Interview With Former Kansas Jayhawk and Mr. Illinois Julian Wright
Since 2007, only 182 people in the world have been drafted in the NBA lottery. One of those, Julian Wright. An even smaller amount has been named a top 10 recruit out of high school, but Julian Wright managed to do both. The 6’8 journeyman has seen all basketball has to offer, from playing at one of the most historic colleges to playing in Russia, Turkey, and now Taiwan. I had the pleasure to talk to Julian about his time at Kansas, his experience in the NBA, and the reality of playing overseas.
1) You were a Top 10 Recruit out of high school. What made you decide on Kansas?
Julian Wright: One of the first things that got my excited about it was Coach Self going from the University of Illinois to the University of Kansas. I used to watch Kansas when I was still in high school when Coach Roy Williams was there. I wasn’t really recruited until Coach Self got there and I just wanted to play for a big-time school because it just made more sense. I didn’t have a pressure thing where I felt like I had to play in Illinois, but I did check out the schools to see how it worked.
Once I had the house visit with Coach Self and Coach Kurtis Townsend I really felt like it was something that just made sense. One of the things Coach Self told me was I’m not going to guarantee minutes, where other schools would give me the red carpet treatment. He checked all the boxes for me.
2) You only played two seasons at KU, but what would you say was the biggest improvement from your freshman to sophomore year?
Julian Wright: I would say having a year under our belt. Of course, you watch film and different things. I think I got stronger and had better physicality. I think I looked strong based on the outside but that was another summer getting in with Coach Hudy at the time she was at KU. I got my core stronger, and I just felt stronger and felt far closer to being a man than previously in High School. Everything else was pretty much the same skills-wise.
3) The year after you left, KU won the national championship. Did you ever have a “what if” moment about staying, especially after they won?
Julian Wright: No I don’t. I think that I was still a part of that team. I was in those locker rooms, in the war room for those two years and I was able to help in that cause. Just like fans and really anyone, they rally around this team and I must say it was really humbling to be on the stage and locker room. That just shows how much of a stand up guy Coach Self is. I had really good seats and it was cool applauding them and then I got the chance to hang out with them in the hotel so that was really meaningful. Knowing I made a business decision to go play professionally and to be still treated like family meant a lot. Everyone knew that everyone has to make their decisions and everyone stayed and rallied and the rest is history.
4) As someone who played in two tournaments and made the elite 8, what was your reaction when this year’s tournament was cancelled?
Julian Wright: It was devastating for them. For myself, it was sad because I didn’t get to see the tournament all together and everything about it. Thinking that, wow, they had this goal in mind and of course I’m biased but I thought they were going to take it. I think everyone knows this year is one of those asterisks years so it may be something that’s debatable but it shouldn’t be debatable they (Kansas) played at such a high level. Some countries in their sports like in soccer have a rule in which whoever finished with the highest record win the league and there are other leagues that are also like that. I say that Kansas are national champs, they finished number 1. That’s how I look at it.
5) There are only a select amount of people in this world who have been drafted, let alone in the lottery. What was your reaction when you heard your name on draft night?
Julian Wright: I thought it was one of those things where sometimes you have joy when it happens right there in the moment or you’re just really excited, and for me it was something that happened after. I was using the bathroom after I was drafted and thought, man, I’m really in the NBA. I was thinking don’t trip going up the stage and everything but wow I’m getting drafted. They told us to put our hat this way, make sure they can see your face, it felt like a video shoot so I didn’t want to mess up anything. Even when I had that moment when I really thought about it I was thinking about all my support team and the people that got me here, my family, friends, teammates, coaches, fans. I don’t care if someone calls themselves self-made, no one’s self made. That’s the idea, always know that everyone will have a part in my success and I contribute a lot of it to them to this day.
Were you expecting to be drafted by the Pelicans or was it a surprise?
Julian: It was a little of a surprise. I had Rob Pelinka as my agent who is now the GM of the Los Angeles Lakers, so he had close connections on all teams. In the Green Room, players kind of get an idea when they make their decision and they kind of have it hold it in for a little bit. You get a message like, there’s an 85% chance they take you so get ready even though they can still change at the last second. It was great, I never worked out for them so it was great they still saw some tools that I had. They had Peja Stojakovic who was coming off a back surgery and I think they drafted me because they weren’t sure how he would fare out. He ended up coming back healthy and he was paid a lot of money and I understand the business side of that. That was the one thing that was tough for my career, I was playing behind a really good player.
6) You played with legends like Chris Paul and Peja Stojakovic and against many other greats as well. Who was one player you enjoyed playing with and against the most?
