John Wall had led Wizards into NBA playoffs by working hard on his health and leadership

The Post Sports Live crew discusses which Wizards player is most vital to the team’s playoff chances. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

John Wall wears a protective sleeve for the tendinitis in his left elbow, has recurring back spasms that require occasional stretching exercises and massages, a jammed left finger that has to be taped before he steps on the court and numerous other “nicks and bruises” he doesn’t even bother to mention.

As he sat down for a recent photo shoot, Wall started picking at a scab above his right knee and had no explanation for how it got there. “You never know with me,” he said with a laugh.

For all of Wall’s achievements during a season in which he finally began to fulfill his promise as the No. 1 overall NBA draft pick in 2010 — leading the Washington Wizards back to the playoffs after a six-year hiatus, making the all-star team for the first time, leading the league in total assists and winning the slam dunk title at NBA All-Star Weekend — the quietest but arguably most significant was that he played all 82 games.

The accomplishment required a grueling regimen of hours of treatment, dry-needle therapy, 10-minute ice baths and strenuous stretching exercises before and after practice. Game days meant much of the same routine, with the addition of a nap, a massage roughly four hours before tip-off and wearing heat packs during the team meeting.

“People think we just wake up and play basketball,” Wall said. “It’s not like high school, when you could wake up in play. In college, I’d just go in and do 360 dunks or whatever. Now” — he paused to laugh to himself — “I told you from Day One what type of player I wanted to be. You can’t be that type of player if you’re going to be lazy and just sit back and relax. I think some people get satisfied when they come to the league, but I have goals for myself, for this city and this organization, where I want to take them.”

A dedication to getting better

Wall will make his playoff debut Sunday against the Chicago Bulls largely because he is surrounded by the best supporting cast in his four years in the NBA. But he made himself a more disciplined and dependable player by proving he could be durable: The 15-game improvement the Wizards (44-38) made from last season coincides with Wall having played 33 more games.

Wall contends his 2012-13 season would’ve been better than this one, the best so far of his career. But a stress injury in his left knee contributed to a 5-28 start for the team he was drafted to lead out of mediocrity. It also exposed him to harsh criticism and, even worse, utter irrelevance.

“Sitting out last year, you talk about all of the point guards and my name was never mentioned. Not saying, ‘Well, we’ll see what he do when he comes back from injury.’ No, my name was completely off the board,” Wall said. “I was like that’s more motivation for me to prove people wrong. I came back with a different vengeance.”

Within the Wizards organization, the plan to continue building around the speedy and incredibly athletic point guard never changed. Owner Ted Leonsis gave Wall a five-year, $80 million contract extension last August that was panned by some as premature and lauded by others as a necessary risk. Amid the higher expectations, the 23-year-old has delivered.

“I expected him to be one of the best players in the league for years and I did when he came” to Kentucky, said John Calipari, Wall’s college coach, in a recent interview. “I said, ‘There’s things that he does that’s outside the norm.’ Again, I sure wasn’t dealing with what he had to deal with early, which was, ‘Hey, we’ve got John Wall, we’re winning 82 games.’ No, you’re not. It takes time. As this team gets older, as they add talent, you’re seeing him shine more.”

Wall’s dedication to becoming one of the best at his position this season meant a summer in Los Angeles, where he rose each weekday around 6 a.m. and spent several hours in the weight room and the gym, fine-tuning his jump shot.

But before that work ethic could translate to wins for the Wizards, Wall had to earn the respect of a locker room that had come close to splintering following a 2-7 start. Amid the early stumble, Nene called out Wall, though not by name, when he implored the Wizards’ young players to play the right way and “get their heads out their butts.”

Veterans Al Harrington and Trevor Ariza took a different approach to get Wall’s attention, which led to a pivotal players-only meeting before a Nov. 18 win over Minnesota. The meeting went a long way toward instilling confidence in Wall that he had the support of his teammates. Harrington and Ariza had grown frustrated that Wall wouldn’t speak up and lead when needed.

