Over the years, the Wizards have taken many chances on high-risk, high-reward players. Some of them have had more success than others, but most never came close to reaching their full potential in Washington.
In part one of a two part series, we’re going to create a starting five of ‘what if’ players. As in, what guys had the most potential and the front office took a risk on them, but they just never panned out in Washington.
Before we jump in, let’s do a little housekeeping. The rules here are pretty simple: the player must have played at least one full season in Washington. Second, the player will be grouped by era based on their level of impact in that era. For example, JaVale McGee played with both Gilbert Arenas and John Wall, however, when playing with Wall, it was clear that he was playing on borrowed time and would shortly be gone.
First, let’s discuss the Gilbert Arenas era.
The Wizards drafted Brown with the first overall pick in 2001. Brown was one of the most hyped up prospects to make the leap from high school to the pros and then-GM Michael Jordan took a chance on him.
The hype didn’t last long, though. After a tough rookie season where he played just 14 minutes per game, Brown showed signs of improvement in his second year, but still wasn’t producing the results that most would expect from a top overall pick. In the 2003-04 season, Brown averaged 10.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, his best season as a pro.
Things came to a halt for Brown during the 2004-05 season as injuries limited him to 42 games that year. It was also clear that Gilbert Arenas was D.C.’s future centerpiece moving forward. After clashing with Arenas and coach Eddie Jordan, Brown was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.
The biggest issue for Kwame Brown was that he was drafted number one overall in 2001. Brown’s NBA career lasted 12 years as he became a journeyman playing for seven NBA teams. Still, his production never matched what you would expect from a top pick, hence why Brown is viewed as a bust today.
“He’s a jack of all trades, can really do it all.” Tell me if that sounds familiar.
I have no way to prove this but I’m convinced that longtime General Manager Ernie Grunfeld first came up with his often used ‘jack of all trades’ description for every multidimensional player he drafted beginning with Dominic McGuire. The Wizards thought they got a steal when they drafted McGuire in the second round of the 2007 draft. What was most appealing about McGuire was that he could play both the small forward and power forward positions - something that was uncommon back then.
McGuire got his opportunities in Washington as he played in 70 games his rookie year and 79 his sophomore season (started in 57). The Wizards were in a full on transition mode in 2008-09 when he averaged a career-best 4.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
McGuire lasted just 2.5 short seasons in Washington before he was traded to the Sacramento Kings in 2010. He jumped around to a few teams before he was out of the NBA altogether.
It is unfair to call McGuire a bust because he was drafted in the second round. But despite his versatility, things didn’t work out.
The Wizards drafted McGee with the 18th pick in the in the 2008 Draft. McGee caught Washington’s eye for a couple of reasons - his shot blocking ability and the potential to be a great rim finisher with his long frame.
McGee was thrusted into the rotation immediately as he played in 75 games his rookie year. Though it was clear that McGee had potential, he was still very raw and too lanky to hold position against other post players. Even though McGee was a good shot blocker, his timing was often off and he regularly saw goaltending calls against him.
In the 2010-11 season, McGee averaged 10.1 points per game as the starting center - with most of those points coming on dunks or shots around the rim.
His downfall in Washington began earlier in the 2009-10 season because he got caught up in the circus-like atmosphere that shaped the end of the Arenas era, including the “finger guns” moment before a game against the Philadelphia 76ers. In the next season, he got into a fight with Andray Blatche outside of a D.C. nightclub.
The highlight of McGee’s time in Washington was probably in 2011 when he was in the Dunk Contest. McGee had a couple of very nice dunks including one where he dunked three basketballs but ultimately ended up losing to Blake Griffin.
McGee was traded to the Denver Nuggets during the 2011-12 season as the Wizards were looking reset the culture. After bouncing around to a few teams, McGee found his footing with the Golden State Warriors, where he played from 2016-18. There, he focused on making the right play instead of the spectacular play and carved out a nice role for himself. He won championships in each of his two seasons there.
Today, McGee plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, where he continues to play with that mindset and is still putting up solid numbers.
This begs the question: How good could McGee have been in Washington if he was more mature early on and didn’t get caught up in all of the hoopla?
During the 2010-11 season, the fourth of Young’s NBA career, it looked like he was finally starting to turn the corner. His minutes nearly doubled from the prior season, and he put up an average of 17.4 points per night. Getting a taste of the playoffs during his rookie year and now, putting up some of the best numbers of his career, it looked like Young might be a long-term piece in Washington.
The thing with Nick Young was, aside from scoring, he didn’t really care about much - well, except getting into prank wars. Young entered the league as an energetic, happy-go-lucky kid who just liked to score and goof off with his teammates. It became clear pretty quickly that pranking his teammates and cracking jokes were just as important as playing basketball. Being alongside Arenas and the circus-like atmosphere that McGee fell victim to also hit Young.
When the Wizards drafted Young, they thought they found a sharpshooter that could get them a bucket off the bench at any time. Unfortunately for the Wizards, Young never became more than a ‘bad team, good stats’ type of player.
But if someone can score, a team will take a flyer on him. That’s just what the Warriors did later on in Young’s career when he teamed up with McGee in Golden State for the 2017-18 season and won a championship.
What if the Wizards had a solid foundation in place when Young was drafted? It’s possible that he could have been a solid off-the-bench scorer at the very least.
Blatche was Grunfeld’s ultimate “Swiss Army Knife” guy. Even though he was a second round selection, the Wizards front office thought Blatche could do it all.
Standing at 6’11, Blatche could back down smaller defenders, step back and take a mid range shot, and sometimes, put the ball on the floor and create.
The Wizards were patient with Blatche since it took him five NBA seasons to really get a feel for the game at the professional level. But his issues off-the-court often overshadowed what he was doing on the court.
Like Young and McGee, Blatche was part of the pre-game “finger guns” incident. And among other things, he was even arrested for soliciting a prostitute in 2007, though the charges were dropped. In 2012, the Wizards benched him because they thought he was out of shape. Blatche fired back claiming that the front office used him as the scapegoat whenever things went south. That summer, the Wizards waived him.
Blatche had a skill set that would be very attractive for today’s NBA center position. Unfortunately, Blatche was just a little ahead of his time. Even then, his lack of maturity didn’t help his cause.
Whenever there’s a pro prospect at the University of Maryland, for some reason, the local media seems to think that player would be a great fit for the Wizards.
The Wizards clearly thought highly of Dixon as they used their 17th pick in the 2002 Draft to take him. That was Michael Jordan’s final year in D.C. and Larry Hughes was already in a Wizards uniform. So Dixon quickly found himself third on the shooting guard pecking order. One year later, Gilbert Arenas arrived leaving Dixon as one of the last guys in the rotation.
The highlight of Dixon’s career in Washington came in Game 4 of the first round of the 2015 NBA Playoffs where he exploded for 35 points en route to a Washington victory.
Dixon was always in the Wizards rotation but never became a significant contributor. Since he brought a championship to the Terrapins in 2002, Dixon was somewhat untouchable and could do no wrong in the eyes of fans and media members covering the team. He was rarely criticized but his occasional scoring bursts lit up then Verizon Center giving fans a nostalgic feeling from the days of watching him in College Park.
Dixon’s career in Washington is best described as a guy who was playing with house money: He could do no wrong. But of course, when things clicked and he had a nice game, it gave locals a warm and fuzzy feeling inside. That’s fine if Dixon was a second rounder, but did the Wizards really have to use a first round pick on him?
Put another way, would things have been different for better or for worse if expectations in Washington were greater than just a guy who it felt like was playing with house money?
Coming soon, I’ll also have a “What If?” team featuring players focused on the John Wall Era.