There were so many thoughts running through Christian Wood’s mind. Fear, for one, and understandably so. It was the middle of March, and a few days earlier he’d learned that he’d tested positive for COVID-19. To that point, his symptoms had been mostly cold-like. His breath had been heavy, his head foggy, and his chest occasionally tight.
Now, though, things had taken a turn. Wood was scared. “It felt like I had the flu but 100 times worse,” Wood said. “For a second, it felt like I was about to die.”
His mind began drifting. He thought about his past and his future. Only a few days earlier, it had seemed so bright. He’d spent nearly five years marooned on the NBA’s fringes, bouncing from outpost to outpost, clawing for an opportunity that he so believed he’d always deserved—and then, last year, it finally arrived. Wood responded the way he always knew he would if given the chance—by running off a string of performances that caught the attention of everyone around the NBA. There was the 27-point, 12-rebound night against the Thunder, the 26 and 12 he racked up on the Magic, the 26 points he scored against the Blazers, and the 32 points he dropped on Joel Embiid and the 76ers—“The first team to cut me,” he eagerly points out—in the last game before the March suspension.
As Wood lay in bed, just days removed from learning that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert—”who I gave 30 to”—had tested positive for the coronavirus, and that the NBA was shutting down, he made many appeals to God. Among them was this:
“You can’t do this to me, I’m playing the best basketball of my life.”
It was the middle of June and Wood spoke with me on the phone from his apartment in Los Angeles, recalling the scare and everything that led him to that point. He had fully recovered from COVID, and was now working out every morning, preparing for his next NBA game—whenever it might arrive. But he was also preparing for something bigger: In just a few months, he’d become a free agent again, only this time there’d be teams clamoring to sign him, meaning that after spending more than five years toiling along the outskirts of the NBA he’d finally get to experience life as a basketball player in demand. “Everything I’ve been through leading up to now has been about me getting me to this point,” Wood told me. It’s why he gritted his teeth while sitting at his locker that March night in Philadelphia after learning the season was shutting down.
The Pistons never did return to the court, leaving Wood in a strange limbo for eight months. But when free agency finally commenced on Friday, it took just a few hours before ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Wood had found a new home—the Houston Rockets would be signing him to a three-year, $41 million deal. Not only will the contract provide Wood everything he ever wanted—namely, financial security and a solidified position in the league—but it could also wind up being the steal of the offseason. And if Wood proves that last season was a breakthrough as opposed to a fluke, the deal could influence the greater NBA landscape.
If you were to magically conjure a player tailor-made for the modern NBA game, Wood is pretty much the one you’d get. He’s big (6-foot-10) and long (7-foot-3 wingspan), he can finish from close (he ranked in the 95th percentile in points per possession when rolling off a screen last season, according to NBA.com) and deep (39 percent). He averaged 22.0 points and 10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes last season and ranked in the top 20 in player efficiency rating. If the Rockets elect to keep their team together, it’s easy to imagine Wood thriving as a pick-and-roll partner with James Harden, and adding gasoline to the Rockets’ already-explosive offense.
Of course, this all raises the question of why, entering the 2018-19 season, Wood had played just 503 total minutes through five NBA seasons, and had been cut five times. Or, to put it differently: What scared teams away?
The simple answer is one we often hear. “When I was younger, it was just that I thought I was more talented than everybody, that my talent was just going to beat them,” Wood said. “But me not knowing that there were people just as talented as me, and I got to work to be even better than them. I didn’t know that before.”
Wood’s story is one of a person finding himself, but it’s also about how labels can be hard to shake. “He was definitely a first-round talent coming out of college,” one NBA executive said. “Him going undrafted was all based on background intel.”
Wood concedes that he was immature coming out of UNLV as a sophomore. But he’s also quick to point out: “I was just 19.” Yet the reputation of an unprofessional player soon developed and stuck. Some of it was his own doing; stories of him repeatedly showing up late for meetings or workouts made the rounds among scouts and scared many teams off. But the negative rep took on a life of its own. “Intel is something that can be really valuable,” the executive added. “But a lot of times the pendulum swings too far.” Wood’s struggles with punctuality gave wings to other off-the-court stories about him, like the time he forgot his passport on a trip to Toronto. Even after he made it to the G League, he was shaded by NBA teams for purchasing a Bentley while on a minimum contract.
Wood spent five years hearing all about how much he needed to change. He agrees with the sentiment, but only to a point. Sure, he made some mistakes. But were any of them so bad that he shouldn’t have been given a shot? “I never got an opportunity,” he said. “In Detroit, I finally did. Once that happened, it was over.”