“For him to take that next step and for him to be the person that this organization needed him to be, he needed to start stepping up. So when we had that meeting, a lot of it was aimed at him,” Harrington said. “We just made him step up. Ever since then, he’s been flourishing in that role. Whenever you’re the point guard, you signed a big contract. All of those responsibilities, they’re forced your way. We had to let him know, ‘We trust you and we’re going to ride or die with you. So we need you to lead us in the right direction.’ ”

Wall was grateful for the remarks and, in many ways, needed his teammates to lift him up so he could carry the franchise back where it hasn’t been since 2008.

“This is a great season to me. I think I did a great job of helping this team and I think my teammates did a great job helping me become a better point guard, a better leader,” Wall said. “To be a leader, you also got to be able to listen. You’ve got to be able to take criticism and take what those guys are telling you. That let me know that they wanted me to be the guy, they trust me with the ball, they trust me running this team and getting everybody involved. That was pretty big for me.”

Finding his way

The presence of steady veterans was unfamiliar for Wall, who entered the league as a peach-fuzzed teenager while the team was experiencing a tumultuous transition from the Gilbert Arenas era. “He was trying to run a team that was full of young kids,” said Rashard Lewis, one of the few veterans on the Wizards’ roster during Wall’s rookie season. “You could tell that he had the eye of the tiger, that he wasn’t going to let it deny him. He kept going, kept playing.

“Each year, he gets better. Not only his game, but his mind. He went to college for one year. So it’s almost like going from high school to the pros. You’ve got to give him room to grow.”

If Wall felt the need to speak up back then, he didn’t exactly know how. He hoped others would follow his lead-by-example approach, which led to some ghastly results on the court. “Being the No. 1 pick, you’re not coming around a lot of veteran guys. You’re coming around guys that don’t have a good résumé in the league, or playing for contracts and stuff like that,” Wall said. “They’re not really trying to teach you anything. They’re trying to get their rocks off, so they can get where they want to go — I’m just being honest.”

But the experience also pushed Wall to work on his weaknesses. He attended playoff games, watching the likes of the Memphis Grizzlies’ Mike Conley and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul to study how to play at different speeds instead of always trying to burn rubber soles up the court. He hired famed trainer Rob McClanaghan — who has worked with the likes of all-stars Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose — to improve his jump shot after growing upset when defenders repeatedly dared him to shoot.

This season has included a few trials. Wall’s mother has fought through several health scares; she was hospitalized during All-Star Weekend but encouraged him to have a solid showing before getting released.

Team USA left him off its list of players chosen in January to try out for the 2014 world championships and 2016 Olympics, though USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo recently said Wall’s performance this season has him “on the radar” for future participation.

Wall created a minor stir when he left the Wizards for Texas to watch Kentucky play in the college basketball national championship game 48 hours before a critical game on April 9 against the Charlotte Bobcats. The Wizards lost after falling behind by 20 points and while Coach Randy Wittman played down Wall’s decision to attend the Kentucky game, he did criticize his effort in the first half. Washington finished the season by winning its last four games.

“John, he improved his game, shut people’s mouth, you know,” Nene said.

Wall still has his doubters. Most basketball analysts have picked the Bulls to dispatch the Wizards, making them a decided underdog in a series between teams separated by just four games in the standings. No matter how the postseason unfolds, Calipari said this is just another in the process that every great player has to endure.

“You’ve got to establish who you are and let me tell you, that comes before winning for just about every player who has ever played in this league — unless they went to the Lakers or a made Celtics team,” Calipari said. “The guys drafted like he was, were drafted on a bad team. Michael Jordan was drafted on a bad team. LeBron James. But after you do [establish yourself], you’ve got one thing on your mind — a [championship]. He’s beginning to establish who he is, now the next wave for him is, ‘I want to win a championship.’ Playing in this league is not enough for me.’ ”

After putting his body through a daily five-hour maintenance session just so he could be there for his team every game, Wall is looking forward to the reward of more basketball; the kind that could earn him more respect. “This is really when the stars come out and prove themselves,” he said. “I think just, a lot of people are writing us off. Not saying we really have a chance. We [are] not a team that wants to see our season end early.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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