The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 34 | Bonzi Wells
Games Played with Blazers: 310 Regular Season, 24 Postseason
*PTS: 13.3 | REB: 4.7 | AST: 2.6 | FG%: 47.4
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Departed Club: December 2003, traded to the Memphis Grizzlies for Wesley Person and a first-round pick
Place in History: Nobody knew quite what to think when the Blazers traded for Bonzi Wells just before the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season began. On one hand, he had been drafted 11th overall by the Detroit Pistons. That was promising. On the other, Ball State was known as David Letterman’s alma mater, not a basketball school. The guy had scored big in college, but he was 6’5 and looked more suited to play small forward than shooting guard. He was stocky and appeared to like his own shot. It was hard to envision him going up against the likes of Grant Hill and Scottie Pippen, but was he going to fare better against Kobe Bryant and Reggie Miller at the two?
As it turns out, Bonzi did OK.
Wells remained mostly incognito during his rookie season. He started gaining momentum in March of 2000, his second year, when he posted a string of double-digit games including a 29-point outing against the Indiana Pacers in which he shot 11 of 18 from the floor. Reggie Miller only scored 17 that night, by the way.
Wells’ HUGE coming-out party came during the 2000 NBA Playoffs, in the second round as the Blazers faced the Utah Jazz. In consecutive games, both blowout wins, Wells scored 17 points in 18 minutes, then 19 points in 15 minutes. He’d repeat the feat in the Conference Finals versus the Los Angeles Lakers, scoring 17 in 20 minutes in Game 1, 20 in 18 minutes in Game 6. It wasn’t just the numbers, it’s that Wells was packing so much production into such a small amount of time.
That typified Bonzi’s game. He was shorter and stockier than you’d expect the classic NBA player to be, but he was strong, explosive, and would hit like a whirlwind. The dude was quick. He could score compactly and efficiently. If a Hummer could dunk, that was Bonzi.
Wells shot 49.2% from the field in that memorable second season, 53.3% while edging star veteran Steve Smith out of the starting shooting guard spot a year later. The 24-year-old was starting to conjure up images of Charles Barkley for toughness and relentless punch. Suddenly the well-stocked Blazers looked overstocked.
2001-02 would be Wells’ pinnacle year in the league. He started 69 of 74 games, shot 47% from the field and a surprising 38% from the arc, while scoring 17 per game with 6 rebounds. He also had 1.5 steals and appeared willing to throw his tank-like body against anyone who got in his way on either end. His talent was obvious and on full display. Together with teammate Rasheed Wallace, Wells gave the Blazers a serious dose of nasty that they might have been missing in seasons prior. Images of Detroit’s “Bad Boys” Piston teams started to dawn, except this time Vinny “Microwave” Johnson was starting (in the person of Wells) and nuking everyone in sight.
The Blazers won 49 games that season. Wells topped 30 seven times, but he struggled as his team got swept in the playoffs by the Lakers. The next year Wells would score slightly less (15.2 per game on 44.1% shooting) and his team would win slightly more (50). He would notch a franchise postseason record, pasting 45 points on the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of their series. Ultimately the result was the same: a first-round exit. The roster was beginning to stall. Even worse, trouble was brewing internally and Wells would be swept up it.
Wells took a bulldozer to the bridge between the team and its fans in 2001 when he bestowed this priceless quote upon Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim:
“We’re not really going to worry about what the hell [the fans] think about us,” Wells says. “They really don’t matter to us. They can boo us every day, but they’re still going to ask for our autographs if they see us on the street. That’s why they’re fans and we’re NBA players.”
Comedian Eddie Izzard has a routine about England’s Prince Phillip, illustrating the monarch’s habit of scuttling his ambassadorial role by saying the most awful things. He has the prince landing in a foreign country only to proclaim in a cheery British accent, “Hello! F*** you all!” Then to his aides, “Well, I think that went well, don’t you?”
Prince Phillip has nothing on 2001 Bonzi Wells.
On the heels of the Sports Illustrated gem, reports began to emerge in 2002 that the recently-re-signed guard was not happy with his role or rotation spot on a crowded roster. New Head Coach Maurice Cheeks had a reputation as a player’s coach, but his charges were spraying everywhere. The turmoil would only get worse as Wells struck an official [Tim Donaghy, but still], threw gum at one fan, and made an obscene gesture towards another.
Had Wells’ strong production maintained, his value to the franchise might have outweighed the public relations hit. Instead he became plagued by nagging injuries. His scoring dropped to 12.2 per game on 39% shooting in 2003-04. Potential or not, the burden of carrying him was just too much to bear. The Blazers unloaded him to Memphis for shooting specialist Wesley Person and a late first-round pick. At that point, they were getting the better of the deal.
Wells remains memorable to this day for several reasons. His talent was prodigious, his production startling. The Blazers have fielded many players who scored more, but few who could score so quickly and in such droves. He was the jet engine providing hope that the post-millennium Trail Blazers might be able to make something of themselves. The greater the lift, the greater the fall, though. Even if fans don’t remember the specifics of Wells’ infractions, that Sports Illustrated quote will live forever as the moment when the old-school, childlike-faith relationship between the team and its supporters died.
For the scoring, the 45-point record, The Quote, and becoming one of the main lightning rods of Jail Blazers notoriety, Bonzi Wells gets the 34th spot on our list of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Share your memories of Bonzi Wells below [if you dare] and stick with us as we power onward this week towards #1!