, it's a spot on evaluation for the NBA's newest first-name-only-required star.

Nobody else in this town comes close.

The Wizards backcourt of Bradley Beal and John Wall has a combined seven All-Star berths. However, at their peak popularity, they've never sniffed the rarified air of crossover stars like James. Williamson breathes at that attention level from the jump.

The Redskins and fan attention trump everything else happening in these parts, even with the late swoon last season. But that's the team and history -- not any single active player.

When the Capitals hosted Game 3 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final, they brought out three-time Super Bowl-winning coach Joe Gibbs to fire up the crowd. That made sense, but also, no current player or coach moves the needle beyond the Redskins fan base.

Nationals' Max Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman received the same honor as Gibbs last summer for Game 4. Scherzer entered this season arguably the best pitcher in Major League Baseball. Awesome, but don't throw high heat when I say neither he nor Zimmerman are part of this discussion.

(At this point, I can hear you fuming over one specific omission. Put that name on ice for another second while avoiding any fighting majors.)

Alex Ovechkin is probably the best and most accomplished D.C. sports athlete of the last 50 years. He just led the Capitals to the franchise's first Stanley Cup and the first championship for Washington's teams in the four main sports in more than 20 years. There might someday be a statue of him in the capital of the United States.

Whether we change mesmerizing to compelling or fascinating or enthralling or some other adjective remarking on one's remarkability, Zion trumps Ovechkin for the broader audience Day 1.

Some might accuse me of bias, for whatever the reason, despite my native Washingtonian status, youthful allegiances to these local teams and viewing Duke as No. 1 only in teams-I-root-against rankings. So, I sought out other opinions.

"You're going to get the crowd that says, 'How could you say [Zion is] bigger than Ovi? He's won a Stanley Cup and is one of the all-time greats,'" said Rob Carlin, the Capitals' pre and postgame host for NBC Sports Washington. "That's all true -- but I think if Zion comes here, he immediately becomes the most interesting athlete in town."

Carlin's admitted "burning hatred" for Duke began in the 1980s, intensified while he attended the University of Maryland, and remained a life staple during the subsequent years covering D.C. Sports. Then Zion Williamson showed up.

"He's the first guy that I was like, ‘I don't care [about Duke], I want to watch him play all the time,’" Carlin said. "I'm wrapped up in hockey, not watching college basketball as much as I used to -- and still, I tried to watch him as much as I could."

Carlin is hardly the only anti-Duke person living near the K Street corridor lobbying for Zion's most-captivating candidacy.

"Yes, he's that [most mesmerizing] guy. Of course, he's that guy," said Joe House, a D.C. native and resident, frustrated Wizards fan and contributor to The Ringer. "We just had a season at Duke where the American sporting public collectively held their nose, turned on Duke games and became supporters against all odds. … It's in our basketball DNA [to hate Duke], and yet, we were all supportive of Duke because of this one dude."

Before buying that Wizards' Williamson jersey, remember Washington’s long-shot hopes of winning the May 14 NBA Draft lottery. Then again, only five teams own better odds. The three teams with the best chance -- Knicks, Cavaliers, Suns -- each have just a 14 percent chance of landing that number one selection.

That's why imagining the Wizards with the No. 1 overall pick for the third time since 2001 isn't extreme.

It’s no stretch visualizing sellout crowds and a barrage of media attention if the Wizards jump into the first-pick scenario, even after a trying 32-50 season and several challenges moving forward.

 "[Drafting Zion] would be the most exciting pick in Bullets/Wizards franchise history," said former ESPN staff writer Tom Friend.

Friend, who covered the Redskins’ 1987 Super Bowl championship squad for The Washington Post, obsessed over the local teams while growing up in Montgomery County. The Southern California resident still keeps a close watch.

"Opening night would feel like the equivalent of the NBA Finals in [Washington]," said Friend, who wrote and co-produced the upcoming Showtime documentary Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story. "Over the last [three decades] these would be the No. 1 [NBA] picks you had to watch: Shaquille O'Neal, Allen Iverson, LeBron James. Zion would be the fourth."

