Close your eyes.
Imagine, just for a moment, that you’re sitting courtside at Madison Square Garden.
It’s the first round of the 2020 playoffs, and the New York Knicks are still playing basketball.
The lights go down for player introductions. The silence in the arena is deafening. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson are lined up on the sidelines, ready to make their way to the court.
Irving and Durant are met with heavy cheers as their names are called. But Williamson? The Garden erupts like it hasn’t in years. The runaway Rookie of the Year spent all season capturing the hearts of the Knicks faithful. New York basketball is finally relevant again.
OK, open your eyes.
It’s March 2019, and the Knicks are wrapping up the worst season in franchise history. They haven’t been to the playoffs in six years, and the consensus No. 1 overall pick is preparing for his first and only NCAA tournament run with the Duke Blue Devils.
But in a few short months, he could be donning the orange and blue.
Yes, this is all strictly hypothetical. Not only are the Knicks not guaranteed the No. 1 overall pick (they’re tied with Cleveland and Phoenix for the highest odds), but there’s always the chance — slim as it may be — that Williamson doesn’t meet his sky-high expectations.
And yes, the Knicks aren’t exactly the hottest free-agency destination in the league, which means landing Irving and/or Durant — or any other big-name free agent, for that matter — is far from guaranteed.
But what if the franchise’s plans come to fruition? What if they land Williamson in June’s draft and then strike gold in free agency weeks later?
Even if the latter doesn’t happen, Williamson would be one heck of a consolation prize, and not just because he’s a transcendent talent with franchise cornerstone potential.
Williamson — all 6-7, 285 pounds of him — is arguably the most hyped prospect ever, and he has captivated the nation since well before he committed to Duke. He’s as exciting as they come, with the potential to blow the roof off of an arena at any moment.
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More importantly, he brings hope — something that has been hard for Knicks fans to come by, especially after the franchise traded budding superstar Kristaps Porzingis in January.
Should he land in New York, Williamson will be looked at as the future of the franchise, a Herculean figure who can help steer the team out of basketball’s deepest depths.
A tall order, sure. But if any soon-to-be rookie is suited for it, it’s Williamson.
Keep in mind: While Williamson has said that he would “love” to play for New York, he doesn’t need the Knicks. He’s already his own brand, and odds are he’ll continue to shine wherever he lands (we also examined the possibility of Cleveland and Atlanta).
The Knicks, on the other hand, need Williamson. For more reasons than one.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ AJ Neuharth-Keusch on Twitter @tweetAJNK