OKLAHOMA CITY — The best game of John Wall’s career — his 47-point masterpiece in Monday night’s victory over the Memphis Grizzlies — didn’t just happen because the Washington Wizards were down to nine healthy players and desperately needed him to score. It wasn’t just the culmination of a March hot streak.
Wall had been plotting for that type of game, for this type of month, for almost a year; since a few friendly encounters eventually led to an exchange of text messages, which led to an invitation for famed trainer Rob McClanaghan to meet Wall last April in Chicago.
Just as Wall sought out John Calipari at Kentucky — to play for the coach who helped guide Derrick Rose to the No. 1 overall pick — he pursued McClanaghan because of the work he had done to help Rose become a league most valuable player and Russell Westbrook to become a perennial all-star and Olympian. McClanaghan sat down with Wall at the Wizards’ team hotel in Chicago to discuss an offseason workout program.
“I was honest with him. I said, ‘This is going to take a full commitment. It can’t be a week here, week there.’ I didn’t know John too well, so I just tried to put it out there,” McClanaghan said in a telephone interview. “I said, ‘If you’re not ready to make that commitment, that’s fine, but it’s not going to work out for us.’ He said, ‘I’m ready.’ ”
After going home to North Carolina to rest after his second straight lottery season ended, Wall went to Los Angeles, made a phone call and showed up at a high school gym at 7 a.m., prepared to take his game to a different level. Taking advantage of the individual attention that came because Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder were making a deep playoff run and Rose was recovering from a knee injury, Wall trained with McClanaghan five days a week, one hour each day, focusing on ways to alternate speeds and become a more efficient and confident jump shooter.
“All the stuff that I put in at 7 a.m. in L.A. is what [Monday] night was for,” Wall said from the lobby of a downtown Oklahoma City hotel, a day after leading the Wizards to a 107-94 win over Memphis. “I always heard about [McClanaghan], because Coach Cal knows who he is. Seeing how he worked Russell and Derrick and how they improved and how they got better and better, that’s something I’m trying to do. Wouldn’t be bad to have the same trainer as them.”
The benchmarks wall reached Monday — 47 points, eight assists and seven rebounds — have been matched only 26 times by 12 other players in the past 28 years, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Gilbert Arenas.
But Wall had been steadily building toward it. In 14 games this month, he is averaging 21.8 points, eight assists, 4.5 rebounds and shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from the beyond the three-point line. He has made the spectacular routine, such as his effort on Friday, when he had 24 points, a career-high 16 assists and six rebounds and rallied the Wizards back from an 18-point deficit in a 103-100 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Wizards, 26-44 overall, are 21-16 since Wall came back from a stress injury in his left knee that sidelined him for the season’s first 33 games.
“I think this is the year I could’ve been an all-star,” Wall said. “Being out for 33 games, everybody was like, ‘It’s over for him.’ Like it was over my career. That’s something you keep in the back of your mind, use it as motivation.
“I feel like the month of March has really been the big month for me, just how I’m playing and how the team is playing,” Wall said. “You don’t get known for not winning games. You don’t get known for not being in the playoffs, unless you have a spectacular season, like Kyrie Irving had a great year and Jrue Holiday had a great year and were all-stars that wasn’t in the playoffs. That rarely happens.”
In addition to helping Wall shoot with more confidence, McClanaghan also wanted to help Wall use his speed wisely. “Sometimes, he was too fast for himself,” McClanaghan said. “He never learned to slow down and I explained to him, this isn’t high school or college anymore where you can blow by a guy and lay it up. You have to be able to slow down a little bit, and change speeds.”
Westbrook, Wall’s counterpart on Wednesday when the Thunder host the Wizards at Chesapeake Energy Arena, said McClanaghan’s style, personality and experience as a former college basketball player makes him easy to work with. McClanaghan played three seasons at Syracuse.
“Rob is a great guy,” Westbrook said. “He keeps it real simple. He wants you to get better at something you already do. If your advantage is speed and strength, he’s going to work on perfecting that. I think that’s an important thing in this league, to come out and do what you do at a high level and do it consistently, you won’t have a problem.”
Looking back on his career, Wall wishes that he had found the proper workout regimen earlier, since he wasn’t prepared for how to train for his rookie season and was affected negatively by the uncertainty of the lockout before his second season.
“It took a long time, took me three years to understand the game more and feel it out better and when you have more confidence and figure out how to use pace,” Wall said. “Everybody has the same plans, but it’s how somebody can make you more confident and more comfortable when you’re working with the same person.”
Wall has always taken pride in his ability to influence the game in more ways than scoring, but he said teammate Martell Webster told him before the game that he would need to get 40 points for the Wizards to beat Memphis.
“It’s tough, because it seems like now, you’re not a great point guard if you’re not scoring,” Wall said. “When I was growing up, they could score but they also got their teammates involved more and that’s what I like to do. But at times, in certain games, you might have to be more aggressive and be a better scorer. That’s what Rob and these guys are telling me.”