ESPN's 2018 rank of world fame among athletes included three NBA players -- James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry -- among the top 10 and eight of the top 38. The first player from one of the other three leagues, six-time Super Bowl-winner Tom Brady, entered at 39.

(DC United’s Wayne Rooney ranked 26th, but that was before the England national team standout joined MLS. He doesn’t register locally on this level despite helping DCU reach the playoffs last season. )

Williamson's profile requires more before thoughts of a global takeover, but interest stateside would instantly rival those just below that James-Durant-Curry tier.

Former Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin and ex-National Bryce Harper commanded attention beyond the Beltway in their respective sports. The Williamson wave with shoe-busting promise and presidential interest might drown those eras.

"The logical comps are RG3 and Harper, but I think Zion would arrive here as a larger pop culture star than either of those guys," said Kevin Sheehan, the longtime local radio talker and host of the popular The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

Carlin was entrenched on the Redskins beat when the Heisman Trophy-winning passer arrived in 2012 and won that season's Offensive Rookie of the Year.

"I'd never seen anything like [Griffin’s popularity ]," Carlin exclaimed.  "He owned the city. … The Caps winning the Cup, bigger, but as far as a phenomenon, Zion immediately becomes [RG3]."

We don’t know if Williamson’s career might eventually fade like Griffin’s or if he’d bolt early into his career like Harper. We just know he’d also be celebrated from the start.  

"In a city with premier athletes like Bradley Beal, Alex Ovechkin, Elena Della Donne and Landon Collins  … [Zion] will be the King of DC!” said Wes Hall, co-host of NBC Sports Washington's Wizards Outsiders.

Dalton Ross, executive editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly and a D.C. sports fan living outside the DMV, isn't ready to put Williamson over Ovechkin should both work in the 202, but believes “if [Zion] can get the Wizards past the second round (of the playoffs), he'll own the town."

Owning the town is an annual option for the Redskins starting quarterback. Dwayne Haskins, Washington's 2019 first-round rookie QB, receives local street cred from his prep days at Bullis and praise for tossing 50 touchdown passes last season for Ohio State. 

"I believe Dwayne Haskins will give Redskins fans reason for hope," said NBC Sports Washington's Julie Donaldson, who spent NFL Draft day with Haskins. "But Zion changes the [Wizards'] trajectory instantly."

Carlin added: "There’s one of thing of being the biggest star on the biggest team in the area. It’s another thing to be a big star. Zion can be a big star. That would trump all.”

Can be a big star? Zion is a supernova already, one with a name no Hollywood writer or PR firm could improve upon.

"He’s world-wide Zion already," House said. "Plus, the name. Zion Williamson. Has a truly divine connotation to it.”

If there's anyone still doubting Williamson's power of persuasion, let's recall the final -- and unprompted -- comments from Duke's legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski after the Blue Devils lost to Michigan State in the East Regional Final in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

"In regards to my team, I want to thank everyone for the coverage you've given us. It's been a remarkable year for these young men," Krzyzewski said. "I'm not sure another group will have it -- a year with all of this."

If Zion Williamson can do that for Duke, imagine how he'd jolt the Washington sports scene. If the draft lottery gods smile on the Wizards, no imagining required.

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Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

Wizards' best hope for improving on defense centers around Thomas Bryant

The Washington Wizards were so truly terrible on the defensive end last season that they didn't discriminate towards any areas of the game.

Were they bad at defending threes? Yeah, they were 26th in the NBA in threes allowed (12.1/g) and 27th in opponent three-point percentage (37.0).

What about protecting the rim? Yeah, that too. The Wizards allowed more field goals within five feet of the rim (22.1/g) than any other team and the third-highest percentage (64.2) from that range. 

Collectively, it all added up to the 28th-ranked unit based on defensive rating (113.9), the highest in Washington franchise history. And they allowed the second-most points (116.9) of any team in the league.

