An NBA team has to balance a number of different goals within one roster, building a team that can win games in the present and in the future. 15 roster spots must contain veterans, stars, prospects and projects.
Most teams devote a spot or two - sometimes more for rebuilding teams - on players filled with potential but covered in a shroud of uncertainty. For every Troy Daniels or Hassan Whiteside is a Cory Higgins or James Southerland.
Christian Wood parlayed his time in Philadelphia last season into a two-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets last summer. The Hornets hoped the former high-level prospect would take a step forward this year, but he was unable to earn a spot in the team’s rotation. After appearing in just 13 games the former UNLV player became a free agent as the Hornets declined his team option.
How did Wood come to the Hornets, and why is he now leaving? What lies ahead for a young man already approaching journeyman status in the league?
Road To Charlotte
Christian Wood should have been drafted. In high school Wood ran alongside the likes of Kelly Oubre, Anthony Bennett, Alonzo Trier and Dillon Brooks at the esteemed Findlay Prep. A top-50 recruit, Wood was on NBA radars from the moment he stepped foot onto UNLV’s campus.
After two seasons in Las Vegas Wood joined the draft process, and proceeded to plummet down draft boards. He came across to NBA scouts as disinterested and aloof, not the sort of player who would be in the gym every day improving his craft. After being considered a first-round player at one point in the process, Wood was not drafted in the 2015 NBA Draft.
To his credit Christian Wood did not lay over and give up, but he battled his way onto the Philadelphia 76ers’ roster. They cut him twice during the year, and each time he ran the court, crashed the boards, and did everything he could for the Delaware 87ers to prove his worth. He ended the season on a contract with Philadelphia.
That fight during his rookie year opened the door to join Charlotte. After sticking with the 76ers during Summer League, Wood received an offer for a two-year contract from the Hornets. The 6’11” Wood was now wearing the teal and purple.
Although Charlotte struggled with injuries to their frontcourt all season, Wood was never able to seize a spot in the rotation. Rather than have the young prospect keeping the bench warm all year, the Hornets took advantage of their new D-League affiliate to give Wood as much playing time as possible.
Because the Greensboro Swarm began as a direct affiliate team of the Charlotte Hornets, coach Steve Clifford could assign players to the Swarm at any point, and recall them just as quickly. They could practice in Charlotte and then suit up in Greensboro that same night.
While Aaron Harrison frequently followed that path, Christian Wood spent longer stretches of time in Greensboro with the Swarm. For three separate stints he played under Swarm coach Noel Gillespie, with 18 total appearances and 16 starts.
Wood stuffed the stat sheet while in the D-League, putting up 19.6 points per game and 10.0 rebounds in 30 minutes a night. In a January game against the Long Island Nets he erupted for 45 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks.
While Wood was active around the rim at times, averaging 2.6 blocks per game, he was also lax in his defensive rotations with a frequency that clearly frustrated Gillespie and the Swarm coaching staff.
Wood’s athleticism shone through surrounded by a lower level of competition, and it is clear he has kept his body at peak physical condition. But that athleticism did not help him make smart decisions, as Wood pulled the trigger on jumpers well outside his comfort zone. He was never able to cultivate any range in the D-League, hitting just 23.5 percent of his three-point attempts despite shooting almost three times per game from distance.
The format of the D-League clearly benefited Wood, giving him an arena with which to experience real-game situations. Anytime Wood came down he tended to be slotted into the starting lineup, often over players in Mike Tobey or Perry Ellis who had been putting in the time since training camp to earn those spots.
Head coach Noel Gillespie acknowledged the situation, saying, “It’s delicate because you still want to give the guys who have been working hard playing time, but obviously what we’re here for is to develop those Hornets players.”
That philosophy was put to the test during a December game against the eventual D-League champions Raptors 905. After struggling to keep up for much of the game, the Swarm put together a 14-0 run early in the fourth quarter to close the gap. Neither Wood nor Aaron Harrison were on the floor for the run, but rather the team’s original starting lineup, players who had been with the Swarm every day since training camp. Yet coach Gillespie put Harrison and Wood back in the game for crunch time, and the Swarm dropped the game 106-104.
When asked about the move after the game, Gillespie responded “I’ve said it from the beginning, the developmental league is to develop these guys. So that being said, I could have obviously rode that core group and finished the game, but what this is for is to have Aaron Harrison in those situations, to have Christian Wood in those situations, so we like to do both obviously. We like to have them in during crunch time, and close out and get a win. But at the same time, I don’t think it serves them any justice [if] they come to Greensboro and in crunch time they sit.”
That philosophy led to plenty of minutes for Wood when he joined the Swarm, but it did not translate into minutes on the court for Charlotte.
Christian Wood made his Hornets debut on November 7th, playing the final three minutes of a blowout win over the Indiana Pacers. Spending much of his time in Greensboro, Wood would not see the court for the Hornets again until February, where he made another garbage time appearance, this time playing the final seven minutes of a loss to the Golden State Warriors.
His chance to prove himself came after the All-Star Break, a nine-game stretch where injuries to the Charlotte frontcourt gave him a handful of opportunities to play meaningful minutes. Wood backed up Frank Kaminsky at center in a February win over the Sacramento Kings, chipping in five points and four rebounds in ten minutes. Wood reached a season-high in minutes in the next game at 23, a close loss to the Los Angeles Clippers where Wood acquitted himself well.
The return of Cody Zeller from injury and the signing of Johnny O’Bryant depressed his minutes from there, and he could never push past O’Bryant for that backup center position in the absence of Miles Plumlee. His best game of the season was a 14-point, five-rebound outing against the Orlando Magic, but he only saw those minutes due to the injuries of both Kaminsky and O’Bryant.
The minutes dried up from there, and other than the final game of the season when Charlotte rested players Wood never saw meaningful minutes again. His athleticism was always unhinged by an inconsistent motor and defensive lapses, and coach Clifford always found another big he liked playing more.
In the end Wood’s inability to break through meant the Hornets no longer had value in keeping him on the team. His team option was declined on April 17th, bringing his time with the team to an end.
Christian Wood has a future playing professional basketball, but he will need another team to believe in him for that future to be realized in the NBA. The Hornets had a perfect situation for him with all of their frontcourt injuries, and yet he never seized the opportunity to carve out a role.
Wood will most likely accept an offer to NBA Summer League, where he will try to connect with a team for a training camp invitation. It’s very likely Wood could go from frequent D-League assignee this season to a two-way player next year, signed to a contract that allows him to move freely between the two leagues. This is a part of the new NBA collective bargaining agreement, allowing teams to expand their roster to 17 by signing a pair of two-way contracts.
Beyond that, Wood’s future depends on his further development. Not only does he need to refine his game — adding a consistent jumper would make him playable at power forward, and give him an offensive role besides crashing the glass. On defense he needs to stay disciplines, executing the scheme and not chasing highlight plays. For a head coach like Steve Clifford especially, he has to gain trust by staying his lane and not leaving holes in the defense.
He has the talent and athleticism to make an impact, but time is running out — there is only so much run a prospect gets before the new players coming behind him offer a greater chance of finding a diamond in the rough. Whether Wood makes it in the NBA or plies his trade overseas will depend on his ability to improve and buy in. He has put in the work before; he must do it again to earn his place in the league.