Nats, Wizards offer contrasting styles in handling top draft picks

By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; D01

We are in the midst of a great experiment here in D.C. Suddenly the nation's capital is a steaming petri dish of trial and error: first in war, first in peace, first in top draft picks.

Playing out in front of us are two theories, two very different approaches to the same issue. What can a team expect from a No. 1 pick? What should it expect?

The Nationals have brought along last summer's top pick, Stephen Strasburg, at a pace so glacial that it belies global warming. After being drafted last June, Strasburg took the rest of the summer off. In October, he puttered around the Arizona Fall League, where he scared everyone with his repertoire and his penchant for freak injuries, then fell off the radar until spring training. He went from Viera, Fla., to Harrisburg to Syracuse, his every pitch recorded, his every pore examined, until he was finally called up this month.

The delay was partly financial, of course, but it was also protective, as is the team's determination to keep the media far from Strasburg as much as possible.

The Wizards, on the other hand, seem to be putting all their eggs in one basket, or rather throwing them against one Wall. John Wall shirts were on sale at Madison Square Garden long before his name was called. The Wizards had prepared a welcome video using many of the town's sports stars (including Strasburg, a D.C. resident for less than a month). Wall appeared on Friday's "Fox and Friends," where he shot baskets and had his photo taken with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock.

And when he finally arrived in D.C. on Friday afternoon, he was greeted by a phalanx of fans and a banner on the side of Verizon Center -- right where Gilbert Arenas's image used to hang -- that bore his image and read "Game Changer." Mayor Adrian M. Fenty couldn't wait around, but he declared it John Wall Day in the District before he took off. (Every year on Kwame Brown Day, I clean the lint trap in my dryer.) Wall's general manager and coach took turns trying to out-love the kid.

"What better way to start a new era?" Ernie Grunfeld said in his opening remarks. "We feel fortunate that a player of John Wall's ability was there for us. He's going to bring a lot of great moments to you fans."

"Point guards are not made; they're delivered from heaven," said Coach Flip Saunders, clearly winning this year's Hyperbole Bowl. "He was delivered from heaven."

So, no pressure.

It's safe to say the Wizards and Nats are taking different approaches. It's also way too early to make a call on which approach is the right one. It's also possible that one size doesn't fit all in these situations, any more than it would in an NBA locker room or a baseball clubhouse. What works for Strasburg might not fly for Wall.

And of course, there is an apples-and-oranges aspect. There are no minor leagues to which Wall can be assigned, no lower level where he can grow into the enormous expectations the Wizards have draped over his shoulders like a cape. The seasoning that Strasburg got in the minors, however briefly he was there, should have been acquired by Wall at the University of Kentucky.

Is that possible in just one year of college? We'll find out. He's 19 and being handed the keys to the franchise. Strasburg, 21, spent three years at San Diego State before entering the draft, and he was married to his longtime girlfriend in January.

So why is Strasburg being sheltered while Wall is being thrown at Washington like an inside fastball? In part, because the Wizards need the buzz. Ted Leonsis has had a front row seat for the bump Strasburg has given the Nationals, and he wants a piece of that. Who can blame him? He has waited years to get control over the Wizards, only to find them fourth among the Big Four of the Redskins, Caps and Nats. Buying "WALL" T-shirts for the entire Verizon Center staff probably seemed a small price to pay.

And if you're going to market a guy, market one who doesn't seem fazed by it all. Unlike Strasburg, who sometimes wears a "get me out of here" look when the spotlight finds him off the mound, Wall seemed not at all disconcerted by Friday's lovefest.

"I can't wait to get on the court," Wall said. "I can't wait to show everyone what I can do."

But first come the spoils of being the No. 1 pick. There's the ZigSlash signature Reeboks and the new clothes and the television interviews and magazine covers and the thrill of giving his hardworking mother a brand-new house in Raleigh, N.C. It's all fun right now, and it should be fun. Being 19 years old with money and talent and charisma is practically the dictionary definition of fun.

These days will pass, of course, for both No. 1 picks. There will be adjustment issues and bad games and injuries. Will it be harder for Wall to negotiate those hurdles than it will be for Strasburg, who wasn't labeled the "Game Changer" before he even belonged to Washington? Perhaps.

During the question-and-answer session, Grunfeld said, "We're not going to put too much pressure on him." He really meant that statement, which came in between the tribute video and the mayoral proclamation. In other words, too late. But perhaps it doesn't matter. Wall is setting his own bar very high.

"If they need me to take over a game," he said, "I can do that."

The Wizards clearly need him to do that, and a whole lot more.

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