Julian Wright: I really enjoyed playing with all my teammates. Someone I can think about in particular was David West. I didn’t play a lot with him because he was the starter, but I felt like he would see me on cuts and we had good chemistry. When I would drive, he would know to space out so I can kick it to him for a shot. I liked to cut a lot because I didn’t have the confidence to shoot perimeter threes at the time because I didn’t shoot a lot in high school and college, so when I wanted to get an easy bucket I would always cut so that was something that really helped me and my confidence.
In terms of someone who I played against, there wasn’t anyone where I really felt like this would be a problem. I would play about 15-20 minutes a game depending on the matchup, so my job was to do the best that I could. 1v1 and on defense, I didn’t feel like I had any problems. I don’t look at anyone better or worse because of what their abilities are. I idolized a lot of players growing up like Kevin Garnett who I modeled my game after in different types of ways. He was the trailblazer of being tall but also multi-skilled. When I played against him though, I didn’t think much of it. I played against Paul Pierce, Tracy Mcgrady and that’s something I can look back on now and say wow. It’s one of those things where I’m trying to be professional, and I’m not trying to be on Sportscenter, I gotta play some defense. When kids ask me who I’ve played against their jaws drop and that’s when I start to get it.
7) What was the biggest difference for you between college and the NBA?
Julian Wright: One of the biggest things was the fast pace. It’s faster, but you have to play slower. As guys get in the league and they play long enough, they run the same offensive sets which shows how good the players are. None of the playbooks are crazy for the most part, and the only few wrinkles are you have to learn reads, but the offensive sets are probably the same as when I was in the NBA. It’s more one on one oriented in terms of having to create a shot because players are more athletic. The other thing is matchups. You have to know your matchup, and you may not look at the whole scouting report for the whole team you just played but at any given time someone might attack and you got to be ready.
8) You’ve played all around the world. What are the most rewarding and punishing parts of playing overseas?
Julian Wright: The most rewarding thing would be in my eyes seeing the world. You see so many different places and cultures. I’ve played in at least 8 countries now, and I’m set to play in another country which I’ll probably sign very soon. I still want to play partly because my season got cut short cause of COVID-19. It’s very rewarding to see the world. One of the most punishing things is being away from my family. Sometimes, you can’t have it all in a sense but it’s what I have to do to provide for my family and unfortunately at times that means being away from my family.
9) You’ve played in 9 different countries including the US. Is there any country you especially loved or hated playing in?
Julian Wright: I try to take the most out of everything. I loved playing in Israel and Greece and also France. Those are the top three countries I played in. Israel’s great because that was the first country I played internationally, they spoke english, the food was really good and great weather. That was something that really stuck with me in terms of that. Going to Greece I had a similar situation and I was playing for a powerhouse in Athens, which was in the same league that Luka Doncic torched before torching the NBA. France was great because I got to be in Paris. They had international schools for my son and daughter, and it was a big city which I liked. I had been in smaller cities a lot in my career, so it was good to be in a city like that.
I would say the country that I didn’t like playing in the most wasn’t because of the actual team, but because it was really cold and that was in Russia. It was really cold in a city called Samara. Other than that, I’m the type of person who’s usually lopsided in terms of favorable memories as opposed to unfavorable memories, so I have much more favorable memories that I have from playing in my career.
10) Do you have any thoughts of reconnecting with KU after your playing days are over? (Training staff, coach, mentor)
Julian Wright: I just want to take it a season at a time. I was prepared to most likely retire this past year, but I wanted to go on my own terms. I could definitely see that being the case, a lot of people do go back to KU, and as long as their pouring out their heart in the sense of coaching that works. You see that with the (San Antonio) Spurs staff, when you work in that system it pops in the resume. For me, I kind of see myself becoming a mentor/ consultant type, especially in player development. I just started my own basketball training and player development business. I want to take a pro level instruction and regiment onto the youth and even collegiate ranks. There’s a lot of things that people don’t know about and I think I can equip people and help them navigate even the collegiate KU players, especially through the journey right after leaving KU.
11) What is one memory or moment from your playing days that you’ll never forget?
Julian Wright: Some high schools have players transfer and they try to get the best talent to put together the best teams. For my high school, we were all from the same neighborhood, and we ended up beating Oak Hill my senior year. That was great because Coach Self made it there. To be able to play that well in front of him even though I already committed but to see him come out for such a game made him see how I would be under pressure and he was able to see how he would coach me in the best way. That’s not much of a highlight to most people, but for me and my people back home that’s definitely something I won’t forget. I lost to Shaun Livingston in the state championship my junior year, so that’s something I still remember and remember being so close. So winning next year was great.
Make sure to check out www.adaptbasketball.com to see Julian’s program and see how you or someone you know can train with Julian.
Featured Image Credit: The Sports Drop