The year is 2020. A worldwide pandemic halted the sports world, but after four months, some have slowly crept back. The Nationals opened the 2020 MLB season and their title defense against the New York Yankees on July 23. The Capitals and Wizards are starting their respective playoff pushes this week. The threat of another shutdown continues to linger, and the plug could be pulled on any of these sports at any time.
As society tries to re-enter normalcy, constant changes and restrictions remind us just how far from normalcy we are. We have gone one-third of a year under these conditions and there’s no clear end in sight. In a perfect world, this would all be behind us.
But we don’t live in a perfect world. So many things have gone wrong this year, it’s hard not to think “what if,” about a lot of things. All that fixation on the hypothetical led me to think about even crazier “what if” scenarios. And thus the newest series for The Wildcard was born.
“In an alternate universe…” will take a look at a world in which each Washington team got a major player they missed out on. We’re starting with the most recent (and most realistic) scenario, and will continue to move back in time (and even further out of the realm of possibility) as we look into how a single player would alter life in Washington sports as we know it.
Wizards win 2019 Draft Lottery, select Zion Williamson first overall in draft
This alternate universe is the most unknown, as Zion Williamson has not yet spent a full year in the NBA. In limited playing time, he’s looked as game-changing as advertised, and his potential looks sky-high. Though he scored 13 points with just one assist and no rebounds in 15 minutes during his first game back on July 30, Williamson averaged 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists in the 19 games he played before the stoppage.
He was the belle of the ball in the 2019 Draft Lottery, and the Wizards had a nine percent chance at earning the rights to draft him. It went to New Orleans instead, giving the Pelicans an instant replacement for the LA-bound Anthony Davis, but what if the ping pong balls bounced in Washington’s favor?
First, it would give Washington a cornerstone for the future. John Wall hasn’t played a game in 18 months since his Achilles injury in Dec. 2018, but he still had the fourth-highest salary in the league this season, with a contract that runs through 2023. Bradley Beal is playing at an All-NBA level, but lacks a proper supporting cast. Williamson could either help revitalize the All-Star backcourt or be the reason to dismantle it.
Since Wall’s massive deal makes him practically untradeable, and his combination with Beal has led to playoff appearances in the past, it’s safe to assume the Wizards would try to run it back with Wall and Beal.
Williamson originally injured his knee on July 5 against the Knicks during the 2019 Summer League, and he continued to deal with knee issues throughout the preseason that kept him out until his debut on Jan. 22. The Wizards did not play on July 5, so he would not have injured his knee there, but given his injury history, it’s safe to assume those issues would have followed him anywhere.
Still, no matter how many games he played in 2019-20, it’s unlikely the Wizards would perform significantly better than they did in real life. Williamson would only do so much to aid the Wizards’ terrible defense, but having Beal as a running mate would make for some awesome highlights on the offensive end. All excitement in Washington would be focused on Wall’s return to the mix in 2020-21.
As a result of Williamson coming to Washington, the Wizards would not have taken Rui Hachimura, so the Japanese Jordan would be putting together an All-Rookie season elsewhere. Hachimura was one of the few bright spots in Washington this year, so it would be a shame to not have him, but Williamson as a Wizard would so much more electric.
In a pandemic-less 2019-20 season (yes, I’m removing COVID-19 from this universe. It’s sad enough having it in the real universe), the Wizards finish just outside the playoff picture and enter the 2020 Draft Lottery. They don’t have as much luck as the year prior, winding up with 10th overall pick.
Despite Wall’s return, the lack of depth at guard and question marks surrounding the 2010 top pick’s health lead the Wizards to draft a high-upside guard at No. 10 to set up Williamson with a long term partner.
The 2020 Draft Pool is confusing, with no real consensus for who will be the top pick, but if we look at the 10th pick, some guards that come to mind are Killian Hayes from France and UNC’s Cole Anthony, among others. The Wizards make their pick (let’s just go with Hayes; he’s young and I like his upside at 10th overall) and take one more step towards stabilizing their future.
With a healthy Wall, a refreshed Beal and Hayes rotating at guard plus Williamson, Thomas Bryant, Moe Wagner and Troy Brown Jr. leading the frontcourt, the Wizards make the 2021 playoffs before falling in the second round.
The team spends the remaining years of Wall and Beal’s contracts flirting with playoff runs but ultimately never reach the conference finals. The aging guards come off the books, freeing a ton of cap space for the 2023 free agent class. Williamson is just 23 and gets re-signed to a mega deal, and Hayes is just 22 and emerging as an elite guard, making Washington an attractive destination for the first time in, well, ever.
While it’s possible Wall and/or Beal are re-signed, it would be with much smaller contracts, and there’s still enough room to add the final piece or two that would make Washington a contender. Perhaps it’s a player from Williamson’s draft class looking to team up and win a championship, like former Duke teammate RJ Barrett, whose rookie contract will expire in 2023.
Maybe a veteran with championship experience decides to take one last shot at the Larry O’Brien without having to be the top guy. Kevin Durant, who will be 35 by the 2023-24 season, decides to come home to Washington and serve as a productive, older compliment to Williamson as the Wizards are finally championship contenders.
With Williamson, Hayes and Durant leading the way, Washington appears in three NBA Finals over the next five years (Durant retires after three years), winning two as the Wizards become the latest burgeoning dynasty on the NBA landscape.
At the end of those five years, it’s 2028. Williamson and Hayes are still in their prime, at 28 and 27, respectively, making it seem like this pair could win three or four more rings if they wanted to. They win one more championship before Hayes decides he wants to be the number one guy somewhere else and leaves Washington. The Wizards try to get a new running mate for Williamson, and they continue to be a threat in the playoffs, but they can’t get back to the mountaintop.
Williamson finishes out his career in Washington, or maybe he jumps ship in his mid-30s to try and win one more with a younger core elsewhere, but when all is said and done he’s remembered as a Wizard, and the greatest player in franchise history at that.
Williamson jerseys can still be found all over the stands 20 years after his retirement, and no one else wears No. 1 in Washington again. This, of course, would be one of the best case scenarios. Another entirely possible scenario is that his knee problems persists and he flames out of the league. Either way, it won’t be happening in Washington.
It’s crazy to think about the possibilities on the table if the ping pong balls bounced the Wizards’ way last year. Hachimura is great and will hopefully remain a staple in the Wizards’ lineup for years to come, but Zion’s potential as a generational player could have made the Wizards a championship team in the future.
He may reach that same fate in New Orleans, and maybe the Wizards will stumble upon their own superstar and become champions again. For now, it’s about trying to make something out of Wall and Beal’s remaining years, but an alternate universe with Zion on the Wizards would have been special. We can only sit and wonder “what if.”