Outside of the Washington Wizards’ locker room, Landen Lucas checks his phone for new messages. Lucas has just wrapped another pre-draft workout — the sixth, he thinks, since he officially ended his four-year college career at Kansas with the hopes of achieving his boyhood dream of playing in the NBA. But since hundreds of other young men share this same fantasy, Lucas — a 6-foot-10 center who was so lightly regarded that he wasn’t invited to the draft combine — must essentially accept every workout with any team before the June 22 draft.
“He just texted me,” Lucas said, laughing while reading an update from his agent, Emilio Duran. “It’s Minnesota. I don’t know. I don’t even think he knows. We get [word] 24 hours before sometimes.”
This summer, the Wizards’ practice facility has welcomed several road warriors like Lucas. Back in February, the Wizards traded their 2017 first-round draft selection for Bojan Bogdanovic as part of a deal with the Brooklyn Nets. While the trade temporarily sutured the broken bench, it also meant that Washington would enter the upcoming draft with only a second-round draft pick, the 52nd selection out of 60.
Following the trade, the Wizards’ scouting department continued its search for high-quality, potential first-round talent. However these days, players of that caliber are not stopping by Verizon Center.
“The players who are projected to be first-round picks will not come in for individual workouts,” Wizards team president and general manager Ernie Grunfeld. “That has changed.”
Instead, the Wizards have attracted many players who will likely become free agents after June 22. Of the 18 players who participated in three known workouts, only two are projected in the top 60 by the leading website draftexpress.com. For every Frank Mason III (Kansas) and Tyler Dorsey (Oregon), there has been a parade of little-known names such as Justin Robinson (Monmouth) and Daniel Dixon (William & Mary).
Some of these players take workouts with the hope of landing on a team’s summer league roster. Others are just warm bodies thrown into 3-on-3 games.
“I think we know, we’re aware of it but at the same time it gives us an opportunity to be seen. Beggars can’t be choosers, I suppose,” said Duran, Lucas’s agent. “We may not be the top prize but the coaches are going to be there regardless. Every time he has an opportunity to show his talent in front of anybody, I think it’s a positive experience for everyone.”
Still, the Wizards have something valuable to offer: a draft pick. And even the possibility of joining an NBA roster is an attractive allure.
“Hungry!” Lucas said with a wide smile. “Take whatever we can get! Whatever I can get.”
Even with one low pick, earning an audience with the Wizards is a coup.
“24-7 charm,” was how Reggie Brown, a longtime agent with Priority Sports & Entertainment, described how he got client Moses Kingsley into a June 5 workout with the Wizards.
“We are very aggressive but tastefully aggressive in selling our clients,” Brown said. “We would love to get phone calls from everybody asking about players but we … feel like it’s our duty and responsibility to call every single team to say this is what’s special about this person and this player.”
Kingsley has used his six pre-draft workouts to rewrite the scouting report from his four years at Arkansas. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who played at Florida State for three seasons, spent his nine workouts proving how his game is better suited for the pro system. He left college early because he thought he had outgrown the game. Besides, some dreams are just too hard to contain: Rathan-Mayes was two years old when he first declared that he would play in the NBA.
“The NBA Draft is something that I’ve always dreamed about my entire life and I’m not worried about where I go, whether it’s first round or second round. The last pick or the first pick,” he said. “I’m not worried about that. I just want to hear my name called on that night.”
Rathan-Mayes, a soft-spoken and polite Canadian, has the woman he refers to as his rock saved in his iPhone as “Mommy” with heart and star emoji. He speaks to her every day, even finding the time during a recent four-city, four-day trek where he left Los Angeles for three consecutive workouts in New York, Washington and finally New Orleans. When he was in eighth grade, he wanted to play at a prestigious Connecticut prep school. The tuition was expensive, but Marilyn Johnson sold her house so that he could attend.
Rathan-Mayes remembers this sacrifice and now in those early morning phone calls with his mother before workouts, he’s no longer the nice guy.
“‘Take out anyone in front of me, mom,'” Johnson said, recalling her son’s daily proclamation.
Though Lucas certainly shares this drive, he understands his reality. So does his agent.
“He comes from a great program and did very well but I don’t have any indication that he’s going to get drafted in the first round at all,” Duran said. “We’re hoping to get drafted in the second round, but it’s also a challenge.”
Because Lucas spent parts of his childhood in Japan where father Richard played pro basketball, he can speak the language fluently. Duran has already fielded offers for him to play in Japan, where he could make nearly $300,000, after taxes, compared to a guaranteed Development League contract of $50,000. Japan could be Plan B, but in these workouts, matched against potential first-round picks such as T.J. Leaf, John Collins and Ivan Rabb, Lucas was not thinking about playing overseas. He wants the NBA.
As Lucas lingered inside Verizon Center, waiting to hear the destination for his next commercial flight, he optimistically reviewed his workout with the Wizards. The low draft number may turn off some prospects, but not Lucas.
“The thing is, guys who come to this, they just want an opportunity and that’s what they’re offering,” Lucas said. “Not anything flashy, not some great pick or anything like that. You’re going to see a lot of people who might be overlooked because of age or overlooked because of school, whatever it may be. And you just want the opportunity to show it doesn’t matter about age, or it doesn’t matter about what school you went to or what role you played in college. Once you get on the same level, you can show. Everybody coming through here is thinking the same thing, so it makes for good competition on the court too.”