The Big Ticket
This article appears in the October/November 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
You can call Homewood-Flossmoor senior Julian Wright a flake. You can call him a joker. But whatever you do, don't call the hoop All-American a scorer.
Sure, the 6-foot-7, 214-pounder was named MVP of the Nike Peach Jam this past summer after averaging 16 points per game and leading the AAU Illinois Warriors to the tournament title. And yes, he plans on dropping bombs at a Tracy McGrady pace this season. Still, the one thing Wright doesn't want to be known as is a scorer.
He's spent his entire career so far avoiding that rep and doesn't plan on changing it this year.
"I don't want people to say, ‘He's a scorer' or ‘He's a slasher,'" says Wright, who's rated the nation's No. 1 small forward and No. 5 overall recruit in the Class of 2005 by SchoolSports.com. "A lot of times it's a situation where if you score, you're going to give up points. I'm comfortable scoring, but I want to be the most versatile player in this class."
And he is. A bundle of kinetic energy, Wright is equally effective on defense as on offense. He models his game after fellow Chicago product Kevin Garnett and works to be proficient in all areas of the game.
Wright is most comfortable on the perimeter, where he can exploit defenders with his tremendous vision, remarkable passing ability and solid jumper. Still, he's nearly as effective down low, where his long arms and athleticism are perfect for grabbing rebounds, throwing down monster dunks and blocking shots.
His versatility makes him best suited as an inside-outside small forward at the next level. But just as he doesn't want to be called a scorer, don't expect him to be satisfied with a positional label either.
Such fear and loathing of labels goes way back.
Always tall for his age, Wright refused to play organized basketball until eighth grade because coaches insisted on sticking him in the post to take advantage of his height. Instead, he developed on his own by doing solo drills and watching his older brothers (Paul, Andre and Blaine) play street ball.
"People have always told me I'm a post player," says Wright, 17, who spurned scholarship offers from Illinois, Arizona and DePaul to commit to Kansas in September. "But I'm a perimeter player. I didn't play in the little leagues because they would make me play in the post and I wouldn't have developed. The only thing I missed was the trophies."
He then met Homewood-Flossmoor coach Roy Condotti, who saw in Wright athleticism unique for a player his size. Wright actually started at point guard for the Vikings as a sophomore and junior, averaging 10.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game last year while sometimes only taking five or six shots a game.
"Julian is unique because you can't really put him in a category," says Condotti, who counts passing as Wright's No. 1 strength. "You just don't see guys as big and long as him who can do what he can do on the court. He can do things all over the floor to change the game. Whether it be a shot, a pass, a blocked shot or a dunk, sometime during a game he's going to make you say ‘Wow.'"
With three starters gone from last year's team, which went 31-3 and lost to nationally ranked Peoria Central in the Class AA state finals, the "wows" are going to have to come at a greater rate on the offensive end this winter.
That's why Condotti has Wright penciled in at center this season.
"For the past two years, I think he'd rather get the assist than score," says Condotti. "For us to be more successful this year, he has to score more, and he's capable of doing it. He'll do whatever it takes to win."
Despite his past reluctance to be a pure scorer and play the post, Wright is embracing those roles this time around because he wants to send the retiring Condotti out on top after 33 years of coaching, including the last 10 at Homewood-Flossmoor.
Scoring is just one of many parting gifts Wright has planned for Condotti. Wright also hopes to deliver his coach the Class AA state championship and act as a surrogate coach to ensure Condotti has a seamless conclusion to his career.
"You don't want anybody who's retiring to have a stressful year," says Wright, who refers to Condotti as a mentor on and off the court. "I want to make sure this is going to be a special year. Basically, when the coach looks back at memories, you want to show him that, ‘Hey, I listened to you even if I was laughing and goofing around. Hey, look at me, I paid attention and it paid off.'"
That's not to say Wright has turned soft on Condotti.
"I've been saving the tricks for my senior year," says Wright, who doesn't turn 18 until May. "There's going to be more jokes on coach this season. I don't want to put it out there now, but it will be good."
All business on the court, Wright has always been unpredictable off of it.
The kid is one of the team's biggest jokers and readily admits he's a bit of a flake at times. Wright often misplaces his cell phone during practice and actually forgot to bring identification the first time he went to take the ACT last year and had to take the test the next time it was offered.
"Julian likes to have fun," says Condotti, 54, who has coached several NBA standouts during his career, including Mark Aguirre, Hersey Hawkins and Eddie Johnson. "Julian will talk about music, Julian will talk about sports, girls. I've known him since he was 13, and he hasn't changed a lot. Sometimes he's a bit absent-minded, sometimes he's going in seven different directions at once. It's refreshing to find somebody who isn't spoiled by all the publicity."
That may be because this is the first year in which Wright will tread on superstar status.
Just a year ago, Wright was ranked the No. 21 recruit in the Class of 2005. He made the leap all the way up to No. 5 this year thanks in part to a high-scoring AAU season with the Illinois Warriors and an MVP performance at the Peach Jam, putting his name on a short list of possible straight-to-NBA prospects.
Of course, even he's perplexed by all the attention.
"People keep saying my stock went up, but I'm like, what did I do different?" Wright says. "I've been playing the same way since I was born. I just might have scored a few more points during the summer. People just started appreciating the things I do."
And like it or not, that includes scoring.