The media members sit on the edge of their seats and constantly look over their shoulders to see if they can spot the arrival of Wright and KU coach Bill Self.
Then, just after 4 p.m., the star player and coach walk into Hadl Auditorium. Casually dressed in jeans and an official blue KU Adidas short-sleeve shirt, Wright takes a seat next to Self at the front table. Self now leans into the microphone.
“First of all, we’d like to thank everybody for showing up today,” Self said. “This turnout obviously shows the support we have of the media here for Kansas University basketball. It may be somewhat anticlimactic due to the fact that some things got out this weekend, but we kept our plan we had in place, and Julian wanted to make a formal announcement today, and he will do so at this time.”
Wright (12.0 ppg and team-leading 7.8 rpg in 2006-07) said the words the Jayhawk Nation and basketball world knew was coming.
“I’d like to just confirm, you know there’s been a lot of rumors. I just want to set
straight my aspirations to be eligible for the 2007 NBA Draft and open it up for questions.”
It was now official. The player once described as a “poor man’s Magic Johnson” at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Illinois was turning pro. In doing so, Wright became the first sophomore in KU history to declare for the NBA draft and the first Jayhawk to leave early for the pros since Drew Gooden in 2002. While Gooden elected to bypass his senior year at Kansas, Wright is now leaving after two seasons.
The 6-8 multidimensional, do-everything forward obviously had a change of heart over his previous comments about staying at KU for another year.
“I’d never really looked into anything about the NBA because that’s not really
what my focus was throughout the year or the offseason coming into this year,” Wright said. “I knew that would just not be good for the team. After the season, I got to unwound and started looking into some things. ...It’s a good opportunity to be selected or at least projected to be picked by one of the top teams and to compete with the best players in the world.”
Wright said he does not plan to sign with an agent until late May, just before individual workouts begin with NBA teams in June. His family and Self have been gathering information for him regarding the June 28th NBA draft in New York.
So where does Wright think he’ll be picked?
“I expect to be at least 10 through 15, 10 through 16,” said Wright, an AP All-American Honorable Mention selection and third-team NABC All-American. “In that range. It’s good to be a lottery (first 14 picks), but just to be in the top echelon of teams...”
Wright said he labored hard over this decision and has “mixed feelings.” He hates to leave “the family environment here” and “being a part of something special.” And he made sure to “thank my teammates and coach Self and everyone else that’s been helping me and developing me as a person.”
“I love my team, I love my coaches, everyone,” Wright said. “I took the extra time and
I feel like I need to do what’s best for me and my family and do what is necessary for me to become the best player in the long run.”
For Wright, he just felt the time was right to pursue his dream of playing in the NBA. He’ll only need about 30 hours after this semester to complete his degree, and he’s almost done with all his required classes.
“That was definitely a big factor in my decision,” Wright said.
Self knows Wright will fulfill his promise to his family and get his degree.
“He feels like that will certainly take place, and I believe that because he’s pretty committed when he sets his mind on something,” Self told a small group of reporters after the press conference.
Yes, Wright is definitely not finished growing in the classroom and on the hardwood.
“I feel like I can definitely improve,” he said. “I feel like I have improved. I just want to take (my) game to another level and develop in the NBA. Money has not been my motivation. It has never been. It’s mostly just the playing and being able to feel like I’m able to advance my game and play at the next level. It’s not about the money, in terms of where I’m picked as opposed to how much money you make. I’m just happy and grateful to have this opportunity.”
So is Self. The KU coach said he’s somewhat skeptical about how accurate those Web sites are which do mock NBA drafts.
“I don’t think you can believe in the Web sites as much as you can believe gathering information from really legitimate sources that are really in touch with what is going on,” Self said. “Being very candid, if I was Julian and I was in his situation, I’m not sure I wouldn’t make this same decision. I do believe the consensus is — and I think you have to go on consensus — because in this business, if you just have one or two guys like you, they may not like you as much as the next guy on draft day. But the consensus is there are enough people that like Julian that will pick in the top 15 picks because we pretty much know who those teams are that have him very high on their board.”
Self knows whichever team selects Wright is getting one great person and player with unlimited potential who has left a great impact on Kansas basketball.
“When you recruit guys, you recruit guys to have some success, and Julian has obviously demonstrated his abilities,” Self said. “He accomplished a lot of things in a short amount of time. I don’t think our fan base should be disappointed with his decision. I think our fan base should be realistic to know that when guys perform well, sometimes tough decisions have to be made. I know that this has have been tough on Julian, but it hasn’t been a sad time for me, personally. I’ve said this all along. Our players should do what’s best for them and their family, and who is to judge what’s best for them and their family. If he feels strongly about this, then he certainly has our support.”
And what about Wright changing his mind about not going pro?
“We’ve all done things in our life that you really believe something at the time, but circumstances change or some things just alter it a little bit, where you may think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have come that strong.’” Self said. “He’s been very bold in what’s he’s saying about coming back, but I really believe at the time he said it, he felt total conviction in doing so. I was surprised by it (turning pro), but not shocked. I think that this is one of the businesses, you can’t be too surprised with what happens next.”
Now, after two years of breathtaking passes, dunks, and explosive drives to the hole, Wright will no longer don the crimson and blue. So the question is finally posed to Julian: How would you like to be remembered at Kansas?
“Oh man, that’s a good question,” Wright replied. “That’s probably the hardest question of the day. Just a high energy player, someone who’s always trying to get everyone in high spirits, try to keep everyone having a good day. ...My teammates and coaches, I’m glad they expected of me as the one who’s always trying to keep everyone focused and having a good attitude. And whenever I don’t have a good attitude, it’s always magnified because it’s almost out of character. So I really appreciate that and everyone that’s developed me into a good person.
“I think he should be remembered as the guy who tried really, really hard and made the most of every day of his college opportunity and sacrificed for the good of many others. Statistically, he’s not a guy who jumps off the page at you for points and rebounds and things like that, but he’s certainly a guy that all great teams have that give you the best chance to win. And he is that.
“He’s a winner.”
It’s now 4:30 and the press conference has ended. Wright straps his duffle bag on his left shoulder and begins walking out of Hadl Auditorium. With reporters and photographers following him and capturing every move, the ever humble and popular Wright stops outside the room and visits with a well-wisher. They talk for a minute or two.
Wright next walks out the fieldhouse doors. And for the first time since he arrived at KU in 2005, Wright leaves Allen Fieldhouse not as a Kansas basketball player, but as a sure-fire lottery pick in the June 28 NBA draft.
He now greets another friend, and gives her a bear hug. It’s still overcast and gloomy outside, but that’s no worries for Wright. The lovable 19-year-old everyone knows as “Ju-Ju” flashes a broad smile...and looks ahead to the future with boundless hope and wonder.