It has been 3 1/2 years since the Washington Wizards made Richard Hamilton the seventh overall pick in the NBA draft, and Hamilton still remembers his first conversations with Wizards officials, still remembers his introduction to the franchise.
“It seemed like every person in the organization was telling me I was going to be the future of the team,” Hamilton says. “I believed it.”
He was wrong to believe it. Hamilton is not in Washington anymore, thanks to a summer trade that sent him to Detroit and snapped him out of his youthful naivete. Now, he can’t help but wonder what happened to the Wizards’ promise of a youth movement. Last season, Michael Jordan returned to the NBA with the Wizards to, as he said, “teach the young guys,” particularly Hamilton and Courtney Alexander. Instead, the Wizards dealt Hamilton and Alexander in the off-season and stockpiled veterans Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes, Bryon Russell and Charles Oakley in a set of moves aimed at winning this year, Jordan’s last.
“When I first got there,” Hamilton says, “we were a veteran team, and they cleared everybody out and said, ‘OK, we are going to build a young team.’ And they made it seem like I was in the middle of that. It seemed like we had all the right ingredients. We were starting to build something. We were going forward. Now, it seems like they went right back to what they were before I got there. A lot of old guys, and I am not sure what their future is.”
Hamilton says he is disappointed that he did not get the chance to finish what he started in Washington. He averaged 20 points last year and helped the Wizards to their best record in four years. His disappointment, though, is tempered by his current situation with the Pistons. It’s one of the league’s deepest teams, and it’s coming off a 50-win season. Much of the team’s success was credited to Stackhouse, who averaged 21.4 points, 5.3 assists and 4.1 rebounds last season, and Hamilton now must assume Stackhouse’s role as lead scorer.
But Hamilton is a much different player than Stackhouse. Though the perception is that the Pistons got fleeced in the deal, giving up Stackhouse because they did not want to award him a contract extension, the reality is Hamilton could be a better fit in Coach Rick Carlisle’s offense. Stackhouse is a player who operates best with the ball in his hands, making slashing moves to the basket. Hamilton works best using screens and shooting midrange jumpers.
“I think he is the best midrange shooter in the game, coming off screens and catching the ball in that area, curling in there and shooting,” says Wizard Coach Doug Collins. “He is going to fit well with them. Rick runs a lot of plays for him that are the same plays he ran in Indiana for Reggie Miller. Rip is getting a lot of those same kinds of plays.”
In addition, there is the perception Stackhouse was the player the Pistons relied on in the clutch. That’s not necessarily true -- the Pistons were just as likely to use Jon Barry, Corliss Williamson and Clifford Robinson in pressure situations, and Stackhouse’s performance in the playoffs last year (32.1 percent shooting) was not an example of performing under pressure. Besides, Hamilton was a clutch shooter when he led Connecticut to a national championship and often took the big shots for the Wizards last season.
“I have won games before,” Hamilton says. “I think I have a good understanding of what it takes to win the tight ones.”
For Carlisle, the concern about Hamilton was his defense. Carlisle pushed defense last year, and the Pistons responded. He was worried about bringing in a guy who, he had heard, was incapable of playing tough defense. Carlisle decided not to make judgments before watching Hamilton on a daily basis.
“To me, he has proven everyone wrong,” Carlisle says. “There was a lot of talk about how this guy was not a good defender, but I kept an open mind. We’ve liked what we have seen. His effort is there, and he is willing to work at it.”
The Pistons may be better with Hamilton, and they may be prepared to build their future around him, but the experience in Washington has made Hamilton remain guarded about that sort of thing. He now is in his fourth season, which means he will be a restricted free agent next summer. He was eligible for a contract extension last summer, which was part of the reason the Wizards traded him. He will be a restricted free agent next summer, and he knows staying in Detroit is not a sure thing.
“In Washington, I was through the bad, and through the good,” he says. “I was beginning to think, ‘This is going to be my home.’ I did not know any better. It was something where they always expressed that I was the future of the team. So, it’s a no-brainer, right? Of course I will be there if I am the future, right? Well, no.
“Now, it’s a situation where I thought about it more [in Washington] than I do here. I come here, it’s a new situation, new coaches, everything. I am just enjoying basketball, and I can’t take anything for granted. I am here to play basketball right now. Everything else will just fall into place.”