Is this the end of the NBA line for JuJu?
Julian Wright was one of the top prospects in the 2007 NBA Draft. He had huge upside, but four years into his NBA career, things haven't gone as planned. The HQ takes a look...
Julian Wright stands in front of his locker, the lone remaining Toronto Raptor present in the wake of a season-ending 97 to 79 loss to the Miami Heat.
It was a perfect way to end the season in many ways, as the team produced one of their worst efforts of the year, getting pummeled by a "Big 3-less" Miami team, finishing the season with a record of 22 and 60.
Wright actually saw 18 minutes of action in the loss, scoring six points and grabbing three rebounds, but he was a team-high minus 24 on the night.
He takes his time getting dressed, rifling through various items while doing so, sometimes pausing to ask me if I have any interest in things like shoes and towels.
I politely decline, and laugh to myself when I consider the prospect of Julian Wright's giant kicks mounted on a mantle in my condo somewhere.
"It's over too soon" he says, referring to the recently concluded season.
"My first two years in the NBA, I've been in the playoffs. The last two, I haven't."
"I know they say it's lucky, that guys are lucky to be on playoff teams, and it's true. It's not something I've ever taken for granted."
As I stand there watching him sort through more Raptors' paraphernalia, it dawns on me that Julian is possibly a very long way from getting back to the NBA playoffs. His current team, should they retain his services as a free agent, has a long ways to go, and Wright himself for the first time is looking at a very uncertain future in the NBA.
"Would you like to come back to Toronto next year?" I ask him.
"To be honest, I've got to look at my options first" he replies. "I had a great time with this organization, a great time with the young guys on this club and we didn't let the losses get to us. I'd definitely come back if the right opportunity was there."
And there it was.
Much like the recent comments from Joey Dorsey's agent Lance Young, a lot of Julian Wright's future in the NBA, with the Toronto Raptors or with another club, is going to come down to opportunity. Wright doesn't turn 24 until November of this year, but he knows it's now or never if he wants to carve out a firm niche for himself in the league, and a lot of that "now or never" is going to come down to which team gives him a legit shot.
It's funny because in some ways, the Toronto Raptors gave him his first big shot last year.
He averaged a career-high 14.7 minutes of playing time a night, and was often a valuable contributor off the bench giving the team much-needed doses of energy, athleticism and defense.
However he just couldn't stick in coach Jay Triano's rotation despite injuries to players like Sonny Weems and Linas Kleiza, and eventually the Raptors traded for another small forward, James Johnson, who cemented himself as the team's first option at the 3.
Post-trade, Wright's playing time dropped off and he notched a number of DNP-CD's in early March. His potential breakout year wasn't going as planned and frustration possibly boiled over in Oakland later that month when he refused to enter the game during a 138 to 100 blow-out at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
He later apologized to his coaches and teammates for the incident, however to many, that seemed to be the nail in the proverbial coffin regarding Wright's time in TO. One of the few defensive-minded players on the club was probably not coming back next season, and there were suddenly very real questions about his future as an NBA basketball player.
He was no longer a rookie, or a high-upside lottery pick.
He was now a four-year vet without a contract, and without what appeared to be a lot of interest in his services from other clubs.
Not exactly the ideal situation for a former third team All-American at Kansas.
As we stood and talked about his future, I couldn't help but wonder if this was the last we'd seen of Julian Wright in the NBA.
"We'll see what happens man, we'll see" he says.
Wright's story though isn't an uncommon one in the league.
Drafted with the 13th pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, Julian Emil-Jamaal Wright, a 6-8 225lb forward from Chicago Illinois, was one of the better "upside" players from the 2007 draft, a pretty good class that produced the likes of Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley Jr, Joakim Noah and of course Greg Oden.
He wasn't seen as a sure thing like the aforementioned names, but along the lines of Thad Young, another 2007 draftee, Wright had some of the best potential of the group.
A long and athletic swingman with a prototypical small forward physique, experts agreed that if Wright could hone his offensive game, he could be a deadly player in the league, a tough match-up along the lines of a Boris Diaw (the non Eddy Curry Phoenix version at the time) thanks to his passing and rebounding abilities.
However that honed offensive game never developed.
His athletic ability and nose for the ball helped him post respectable effective field goal percentage totals, however a career free-throw shooting percentage of 58 per cent and a three-point percentage of 26 per cent (including a measly 20 per cent last season) underscore the lack of development in his shot, something that has consistently held him back in the league.
Wright knows this, and when I ask him about his off-season plans, he goes into great detail about the task at hand this summer:
"It's renovation time. I'm going into the off-season very optimistic, but I need to make some changes (to my jumpshot)."
"I'll still get 500, 1000 shots up this summer, but if they're not the same each time I'm shooting them...there's just things I can correct."
"I've had the same shot, the same habits since I was a kid, so I'm going to try and break them up, start from scratch."
It's no doubt an admirable task, but is it a realistic one? And shouldn't this have been done some time ago?
After all, this is the same player who refused to play in Summer League for New Orleans, despite the requests of head coach Monty Williams.
Wright has his work cut out for him so that he doesn't join the long list of "upside draft picks" that didn't pan out, names like Gerald Green, Rodney Carney, Rashad McCants and even former Raptors Joey Graham and Antoine Wright. If he gets another shot with a team, he's going to have to make the most of it, perhaps finding a niche as a Brian Cardinal energy and hustle type.
Ironically I'd argue that the Raps could still use just such a player.
Who knows how productive Linas Kleiza will ever be, and James Johnson is the only other true small forward on the club, so it's not like Wright would be battling with guys like Ron Artest and Matt Barnes for playing time.
As well, new head coach Dwane Casey would likely have a much more consistent role for someone like Wright, who despite a positive wins produced mark of 1.6, actually posted his lowest career usage rate (13.0) last year with Toronto.
Wright may have gotten the minutes under Triano, but as fans can attest, it was a constant yo-yo in terms of the significance of that playing time.
Much like Joey Dorsey, I believe this is another situation where player X needs to find coach Y who believes in him, gives him a solid role, and instills confidence. Wright isn't an unproductive player, but he does have major limitations to his game and until those are corrected to some extent, he simply needs to play to his strengths.
Strengths I'll add, that at one point had him looking like an upgrade over Jeff Green, the same Jeff Green that the Boston Celtics last year dealt key starter Kendrick Perkins for.
Wright might never be Jeff Green (and some may argue that's probably a good thing) but someone with his abilities and physical traits should be able to help a club win games. He can play a number of positions on the floor, especially on D, and if he focussed on being a defensive stopper for now, ala a Thabo Sefolosha, then maybe he gets a good look from team during this extended off-season.
"Individually I know I've got to continue to work hard," Wright says as he puts the last of his items in a bag. "I was thinking about that and the off-season even as the game was winding down."
"You've got to take every opportunity to make that impression."
It's hard to disagree, and it's my hope that Wright's next impression is a lasting one, either with the Raptors, or with another team in the NBA.