The thinking was American-born players, even the teenagers, had a bigger upside, a meaner, more passionate interior. European players? They could shoot and pass a little. But that was it. No tough rebounds. Not enough nastiness.
Pau Gasol, who went No. 3 to Atlanta that year, of course has two NBA championship rings with the Lakers; Kwame is a journeyman center with Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats, still cursed by season-ticket holders here.
What does this have to do with the Washington Wizards’ No. 6 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft? Everything.
There is talk of San Diego State’s Kawhi Leonard running the floor with John Wall and making beautiful music in the open court together, that this 6-foot-7 sophomore from Compton, Calif., has all the transition tools to blend in seamlessly with this stop-and-pop roster.
But Ernie Grunfeld has to resist that temptation and go foreign.
The team president needs to do the right thing, long term, and take Jan Vesely of the Czech Republic, no matter how much of a mystery a 6-foot-11, 230-pound perimeter player from overseas is to the casual fans among us.
Grunfeld has to put aside not only old-fangled NBA wisdom, but also some of his own big men who didn’t work out as draft picks in Washington: Ukraine’s Oleksiy Pecherov, a No. 18 pick, and Puerto Rican second-rounder Peter John Ramos, a project who never matured and left town referred to as Party John Ramos. Grunfeld needs to have faith that this one will.
Rangy, athletic, there are YouTube clips of Vesely taking one dribble from beyond the three-point line and dunking from the right side in a game last season. He seems to understand angles and trajectory underneath the basket, too, unlike so many young big men.
Yes, he is a horrendous a free-throw shooter, and he doesn’t appear to have the greatest hands in the world. But here are two reasons why he should be the Wizards’ first of three picks among the top 34 players chosen Thursday: He doesn’t have a buyout clause in his contract like Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, whom the team is also considering. And, most important, Vesely wants it.
I can’t emphasize the “desire” intangible enough. So many players have come through Washington with the talent, athleticism and height — everything, really, that equates to an all-star down the road.
But it’s hard to measure tickers, heart, who genuinely cares and who doesn’t, until they get to the next level. At 21, I can see Vesely has it.