The One(s) That Got Away

By: Joe Pohoryles

In the John Wall era of Washington Wizards teams, there have been a share of playoff teams and bottom-feeders. Right now the team is at a low point, but with a handful of promising young players developing on the court, and the now-dunking Wall recovering off it, better times appear to be ahead.

It does no one any good to look back on what could have been, but it is certainly fun to do. Hindsight is 20/20, so it’s easy to look back on some team decisions and wonder, “what was management thinking?” At the same time, there were some moves made that were questionable from the jump.

Never a major free agent destination, the Wizards are a team forced to build primarily through the draft, and today we’ll take a look at some players the Wizards have passed on through the years, and what the team could have looked like today if they hadn’t.

2011 draft pick: Jan Veselý (6th overall)

Notable players missed: Kemba Walker (9th), Klay Thompson (11th), Kawhi Leonard (15th), Nikola Vučević (16th), Jimmy Butler (30th)

Photo Credit: CBS Sports

At 10 years old, I did not know too much about basketball, but when I awoke the morning after the draft and took a look at the Washington Post spread covering every pick, I was puzzled and angered when I saw the Wizards selected a Czech seven-footer I had never heard of. After seeing what Kemba Walker did with the UConn Huskies in March, I was all for Cardiac Kemba.

I also knew the Wizards had drafted Wall first overall just a year ago, and Walker would likely not be on the team’s radar, but I was hoping for someone I had known already. Of course, plenty of talented players have come out of Europe, looking no further than Nikola Vučević, who was selected just ten picks later. But I had a bad feeling about Veselý. Even if Walker was not the answer, I figured the team probably could have drafted somebody better.

I happened to be right. Veselý played just three NBA seasons, never averaging more than 4.7 points or 4.4 rebounds (both career-highs are from his rookie year). After being shipped to Denver in 2014, Veselý went back to Europe upon season’s end, landing with Fenerbahçe of Turkey. Veselý won a EuroLeague Championship with the team in 2017, and just recently won EuroLeague MVP for the 2018-2019 season. At least he panned out somewhere.

Meanwhile in Washington, the team failed to get Wall immediate help. Ironically enough, Markieff Morris, who was selected 13th overall by the Phoenix Suns in 2011, ended up on the Wizards roster in 2016, and played a significant role until he was traded away in 2019.

Klay Thompson would have been a nice compliment to Wall to make a killer backcourt. Shooting has never been Wall’s strength, so having a lights-out shooter like Thompson as an option would have helped cleared more space for Wall to blaze through the middle in his second season. (Keep in mind, the team had not yet drafted Bradley Beal).

If we’re trying to build the best team, though, we would take Kawhi Leonard instead. Who knows how the Klaw would have developed had he not ended up with Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, but who wouldn’t want a Fun Guy like Leonard on the team?

2013 draft pick: Otto Porter Jr. (3rd overall)

Notable players missed: CJ McCollum (10th), Steven Adams (12th), Giannis Antetokounmpo (15th), Rudy Gobert (27th)

Assuming the Wizards take Beal in 2012, the team has a few intriguing options to choose from instead of Otto Porter, who was not a complete bust like Veselý, but certainly never developed into a star. I’ll just save everyone some time and say we should have selected Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Greek Freak is the reigning MVP, with a great chance to win again, and is the centerpiece of the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks who are in the thick of a title chase. Teams are wondering whether or not Giannis will jump ship in the offseason… a year and a half from now, when he hits free agency. That is how much impact he has on the league’s landscape.

I remember watching the draft in 2013, figuring out how to possibly pronounce the tongue-twisting name of this Greek teenager, not even realizing just six years later he’d be the best player in the league. In this hindsight scenario, he will be terrorizing opponents in DC.

2015 draft pick: Kelly Oubre Jr. (15th overall)

Notable missed players: Montrezl Harrell (32nd)

Photo Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press

While the Wizards technically selected former DeMatha star Jerian Grant 19th overall, a draft day trade saw the team bring in Wave Papi instead. He showed a lot of promise on a rebuilding team before being shipped to Phoenix for half a season of Trevor Ariza. Oubre averages 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds with the Suns (both career-bests); Ariza now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers. Thanks, Ernie.

While the earlier picks saw future All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Kristaps Porzingis and Devin Booker selected, the rest of the draft did not really feature any big name players; Oubre is among the best of them.

Montrezl Harrell was a Sixth Man of the Year finalist last year, and is a key bench contributor for the LA Clippers, so he probably gives Oubre a run for his money. Plus, with a killer starting lineup already taking form, bringing in a top-tier sixth-man seems like a good move.

2018 draft pick: Troy Brown Jr.

Notable missed players: TBD

The Wizards did not own first-round picks in 2016 or 2017, so after missing out on some high-end prospects for a couple years, the team selected the high-upside, but raw Troy Brown Jr. He has a ways to go when it comes to development, but after stepping up in situations in which the roster was cut down with injuries, it’s clear he could turn out to be a good pick.

If we wanted to shake things up, though, former Kansas star Devonte’ Graham is having a breakout season with the Charlotte Hornets. After going 34th overall in 2018, Graham is proving every team that passed up on him wrong, so slotting him in as a young, dynamic guard to back up Wall and Beal seems like the ideal move.

2019 draft pick: Rui Hachimura

Missed players: TBD

Like the 2018 class, today’s rookies should not yet be judged comparatively, but it appears as if the Wizards got out with a good one. Rui Hachimura has proven to be among the best rookies, as he was selected for the Rising Stars challenge at All Star Weekend a couple weeks ago.

While having Zion Williamson or Ja Morant would have been an absolute thrill, the Wizards never got an opportunity to take them. With no considerably better options than Hachimura at this point, we’ll stick with him.

20/20 Washington Wizards

G: John Wall

G: Bradley Beal

F: Kawhi Leonard

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo

C: Thomas Bryant

Bench:

F: Montrezl Harrell

G: Devonte’ Graham

F: Rui Hachimura

There is obviously no way the Wizards would be able to afford this team under the salary cap, especially with Wall’s supermax contract, but it is still astounding to look at the talent the Wizards could have possessed.

Would this even work out? Who would the team “belong” to? Giannis and Kawhi are headliners on their respective teams today, and Wall would still be the most tenured, so would egos clash? Would Beal get enough touches to become the star he is today? Would a ball-handling Giannis miff Wall?

We’ll never know the answers to these questions, and despite his resume, Ernie Grunfeld cannot be blamed for passing up on these players. Plenty of teams let these guys slip, and it’s possible some would not have been the players they are today had the Wizards drafted them.

It’s an interesting hypothetical to ponder, and one that can only be done in hindsight.

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