BOSTON — Christian Wood somehow squeezes his interminable frame inside the confines of a locker stall in TD Garden. He’s fully dressed in the Philadelphia 76ers’ new white uniform, complete with black tights and white and black Air Jordan 12s. He has practically doubled over to scan the scrolling Twitter feed on his iPhone.
Just over an hour before his first NBA regular season game, Wood’s hunched pose is nearly identical to the posture he displayed four months earlier, when the 40th pick of the 2015 NBA draft came and went without his name being called. Wood’s head plopped to his knees and a puddle of tears soon formed in his lap. The image circulated on Twitter shortly after.
And yet, here Wood is, undrafted but suiting up for an NBA team’s opening night roster. Despite the negativity that imploded his draft stock, he’s landed on his two enormous feet. “I want to be one of those guys with potential that actually lives up to it,” Wood says.
When the Brooklyn Nets were put on the clock at No. 41, Wood fled the event space at Caesar’s Palace in Downtown Las Vegas he reserved for about 70 people, including friends, family, representatives and the UNLV coaching staff. “It was a really emotional night,” said UNLV head coach Dave Rice. Wood and his primary agent, Matt Ramker, agreed they weren’t open to any draft-and-stash scenario. His dream of hearing his name called live from the Barclays Center was dead.
Wood drove home in solitude, the 10-minute trip feeling more like an hour. “It definitely hurt,” Wood said. He believed he could have been selected as high as No. 13 by the Suns. He didn’t expect to fall past the Grizzlies at No. 25. “Memphis told me how much they liked me,” Wood said. The drive provided an opportunity to reflect. What could have possibly gone wrong?
“There was a lot of talk going around about my energy and my effort and I was a risk/reward type player,” Wood said. “A lot of NBA teams didn’t want to take the risk. Some teams thought I was lazy, some teams thought I didn’t give effort 100 percent all of the time. I think that played a big part into it. I wouldn’t say I took it for granted, but I definitely thought I could be doing the stuff I did in college in a conference with a bunch of smaller guys in the NBA, which is pretty much a whole different animal.”
Wood now admits he wasn’t truly prepared to tame that animal. He was the very last player to enter his name in the draft. It took him weeks to decide on an agency. After meeting with nearly 20 agents—all of whom Wood says viewed him as a lottery-level talent and a first round pick—he settled on Ramker, Andy Miller and ASM Sports just three days before the NBA Draft Combine.
The delayed process was an imperfect storm that culminated with Wood implausibly reporting to Chicago with 14.7% body fat on his stringbean physique. “He needs to mature and develop a more consistent work ethic,” Ramker said. “We couldn’t fix that in two months before the draft.”
Wood committed to join the Houston Rockets in Summer League on draft night. The next day, he returned to Impact Basketball Academy’s gym, joining trainer Joe Abunassar for two-a-day workouts—conditioning drills in the morning and skill training in the afternoon—until he reported to Houston for day one of the Rockets’ minicamp on July 8.
On September 7, Wood signed a four-year, partially guaranteed deal with the Philadelphia 76ers. With Wood in the fold, the 76ers lead the NBA with five undrafted players on their roster. He outplayed veteran forward Furkan Aldemir, and Philadelphia parted ways with the foreign big man, even after sending an assistant coach to Turkey this summer to improve his jump shot. Philly is certainly bullish on Wood.
“He’s so raw,” head coach Brett Brown said. “He’s 20 years old. I think that he might have fallen in the right place and we were in the right place as well to try and bring him in the program. He’s a good young kid.”
The 76ers keeping Wood is a testament to his rehabilitated work ethic. “He’s a really great person. He’s got a great heart,” Rice said. “He’s got a world of upside and he’s just starting to realize that.” Wood’s upside was evident when he pump-faked, sprinted past Kyle O’Quinn and posterized Derrick Williams back on Oct. 12. He showed more flashes on Monday, logging nine points and eight rebounds in 22 minutes in a loss to Chicago. “I have a bigger chip on my shoulder. I know what’s at stake,” Wood said.
Flash back to the night when Wood at long last declared for the draft and powered on an old cell phone. Inside, he was reminded of a text message from his childhood best friend, Antwan Robertson, who Wood honors by wearing No. 35. Robertson died of an asthma attack while playing basketball at 13. The text read, “Dream your dream with your eyes closed, but live your dream with your eyes open." Wood tattooed the message on his right forearm this spring.
He sees those words during every jumper he hoists for the Sixers.