The team that has had more than its share of calamity in the first round of the NBA draft had a sweet night last night.
The Washington Wizards got something no other NBA team got: a kid who led his team to a college championship.
Every single team in the NBA, from Seattle to Miami, is in need of somebody who can execute the game's most basic and essential skill -- shoot the basketball. And if Hamilton isn't the best shooter who was drafted last night, he's right there with Wally Szczerbiak and Trajan Langdon.
The moment the Toronto Raptors drafted high school kiddie Jonathan Bender in the No. 5 spot, it became clear the Wizards were going to get a player who can help them right now. Sitting on the draft board were Szczerbiak and Hamilton, the two most-polished and ready-to-help-now players in the draft. Either would have been a wonderful fit. Szczerbiak would have stepped into the small forward spot, Hamilton can step into the shooting guard spot. Also, drafting Hamilton means the Wizards can sign and trade Mitch Richmond, and let Calbert Cheaney go to the free agent market.
But we'll leave the other personnel moves for another time. Getting Hamilton would be reason enough for any team in the league to breathe a huge sigh of relief. He was the forgotten man in this draft, you know. For six weeks now, we've been paying far too much attention to the likes of Lamar Odom, Corey Maggette and Bender. Teams have been charting upsides and risk, begging kids who aren't even adults to come and work out, come and take a physical. Odom didn't want to leave college after one year, which is the right instinct. And Steve Francis, who was obviously disappointed in not being selected first, showed poor judgment by sulking after being drafted by Vancouver. Son, you've overcome too much to whine about getting $3 million a year to live in one of the most beautiful cities in North America. Get a clue. We'll get back to Francis, unfortunately, in a moment.
Fortunately for the Wizards, Hamilton was elated to be selected by the Wizards. From all indications he's a nice kid who says all the right things and keeps a low profile. Asked what skill he has that we didn't see much of at the University of Connecticut, Hamilton said, "Oh, I can pass the ball. A lot of people have never seen me pass the ball the way I can. I was put in a position where I had to score."
Guess what, Rip? You're going to have to score here, too. And just like you had Khalid El-Amin at U-Conn., Rod Strickland will know how to get the ball to you in Washington. Still, it was nice to see a young man be a bit deferential. When told scouts compare his style with that of the Knicks' Allan Houston, Hamilton dropped his head, clearly a little embarrassed. Good. Asked how he'll handle it if Richmond re-signs and stays in Washington, Hamilton said, "I know he would teach me a lot, while letting me get some experience under my belt at the same time. . . . If he's not here, I'd get a chance to be put in the fire and see what I can do."
But it's what we know he can do that makes him valuable right away. In a league frighteningly thin on shooters, Hamilton has a stroke. As a sophomore, he was mostly limited to spot up shooting. But during his junior year, he developed a game off the dribble. He made himself better at getting to the rim, scoring with shorter shots over taller defenders. He didn't do it in some rinky-dink league; he was the best player on the best team in the Big East, a place where somebody will knock you in the mouth. He said if his team hadn't won the national championship, "I might be lacing them up back at the University of Connecticut once again, giving it one more run."
See, the thing about actually winning something is that it makes you want to do it again. "It adds a lot of confidence," he said of how that should help him as he becomes a pro. "You know you did everything possible to win a national championship."
The Wizards don't need somebody to help them in three years, such as Bender or Maggette. They need and got somebody who can help them right now.
I bet the Vancouver Grizzlies thought the same thing when they took Francis with the second pick. What they got was a one-year wonder who looked very selfish and completely ungrateful from the moment David Stern announced his name. "Hopefully, when I wake up tomorrow," he said, "I'll be happy." Francis wanted to go No. 1, which is why he talked about the "risk" the Bulls took in selecting Elton Brand. Francis's coach at Maryland, Gary Williams, provided some much-needed perspective, saying, "It's great he's the second pick in the draft. . . . You don't get to pick your team." Maybe it's just me, but it's a risk taking a guy who hasn't done anything anywhere for longer than one year. Last I checked, Brand took his team further in the NCAA tournament than Francis took his. Vancouver, or whichever team winds up with Francis, better know it won't be investing in a rookie with any humility.
Luckily, there was a wonderful juxtaposition that took place about an hour after Francis slumped and pouted his way to the lectern. St. John's forward Ron Artest reacted to being selected by the Chicago Bulls by crying. Bawled right out in the open, tears streaming down his face. "Tears of joy," he said. "All joy."
Like any kid about to become an instant millionaire (even more so for a kid from New York), Artest had everybody in the world sucking up to him, tugging at him, telephoning constantly. In recent days, though, Artest didn't return any of those calls. "To all the people I didn't speak to, I was too busy taking care of business," he said. "I'm really grateful".
The Bulls might have been the big winners because they got Brand and Artest to team with Toni Kukoc and Brent Barry, with tons of money to spend in free agency.
The Wizards didn't overhaul their lineup, but they walked away with a talented player who (with apologies to Arizona's Jason Terry and Kentucky's Scott Padgett) has a resume that sparkles brighter than that of anybody else in his class.
CAPTION: Wizards' top pick Richard Hamilton led U-Conn. to NCAA title last season.