The NBA draft should be the greatest night of a future pro’s life. For Wood, it was the worst.
In retrospect, Wood admits he probably should have waited another year to come out, maybe two. But hindsight is 20/20, and in the lead-up to the 2015 draft, most mocks had Wood pegged as a late first-rounder. Yet as the draft crept closer, Wood’s stock suddenly plummeted. Tape circulated of him loafing on the floor. He wasn’t a shouter on the court, and he looked lethargic when he played. “I’d tell him, ‘You at least gotta fake it a little bit,’” said Joe Abunassar, a longtime skills coach who trained Wood. “At least for the scouts watching. But it took Christian some time.”
Conversations like these were nothing new for Wood. The game always came easy to him, often to his own detriment. “It was his sense of urgency,” said Mike Peck, who coached Wood at Las Vegas’s Findlay Prep High School, where Wood helped lead his team to a 35-1 record as a senior. “One of the things I used to say to him is that, ‘We can’t want it more for you than you do for yourself.’”
On the night of the draft, Wood rented an event space at Caesar’s Palace. He invited a few dozen family and friends. “He was so excited at first,” said former UNLV coach Dave Rice. But Wood watched with horror as his name went uncalled in the first round. It wasn’t called in the second round, either. Late in the evening, CBS reporter Gary Parrish shared this picture on Twitter:
This is about the saddest picture from an NBA Draft you'll ever see -- Christian Wood realizing he's going undrafted. pic.twitter.com/be7ttxLBuT— Gary Parrish (@GaryParrishCBS) June 26, 2015
Somehow, that wasn’t the end of Wood’s misery. “I lost my girlfriend that night, too,” he said. “I dropped her off at the airport after the draft and never saw her again.”
Wood pushed forward and joined the Houston Rockets for Summer League before signing with the mid-Process Sixers for training camp. He showed flashes early on but had to fight for minutes against top picks Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. He was waived twice that season and spent the rest of his time shuttling between Philadelphia and the team’s then–D-League outfit, the Delaware 87ers. He played well for Delaware, even scoring 45 points in one game, but that winter the Sixers hired longtime NBA executive Jerry Colangelo with a mandate to end their drawn-out rebuild. The new regime had less of an appetite for a project like Wood. It didn’t help that Wood was with Okafor the night the Duke product was caught by cell phone cameras drunkenly stumbling through Boston and fighting gawkers. Even though Wood himself hadn’t gotten into any trouble or participated in the fight, another label had stuck.
Next up for Wood was the Charlotte Hornets. There, his story followed the same script: more minutes in the G League than in the NBA, flashes of talent, and frustration from the coaching staff—and in this case, the team’s legendary owner. Wood recalls checking into a game—a rare occurrence that season—and an opponent immediately scoring on him. He looked over to the bench “and I see Michael Jordan, and he’s like, ‘Yo, get your skinny ass to the weight room. Don’t let that motherfucker score on you, you’re way more talented than that, come on.’” This came a few months after a Hornets staffer had escorted Wood into Jordan’s office, where the two spent a few minutes looking over Wood’s G League film. “He starts telling me what I need to work on,” Wood recalled. “It meant a lot because it’s, like, Michael Jordan. You wouldn’t think that Mike is sitting here watching a G League game on you.”
The Hornets passed on re-signing Wood that offseason. He played for two different Summer League teams, but ultimately signed with the Chinese Basketball Association’s Fujian Sturgeons—only to be cut before the season. Somehow, two years after that night at Caesear’s Palace, he’d hit a new low.
“Nobody wanted me,” Wood said. “To get cut from a team in China because they tell me I wasn’t good enough—that really tested me. That was the breaking point.”
With no other options on the table, Wood returned to the States and re-signed with the Delaware 87ers in 2017, where he averaged 23.3 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, numbers that would typically lead to at least some feelers from NBA teams. Philadelphia still had a frontcourt logjam, but then-87ers general manager Elton Brand implored contacts around the NBA to give Wood a shot. No one called.
Wood returned to Vegas that summer. Abunassar, his trainer, immediately noticed something had changed. Wood wasn’t just showing up every day, but he was showing up on time. He did so for more than two months. There were no trips back to L.A.. No procrastinating when it came to scheduling workouts. In years past, Abunassar would rapidly change drills, talk nonstop, and place a defender in front of Wood, all in an attempt to keep him engaged. This time, he didn’t need the ploys.
“I have not seen a lot of guys make that change that he has,” Abunassar said.
Wood linked up with the Bucks for Summer League in 2018, earned first-team honors, signed a contract with them before the season … and once again spent the year being shuttled back and forth between the NBA and G League, despite averaging nearly 30 points per game in the latter. The experience frustrated him, but he also believes that being around the Bucks and getting to watch Giannis Antetokounmpo up close contributed to his growth.
