Out of Check: Wright's Career Back on Track

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – For Julian Wright, the past 12 months have been a bit of a chess match.

From the expiration of a disappointing NBA rookie contract, an uncertain end to the NBA lockout and a career stuck somewhere in between potential and oblivion, Wright, waiting to make his next move, was faced with a dilemma that held him in check.

Kasparov would’ve been hard-pressed to predict what would happen next – how, a year after his 2010-11 season ended, Wright finds himself starring in the NBA D-League, on an Austin Toros team a game away from a league championship.

It’s a journey that’s required both calculated moves and patience – not unlike another victory he just notched.

“I love playing chess,” Wright said. “I just tweeted I beat the computer on my phone and I think it’s almost 2100 (grading points) out of 2500, so it’s almost like Grand Master. So it was just coincidental, but maybe divine … for me to win that game with us being the underdogs today.”

Hours later, Wright led the undermanned Toros to a 113-94 win in Game 2 of the NBA D-League Finals presented by BBVA. Taking on the L.A. D-Fenders at the Toyota Sports Center, a venue where L.A. had lost just four times all year, Wright pulled down 11 rebounds and finished the game tied with teammate and league MVP Justin Dentmon with a game-high 26 points.

It was a performance – and a stage – that had to seem almost inconceivable last summer, when the 6-foot-8 forward was devoting his attention to his role as a player representative for his former team, the Toronto Raptors, during the NBA lockout.

“It was a crazy process,” Thomas said. “I don’t even think teams, when the lockout ended, were able to figure out what to do, so how could the players know what to do, especially if they weren’t already on a team?”

Wright, who fell into that latter category, quickly turned into a pawn amongst NBA royalty, something he was not so accustomed to. Highly touted out of the University of Kansas, Wright was selected No. 13 overall in the 2007 draft by the New Orleans Hornets.

The fairy tale ended there, as Wright, then 19 years old, failed to live up to the mountain of expectations generated by his high draft pick.

In a three-year career that spanned 231 NBA games, Wright averaged a pedestrian 3.9 points and 2.3 rebounds. The Hornets sent him to Toronto before the 2010-11 season, and after his four-year contract (worth $10.6 million) expired, he was not picked up by another team.

Still, he stayed to do his part for the Players Union during the lockout.

“I felt I had an obligation to stay here during the lockout,” Wright said. “I would have had some looks to go overseas and play but I just felt like, hey, some things are just the right thing to do, regardless of where life takes you.”

So, despite potentially having other career options elsewhere, he opted to stay and, in turn, hoped an NBA team would pick him up.

Then, when the lockout cleared, there were no takers.

“I wasn’t getting the looks that I thought as a free agent with the lockout ending and it was nothing to panic about,” Wright remembered. “I felt like, ‘Hey, basketball is basketball and I respect the game too much to sit out and think that I’m too good for a situation.’ So, the Toros reached out to my agent and I thought it was a great look with them having a lot of people getting Call-Ups. And not even that, just teaching. They teach the game here and I’ve always wanted to be coached.”

Julian Wright
Julian Wright dunks in Game 2. (NBAE/Getty Images)
Wright was out of official basketball action for almost 11 months before first suiting up for the Toros on March 1. During the off period, time that Wright spent time training both in Los Angeles and at the University of Kansas, one thought always penetrated his mind, he said.

“I belong.”

As the days, weeks and months went on, he tirelessly worked on his game. The man Austin coach Brad Jones refers to as the “Energizer Bunny” stayed in shape – even running up and down with the 18- and 19-year olds at Kansas – and sought to prove to everyone, even himself, that his dream of being in the NBA was just on hold, not dead.

Once he got to the Toros, he made an immediate impact. In 26 games, he averaged more than 16 points, failing to score in double figures only one time, as well as averaging just under eight rebounds a game. Playing nearly 30 minutes a night, versus just over 13 in three NBA seasons, has also factored in his development.

“Minutes equal confidence to me,” Wright said.

What’s maybe even more impressive than his stat sheet is the way Wright’s attacked his new role out of the limelight.

“He’s been humbled,” Jones said. “And now, to his credit, instead of sitting around, waiting, expecting somebody to do something for him, he jumped in the D-League, which isn’t always the coolest thing to do for a lottery pick, and he’s really reaping the benefits. He’s reaping them, but also the Toros are reaping them because he’s been really special for us since he’s been here.”

Wright’s production on the court, especially in a Finals series where Eric Dawson, Austin’s leading rebounder, is out with a concussion, is of critical importance. But what this veteran (in NBA D-League years), at the battle-tested age of 24, brings to the team in leadership is an entirely different intangible.

“He’s very beyond his time as far as everything I would say,” Austin’s injured forward Da’Sean Butler said. “But basketball definitely. He knows what he’s doing, he’s a smart individual. Especially when I was on the court, I would take what he said serious and put it out there on the floor.”

Yes, the same Julian Wright that likes to play chess, play the piano and write his own music, as well as call out defensive assignments from inside the paint, is the same Julian Wright that was born in May of 1987, making him younger than most mortgages. By looking and talking to him, however, with his cool demeanor and well-groomed Playoff facial hair, you’d think he was much older.

“A lot of it was having to grow up pretty fast,” said Wright of his maturity. “I left at 19 to play professionally and I learned a lot through mistakes really. I think leadership comes through trial and error, and also just listening.”

Wright points to former teammates like Chris Paul as valuable mentors for him. Now, as a guy with both life experience and vitally important NBA experience, he is assuming that mentorship role on the Toros.

At one point in Thursday’s game, Butler, from the bench, told Wright to talk to his teammates after a few defensive lapses in the paint. He told Wright to get in their ear because he knew Wright’s words would have an impact.

“He’s a vocal guy, somebody that the team listens to.” Butler said. “He knows what he’s talking about on the court, which makes it easy when the guys come in and he tells them, you know, ‘We gotta box out, we need to rebound, we need to do whatever.’ He’s reliable. He’s accountable.”

He’s also the key to the Toros winning a championship.

The last remaining formidable post presence the Toros have left – Terrance Woodbury has slid admirably into a forward position, but has a body more like a swingman – Wright has to shoulder the burden against a strong D-Fenders frontline. Jones called his effort on Thursday night “awe-inspiring” and a similar effort on Saturday is precisely what the Toros need to win a championship – a championship that, Wright says, has painfully eluded him in both high school and college.

In the bowels of the Toyota Sports Center, being interviewed by only a handful of reporters, Wright is still far from the bright lights of the NBA, but with every clutch performance he comes closer and closer to getting back to where he thinks, or knows, he belongs.

Now, his play on the court – as well as his maturity off it – has successfully taken him out of check.

It is now, once again, his move.

“I wouldn’t take anything back from the process,” Wright said. “I think that’s going to help me in the future as a professional player.”

The pieces, they seem, are finally falling back into place. His career revived and his mind right, he’s positioned – more than ever before – to strike.

Checkmate.