- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2012


No one would suggest that D.C. has suddenly morphed into the nation’s sports capital. The city has too much losing in the rearview mirror — and too many transient fans on the side — to make a grand proclamation just yet. But Washington clearly has been a center of attention lately in the world of professional fun and games.

The Stephen Strasburg decision seemed to rivet the country as much as the looming presidential decision. Robert Griffin III became one of pop culture’s most ubiquitous athletes before taking his first NFL snap. Sports Illustrated just came out with a D.C.-centric issue (OK, it’s “Washington/Baltimore” with Orioles on the cover), and ESPN the Magazine is following suit with a “capital edition” of its own.

The postseason-bound Nationals owned baseball’s best record entering Thursday’s games, while the electrifying RG3 keeps hope alive for the Redskins. Labor strife threatens to keep the Capitals sidelined indefinitely, but that’s OK; only their heavy-lifting gave D.C. a semblance of relevance until recently.

Which brings us to your Washington Wizards: They’ve got next. What happens once the lights come on is anyone’s guess, though the team should be better than it’s been the past four seasons.

Granted, that isn’t saying much, since the Wizards averaged just 22 wins in that span.

As depressed as most fans were when Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld received a contract extension in April, there’s legitimate reason for optimism when training camp begins next week. The primary cause is a culture shift, with knuckleheads Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young being replaced by solid professionals in Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.

That alone should be good for at least five additional victories.

Grunfeld said he expects the Wizards to resume their success from the end of last season, when they went 8-2 and finished on a six-game winning streak. We know better than to fall for that line of reasoning. The 2010-11 squad went 6-4 over its final 10 games and players said something clicked that would carry over to last season.

The only thing that transferred was their losing spirit. Performing well in meaningless games, after you’re destined to miss the playoffs by a mile, proves nothing. It certainly has no automatic bearing on the next season, which the Wizards proved with another wretched campaign.

But there’s no denying that Washington’s roster has been upgraded in talent and maturity, deficit areas of late. Nene and Okafor are accomplished, interchangeable big men who should aid the development of youngsters Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Jan Vesely. The Wizards‘ versatility up front figures to be among their greatest strengths.

However, the influx of new blood and fresh faces such as No. 3 pick Bradley Beal won’t be the key determinant in Washington’s fate this season. The team will perform as well — or fare as poorly — as point guard John Wall plays.

“This is a big year for him, and it’s time to take the next step,” coach Randy Wittman told reporters Wednesday at a news conference. “It’s his third year. He knows the ins and outs of what to expect. He’s done a lot of things this summer to try to make that happen, work ethic being a big part of it.”

Gauging Wall’s progress has been difficult since the Wizards made him the No. 1 pick in 2010.

He’s been good-not-great, and you wonder how much was based on his surrounding cast and how much was based on his own limitations. Athletically, he has few peers in the league. But he hasn’t exhibited the sort of basketball IQ that makes teammates better, which would make his shaky jumper more tolerable.

Wall is the Wizards‘ lone star, the best hope to keep the spotlight on D.C. once the Nats are done and the Skins finish below .500 again. There’s a chance that the Wizards could sneak into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed but only if Wall fulfills his potential. This season represents his best opportunity to reveal his true colors, especially with the Verizon Center co-tenants (not) on ice.

Strasburg and Bryce Harper have driven the buzz and helped lead the Nats to prominence. Alex Ovechkin has done likewise for the Caps. RG3 has mastered the first part of the equation in no time. Now everything is lined up for Wall to continue the trend.

With all eyes on D.C., what’s it going to be?

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