For Wizards’ John Wall, every game counts

September 11, 2013

(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The three-point finger goggles, unmolested drives to the basket and even a jaw-dropping, 360-degree dunk were all on display this week as John Wall returned to one of his favorite courts and posted a triple-double with 40 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a Kentucky alumni charity game at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

While it is easy to discount the performance because it came during a defense-free exhibition, it shouldn’t be dismissed, given where Wall was this time last year.

When Kentucky Coach John Calipari held the event last September, Wall served as a coach opposite rapper Drake, a curious move for a basketball junkie who can rarely resist any chance to play a competitive game.

Two weeks later, the real reason for Wall’s omission was revealed as the Wizards announced that the former No. 1 overall pick would miss at least eight weeks with a stress injury in his left knee. Wall would actually sit out until January, all but guaranteeing that the Wizards would miss the playoffs in his third season no matter how much he would eventually prove that he improved.

But with training camp less than three weeks away, the Wizards and Wall should feel encouraged that he is playing — and playing well — regardless of the venue. The success of the team will hinge on his continued development and ability to stay healthy.

Wall, who recently celebrated his 23rd birthday in New York, looked like he will be ready to go full bore during training camp as he lead his Blue team to a 111-95 victory in a game that also featured NBA players Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Brandon Knight, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Jones. DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, Wall’s good friends and former teammates for one year at Kentucky, were assistant coaches and helped get the most out of him — with a little reverse psychology.

“E. Bled told me I wasn’t going to get 40, so I went to go get 40,” Wall proclaimed to reporters after the game.

Wall also made an interesting declaration when asked after the game which point guard was the best to ever play for Calipari.

“Me,” Wall said quickly. “That’s just my competitive edge. I’m always going to say me.”

Former league most valuable player and three-time all-star Derrick Rose might disagree with Wall, but the comment was more a reflection of the confidence that Wall has begun to exude after remarkable finish to his third season, which he eventually helped him receive a five-year, $80 million extension in August.

The struggle back from his surprising injury required determination but also considerable patience. Wall’s mother, Frances Pulley, had to constantly remind him to wait as he voiced his frustration with sitting out.

“He loves basketball,” Pulley said last month. “He talked everyday about it, ‘I’ll be glad when I get back on court.’ He wanted to go back before his time. I told him the Lord knows best. ‘Wait your time out.’ It turned out to be good.”

Wall credited his mother for keeping him from rushing back, which could’ve caused more damage and allowed the injury to linger and carry over into the upcoming season.

“That was big,” Wall said. “It was times like, ‘I know I’m in pain, but I gots to go and play.’ Just sitting there, traveling and every time I step on the floor with a suit jacket on, no fun. It’s tough, but I think I got mentally stronger and stronger physically and I knew what it would take to get my body right and do the right things of not even just eating healthy, but making sure I’m doing the right treatment and getting every work out I need every day.”

Wall spent most of his summer in Los Angeles working out with trainer Rob McClanaghan and all-stars Rose, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. McClanaghan played a huge role in Wall’s breakthrough finish after training him last summer and returning on a few occasions in the regular season to continue their one-on-one work.

After showing what he is capable of accomplishing at the end of last season, Wall is anxious to build upon his success and perhaps silence some of the detractors who have emerged through his early challenges in the NBA.

“Everybody is going to talk, they are going to say what they are going to say, but it happens, that’s the game of basketball,” Wall said last month. “You’re going to have your ups and downs but as long as you got the right people around pushing you and giving you motivation, that’s all you need. I just use it as motivation to prepare myself. I came back and had a great run to the end of the season and I just to use that momentum going into next season.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · September 10, 2013