Washington Wizards’ draft strategy is just leaving them cold

Jason Reid
Columnist December 1, 2012

The potential good news about another awful Washington Wizards season is that a franchise committed to building through the draft appears headed toward another lottery pick. Too bad the people running the Wizards appear to have no clue what to do with them.

In their fourth season of a rebuilding project with no improvement in sight (Washington is an NBA-worst 1-13), the Wizards haven’t come up with a winning formula to draft and develop top-notch NBA players. Owner Ted Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld changed course last season after misevaluating players they once touted as building blocks, and it seems Leonsis and Grunfeld are still overestimating the talent on Washington’s roster despite the evidence on the court.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Relying primarily on the draft for roster-building is often a slow, difficult process. Even executives with keen eyes for judging talent occasionally find lumps of coal where they were expecting diamonds. It’s simply hard to tell whether today’s raw prospect will mature into tomorrow’s polished superstar. But unless the Wizards suddenly get a lot better at drafting and developing players, or hire new people to oversee those key areas, you can count on them staying where they are: at the bottom of the NBA.

When it comes to the draft, Grunfeld is mostly known for shooting air balls. Guard Michael Redd is the only all-star Grunfeld has selected in more than 20 years as a player-personnel executive in New York, Milwaukee and Washington. Even accounting for all the variables that go into drafting — team needs, who’s available, draft position, etc. — that’s an incredibly long, undistinguished run by any criteria. And Grunfeld has had some glaring first-round misses.

With the Wizards in 2006, Grunfeld selected Oleksiy Pecherov at 18th overall. Pecherov lasted just three seasons in the NBA, averaging 3.9 points with Washington and Minnesota. When Grunfeld picked Pecherov, some guy named Rajon Rondo was available. Rondo has been an all-star the past three seasons.

In 2008, Grunfeld chose JaVale McGee; shot-blocking big man Serge Ibaka would have looked better in a Wizards uniform. Last season, Grunfeld made Jan Vesely the sixth overall pick. Vesely, who shoots poorly, isn’t even good enough to play for the Wizards: In Washington’s last five games, he has played a total of 32 minutes and scored two points. Two.  Instead of Vesely, Grunfeld could have taken sharp-shooting guard Klay Thompson, versatile forward Kawhi Leonard or inside force Kenneth Faried.

“Vesely brings a lot of energy and a lot hustle on defense,” Grunfeld said.

Undrafted free agents also can do the same things. A sixth overall pick is supposed to make an immediate impact, especially on a team with desperate needs.

Teams that build “exclusively through the draft can’t have any glaring misses in the early part of the lottery,” a Western Conference general manager said. “It takes a combination of patience, skill and luck . . . but you just can’t miss early” because mistakes can set back the process for years.

It’s too early in Vesely’s career to determine whether he will eventually contribute consistently or be linked with Pecherov for all the wrong reasons. Vesely needs a longer audition, and that’s the most difficult part of a draft-to-riches strategy. Teams must wait for players who may never show up. It’s a lot like a bad marriage: By the time you realize you didn’t get what you want, you’re several years into it.

There are some examples of relatively quick draft-fueled turnarounds. Oklahoma City’s story comes to mind.

In successive drafts beginning in 2007, the franchise selected Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Ibaka (the Thunder had two first-round picks in 2008), then James Harden, who was traded to Houston before this season. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Harden formed the nucleus of a team that made three straight playoff appearances and reached the NBA Finals last season.

Thunder General Manager Sam Presti is widely considered the best in the business. But Presti is the first to acknowledge that the Thunder was fortunate to have the second overall pick the year Durant entered the draft. The three-time NBA scoring champion provided the foundation for the Thunder’s ascent, which is exactly what true superstars do.

Then there are the Wizards. John Wall was the clear choice when they had the No. 1 overall pick in 2010. But Wall doesn’t score enough to become a perennial all-star, let alone a franchise-saving superstar. The Wizards are building around a player, NBA people say, who isn’t equipped to take them as far as they hope to go. But you can’t control who’s available; only what you do with your pick.

Still, with seven players on the roster who were chosen in the first round of the past three drafts, the Wizards should be further along.

But when you talk to Grunfeld, you get the sense he sees progress where there’s none. “We have young players . . . who have all shown signs of having some legitimate ability to help a team,” he said. “How good they’ll be? Only time will tell.”

The Wizards have had more than enough time to show something that would lead us to believe they’re on the right path. But they don’t even know what it looks like — and no amount of ping-pong balls will correct that.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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