From Dime 70: John Wall’s Great Expectations

By: 08.02.12
John Wall

John Wall (photo. Douglas Sonders)

This is the cover feature for Dime #70. To see the piece in its entirety, check out the issue on newsstands nationwide now.

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A year ago, we weren’t the only ones waiting for John Wall to explode. The entirety of the basketball universe felt he was on the cusp of touching greatness. Instead, the rise of one of the NBA’s best young players slowed through a tumultuous losing season in Washington. Now, Wall plans on fulfilling his promise next season. The world is waiting.

There are the smiles, the fist pounds and the congratulatory handshakes, the markers signing basketballs and the sneakers exchanged. Cameras flash, and the light swarms over everyone. There’s one of them asking, “Where you goin’ tonight?” as if the only thing in the world he wants to add is, “Let me come too.” It’s a tsunami of adulation, a title wave of admiration, a downpour of respect. John Wall, in his red and black Louis Vuitton sneakers, drinking out of a blue and steel gray Red Bull can, says he got used to it. He had to. Because this stampede isn’t even killer, these autograph and picture seekers are all ballplayers themselves. Some are former D-I players. Others get paid overseas. Some are merely Washington, D.C. streetballers. All are here for Red Bull Midnight Run. But they’re not supposed to glow when Wall shouts them out. Love is love on the court. Respect the game. But if they can engulf him like this, he’ll need a police escort the next time he walks into the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.

It’s a regular thing for a star. Celebrity is a proverbial fishbowl, where you can get caught up in the middle off it, look up and suddenly, you can’t move or breathe. “The more you win, the more they come,” Derrick Rose told GQ recently. The funny thing about this story though? Wall hasn’t actually become one yet.

16.3 points per game. Eight assists a night. A 17.77 Player Efficiency Rating, ranking him No. 71 in the entire NBA. As a team, the Wizards went 20-46, and were out of the race for the playoffs within last season’s first 15 games. What will everyone remember from their year? More often than not, it’ll be the night JaVale McGee ran the wrong way.

One summer after we put Wall on the cover of our “Breakout Issue,” one lockout after the 2010 No. 1 overall pick flew all over the country and shut down every gym and playground across America, and one season after he had one of the most disappointing NBA years of anyone, nothing has really changed. Wall is still learning to become great, and the Wizards are still a mess.

“You wanna do it all,” Wall says. “You wanna be an All-Star. You wanna be one of the top five best point guards. You wanna make the playoffs, and get this city back to where they know they can be. When you have the playoffs, I heard how crazy it could be when everybody is wearing all white. That’s what I want to get to. I want to be the savior.”

Charles Dickens once wrote a novel about the personal growth of an orphan boy who went from a hardened blacksmith to a wealthy gentleman. But Pip did it all in the shadow of anonymity. John Wall has his Great Expectations, and they are dragging him along for the ride. The public needs a star. Washington, D.C. needs a hero. And they want him now.

Wall can play the part. At the Red Bull Midnight Run in downtown D.C., he survived the mass of awed ballplayers to command the gym, and helped the event staff pick out which players deserved to move on in the national showcase tournament. Wall called out to his friend, Baby Shaq, after a strong post move. He yelled at Ralph Hegamin Jr., an overseas player, and asked for his name in the middle of a game. Everything nearly stopped. He joked with Myles Holley, “We’re used to seeing dunks go in the basket!” after the local player barely missed a windmill. He was Yoda, and the 100 players in attendance were his apprentices.

Weeks before, we shot the cover for this issue at famed Barry Farms playground on a sweltering Friday in April. Wall pulled up in the passenger seat of a gleaming white Porsche, wearing flip-flops and black NBA socks. It was 3:38 in the afternoon. Washington had practice at 5. Wall came in and knocked it out: posing against the fence, Red Bull and Reebok product shots with the sun shredding his face, time needed with a basketball in his hand, and the video interview. Anyone who’s worked with famous athletes knows it doesn’t always go this way.

I asked him about his new sponsorship with Red Bull, and how often he drinks it.

“Often, probably once or twice a day,” he told me, before adding. “Most of the time, I try to drink my mom’s sweet tea. But if I’m not drinking that or Gatorade, I try to sneak a Red Bull in there.”

Smooth. Classy. Wall has this superstar shit down pat.

Just last summer, Javaris Crittenton was memorably arrested in connection with an Atlanta murder. Earlier in that same August, ex-NBAer Sean Banks was arrested after he was suspected to be involved in two separate burglaries totaling $20,000 worth of valuables. For 149 days, through the summer and into the fall, David Stern, Billy Hunter and the rest of the NBA’s suits couldn’t break down a $4 billion dollar pie, nearly keeping the world’s fanbase from getting a taste. After a loss in the 2011 NBA Finals, LeBron James even admitted he locked himself away in his home for two weeks, sulking, listening to nothing but Barry White and Curtis Mayfield, feeling sorry for himself. It was a summer of gloom for Stern’s global brand, from actual arrests to the near arrest of the entire NBA.

