Washington Wizards hit John Wall jackpot, win No. 1 pick in NBA draft lottery

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010; D01

The best part was seeing Mrs. P's jaw almost hit the floor. In that surreal, "We won?" moment -- when the widow of the franchise patriarch realized her lonesome-luck Wizards had upset the universe by winning the first pick in the NBA draft lottery -- Irene Pollin no longer resembled an elegant, refined woman from a very influential and wealthy Washington family.

She was more Irene from Ypsilanti on the "The Price is Right," about to faint after wisely underbidding Madge from Scottsdale on the Maytag washer-dryer combo. All that was left was for Bob Barker to say the words she'd been waiting to hear her whole life:

"Irene, you've won the Showcase Showdown!"

Even better, Mrs. P: You won Kentucky's John Wall!

An incomparable young point guard.

Blessed with hops and hubris, his game is straight cash.

John Wall, District bound. Believe that?

"Our fans deserve this," Ernie Grunfeld was saying late Tuesday night over the telephone from Secaucus, N.J., where the team president knew the news almost a full 90 minutes before Mrs. Pollin, because of the NBA's secretive format. "We had such high expectations and they went through a very tough time. For a long time at the lottery, they had no luck at all. And even when they had good luck, they had bad luck because Kwame Brown was the number one pick. So this is very exciting.

"Was I shocked?" he added. "Yes, I was very shocked."

It was unclear whether bad karma was merely bored or just lazy. Or whether the game's gods finally took abject pity upon the Wizards' sorry existence. Or both. Either way, the Wizards won the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night, which means they won the right to select the most breathtaking player in college basketball last season.

John Wall is but 19 years old, spindly, wiry, not the beefiest or tallest point guard in the draft.

But he can hit the three-point bomb with aplomb, play "D" and dunk on anybody. And with all due respect to Ohio State's Evan Turner, the presumptive No. 2 pick, Wall is also a surefire No. 1 pick next month as Washington rebuilds to kick off the Leonsis era.

What a graceful, glorious exit from the NBA ownership stage after 45 years for the Pollin family, handing the baton off to golden-touch Ted, who also won Alex Ovechkin in a scratch-off game of chance six years ago.

Now, after a bizarre, sad season ofmassive tumult -- easily the most turbulent in franchise history -- a flicker of daylight, an uber-talented youth symbolizing hope. Really, another kid charged with rescuing another floundering D.C. franchise, with moxie to help mend a fissure between a team and its faith-challenged fans.

If Stephen Strasburg wore high-tops and caught alley-oop passes above the rim before reverse-dunking the ball through the net, he would be John Wall today.

Wall is also someone to help resuscitate Gilbert Arenas's on-court image. He is a special player who brings buzz to an apathetic arena that lost all interest in its puzzling and often putrid 26-win pro basketball team last year.

The No. 1 pick is not just a great beginning to the build under Leonsis; it's a balm for those who endured the bad dream of the past eight months; it's a perfectly-executed handoff from the regal, old-money Pollin family to another young Internet icon about to put his stamp on another league.

What John Wall is not is a shortcut to the NBA Finals. Since the draft lottery was instituted in 1985, just three No. 1 picks in 25 years have won championships. Another sobering stat: Just two of those three won titles with the team they were drafted by (Tim Duncan and David Robinson for the Spurs).

LeBron is not coming to bestow glory this summer. Neither is Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or Joe Johnson, the other top free agents available.

The moment Grunfeld parted with Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler a few days apart from each other in February, the Wizards as we knew them in the Arenas era were gone; the long rebuild had begun.

If he follows the same plan laid out by Leonsis with the Capitals, John Wall essentially becomes Ovi in this story. He's the incredible talent who has to bide his time for at least a year or two before his employers decide to spend real money and make a playoff run.

To whet the palate, think Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony next summer. (Kevin Durant is staying in Oklahoma City. Trust my Post colleague Michael Lee: Durant is basically Duncan in San Antonio, happy as pie in small-market heaven. He can't do wrong and his family loves the town.)

Now, for the money game. If the Wizards renounce all their free agents, they would have six players under contract and three draft picks to be paid. They probably would be about $20 million under the salary cap. Given that a max contract comes out to about $16 million a year, they could go after a big fish now.

But that's probably not how their money will be spent. Look for high-salaried, one-year guys to essentially use Wall and the Wizards to build their free agent value. Look for the Wizards to use those players' contracts to get way under the cap next summer and compete for 'Melo. Look for Flip Saunders to keep using his two-guard front to suit the talent of Wall and Arenas.

Either way, Tuesday night brought belief where there was so little after this season, one in which Abe Pollin passed, when the NBA's senior owner finally succumbed to a rare, debilitating brain disease in late November; when Arenas, less than a month later, detonated his career and reputation during a pretend-gangsta feud with mean-mugging Javaris Crittenton that included real handguns; when the Wizards embarked upon a franchise-record 16-game losing streak in which Andray Blatche -- a reserve turned best player after the foibles of others and the trade-deadline fire sale -- inexplicably refused to go back in a game; when, let's face it, everything went awry.

It's almost darkly comical now, but Butler actually used the word "championship" last August in regard to the team's 2009-10 chances.

So much belief, so much promise . . . so much for the Gil-Caron-and-'Twan Show. Canceled before they won anything that mattered.

But today, John Wall. Today, hope. Possibility.

As a team official witnessing the Ping-Pong ball lottery process, Grunfeld had to be sequestered for about an hour and a half before the official announcement. Those roughly 90 minutes were wonderfully torturous for him. He was like a child who found his unwrapped birthday presents in his parents' closet more than an hour before his schoolmates showed for the party and cake. The biggest secret in the house was his to keep.

"The biggest secret in the country," Ernie amended. "I was shocked at first, being in the back room when they were picking out the numbers. I did a double-pump fist. Then I had to wait an hour and 15 minutes."

By the way, rabbit's feet and horseshoes used as good-luck pieces are so last century.

In his hand Tuesday night, Grunfeld held a small gold chain with a ball attached to it, given to him by his father, Alex, in Romania, when he was boy of maybe 6 or 7, he said. Mrs. P's charm was her late husband's 1978 championship ring, which he wore every day since Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and their teammates won it for him 32 years earlier.

"The Pollins have done so much for the city; it's a nice end to an era," Grunfeld said. "It's also the beginning of the new era with Ted. What better way to start the rebuilding process?"

On draft lottery day, there is none.

The woeful Washington Wizards, lo and behold, get to choose No. 1. It's counterintuitive to everything about this extended rough patch lately, especially this dismal year. Having just a 10.3 percent chance of securing the top prize, they finally won something after losing so, so much these past 10 months.

John Wall is of course not the same as winning 50 games, a playoff series or genuinely contending for a championship. But when David Stern calls his name next month, he represents a new beginning for a franchise that so badly needed one.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company