Pau Gasol didn’t stand a chance. When the Washington Wizards had the first overall selection in the 2001 NBA draft, Michael Jordan was the president of basketball operations, and the legend and his staff were so infatuated with 19-year-old center Kwame Brown that they paid scant attention to the Spaniard who would eventually become a six-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion.
Jordan made a lot of shots over the years, but picking Brown over Gasol might have been his biggest miss ever.
Brown’s four-year tenure with Washington was a disaster, His game never developed, his maturity was questioned and his physical conditioning criticized. Then-Wizards coach Doug Collins once said Brown was in great shape “for a high school game.”
Gasol made an immediate impact with the Memphis Grizzlies as the third overall pick. The 7-footer was a skilled big man with an artful touch around the post. He scored 17.6 points per game as the league named him the Rookie of the Year.
The 2001-02 Wizards didn’t have an inside presence, relying on Jordan and guard Richard Hamilton to produce most of their offense. Gasol, in theory, would have given Washington a much-needed third option. Gasol’s passing would have put Jordan and Hamilton in better positions to score, as well.
Drafting Gasol could have significantly altered the Wizards’ season. Washington finished 37-45, but was in playoff contention before Jordan missed four weeks with a knee injury. Without Jordan, the duo of Gasol and Hamilton might have kept Washington in the race while Jordan healed.
The Wizards probably make the playoffs, and a postseason run takes some of the steam out of the win-now pressure that resulted in the Hamilton-to-Detroit-for-Jerry-Stackhouse trade.
The narrative would be: “Wow, a 38-year-old Jordan got Washington to the playoffs.”
Instead, the Greatest of All Time’s time with Washington is a footnote that doesn’t even get mentioned in ESPN’s 10-part documentary.
Gasol was the best player from the 2001 draft, a class that featured three high schoolers in the first four picks. There were other respectable players, sure — Tony Parker, Gilbert Arenas, Joe Johnson, Shane Battier, Tyson Chandler, Zach Randolph and Richard Jefferson were other standouts from that year. But none come close to Gasol in win shares, an advanced statistic that measures the number of wins contributed by a player.
Of course, Washington’s pick of Gasol might have backfired. Gasol didn’t make the playoffs until his third year with the Grizzlies, so maybe he wouldn’t have been enough to lift Washington back to the postseason.
And who knows how Gasol would have responded to Jordan’s demanding nature. Brown, according to author Michael Leahy, was humiliated in practice by Jordan, who once called his teammate a homophobic slur repeatedly. “A stupefied Brown could say nothing. He looked close to tears, thought a witness,” Leahy writes in “When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback.”
“It was contagious,” Gasol told “Inside the Green Room,” a podcast with Lakers guard Danny Green. “And he brought the best out of a lot of guys, including myself. He brought a different level to everyone because he set that tone.”
Despite it all, Jordan and the Wizards didn’t appear to be interested in Gasol. The group had been mesmerized from a one-on-one workout between Brown and Chandler in which Brown dominated the session. If not Brown, the Wizards, according to Leahy, had mulled trading the pick for Memphis’ Shareef Abdur-Rahim, but deemed the cost too high.
Instead, Atlanta traded for Abdur-Rahim on draft night — sending Gasol, the third overall pick, to Memphis.
Brown? He averaged 6.6 points in his career.
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