Meanwhile, John Wall got in trouble for playing too much basketball.

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John Wall

John Wall (photo. Douglas Sonders)

“I just think that, instead of working out more, I did more of playing in charity events and summer leagues, when I should have been working out more,” Wall explained this April to Wizards.com. “That’s the only thing I think I should have done differently.”

Celebrated as one of the torchbearers who gave the fans some glimmer of hope throughout the lockout with his repeated summer league performances, Wall’s streetball campaign eventually came back to haunt him. Former Washington coach Flip Saunders believed his point guard picked up too many bad habits, and was famously quoted by CSN Washington: “I don’t think I saw a charge all summer long.”

What followed an offseason of fun, but entirely useless triple-doubles, Hoopmixtape YouTube smashes and national magazine covers (like the one he got from us) was one of the most disappointing seasons in the NBA. The Wizards stumbled out of the blocks, blowing a 21-point lead in their home opener before losing 15 of their first 17 games. By that point, Wall was averaging right around four turnovers a night, had already shot under 40 percent in 10 of those games, and was so awful from beyond the three-point arc that he just decided to completely stop shooting them. By season’s end, Washington was 26 games below .500, and their point guard’s second-year numbers (16.3 points and 8.0 assists a game on 42 percent shooting) weren’t any better than his freshman production.

Even now, Wall still contends, “I played in a lot more summer leagues than I think I should’ve, but I was doing it for a good cause.”

Is it possible? Did he really play too much playground ball?

“We were locked out last year so yeah guys were all over the place playing,” says Houston point guard, Kyle Lowry. “Nobody said that about KD. You saw KD everywhere. That’s just the nature of the beast. Everybody is gonna be criticized for everything they do when you’re in the public eye as we are.”

Okay, so were the expectations too soon? After all, the player Wall is most often compared to – Chicago’s Derrick Rose – did average 20.8 points a game during his second season, but only 6.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds and a miniscule 0.8 steals a night, all dwarfed by Wall’s averages this past season. Rose didn’t truly breakout until his third year, when he guided the Bulls to a NBA-best 62 wins and the Eastern Conference Finals, averaged 25 points a night, and became one of the most unlikely MVPs of the last few years.

Yet it’s hard to say we expect too much from a player who is so gifted he made the top 10 in both the NBA’s dunks of the year as well as assists per game. On the nights when he finally does put it all together, like in April against Cleveland when he became just the fourth player in the last 25 years to throw up a 21-13-7-7 line, he is completely dominant. Wall is already so revered amongst younger players that while he attended the Red Bull Midnight Run this May, the players there frequently referred to him as an All-Star, despite the fact that he’s never actually been one. NBA stars respect him just as much. Minnesota’s Kevin Love says he’s one of the three fastest players in the league. NBA Rookie of the Year and close friend, Kyrie Irving, checks in with the Wizards’ point guard at least twice a month, often to pick his brain.

“The only thing that I incorporated in my game that I learned from him – and I told him this – is his ability to change direction full-court going full-speed is something nobody can deny him,” Irving says.

But as a point guard, Wall’s reputation will always stem from those around him, and in two years in the NBA, he’s just 43-105. He’s already lived through a coaching change, a culture change and a changing of the guard. When he first arrived in Washington, Gilbert Arenas was still donning a Wizards uniform, and the team was such a mess that their rookie point guard was eventually calling them out after 23-point blowout losses, asking for “five guys that really want to fight, compete and care the whole time.”

“He got the short end of the stick,” old AAU counterpart Dion Waiters says. “But as a great player, he’s trying to turn the organization around. I think they just gotta get some veteran players around him. They had some talented players but they traded them, so I don’t know about that situation.

“I can’t even really speak on that because it’s tough, and I can’t even imagine what he’s feeling as a player.”

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John Wall

John Wall (photo. Douglas Sonders)

This year at the trade deadline, management finally cut the fat, and shipped out talented, but disgruntled and immature players like Nick Young and JaVale McGee. Andray Blatche, another resident troublemaker, was banished for being out of shape. Washington traded for Nene, a 29-year-old center fresh off signing a five-year deal for more than $67 million in Denver last summer, to shore up the inside game and give Wall a legitimate player he could count on.

From there, the Wizards didn’t exactly explode. They won just five of their next 19 games, but finished the year by winning six in a row as Wall had double-figure assists in the last five.

