NEW YORK — Nerves taking over inside as he sat on the stage representing the Washington Wizards at the NBA draft lottery, Zach Leonsis coolly lifted his lucky charms, fingertips and thumbs pressing against two gold wedding rings belonging to his late grandfathers. As a camera at Disney/ABC Studios started to scan away, Leonsis softly proclaimed, “I hope they bring me good luck.”
Moments later, Leonsis was even more jittery as he stood next to New Orleans Hornets Coach Monty Williams and Charlotte Bobcats General Manager Rich Cho, knowing that, at the very least he had secured a top three pick. The Wizards fell — but not far — to the third overall pick in the June 28 draft after having the second-best odds to land Kentucky 6-foot-10 big man Anthony Davis.
New Orleans may have moved up three spots to earn the right to draft Davis with the No. 1 overall pick, and Charlotte may have secured the No. 2 pick after finishing with the worst winning percentage in NBA history, but Leonsis felt relief and comfort with the outcome.
“We end our night really thrilled,” said Leonsis, son of Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and the manager of business development for Monumental Sports and Entertainment. “I’m not trying to sugarcoat it, we’re really lucky that this is a good draft and we’re going to get an impact player, potential starting five kind of a guy and he’s really going to help our team.”
Afterward, his father shared his enthusiasm, despite missing out on Davis, the consensus player of the year last season. Ted Leonsis emphatically stated: “This fortunately is a deep draft. We won’t be trading the third pick in the draft.”
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, who was given an extension last month, has said that about “two to six players” are vying for the spots in the top five. With the third pick, the Wizards will likely get to choose from a pool that could include Kansas big man Thomas Robinson, Kentucky swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, North Carolina guard Harrison Barnes, Florida guard Bradley Beal and Connecticut big man Andre Drummond.
“We feel really good about where we are,” Grunfeld said. “I don’t know if it’s a specific position we’re looking for, but I think we’ll have our pick of someone that can be a solid piece for us.”
Now that their draft position has been determined, the Wizards will next look to address who will lead them as coach next season. Grunfeld has been mostly silent about the status of Coach Randy Wittman and his staff since the season ended last month.
Wittman finished the season 18-31 after replacing Flip Saunders on Jan. 24 and is still under contract through next season. When asked about Wittman before the lottery, Grunfeld still stressed that nothing has been finalized but added that the “situation will be resolved well before the draft. We like the job Randy’s done. The players really responded to him. He’s made them accountable. The players respect him. We’re just going through that process.”
Ted Leonsis confirmed that he met with Wittman recently after hearing overwhelming support from players such as John Wall and Nene during the exit interviews. “Everyone thought that Randy did a fantastic job,” Leonsis said, adding that he felt “very, very comfortable” with Wittman.
The Wizards ended the season a six-game winning streak and entered the offseason with optimism after acquiring Nene at the deadline. The team was 7-4 win games in which Nene played, and Leonsis stressed the need for the team to add more veterans, while making sure that its young players continue to develop. The Wizards had seven players in their first or second seasons on the roster last year, and they have three picks in the upcoming draft, including two second-rounders.
“Ernie’s got some decisions to make,” Ted Leonsis said. “We now have to figure out what to do with the other vet spots. Who are we going to trade? Who are we going to buy out? What are we going to do in the offseason with free agency? So it will be very, very busy.”
The Wizards have had to depend on the fortunes of some Ping-Pong ball bounces in each of the past four years. They've come away with the No. 1 pick once, in 2010 when late owner Abe Pollin’s widow, Irene, showed up in her yellow suit and with a 1978 championship ring to yield Wall.
Although they had 19.9 percent odds of winning the top pick, the chances of them winning for the second time in three years was even more remote. Orlando remains the only franchise to win the lottery twice in three years — the Magic won back-to-back lotteries in 1992 (Shaquille O’Neal) and 1993 (Chris Webber). Sliding to third was actually an improvement from the previous time they had the second-best odds. In 2009, they received the fifth pick.
Zach’s father brought up the possibility of him sitting on the stage as kind of a joke and Zach replied, “Yeah, right.” But Ted Leonsis was able to able to convince him over a few e-mails and conversations. He allowed Zach to use the wedding bands of his father and the father of his wife, Lynn, and also gave him a Greek crucifix that his grandmother had given him.
“My dad was thinking we’d sent team personnel a couple of times and we hadn't come back with the No. 1 pick. We sent Mrs. Pollin and it worked,” Zach Leonsis said. “They said they wanted me to do it. And I couldn’t let them down.
“I actually think we’re in really good shape,” Zach Leonsis said. “Having gone through the rebuild with the Caps, you go through some lean times and then you see the glimpses of really big potential and I think you’re starting to see that with this team. The team was really, obviously, young, long and athletic and were going to add a really big piece to the puzzle. It's a really deep draft. It’s going to really help accelerate our rebuild.”