Long after Sam Bowie was selected ahead of Michael Jordan in 1984 — because big men are often taken ahead of guards — stubborn pride has clouded many a personnel decision in the NBA. Old-way thinking, especially when it comes to choosing pro basketball players, has prevented real progress.
It happened in Washington 10 years ago, in fact. Michael Jordan the GM may never admit it, but he was strongly considering taking a shaggy-haired, relatively unknown Spaniard with the No. 1 pick. But Jordan was worried about the backlash if he didn’t take the surefire choice, this swell high school kid from Georgia, Kwame Brown.
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.
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.
The only other big man Grunfeld should take instead of Vesely is Enes Kanter, because taking a freshman from Kentucky worked out pretty good for the Wizards a year ago at No. 1. But Kanter will most likely be gone, probably to Cleveland at No. 4, leaving Vesely as the most sensible pick.
Will he instantly change the fortunes of his franchise? No. But neither will any other player chosen Thursday. (It’s not news but because many of the best college players stayed in school rather than going pro, finding an impact player in this draft is tougher than winning with Smush Parker as your point guard.)
Derrick Williams is the only player worth giving up future considerations to acquire. But as NBA-ready as the Arizona sophomore is, he’s not going to make either the Cavaliers or the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have picks Nos. 1 and 2, a playoff team in 2012.
So the Wizards, who choose sixth and 18th in the first round and have the No. 34 choice in the second round, are left with a cadre of long, athletic Euros as the first to put around Wall.
Let’s face it: When a draftnik on NBATV says, “I’m worried about Jonas Valanciunas slipping out of the top 10,” it’s not a bang-up year to choose pro basketball players.
(Personally, I’m worried if Utah doesn’t take The Jimmer at No. 12. If BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, the leading scorer in the nation, is passed over by the Jazz for some Euro stringbean, all of Provo will understandably revolt.)
But it is a good year to think outside the box. Twenty percent of the NBA is now made up of players not from America, including the MVP of the Finals, Dirk Nowitzki — and it took him 13 years to win a title.
The motto of the draft is essentially the motto of the Wizards since Ted Leonsis took over last year: Be patient. Eventually, the kids will get it.
Vesely is not going to change the culture like Wall has begun to at Verizon Center. But he is a building block. And until Washington actually spends money next offseason for a big-time free agent, until this young crew grows up and bona fide playoff players are identified in the next 12 months and the ones who are not are sent packing, he is a good pick in a bad draft.
That he’s from somewhere else than America shouldn’t have anything to do with taking him with the sixth pick Thursday night. If you can’t get your head around that, remember the mistake Michael Jordan made on draft night 10 years ago.