John Wall filmed a commercial at Verizon Center promoting the 63rd NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans about a week before he was officially named an Eastern Conference reserve. In the ad, which aired on TNT on Thursday night after the complete rosters were announced, Wall was presented some green, yellow and purple beads and some gumbo packaged in a box.
When he finally watched it – in those euphoric moments after one of his childhood dreams was fulfilled – Wall was relieved to discover that another dalliance with acting wasn’t done in vain.
“They kind of did it just in case I made it. And it came out that I made it. I guess it worked out. They didn’t have to snip me out of the commercial,” Wall said with a laugh during a telephone interview.
Though he has been arguably the best point guard in the Eastern Conference this season, given his statistical production and overall value to the Wizards, Wall didn’t want to get too overconfident about the possibility of being an all-star. After a win in New Orleans earlier this month, Wall shrugged when asked if he thought he’d return in a few weeks.
Wall then talked about Atlanta’s Jeff Teague and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry were playing well and on teams that had better records than the Wizards, making it possible that he would get snubbed. Having already dealt with the disappointment of being left out of USA Basketball’s talent pool, Wall didn’t start to feel comfortable until one of his representatives, Matt Davis, called to tell him the good news.
“I still wanted to get home and just experience it like you should and catch it on TV and stuff,” Wall said. “It’s very tough in this situation. You never know how it goes. Give a lot of credit to Kyle Lowry. I feel like he’s had an amazing year and he’s been better when Rudy Gay got traded. You get a little nervous there the way he’s been playing lately and how the Toronto Raptors been playing. I just, I don’t know.”
The Wizards took a chance on Wall by giving him a five-year, $80-million, maximum-salaried extension before he had earned an all-star appearance or led the team into the playoffs. Wall understood the responsibility that came with the contract and also how he had opened himself up to more scrutiny.
“I like it,” Wall said. “That’s why I wanted to get it done, so that if I get it done, I know everybody is going to say, ‘He’s not worth it.’ But you just go out there and prove people wrong.”
Wall keeps track of every slight, tossing each twig of criticism into an ever-burning fire to get better.
“It’s been since high school when I didn’t make certain things and in college, not being in the national championship and then not being player of the year, those things. It’s motivation,” Wall said. “Like I always say, I don’t hold no grudge against nobody if they dislike me or you’ve got haters. That comes with the territory of being a professional athlete. I just use all those things as motivation to try and get better and keep improving myself.”
When asked why he was so concerned about what others have said or written about him, Wall replied: “I think it just motivates me. Some people say you shouldn’t care what people say. But to be honest, I feel like everyone cares what somebody says about them. And I’m one of those people if I see someone say something bad about me, I’ll still be a polite and professional athlete. But I’ll still keep that in the back of my mind.”
Once a short-distance sprinter in high tops, Wall had to learn to change pace, play at different speeds and slow down so that his teammates could catch up. Once a spotty shooter with no range, Wall has made more three-pointers through the first 45 games this season than he did in the first 184 games of his career. And once a player who sulked and pouted went things didn’t go his way, Wall has been able to contain his emotions – at least publicly – and not overreact.
“I think he’s improved shooting, but he’s also improved his decision making and he’s really committed to making his teammates better and making the game easier for them,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said. “What I like most about John is his competitive nature. And the energy that he brings to the game and as he’s growing and learning and maturing, different aspects of his game have gotten better.”
At 23, Wall still has plenty of room for improvement. His overall shooting percentage has actually declined from last season. He doesn’t consistently bring the necessary intensity and focus on the defense. And he is still figuring out what it means to be leader and not allowing his mood to affect the passion that he brings on the floor.
“He’s turned into understanding what a point guard has to be in this league. He’s really grown. It’s not like being a point guard in AAU ball or college. It’s a process of being an extension of me on the floor and I think he’s really grown,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “I always tell him, that’s the next step, for him to be an elite player, he’s got to be a complete player. I challenge him from a defensive standpoint and that’s the next step he has to make.”
Last week, Wall was upset that Team USA didn’t have room for him to try out for rosters with the 2014 FIBA World Cup and 2016 Olympics. But the omission served as a reminder of his shortcomings as a shooter and a player whose contributions come mostly with the ball in his hands. He doesn’t dispute the decision by USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and Coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“I feel like they made the right choice,” Wall said. “They made a decision they like and all I do is go out and be professional out there. I’m still going to go out and root for my country, no matter if I’m on the team or not and hopefully, they bring gold back.”
Wall has since turned his attention to helping the Wizards reach the postseason for the first time in six years and to possibly having a winning record. With 229 career games played, Wall trails only Joe Smith (241) as a No. 1 pick with the longest stretch to start a career without ever being over .500.
“I think we’ve got to find a way to win more games and get to .500, but other than that, I think everything’s been going pretty solid for our team,” Wall said. “I’ve got more goals like getting to the playoffs and trying to keep getting better and improving. I’ll enjoy [the honor], have fun, and I’ll be in the gym getting ready to face the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday.”