“If you weren’t in the gym, then Giannis would just be like, ‘All right, fuck you. I’m going to do my work,’” Wood said. “He was just literally worried about nothing but family, basketball, weights, and getting in the gym. That rubbed off on me.” The two often matched up against one another in practice. They’d talk trash. Sometimes they’d face off.
“I came back from the G League once,” Wood recalled, “and I had just had, like, 40, and Giannis goes, ‘Yo, I saw your game,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, bro, they’ve got to put me on the floor up here.’ He looked at me and was like, ‘I don’t know if you’re ready,’ and I’d be like, ‘Bro, I’m better than you.’ So we end up going to the court and playing one-on-one.”
Who typically won?
“Honestly, it’s neck and neck,” Wood laughed. “Though if you ask him he’d probably say something else. Either way, they were competitive.”
Love his work ethic he’s up next ⏳ https://t.co/5PQk9hrH2d— Giannis Ugo Antetokounmpo (@Giannis_An34) March 18, 2019
Wood never did crack the Bucks’ rotation, but members of the coaching staff told colleagues around the NBA that they were impressed with how his habits had improved throughout the year. He was making progress before an injury to Bucks starting point guard Eric Bledsoe left the team in need of an additional ball handler. Once again, Wood was cut. The depleted New Orleans Pelicans scooped him up, and Wood averaged 16.9 points and 7.9 rebounds over the season’s final eight games—impressing many, but not enough to avoid being waived again. Fourteen teams passed on Wood before the Pistons claimed him that summer. They then brought in 38-year-old Joe Johnson to compete with him for a spot.
“I was like, ‘This is going to happen again,’” Wood said.
But Wood was now a different person. A better player, too. His shooting had improved. He was stronger. Not only did he beat out Johnson, but he then passed Thon Maker on the Pistons’ depth chart. When Blake Griffin got injured and the team traded Andre Drummond to Cleveland, Wood found himself thrust into the starting lineup. (Wood said that after the deal, Drummond texted him a picture of a man passing a torch.) He responded with an All-Star-caliber stretch, averaging 22.8 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
“I knew I could do this the whole time,” Wood said. After a game against the Magic last season, Orlando head coach Steve Clifford, who coached Wood in Charlotte, approached him. “He’s like, ‘Man, you’ve gotten so much better than where you were before,’” Wood recalled. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I told you so,’ and walked off on him.”
Still, it was nice to finally hear the recognition, to know that others were seeing what he had always seen in himself. In December, he scored 28 points and led the Pistons to a 34-point rout of the Spurs. After the game, Gregg Popovich pulled him aside. “He’s just telling me how much better I got and it was crazy because I didn’t think Pop fucking knew who I was,” Wood said. “I was like, ‘Man, this is crazy.’ I was low-key feeling myself.”
For Wood, the Rockets are the perfect home, the sort of team that can help him as much as he helps them. If they do keep things intact, Wood will add some much-needed diversity and versatility to their offensive attack and give the defense some much-needed height and length. And even if the team does elect to trade Harden or Russell Westbrook and hit the reset button, then Wood will be at the center of whatever comes next, in a position to shine. The days of having to claw for opportunities are gone. It’s on him to capitalize.
Of course, the fear with a player like Wood—and any player, in any sport, who breaks out in a contract year—is, how do you know whatever changes that person professed to have made will remain in place after he’s rewarded with an eight-figure deal? How do you know that external validation won’t breed internal complacency?
Wood’s response to this question is simple: “I still haven’t reached my goal. I want to be an All-Star. I feel like I can be one of the top players in the league.”
The Pistons made it clear that they don’t agree when they not only allowed Wood to walk, but then signed forward Jerami Grant to a three-year, $60 million deal. Perhaps this was just a case of a team bringing in a new boss—in this case Troy Weaver, who was hired from Oklahoma City in June—who wants to clear the cupboard and start from scratch. Or perhaps, after watching Wood up close for about nine months, the Pistons came to the conclusion that his breakout was mostly a mirage.
Back in the spring, when asked about the fears so many had about his potential complacency, Wood responded the way you’d expect: that he’s focused on what he can control and that he spent his offseason training, working on skills that will make both him and his team better. But he also said something you would expect from a player who has had to endure so much to realize his potential. “Lots of those guys who were drafted ahead of me aren’t in the league [anymore],” Wood said. “I’ve been to China, I’ve been cut, I’ve been told I wasn’t good enough. But I’m still here.”
Yaron Weitzman is a freelance writer and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman.