NEW YORK – John Wall needed only one year to take a reeling Kentucky program to the brink of the Final Four.
He’s ready to spark a similar turnaround with the Washington Wizards.
“I know this is a different level, but I just have to go in and show those guys I’m willing to work and listen as much as I can and be a leader,” Wall said. “That’s the key, is being a leader and trying to help them win games.”
Wall was chosen by the Wizards with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft Thursday and four more Wildcats were among the top 30 selections, making them the first school ever to put five players in the first round.
One of college basketball’s most storied programs, Kentucky missed the NCAA tournament in 2009 before falling one game short of the Final Four in Wall’s lone season in Lexington. The Wizards are trying to bounce back from their own tough times, a season that was embarrassing on the court and in the locker room.
“I feel like I had pressure since I became No. 1 in high school and was one of the top players,” Wall said. “I always got there hungry wanting to fight hard and compete in every game, so when I step on the court I’m going to take on any challenge there.”
The SEC player of the year is the first Kentucky player chosen first overall. He goes to a team still reeling from Gilbert Arenas’ season-ending suspension for bringing guns into the team locker room.
Wall could replace Arenas as the Wizards’ point guard, or perhaps play alongside him in a potential high-scoring backcourt. He’ll try to become the third straight freshman point guard to win Rookie of the Year honors after Chicago’s Derrick Rose and Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans — who like Wall also played for John Calipari.
The pick came shortly after a person familiar with the deal told The Associated Press that the Chicago Bulls had agreed to trade veteran guard Kirk Hinrich and the 17th pick in the draft, Kevin Seraphin, to the Wizards. Hinrich is a solid veteran defensive guard who could help with Wall’s transition to the NBA.
After his name was announced to begin the draft, Wall hugged family members and donned a blue Wizards cap before climbing onto the stage to shake commissioner David Stern’s hand.
Predicted to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference last season, the Wizards’ season quickly spiraled out of control, reaching its low point on New Year’s Day when news broke of the altercation involving guns between Arenas and fellow guard Javaris Crittenton, who also was suspended for the year. Washington eventually traded fellow stars Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler in a dismal 26-56 finish.
Arenas is eligible to return, but Wall is ready to take charge of the team.
“I was always a leader by example being the first in the gym and the last in the gym,” Wall said. “But I’m a leader that doesn’t mind speaking up to the older guys.”
Kentucky landed a second top-five pick when DeMarcus Cousins was taken by Sacramento at No. 5, then put two more players in the top 18 when the Houston Rockets chose Patrick Patterson at No. 14 and Oklahoma City took guard Eric Bledsoe — whose rights were later traded to the Clippers — four spots later. Daniel Orton then went to Orlando with the 29th pick, breaking the previous record of four first-round picks from one school.
“It’s a big day and they are all behind us right now and they won’t stop texting and tweeting and calling me, so this will be a big day,” Cousins said.
The Philadelphia 76ers took national player of the year Evan Turner from Ohio State at No. 2. The notoriously tough Philadelphia fans at Madison Square Garden liked the choice, loudly cheering and chanting “Evan Turner! Evan Turner!”
“I don’t have any pressure. I have a lot of demands of myself,” Turner said. “If Philly expects me to be great, then we have a mutual understanding.”
Derrick Favors became the second freshman taken in the first three picks when the New Jersey Nets chose the Georgia Tech forward.
“I pretty much knew John was going to 1 and Evan was going 2, but I had no idea I was going to the Nets, and when they called me I was just excited,” Favors said.
The Minnesota Timberwolves then grabbed Syracuse forward Wesley Johnson, whom the Nets also had considered. Stern seemed impressed by the Christmas-colored slacks worn by Johnson, who held up his leg to show them off.
Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh also is headed to Northern California, chosen by Golden State at No. 6. Detroit kept up the run of big men by selecting Georgetown center Greg Monroe with the seventh pick, before the Los Angeles Clippers went for Wake Forest’s Al-Farouq Aminu.
Butler’s Gordon Hayward went ninth to Utah, one spot before the Indiana Pacers would’ve faced pressure to pick the hometown star. Instead, they chose Fresno State forward Paul George before Kansas teammates Cole Aldrich (New Orleans) and Xavier Henry (Memphis) went with back-to-back picks.
Aldrich’s rights were later sent to Oklahoma City along with veteran swingman Morris Peterson for the rights to the Thunder’s Nos. 21 and 26 picks, which became Iowa State forward Craig Brackins and Washington guard Quincy Pondexter.
The draft hadn’t even started and already the buzz was on free agency, which opens in exactly a week with LeBron James leading perhaps the deepest class ever. There were even a few chants for the league’s MVP, whom the Knicks are expected to make a run at.
Moves were made with July 1 in mind, such as the Bulls’ deal with Washington that opened additional salary cap space for perhaps a second top player. Toronto drafted North Carolina’s Ed Davis at No. 13, a potential replacement if the Raptors lose Chris Bosh in free agency.
“I know they have big free agents coming up with Chris Bosh and people are saying he’s not going to be there, but right now I’m just going to try to work hard and earn the starting job,” Davis said.
There were a flurry of trades near the bottom of the first round, including a deal that sent forward Martell Webster from Portland to Minnesota for Ryan Gomes and the rights to the No. 16 pick, Luke Babbitt.