“We want to be a playoff team,” Wall says. “We know we can be a playoff team. We showed we can beat some of the best teams in the league, and we can compete with all of the teams in the Eastern Conference. It’s just that we have to do the right things. I think everybody knows what our team is expected to be next year and what guys we’re gonna have back. We just have to put in the work this summer and come back even better.”

Yes, the work. Talent isn’t weaned in the summer. Production is. Wall has always carried a somewhat awkward reputation. Amongst fans, there’s a long-imbedded belief that if a player can’t shoot, they’re simply lazy and lack a solid work ethic. As an athlete, you’re supposed to will it to happen as if everything in life is just that easy. Tony Parker shot 23 percent from beyond the arc this season. He’s a three-time NBA champion. Derrick Rose made just 32 triples combined during his first two years. No one ever questions their work ethic. Even the greatest competitor of them all, Michael Jordan, was an up-and-down outside threat, shooting below 33 percent from deep for his career.

The most partying Wall ever did was for his 21st birthday, when he held parties along the East Coast, from New York to Miami. A few days later, he met us in Los Angeles for the cover shoot of Dime #66 and was going so hard in the gym that by the end of the shoot, he was in a full sweat. His life is ball, and even though it’s been overlooked, there is already some evidence his game is changing.

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John Wall

John Wall (photo. Douglas Sonders)

Statistics put together by the popular Wizards blog, bulletsforever.com, show Wall shot below 22 percent on jumpers from 16-23 feet during last season’s first 22 games. Over the next 21 games, he actually took the same numbers of shots from that exact area on the floor… and made close to 43 percent. During that span, only five point guards shot a better percentage from that area, and none of them were named Westbrook, Rose, Rondo or Williams.

“I think he’s definitely improved and he’s been in a situation in Washington that hasn’t been great for him,” Love says. “But I think as they get more quality players and set up a better team around him they’ll have better success.”

Still, because of that ghastly start, and a weak finish to the season, Wall’s midrange numbers for the entire season showed he was the second-worst midrange shooter amongst starting-caliber point guards. Compare that to his game at the rim, where he made more shots than any point guard outside of two: Russell Westbrook, and Tyreke Evans, who was playing small forward by the end of the season in Sacramento.

“People may think he’s this and that, but at the end of the day, he’s pretty damn good,” says Lowry, who admits it took him five years to get comfortable with his perimeter shot. “Everyone always has their own opinions about his game. I think he should just go and play his game. Everybody says he should shoot jump shots and make threes. Why make threes when he can get to the lane with the best of them?”

In July, Wall will head to Las Vegas to train with the U.S. Men’s National Team. Having been selected to the 13-man U.S. Select Team, which is often the first step towards eventually earning a spot on the Olympic roster, Wall will go up against players like Deron Williams and Chris Paul, and learn from them.

In a way, he’s actually already started. He traveled to Los Angeles to take in the playoff atmosphere this spring, but also to study Chris Paul. He paid enough attention to point out, “When you watch his game, he always wants to go back to the right.”

But Paul isn’t the only player he’s studied, and Wall isn’t some athletic freak that gets by on his natural talent. He knows ball, and loves it. Ask him about his favorite moves – like his patented, warping spin move – and he’ll break it down step by step. Ask him about his opponents. Sometimes, you don’t even need to ask. He’ll just start talking.

Corey Allmond was a good enough basketball player to set a NCAA record at Sam Houston State, and good enough to now be playing for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA’s D-League. But even though Corey Allmond averaged 15.5 points a game in the NBA’s jayvee league this past season, you probably don’t know who he is. But John Wall does.

Wall starts to tell the story from atop his perch – overlooking three crowded courts at the Red Bull Midnight Run. With Mobb Deep‘s “Shook Ones, Pt. II” echoing off the walls, he notices Allmond, who’s here playing, raining hell from behind the three-point arc.

“He don’t like to miss,” Wall says, before telling the story from the start, how the two played each other in college, how Allmond broke a Rupp Arena record for a Kentucky opponent by making 11 triples against Wall, how, as Wall remembers, “He was double-clutching and still made it.”

It was a regular season game from two years ago, an automatic win that would’ve been forgotten even in rabid Kentucky circles just days later. Yet Wall remembered, and even recalled the screens the visitors were setting to free their shooter.

Minutes later, after someone asks if Wall still wishes he had stayed another year at Kentucky, the 6-4 hang glider shrugs, yet is clearly still pissed they didn’t win an NCAA Championship.

They lost in the Elite 8 to an underdog West Virginia team. Why? Wall says the Mountaineers went zone in the first half, and were too scared to man up. Wall remembers West Virginia coach Bob Huggins saying he wouldn’t play man.

And yet Wall explained, “We lost because our three shooters started 0-22.”

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