Shortly after the Washington Wizards realized that they were going to have the sixth pick in the upcoming draft, John Wall scurried out of the studio where the NBA lottery results were revealed and grabbed a seat in a room nearby to watch Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between Oklahoma City and Dallas.
Wall has been keeping close tabs and studying point guards in the playoffs who have reached a status that he aspires to meet. He’s traveled to Miami to catch Rajon Rondo, spent several hours in front of the television to see newly minted MVP Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, and, when he has found a quiet moment relaxing at his mother’s home in Raleigh, N.C., Wall has combed through film to see what makes those all-star point guards effective.
No matter whom the Wizards select in the June 23 NBA draft, Wall understands that in order for the team to get better, he’ll have to improve as well. He said he has used the swift rise of Rose’s Chicago Bulls and Westbrook’s Thunder — young teams already in the conference finals — as motivation.
“Makes me want to work harder,” said Wall, last year’s No. 1 overall pick. “I’m already motivated to work, because I think the season could’ve went a lot better. But to see those guys at a young age, doing what they’re doing for their teams, they just got everybody playing together and being the leaders. Those guys are really helping their teams. And a couple of years ago, their teams weren’t doing too good. Now look at them, they are in the conference finals.”
But the Wizards will also need to surround Wall with better talent, and the next step in that process has already begun. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, Coach Flip Saunders and other members of the basketball operations staff have converged in Chicago for the NBA combine to interview and scout candidates at Tim Grover’s Attack Athletics gym.
Although the Wizards are likely out of the running for either Kyrie Irving or Derrick Williams, the top two prospects, they could still have several options with the sixth pick. Turkish big man Enes Kanter could slip to them, as well as center Jan Vesely from the Czech Republic, San Diego State forward Kawhi Leonard, Texas forward Tristan Thompson or Lithuanian forwards Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas.
“It all depends on what teams do in front of us. And that will determine who’s left for us to pick at the sixth spot,” Grunfeld said after the lottery. “We’ll pick the player that’s highest ranked on our board. Everybody ranks players different, and everybody’s needs are a little different.”
Since taking over as general manager of the Wizards in 2003, Grunfeld has had three lottery picks and kept just one — Wall. The Wizards have seven players under contract for next season and only two of them are older than 24 (Andray Blatche and Rashard Lewis), so they don’t necessarily need more young players. But Grunfeld said on Wednesday that he intends to stay committed to the plan of rebuilding through the draft and keeping the choice this time.
“I think every situation is different. At the times we traded the other picks; one, we got Antawn [Jamison in 2004], who became a two-time all-star for us and the other one was for [Mike] Miller and [Randy] Foye when we felt like we had a team that was going to compete and we didn’t feel like we needed more young players,” Grunfeld said. “Now we’re in a different phase. We’re building and we know this is going to be a different process for us. In all likelihood we’ll keep this pick, but people are always calling and have interest and we’ll listen. But in all likelihood, this is a pick we’ll end up making.”
Grunfeld, though, didn’t rule out the possibility of moving up to get a desired player. “We’ll definitely look into it and see what other opportunities come up as we move along,” he said, noting that the Wizards have three of the top 34 picks in the draft, after acquiring the 18th pick from Atlanta in a trade involving Kirk Hinrich.
After the NBA combine, the Wizards will attend a pre-draft workout in Minnesota and invite candidates to work out at Verizon Center. With so many picks, Grunfeld said the Wizards would evaluate “a wide range of players.”
Wall is optimistic that the Wizards will find the right pieces this offseason, but he has big plans for his team and himself. “Next year, I just want to be in the playoffs,” Wall said. “Everything I didn’t do good this year, you’re going to see me get better at next season, making jump shots, being more confident, less turnovers. But studying a lot, being a better defender, all those things. That’s the same thing Derrick said, ‘I want to be MVP.’ It might not happen next year, but at least by my third year, I want to be in the race.”