Julian Wright recently turned 33. In some cases, that’s the age for a center to reach the apex of his maturity as a player. Not the case for the former Kansas standout, who later became a first-round NBA draft pick.
The coronavirus pandemic that initially swept China before spreading all over the world essentially eradicated Wright’s wish to stay active. There was no basketball after that, which is true to this date, since the Euroleague season has been canceled and in the NBA balls will not bounce till mid-June at best.
Talent and versatility were some of Julian’s features that brought him to play at the highest level, albeit not consistently and not long-term. During a bright two-year college career at the University of Kansas under coach Bill Self and alongside future NBA champs Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush, the Illinois native won many accolades even without scoring too much.
His overall presence allowed him to be selected with the 13th pick in the 2007 NBA draft by the New Orleans Hornets. By the time Wright completed his rookie NBA season averaging 3.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per game, Kansas had already celebrated the NCAA title without him. On the basis of performance, his second season in New Orleans was his best out of the three he got to play there.
Following an underwhelming year at Toronto, Wright won his first title: the NBA D-League Championship with the Austin Toros in 2012. An NBA comeback was not in the cards, though, but another career path had opened for him overseas. Israel, Russia, Greece, Italy, Turkey and France were his next destinations. His stint in Paris was marked by the fallout with the local team’s management and that was the last Europe saw of him. In the summer of 2019, Wright participated in Ice Cube’s 3-on-3 BIG3 League, along with some of his former Kansas teammates.
However, his main venture for the time being is A.D.A.P.T. Basketball, a Charlotte-based player development company which aims to provide minors and adults with the tools to cultivate and expand their talent: training, workouts, assessment and consultation, shooting sessions and online classes are some of the methods used, despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
In this interview with TalkBasket.net, divided into two parts, Julian Wright talks about his career in the States and overseas. It all started from choosing Kansas, his “first grown-up decision” as he calls it. His refers to his teammates, recalls how tough it was to contain Kevin Durant and explains why he’s not an advocate for the college sports system. Wright also recounts his days in the NBA and what transpired at a Toronto Raptors game, which marked his presence in the league and signalled the beginning of the end for him.
Above all, the 33-year-old retired player-turned-entrepreneur analyzes what it means to be a versatile player in modern basketball. Playing different positions for different coaches, in sometimes diametrically opposed styles, and also reponding to the requirements had always been Wright’s task to fulfill. In this respect and according to his personal experience as a pro athlete, “ADAPT” can be the key to unlock many doors.
This is Julian Wright, Vol.1!
Q: First of all, I’d like you to confirm your status. Have you officially retired from pro basketball?
A: Yes, I’ve officially retired from five-on-five basketball. I still look to do 3-on-3 pro basketball, as I played in the BIG 3. Ice Cube is one of the main founders and a lot of NBA and international players are there. They want to expand on a global level. So, I thought it would be a great way to stay in shape, motivated and compete.
Q: Which reasons led to that decision? You said that many people come out of retirement. Does this mean that anything is possible?
A: It could be possible because my season was cut short this year. I was in China and they gave me a few weeks to get in shape because I hadn’t played since February 2019. Then, the coronavirus started. In the back of my mind, I’ve retired because I’m ready to move on to my next station, which is to be an entrepreneur. I want to give back to the game, while I still have a healthy body. I’m only 33. A lot of times, players with expertise and great basketball minds play past their limits and can’t demonstrate things to others because of injuries. I think I had a great career for 13 years. I enjoyed every one of them.
Q: In the summer of 2019, while playing in the BIG 3, you said that your goal was to show the NBA execs that you’re a capable player and added that you don’t plan on going overseas again. Do you still want to prove yourself? Why did you rule out the overseas option?
A: It’s been a lot with my family traveling. We have three kids. I played almost ten years overseas and I don’t have anything to prove over there. But competing in the BIG 3 shows that I still got the talent and the respect of my peers. I’m past the notion that I should have stayed in the NBA.
Q: You recently got into the player development business. Why did you choose the acronym “A.D.A.P.T.”, which stands for “Athlete Development and All-Purpose Training”?
A: I started the business in February 2019, after coming back from France in the middle of the season. Back then, I didn’t think I was retired at all, but in the back of my mind I asked myself: “What can I do after basketball that I would enjoy?”. I didn’t want to coach and travel again, professionally. I reached many people in Charlotte and globally. It has to do with how I was developed through coaches. I played for a Hall-Of-Fame coach in the State of Illinois, for another HOFamer in Bill Self at Kansas and for some tough coaches in the NBA and overseas. I’ve trained with Tim Grover, who’s from Chicago and mostly known for being Michael Jordan’s and Kobe Bryant’s trainer. I learned a lot along the way as a player. Now, I’m working on sports performance, which is athlete development, and on a lot of skills, giving players things to get better at.
