John Wall will play tonight for the Washington Wizards against the Atlanta Hawks. The team made it official on Friday afternoon. It’s a debut that will come 106 days after it was announced that he would miss training camp and the first part of the season with a stress injury in his left patella. A mere 60 seconds before that announcement came, I had finished and posted a story about Wall heading into his third NBA season. He had talked earlier that morning at Simon Elementary School in Southeast Washington, and training camp was set for a couple days later. With the timing of injury announcement, I had to take down that story as soon as I posted it. But if you’ll indulge me, here it is, 106 days later:
John Wall was a tad tentative as he made his way down the bank onto the dew-covered field next to Simon Elementary School in Southeast Washington on Friday morning, where he’d brought Reebok’s Boks initiative to the city, a before-school activity program.
“To save myself for next week,” Wall said when asked why, knowing Wizards training camp will open on Tuesday, “and because it’s slippery.”
But Wall won’t be holding back in his third NBA season, which he wants to end in the playoffs, not with the franchise’s fifth successive trip to the NBA draft lottery. The Washington roster around him has changed dramatically since he arrived as the No. 1 overall pick two years ago. But Wall knows it means that now, more than ever, the focus is on him, how much he can improve and how far he can take the Wizards to prove that choice in 2010 was the right one.
“When you get drafted No. 1,” Wall said, “it’s for you to come here not to do it by yourself, but for you to come in and change the program around, change the organization around, try to win games, be a playoff team, be contending for an NBA championship. That’s something I want to do. I didn’t come here just to play basketball and be satisfied with being in the NBA. I came here to achieve things and reach my goals with the team and with my own self. I haven’t reached them yet. I’m still going.”
The hint of defiance in Wall’s voice is notable. He’s one of three players to finish last season with at least 16 points and eight assists per game – the other two were all-stars Chris Paul and Deron Williams. He’s been surrounded by substandard talent and part of a franchise that hasn’t been able to get out of its own way for years. But he’s never backed down from the expectations – as unrealistic at times as they might be – that come with his position in the draft and as a point guard on the court.
Given his accomplishments in those circumstances, Wall could be poised to make just the kind of leap that the Wizards hope and need coming off the first normal offseason of his career.
Everything was new during Wall’s rookie summer. Last year he barnstormed America in search of charity games but couldn’t focus his efforts with the uncertainty of a lockout looming. This summer he knew what he needed to accomplish and how long he’d have to do it.
It shows. Wall said he’s added 10 pounds of muscle, part of a new weightlifting regimen. More importantly, he said he worked with trainer Rob McClanaghan, the same trainer who has helped all-star guards Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook improve their games.
“My first year, coming into the league, I worked out but didn’t really know what it took to work out,” Wall said. “Then my second year, I worked out hard but then sometimes would take time off because the lockout was coming so I didn’t want to overwork myself, and then the season was going to start three months later so that kind of messed me up. This year I did exactly what I wanted to and how you’re really supposed to prepare yourself for the season.”
Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld and coach Randy Wittman both touted the importance of a consistent message in Wall’s ear about his jump shot. Wall improved from 40.9 to 42.3 percent from his first to second year, but the bottom fell out of his 3-point percentage, from 29.6 to 7.0.
“They’re not trying to change your form, just trying to stay on balance and not fading away,” Wall said. “That’s my key problem, holding the ball too long or trying to fade away too much. Unless you’re working on that every day, and you’re Kobe Bryant or somebody who consistently works on that, you don’t need to shoot like that.”
Meanwhile, if Wall felt like he’s been held back by the rest of his teammates in his first two seasons, he’s rarely let it show.
“I felt like last year the team could’ve got there [to the playoffs],” he said. “But just the thing is that we didn’t play together as a team sometimes, and I didn’t play as good as I needed to be.”
But the old nucleus of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young is gone. Nene, Bradley Beal, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza each bring something different to the table in their role on the court but also as professionals that Wizards brass believe will change the culture inside the locker room.
“I think the pieces we have is great,” Wall said. “But I think for us to take that next step is really going to be keyed on me. I’m the leader of this team. I’m the guy in that lead the role, but I’m not trying to say I have to go out there and do everything every night. I’ve got other pieces to help me out, but I want to be the leader and let guys know that I’m willing to do whatever it takes to take the next step.”
The Wizards open camp in the shadow of a renewed interest in Washington-area sports – it just so happens to be the theme of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated. The Nationals are headed to the playoffs, and the Redskins are still in the honeymoon phase (barely) with Robert Griffin III.
“We’re just trying to get D.C. sports back where it needs to be,” Wall said. “This can be a big basketball state if you just winning games and you change it around. That’s what we want to do. I don’t feel no extra pressure. I like pressure. That’s the best thing. I been dealing with it for so long so it doesn’t really bother me.”
Wall knows there are worries that he might not be able to do what the Wizards drafted him to do, that there are doubts that he can improve his jumper, play more under control, limit his turnovers, that he can turn Washington into a winning team.
But that also discounts what he’s already done and who he is.
“My first year was really great,” Wall said. “My second year was the same as my first year, but that was all because of how I worked out and why I took time off. But I’m not putting that on nobody. Yeah, it’s going to be more pressure when you’re the No. 1 pick. You’re expected to improve and do those things. You just look at guys like Derrick, and they got better. The third year is the key year. It makes or breaks you, what you’re going to be in this league. This is a big year for me.”