John Wall walked out of the practice gym at Thomas and Mack Center on the UNLV campus for the final time on Wednesday afternoon, hands latched on to the straps of his USA Basketball backpack and head held high. Wall was going back to his hotel to gather the rest of his belongings and catch a flight to Philadelphia, where he would host the Reebok Breakout Challenge for the next two days.
He’ll be back in Las Vegas on Saturday to watch the Wizards play in the NBA summer league – and he will return believing that he is a much better player than the one that arrived last week as an unsuspecting member of the Select Team. In six days, Wall was able to leave an impression.
“John is definitely one of those younger guys that we look at in this league as a guy that’s on the brink of becoming a star,” LeBron James said about Wall. “He has all the tools and all the talent and this experience has definitely helped him. He’s playing good basketball. I’ve been talking to him. He said he’s been working on his game this summer, which is always a great, great sign. He wants to be better and that’s great.”
Wall didn’t realize that he was stepping into a den of tenacious, swarming defense, long arms and overly-physical play when he signed up to aid the U.S. Men’s Olympic team prepare for international competition.
“The first two days was tough for me. It’s just like coming in on a JV team. It was so different, to be honest,” Wall said. “We know what we were here for. We were here to get better against the best players in the world, the Olympic team, and to get them better. If we backed down, we wouldn’t be helping them.”
Faced with a choice of letting the likes of James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant continue to “punk” him and his teammates in practice or step up to the challenge, Wall chose the latter. “He got better every day,” Select Team Coach and Team USA assistant Jay Triano said on Wednesday. “I mean, I think [Tuesday], in the scrimmage, he was good as anybody on the floor.”
At the conclusion of their training sessions with the Olympic team, several members of the Select Team lauded Wall for his play. Indiana Pacers forward Paul George said the standouts from the week were Cleveland Cavaliers rookie of the year Kyrie Irving, Utah Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward and Wall.
“John showed everything — his playmaking ability, his open court speed and his shooting,” George said. “I really think he opened a lot of eyes on his shooting.”
Wall was able to hit pull-up jumpers from 18-feet and knock down open looks when defenders rolled under screens. After shooting just 29.7 percent on shots outside of the restricted area, Wall made improving his jumper a priority in the offseason. He even hired former Wizards shooting coach Dave Hopla to help him with his form and he could see the results in the later scrimmages.
“He basically told me to follow through and don’t fade away too much,” Wall said of Hopla. “I fade away like I’m Kobe or somebody that’s been working on it for years. If you’re not a good shooter, you’ve got to stick to those basic ways and then you can take those type of shots. I’m just trying to get back to the basics of just staying straight up and down and shoot the ball.”
Sacramento Kings forward-center DeMarcus Cousins, Wall’s friend and former college teammate at Kentucky, said he noticed that Wall was shooting with more confidence than he had seen before. “I can tell John’s been in the gym. He’s working on his shot. First two days were rough for him. They was rough for everybody. Can’t fault him for it. I hope he shut up a lot of critics” next season.
When he heard the compliments about his improved shot, Wall said, “That just means you’re staying in the gym and working, and it’s something I’ve got to do on a consistent basis. Just because I’m making them now doesn’t mean I can stop, because the season is a couple of months away. If you stop now, it won’t work during the season. You just have to keep the same mindset and shoot with confidence. If I miss a couple of shots, I’m still taking the same shots and I think that’s what bothered me throughout my first two years. If I miss one or two, I’m hesitant and you make it tough for the rest of the game and on your teammates.”
Wall believes that his poor jumper has stunted his progression in the NBA, but he also used the experience in Las Vegas to focus on some of his other weaknesses.
“I think my decision-making got a lot better,” Wall said. “At times, I used to make the homerun play. I know right now, that you can’t make the homerun play, especially in this league, because so many guys have long arms and are athletic. That’s one thing I’m going to work on this season, not having a lot of turnovers, and controlling the game at a better pace.”
Coach Mike Krzyzewski often used Andre Iguodala on Wall in an effort to neutralize Wall’s speed. Wall said that getting around Iguodala was difficult, but gave more to work on when he picks up his workout routines in Los Angeles. “The pressure that we put on, with the defense, it’s going to help John a lot,” Chris Paul said. “He played really well [Tuesday] and with added confidence, you just never know.”
Wall said he wasn’t certain if USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo would have him back for future senior national teams, but he expressed his gratitude for the opportunity to participate this week on Twitter.
“Even though it was just the select team, it was a great honor. It means I’m doing something as a player and getting better and it something to where I can be on the Olympic team, somewhere down the road, hopefully,” Wall said. “I think it’s a great experience, you’re putting all of your egos aside. Your team you play for, your name, the name on your jersey, all that goes away. You’re just worried about the Olympics, protecting your country, the troops and all those keeping freedom for us. It’s a great honor and you just use it as motivation going into the season.”
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