Q: Do you believe that the NBA game facilitates all-purpose players to showcase their talents? I get the impression that most coaches ask their players to be good at one or two things only, unless we’re talking about superstars like Doncic, Jokic, LeBron etc.
A: Instead of Doncic, I would throw Giannis Antetokounmpo in there. It’s interesting because I’ve seen the game evolve as well. I think coaches didn’t have the eye for those kind of players. Now, coaches welcome players who are all-purpose. If you were 6’7’’ and you were a good rebounder, you would get called a tweener. Now you got players who play different positions and you don’t know what they’re going to do on offense or defense. Not all superstars are all-purpose; they just do a couple of things really well. It’s more important for the general managers and the coaches to do the work in order to find the all-purpose players that can complement a superstar.
Q: Growing up in Chicago, did you use to watch the Bulls play? What do you make of the “Last Dance”?
A: I think it’s raw; it’s a lot of emotion, like everything happened yesterday. I really liked showing the persons’ initial reactions to what they read or saw. I was only ten years old when the Bulls won their sixth championship and I didn’t understand the management of superstars like Jordan, Pippen and Rodman. I learned a lot about sport management in terms of managing the egos. Even if there was a lot going on in the locker-room and behind the scenes, they were all professional and did what they had to do to win those championships.
Q: How did Bill Self persuade you to come to Kansas, since at one point all communication between you and the college had broken down?
A: He was at the University of Illinois, actually, before I went to Kansas. I was already familiar with him. I had a surgery and one of the assistant coaches who was recruiting me, got a head coaching job. It was a bad timing. I had a good junior year and became a TOP-10 player in the nation. Over the time, I had to really think about what’s most important. I can’t be piffle and my mom urged me to sit down and talk to them. I had my heart softened when they told me what happened and I thought I can’t let pride get in the way of me playing for coach Self. It was my first grown-up decision that was going to affect my whole life.
Q: Did you learn the news about Bill Self and his assistant Curtis Townsend being accused of illegal recruting?
A: I heard about the investigation, but I don’t know what took place. It’s unfortunate.
Q: How heavy was the burden on your shoulders to keep up Kansas’ winning history?
A: I came in as a freshman and we had a young team. There was a lot of leniency because there was myself, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush, also some up and coming players. I didn’t feel so much pressure because I was amongst other people who worked hard. Didn’t know what pressure really was. I was assigned to play. In my sophomore year I thought: “Now, we have a whole year under our belt. We need to do something.” We got one win from getting to the Final Four and then I went to the NBA.
Q: In retrospect, had you stayed with Kansas, you would have won the NCAA title. Do you ever think about that?
A: One of my reasons for leaving was because I thought they would win anyway. We had a really talented team. Had I stayed, I would have had the same stats and I would have played the same way. I went from point guard to power forward in college and I didn’t think I was going to be able to play either of those positions being drafted. So, I chose to leave my sophomore year before people say I didn’t shoot many three-pointers or that I wasn’t a good ball handler. It was another grown-up decision because I thought my stats would have dropped a lot. If I were five years younger, it would have been different. A lot of talented athletes who go to college try to buy into the team and school culture. It’s important for players who’re getting looks from NBA teams to start thinking differently.
Q: How did you feel when Mario Chalmers hit the three-pointer to force overtime in the final game against Memphis? You were sitting in the first row.
A: It was a great feeling. I was able to be there for that moment. When he lift his hand, I knew it was going in. He also said that. You got to have some type of confidence. I had some coaches telling me not to contest shots, but try maybe to rush an opponent’s shot. Once we went to overtime, they were running out of energy and two of their players got fouled out. It was a good experience and I’m thankful for being there. They were first-class. They let me come in the locker-room, in the hotel.
Q: It’s a pretty standard question: Were you NBA ready in 2007, after two years with Kansas?
A: Yeah, I felt NBA ready. I had a lot of skills that I hadn’t been able to show. I did alright in my workout, but I showed I was little rusty as a perimeter player. It was just a learning curve.
