NBA fans in the D.C. area recognize the Golden State Warriors are the shoulda, woulda, coulda Washington Wizards. Flip Saunders' recent comments on Klay Thompson reemphasized the point.
The ex-Wizards coach now serves as coach and general manager for the Minnesota Timberwolves. With Kevin Love as bait last summer, Saunders attempted to pry the 6-foot-7 Thompson away from the Warriors before ultimately making a deal with the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. As explained in a new article about Love from Grantland NBA writer Zach Lowe, Saunders' interest in the perimeter threat bloomed ahead of the 2011 NBA Draft.
Thompson had blown Saunders away during a pre-draft workout in 2011, when Saunders coached the Wizards. The Washington brain trust considered reaching for Thompson with the no. 6 pick before going the safe route with a big man — Jan Vesely, who ranked higher on most draft boards but is now out of the league. “We toyed with it,” Saunders says, “but heaven forbid you go out of the box and pick someone you’re higher on than anyone else.”
Oops. Thompson eventually went 11th to the Warriors, one pick behind Jimmer Fredette. Redo the draft again and the Washington State product lands somewhere in the top 3 along with Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard.
Before dissecting that quote, a dispassionate look back. It's easy to mock the selection of Vesely now, but the selection was lauded at the time. As Saunders notes, many around the league believed in Vesely's size and athleticism.
ESPN's Chad Ford gave Washington's entire 2011 class, including Chris Singleton and Jan Vesely, an "A" grade. "Vesely was one of the most athletic forwards in the draft and should be great flying up and down the floor with Wall," Ford wrote. As for Golden State selecting Thompson, Ford wrote that he can "see the appeal," but added, "The Warriors went safe, but safe doesn't get you an "A" grade."
Ford wasn't alone. CBS handed the Wizards a "B" grade for the Vesely pick. As for Thompson, CBS deemed the selection a "head-scratcher" in that the Warriors passed on Leonard for "a backup guard." Yahoo's "Ball Don't Lie" blog only handed out one "A+" team grade for the entire draft. Yep, the Wizards.
These writers and evaluators weren't alone. Also, mistakes happen and we've all discussed the Vesely one plenty.
What's perhaps most interesting about Saunders' comments is the notion that Washington passed on Thompson in some part because the organization feared going out on a limb. "Heaven forbid you go out of the box and pick someone you’re higher on than anyone else" is some statement.
One could easily interpret that as Saunders taking a shot at the man who was in position to make the final decision, Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld. Perhaps Saunders simply laments he didn't speak up more during the process, especially since he was fired seven months later. Maybe he misremembered the scenario altogether and now views the process in the best possible way.
Regardless, Thompson is with Golden State and Vesely is playing in Turkey. Meanwhile, Saunders is trying to get the Timberwolves out of the NBA cellar and Grunfeld is presiding over a Wizards team that reached the Eastern Conference semifinals two straight years with John Wall and Bradley Beal, players that might not be on the team if Washington made different choices in previous seasons.
Nobody now argue's Vesely over Thompson was the way to go. In the moment, a different story. Perhaps one day we'll learn if the Wizards passed on Klay because their bold streak was stuck in the mud of NBA conformity or simply because they viewed the draft board like most others.