Kwame Brown. Do you remember him? Mention his name to any Washington Wizards fan and I guarantee their face will slowly morph into the Michael Jordan crying-face meme, which is funny because he is the reason Brown put on a Wizards uniform. He was once heralded as the best high school player in 2001 — now he is remembered as a dud, one the worst number one overall picks in NBA history.
In a draft with Pau Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Zach Randolph, Joe Johnson, and even Gilbert Arenas, it’s understandable to lament how the Wizards for wasted the first pick on Brown today. But if we saw what Michael Jordan saw during workouts, or what Billy Donovan saw when recruiting him to the University of Florida, then there wouldn’t be any hesitation to chose Brown over Gasol and Chandler. (Could you imagine Gasol being a Wizard? That would have been awesome. I’m sad now. My laptop is now covered with tears.)
Brown was a man amongst scrawny teenage boys at Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Georgia. He racked up an average of 20.1 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 5.8 blocks during his senior year. He then followed that with an impressive 17 point, 7 rebound, 5 block performance during the McDonald’s All-American Game. With an NBA-ready body straight out of high school, and a skill set built around power and athleticism, scouts were quick to write him up as the second coming of Karl Malone or Chris Webber. According to scouts, Brown was the athletic hybrid of Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, two other high school draftees, who can face up defenders and either beat them off the dribble or knock down a 15–17 foot jumper.
After his last workout for the Wizards, he promised MJ, who just so happened to be plotting on a second NBA comeback, that he would not regret drafting him. Well, promises are meant to be broken, right?
Though he showed some occasional flashes of brilliance, Brown’s years in Washington were underwhelming. He averaged 7.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks over the course of four seasons. His third season (the year after Jordan’s retirement) was his best, averaging 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds. The Wizards eventually traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins. As you all know, that’s when everything went downhill for Brown’s career.
Brown was the first high school player to be selected first overall. With that came an immense amount of pressure that he never lived up to. He will always be viewed as a bust because of it, though he still managed to have a 12 year career.
The Wizards have continued to take missteps in the draft aside from John Wall and Bradley Beal. However, there has not been a pick so egregious, so despicable, so abhorrent, so sad than Jan Vesely.
My most haunting memories as a Wizards fan: the crab-dribble, Gilbert Arenas blowing Game 6, the 2011 NBA Draft. That night, the Wizards selected the 6'11 Czech player ahead of Klay Thompson, Kawhi Lenoard, Jimmy Butler, and Kemba Walker. I’d rather relive the time I fell down a flight of stairs than that draft night.
Ernie Grunfeld, who’s been the Wizards President of Basketball Operations for a miraculous 13 years, picked Vesely with John Wall in mind. He was an athletic big man who could run the floor with Wall on fast breaks. And because of his athleticism and length, he had potential to be a solid perimeter defender. Scouts considered Vesely to be the Czech version of Blake Griffin. In theory, Vesely should have been a perfect fit in Washington. So what happened?
Well, like a lot of Grunfeld’s picks (shout-out to Oleksiy Pecherov, Peter John Ramos, and JaVale McGee), Vesely showed that he lacked an actual skill set. Kalen Deremo of the Denver Nuggets blog shared with Lukas Kuba from Truth About It how he remembered “all the hype about him and all everyone said was how athletic he was and how good he ran the floor, etc., but nobody said anything about his skills or one aspect of the game he could do extremely well.”
Watching Vesely play in the NBA was cringe-worthy and let’s not forget about his horrendous free throw shooting.
It got to the point where teammates tried to shoot free throws for him. Say what you want about Kwame Brown’s lack of confidence, small hands, and bad footwork, but at least he wouldn’t have someone else shoot his free throws.
Jan Vesely isn’t the worst pick in Wizards’ history only because he lacked any actual skill, but because he wasn’t the best available player. The late and former Wizards’ coach Flip Saunders wanted to draft Klay Thompson, who was ranked lower than Vesely on most draft boards. Thompson impressed Sanders and the Wizards considered selecting the sharpshooter. But, according to Michael Lee of the Washington Post, Ernie opted with “Airwolf” because “the team was still developing Jordan Crawford and Nick Young was about to become a restricted free agent.” Jordan Crawford hasn’t played in NBA since 2014, Swaggy P is too busy getting bullied by Gilbert Arenas, and Klay Thompson is a World Champion and Olympic gold-medalist.
Kwame Brown was the best available player to go number one in 2001. Pau Gasol turned out to be the best player from that class — he probably would have turned the franchise around too — but the Wizards were not going to draft a 7'0 skinny Spanish player whose natural position, according to scouting reports, was small-forward. In an era where mighty Shaquille O’Neals and David Robinsons roamed the NBA, it was safe to go with a wide body forward/center like Brown.
Also the miscue on drafting Brown was less severe than Vesely. In exchange for Brown, the Wizards picked up one their best players in recent memory and revitalized the franchise. Whereas, the Vesely experiment is still affecting the organization five years later.
The common thread that sews together Kwame Brown and Jan Vesely into this ugly quilt that is the Wizards’ draft history, is the team’s inability to find talent through the draft. Ernie Grunfeld and Michael Jordan have both had multiple missteps trying to find talent, even when they have high draft picks.
It is also fair to point out the poor job this organization has done with developing players. Kawhi Lenoard, who had tremendous upside like Vesely, developed under the San Antonio Spurs’ system and blossomed into the two time Defensive Player of the Year and Finals MVP. If there was better player development in Washington during their tenures, perhaps Vesley and Brown could have reached their full potential.
Either way, the fact remains that both picks were big misses that kept the team from adding talent to their roster. But at least in the case of Brown, he had enough talent to last in the NBA for several more years and allowed the Wizards to recoup some value when they parted ways. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Vesely who was out of the NBA after only three seasons and cost the team a shot at several future All-Stars.