The thing is, the Wizards didn't do a ton to address their defense this offseason, at least in the short-term. Though they likely set themselves up to be better down the road, most of the players they brought in who can help now aren't defensive guys.

C.J. Miles, Moe Wagner, and Davis Bertans are shooters. Rui Hachimura is known far more for his scoring than his defense. And Ish Smith and Isaiah Thomas at the point guard spot aren't exactly defensive stoppers.

If the Wizards are to improve defensively this season, even marginally, it will have to be due to players becoming better on that end than they have been in the past. And there is one player in particular who can make the biggest difference.

That would be third-year center Thomas Bryant, who has not been a plus-defensive player so far in his career but is only 22 years old. He hasn't been much of a rim protector previously, but he possesses some natural abilities that suggest he has the potential to become one. He is a high-energy player with long arms, fairly quick feet and a willingness to play through contact.

Bryant knows he holds the key to the Wizards' defensive ceiling.

"I have to be one of those guys to make a big difference. A big man can be the anchor for the defense. I have to take that responsibility to heart every day, whether it's in practice or the game," he said.

Bryant averaged 20.8 minutes per game for the Wizards, but only 0.9 blocks. His per-36 blocks average was 1.6, which was tied for 30th in the NBA. 

But for Bryant, and all big men, it's not just about blocking shots. It's about altering shots and the best rim protectors dominate in that regard. Though the stat can't be found on Basketball-Reference or NBA.com, the Wizards track it and pay close attention.

"Defensively, he definitely has to work and he has to improve," head coach Scott Brooks said of Bryant. 

"The two or three shots that players block is really good, but there are a thousand other plays that they can be in the wrong spot that they have to work on. He has to be in the right spot, protecting the paint and being in the paint to not allow guys even in there."

Bryant said altering shots has been a big point of emphasis for him leading up to the 2019-20 season. And in that process, he's trying to be more talkative on the floor to help his teammates who can't see behind them when defending guards.

"I'm starting to keep my hands up and my arms up, just verbalizing out there on the defensive end. I'm trying to be more engaged and that way my teammates are more engaged," Bryant said.

Ultimately, the Wizards will need more from everyone on their defense. One of their problems with rim protection is that guards can penetrate off the dribble too easily. By the time they meet Bryant at the rim, they have a full head of steam.

There are also, of course, way too many threes going in, and those count more. Even if Bryant became a lesser version of Rudy Gobert, he would need some help.

But no one else on the Wizards roster arguably presents the same short-term upside that Bryant does. If he figures it out on defense, it could make a world of difference for a team that needs it.

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Wizards vs. Bucks Preseason Game 4: Time, TV Channel, Live stream, how to watch

Wizards vs. Bucks Preseason Game 4: Time, TV Channel, Live stream, how to watch

The Wizards return home to the nation's capital after a one-game road trip to Madison Square Garden. Bradley Beal led with a team-high 21 points. The Bucks head to D.C. currently sitting at 3-0 so far throughout the preseason.

Here is everything you need to know.

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS PRESEASON HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Wizards vs. Milwaukee Bucks, 2019 NBA Preseason 

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: 6:00 p.m. ET

TV Channel: The Wizards vs. Bucks preseason game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (NBC Sports Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can live stream Wizards vs. Bucks on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and on the NBC Sports App.

Radio: Wizards Radio Network, 1500 AM

WIZARDS vs. BUCKS TV SCHEDULE

6:00 PM: Wizards vs. Bucks, NBA Preseason (LIVE)

8:30 PM: Wizards Postgame Live (LIVE)

BUCKS vs. WIZARDS INJURY REPORT:

Bucks: Eric Bledsoe (OUT, Fractured Cartilage between two of his ribs)

Wizards: John Wall (OUT, Left Achilles rehab), Isaiah Thomas (OUT, Left thumb rehab), Ian Mahinmi (OUT, Right Achilles strain)

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