Former first-round pick Wright offers cautionary tale for prospects
LAS VEGAS -- Across the street from Sin City's private airport and through the doors of this hoops haven known as the Impact Academy, the rarest of treadmills is being put to good use in the dimly lit corner of a sweltering gym.
Antoine Wright has had trouble carrying his own weight in the past, be it the expectations that came with being the No. 15 pick out of Texas A&M in 2005, or his early reluctance to do the work that bridges the gap between players and pretenders in the pros. But this is not that. This is Wright recovering from knee tendinitis with the help of a $75,000 piece of equipment, a machine that can alleviate a chosen percentage of pounds and pressure with the simple pressing of a few buttons.
If only Wright had that kind of control over his career.
This facility has fast become the most popular place on his itinerary, from the five weeks he trained here after being abruptly waived by Sacramento in late November, to the two months he has spent here since returning from a successful stint with a Chinese team in mid-April. The company around him has changed in recent weeks, though, with these young and naive draft prospects preparing for the bright futures that they're so sure await them.
But the 27-year-old Wright knows the dark side, how nothing is promised in the NBA and too many missteps can send you down this path he wishes he had never taken. So he takes a break from playing and preaches about the game within the game every so often, sharing his cautionary tale to the youngsters who will surely suffer setbacks of their own someday.
"I tell them, 'It's a real competitive league,' and I think they need to understand that in the beginning you have to have a different attitude about your work ethic, your professionalism and your communication," Wright said while sitting courtside and speaking through the sounds of drills and dreams in the background. "It's not college anymore. You can't throw a tantrum, and you can't not come in and want to work. It's not about the team; it's about you as an individual, your career and which way you want it to go.
"I don't lecture them, but I try to tell them to just be competitive, work really hard and have a good attitude about it."
If only it were that simple when it came to Wright. If only he had followed his own advice.
While he readily admits a lack of work ethic and poor attitude hurt him during the early years with the Nets, Wright -- who was once deemed the fourth-best high school prospect in the country by ESPN.com after his senior season at the Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass. -- isn't about to take any responsibility for the way things ended in Sacramento. He was nothing short of a disaster with a Kings team that was his fourth in six seasons, signing a one-year deal last summer and playing in just seven games before he was so unceremoniously cut.
His most public mistake came on the night of Nov. 4 last year, when Wright was arrested in a Sacramento suburb for driving under the influence (he said the charge was plead down and the DUI removed from his record). But Wright, who is crafting a comeback after playing for the Jiangsu Nangang Dragons of the Chinese Basketball Association from January to April, says it was a private matter with Kings assistant coach Mario Elie that led to his deportation from the NBA.
"I had an issue with one of the coaches and my mother," said Wright, who was with the then-Mavericks assistant Elie and Kings coach Paul Westphal in Dallas from 2008-09 as a key reserve. "Mario Elie. I'll say his name because I had a history with him. We had just lost a game. It was over the holiday, Thanksgiving holiday, and my mother was in town and in the [team] family room [at Power Balance Pavilion in Sacramento]. She came up to Mario Elie, and said, 'I'm Antoine Wright's mom. Can I have a picture with you?' My mom is a fan of the game, a big fan of Mario Elie, and he said, 'No, I'm with my family.'
"We're a team now, so I came into practice [the next day] and told everybody, I said, 'When we go into film, I'm just going to put Mario on blast.' So I walk in last, and I come in through the front and Mario is in the back, and I said, 'Man, you know what? That's foul what you did to my mom. All she wanted was a picture. Everybody in this room would have took a picture with your mom if she asked, or anybody else's mom in this room. That's probably why we don't have any team chemistry.'
"The next day [Kings officials] came in and were like, 'Uh, this is not really working for you. It's not working for us. No hard feelings. We wish you the best.' I said, 'Thanks for the opportunity, and I'm gone.' "
Despite the fact that Wright has upcoming workouts with Charlotte, Chicago and San Antonio and will almost certainly face questions about his character, he continued to attack the Kings in the sort of uncouth way that will almost certainly lead league executives to reach for the red flags when it comes time to make a decision.
"My rift, really, with the organization was that I don't think they prepared the guys enough to win basketball games," Wright said. "We were probably the only team in the NBA that didn't have a scouting report. How do you expect a young team to go out and carry a game plan? Every team I've been on, they give you a scouting report on every guy on the team, a couple paragraphs about each guy before you go out there and play against him.
"Coming on the court before the game was chaos -- no structure whatsoever, and we kind of had a laid-back coach. Westphal was pretty laid back, and with a group of young guys, you've got to have somebody who comes in and disciplines them."
Wright wasn't even close to done yet.
"I'm not going to throw any of their players under the bus, but one of the main players who was a big part of our team, his attitude was really, really bad -- I'm pretty sure you can figure out who that guy is," he said before confirming that he was speaking of then-rookie forward-center DeMarcus Cousins. "Tyreke [Evans] had a pretty good attitude. His work ethic wasn't great, but he's a good young player. I believed in him completely. I just don't think the coaches did enough to prepare us to win games."
The Kings declined numerous requests to comment for this story, a decision that speaks volumes about how they perceive this particular player. Elie could not be reached for comment. As for Wright, he discounted the notion that he handled the situation poorly in large part because he insists he continued to maintain a solid work ethic.
"I was a disgruntled worker, man," Wright said, as if that absolved him of all his actions. "But I was coming into practice every day and I was really vocal, and I was just getting after it. I was trying to be competitive with it, so I would challenge Tyreke. I never had a problem with any of the guys. I think it was kind of a 'me against the coaching staff' type of thing. And they're going to win that battle."
Wright would go on to win a few battles of his own, albeit on the other side of the globe. He traveled alone to Nanjing, China, playing in the city that is an hour's flight away from Beijing and becoming a fan favorite.
He led the Dragons to the playoffs while averaging nearly 21 points, six rebounds and four assists, having replaced former NBA player Ricky Davis on the roster. There was less talk and more action out of necessity because of the language barrier, and there was even a moniker of "Savior" being given to Wright for the way he had saved a season gone awry with his American predecessor.
"I think I got better as a player," Wright said. "I think I improved greatly as a shooter, got a lot of shots up, rebounded, played the point, ran the point the whole playoffs.
"It's kind of hard when you don't speak the language to call plays -- I learned [to say] 'one, two, three' [in Chinese] ... but that was about it. A couple of guys [on the team] knew some broken English.
"It was a toxic situation [in Sacramento], and going to China helped me put it into perspective that you can be a little spoiled in this league, but you have to understand that when you're not in a position to call the shots, you have to go with the flow."
If only he would listen to himself.