Julian Wright is taking the opportunity of a lifetime, and who can blame him? He brought enthusiasm and energy to every game, contributed hugely in many of the big wins in the last couple of years (cf. these dunks during the Florida game and this epic 33-point performance at MU), and showed enough skill and potential to be very highly regarded by NBA scouts. Who wouldn't seize a chance to be financially secure, and to play in the NBA? The future is rarely certain in these situations, as these guys can attest. Best of luck to you, JuJu.The KU-sports-related Internet is (predictably) thrashing around with the news, and the emotions range from hurt to happy, fatalistic to optimistic. And who can blame them, really? The last four years have been tough on Kansas basketball, so tough that the mention of certain names — Roy, Micah, Padgett, Galindo, Giddens, CJ, etc — can provoke pangs and spasms of hurt and guilt. I guess Julian gets added to the list now, though personally I think he's ready and I'm happy for him. Most of the commenters at the end of this story feel otherwise. Julian's departure is complicated, of course, by the fact that he pledged to stay following the loss to UCLA. This CBS reporter was really peeved that Julian reconsidered his prospects after the season ended, which seems kinda silly to me. Did it really take Julian's change of heart to communicate to him that big-time college sports are bittersweet, unpredictable, and perpetually compromised by the twin prospects of major, life-changing injuries and major, life-changing paydays?Whatever happens, I think that Julian will eventually have a good NBA career. Ryan Greene of kusports.com compares Julian to Shawn Marion, and I see the resemblance as well. That said, he would be way better off with established, veteran-heavy teams like Phoenix (who wouldn't?) or Chicago, where he'd be able to learn and adjust out of the spotlight. Career-endangering teams like Memphis, Atlanta or (once again) Sacramento will give him too much responsibility too soon, though he may be able to survive that either way. Long term, he's a Western Conference player who will come off the bench, get his 12 and 8, continue do all the little stuff that makes him great (deflecting passes, setting other guys up, keeping offensive rebounds alive), and be a good team guy to boot.
The bright sides
Looking forward to next November, here are three scenarios that reflect my thinking on the remaining possibilities for early entries and (yikes, not again!) transfers.
- Without Wright: Actually may be better. Like Drew Gooden's early exit, I actually think there's quite a significant bright side here. Julian's athletic ability and talent require that he play a major role in the offense, which results in fewer opportunities for the talents of other players — Mario's drives and shots, Sherron's shot and drive, Rush's entire offensive arsenal, Shady's sweet moves inside 12 feet. When Gooden left, Collison's McHale-like low-post presence and Hinrich's Stockton-like ability to make the right decision on every fast break ended up providing a system more stable than the one focused on Gooden's always athletic, sometimes erratic presence. Without Julian at the 4, Shady starts and gets more time. This means that the line-up gets bulkier without losing that much in the way of speed. They'll miss Julian's explosiveness and shot-blocking, but they gain Shady's sweet touch and better ability to (more dependably) make plays while posting up. If Rush is still around (not likely, so see the bullet point below), I tend to think that this line-up may even be more dangerous than if Wright had stuck around.
- Without Wright and Rush: Lots of re-jiggering, lots of uncertainty. Losing Rush is a much bigger deal than losing Wright, obviously. He's the team's best on-the-ball defender; he became the go-to scorer during the games in San Jose, and he can stroke it. Unfortunately for him, he's not the explosive athlete that Julian is, and scouts are not evaluating his draftability in the crystal-ballish terms of upside and potential. His capacity is known, apparently, and therefore it has limits in the eyes of scouts. Does this mean he can't become, say, a Bruce Bowen type of player? Heck no. In fact, I think he'd fit in really well with the type of team who would draft him in the 20's or so. And this is probably what will happen, so it all works out for the best, for him. If money and academics (which are a major hassle for him) were not issues, he's in a great position to thrive next season. He fits into Self's system really well; he really began to shine at the end of the season; another season would really give him a chance to refine his dribble-drive and his outside shot. But this is not an ideal world, and barring the entry of the entire UNC team or an injury that prevents him from competing in the pre-draft camps, I suspect he's gone. Good luck to him.
So. How do the Hawks replace Brandon? Who becomes the stopper? Who takes over the offense at the end of games? Who attracts the other team's defenders whenever he's on the floor? I'm not really sure about any of this. A couple of things are certain, though: This will be a seasoned, capable team. They've been through a lot, beaten Kevin Durant twice, won two Big 12 tournaments, etc. Moreover, they'll be without a superstar like Brandon and Julian, and this — weirdly — might make them much more like Self's Illinois teams — gritty, hungry, scrappy and dangerous in the tournament.
- Without Wright, Rush, and Collins: !@$#%$#@*&. Almost too painful to consider. How many times did I text the words "Thank God for Sherron" during the Big 12 season? How many times did he single-handedly change the pace and momentum of a game with a vicious drive to the basket? He's not ready to jump to the League, but rumor has it that he wants to be closer to home. But would he really want to sit out a year, play for a school in a mid-major conference, give up a chance to play in a Final Four, give up a chance to play on national television for 15–20 or 20–25 games next year? I really hope not. Man, that would hurt.