Q: I’ve read an article on Bleacher Report about the stories and the background surrounding a Kansas-Texas game for the 2006-07 season. The focus was on getting yourselves prepared to face Kevin Durant and several of your ex-teammates, including Darrell Arthur, Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush spoke about it. Chalmers in particular described his reaction upon listening to Bill Self telling you to guard Durant. He said that you’re a great defender, but added that you also get lazy at times. Durant spoke also, saying that you started off on him, but later Kansas switched to Rush and Jackson. KD finished the game with 32 points, only 7 of which in the second half. You had 17 points and 13 rebounds, in addition to sealing the victory for Kansas with a free-throw and a block. What’s your story from that day? How did you experience it?
A: It was a big game for us. We knew how great Kevin Durant was playing already. It’s so funny to see how his career makes sense and what a gifted scorer he still is. I played some of the best defense that I could have played on him and he scored 8 points on me and then we started to switch. it didn’t matter who was guarding him. There’s a photo surfacing of me like high-fiving his hand. I was all in his face and he was making shots! Coach Self is a motivator and he knew I was taking my job guarding him seriously. But sometimes with great scorers you just got to try and give different looks. They can catch every small habit and expose it. If it hadn’t been for his ankle injury, he would have scored 50 that night. He was keeping them in the game, but we were still playing well as a team. The next time we played Texas, we beat them and Durant was healthy.
Q: Did you keep in touch with Durant?
A: It’s been a while since I’ve seen him. I was living in Los Angeles for a while. In 2014 was the last time we spoke, but I’ve known his parents. We played against each other in High School. I just haven’t been around him for the past five or six years.
Q: Over a period of seven years, Chalmers and Brandon Rush won a combined three NBA titles. Did you keep up with what they were doing and did you expect them – especially Chalmers, a second-round pick at No34 – to reach such heights?
A: I think so. It’s something in the University of Kansas pedigree: they’re well-coached, balanced, disciplined and winners. It made sense that they took their confidence from winning championships to their NBA careers. Regardless of their pick, management is doing the best they can to draft different guards. [Chalmers] being selected at 34 doesn’t mean he’s not a capable player in the NBA. He and Rush knew that if they got a chance, they would be able to impact any team in the NBA.
Q: Paul Pierce picked for his All-Kansas team Chalmers, himself, Manning, Embiid and Chamberlain. Which are your picks?
A: Haha! I saw that, it’s a good one! I’d say: Wilt Chamberlain, Danny Manning, Paul Pierce, Aaron Miles and Mario Chalmers. That was tough! I didn’t try to do different than Pierce. I just thought those were the TOP 5.
Q: How is there to explain that, apart from yourself, many Kansas players (Aaron Miles, Keith Langford, Thomas Robinson, Chalmers and Rush more recently) have ended up in Europe?
A: It has to do with the NBA. It’s hard to make it and stay there. I think that more players have gone and played overseas. It’s great to say that you’ve played in the NBA but if your profession is being a basketball player, that should be the main thing. It shouldn’t be a disappointment to play in Europe or Asia; it’s an opportunity. Basketball is a global sport and people should look at the opportunities and continue to play even if it isn’t in the NBA.
Q: What’s your take on the the college basketball system and the way it is set up? Some say it is exploitive and profits from unpaid talent who make a lot of other people rich, while others maintain that the experience can be beneficial (academically, socially and competition-wise).
A: I’m not a big fan of the NCAA system and college sports. In college basketball and football they know where the money is. Times have changed. Even with social media, people are able to get their own following. Anyone who works for a corporation should be able to negotiate what their worth is. Something should change, maybe some type of regulation. Even the NBA has a salary cap. Nowadays, with the G League allowing players to come straight from High School, I think the NCAA is going to be professional.
I didn’t have a campus life. We were busy, having two practices a day and we were traveling. I saw it as a job but I wasn’t getting paid. The NCAA should look at some type of social events, like autograph signing, and get sure players get a percentage. People still follow NCAA just for the sheer spirit of hoping to see their school win. But in terms of money, it’s in the NCAA interests to consider that aspect. Many good players have started to go overseas, like LaMelo Ball, or to the G League, like Jaylen Green.
Q: The New Orleans Hornets have gone through the Chris Paul, the Anthony Davis and now the Zion Williamson era. Which are the main features of each one and how will Zion respond to the challenge of being a leader?
A: Chris Paul did a lot for that city, offering hope and relief at a time when the hurricane that happened in 2005 got the team displaced to Oklahoma City. He gave other players a consistent comfort about coming in because of the culture he created and being a franchise player. When Anthony Davis was drafted, everyone thought that he did the right thing staying there, being a leader. But it’s business.
Zion is coming to a great situation. Anthony Davis losing in the play-offs against the Warriors and not being able to advance (in 2018) shouldn’t get anyone mad at the organization or the city. Players have the desire to compete and get the most out of their career. If someone is that good and they have the potential to carry a team to the NBA championship, they should put themselves in the best situation possible. I think Zion won’t have so much pressure. It’s like Oklahoma City, with Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. They are a young team and as long as they keep the joy in the game, they will do well.
Q: Do you think that the incident you had with Raptors coach Jay Triano during a Golden State Warriors game, when you refused to play in garbage time, irreparably damaged your chances of finding another NBA contract?
A: I think it had a big thing to do with it, but mostly I didn’t get the chance to show what I can do in my four years in the NBA. It happened in the end of my contract year. I wasn’t feeling that well, I was a little frustrated. Didn’t get the chance to sit down with the coach and talk. I went to the locker-room and came back before anything happened. At that time, there wasn’t the norm to use social media to tell your side of the story. I got fined, but my agent could have easily informed teams of what happened so that they could make their own decision. I was playing like 15 minutes a game and couldn’t show my skills. I think about it as a tool that might help other players who deal with similar things in their career.
Q: Your choice not to seek a contract abroad during the 2011 lockout was because you wanted to support your peers as a players’ representative or was it related to your wish to stay in the NBA?
A: It was a little bit of both. I also didn’t have a lot of knowledge about overseas. I read that Deron Williams went over in Turkey. I didn’t want to get into a contract having some buy-out issues. I just thought it was safer to stay back in the States, hoping I would get some workouts as a free agent.
Q: Despite winning the G League with the Austin Toros in 2012, you never made an NBA comeback. Which factors played the most part? How close to a comeback were in 2017, when you played in the Summer League with Utah?
A: In 2012, the season was short. I was in a good shape and playing well. There were a lot of players on our team that were getting call-ups. By the time I got on the team, I was pretty much at the end of the deadline for call-ups. It was good to win the championship. I was going to do Summer League in 2012 with the Brooklyn Nets. At this point, I reconstructed my shot with the help of the Austin Toros staff. I had some issues with my shin splints and I didn’t get the chance with the Brooklyn Nets. It was a major setback because I was feeling confident, but that led me to go overseas as I got healthy.
Q: Do you believe that big men who can’t shoot well from distance are not popular in the league?
A: I think they’re not popular during the regular season, where teams don’t scout that much, but they’re popular during the play-offs, where you need rebounding and toughness. There is still going to be place for players who don’t shoot too much from the outside, but do have height, size and strength. In the playoffs, teams tend to get bigger on the court.
Q: You played the point guard position in High School, became a point and power forward at college and a center in Europe. Where did you feel most comfortable playing at and which adjustments did you make in order to meet the requirements?
A: I was most effective playing power forward or center overseas because I played defense against people bigger than me. I was switching on guards in the last seconds of the offense. Was able to be effective on both sides, attack, run the floor, rebound, take a coast to coast for a lay-up or dunk or pass the ball. Even though I was the center, I was rolling up in order to help the team.
Q: Do you think that your qualities as a player could translate better in Europe than stateside?
A: I actually think that in the NBA I could be ideal. The game is more open, without the defense standing in the paint for more than three seconds. That has always been my style of play. It took me 10-12 years, but I got to a point where I had a pretty solid shot percentage in France before coming back to the States. I feel like if I were still playing, it would be easier to score in the NBA. In Europe, it’s more difficult.
Q: If you were to put a title on your career, what would it be?
A: I’ll say one word: undervalued. That doesn’t mean that I had a bad career in my own eyes or that I don’t appreciate my career and everything I’ve achieved. Now coaches can see the value of a player who plays multiple positions and does different things. Also, I feel that throughout my career, I was put in boxes I was too big for. I don’t say I could have been a superstar or anything like that, but I didn’t manage to show how much I could do based on what I was given. I tried to do enough to be effective.
Some people play for three years in the NBA and then they can’t get another job there. I was able to play continuously and enjoy my career. But even in Europe, when it comes to signing players, you think that teams would look at film. I feel that a lot of times they thought that regardless of where they’d put me, I’d do something, but no coach ever told me: “We have this in mind for you because we know all the skills you have.” Overall, my career turned out how it was supposed to. It was not easy to bounce around different positions and be asked to produce. So, I got to the point where I said that every game is like a new day. The challenge for me now is to do coaches’ clinics and try to encourage coaches to embrace players who are like I was.