John Wall probably never had a more discerning and decorated audience.
Magic Johnson, the best to ever play the point guard position and winner of five NBA championships, was seated next to Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. Wall’s former college coach, John Calipari of defending NCAA champion Kentucky, was a few seats down. And Jason Kidd, one of only five players in NBA history with 10,000 assists and a former NBA champion, was on the opposing team Wednesday night at Verizon Center.
Wall didn’t disappoint, leading the Wizards to a 106-96 victory over the New York Knicks, scoring a team-high 21 points and handing out a game-high nine assists as his team improved to 8-7 since he returned from a stress injury in his left knee that left him sidelined for more than three months.
The highlight came during a sequence in which he blocked Carmelo Anthony from behind, darted up the court, spun around Kidd and made a scoop layup to complete a dizzying one-man fast break.
“He had the joy,” said Calipari, who stays in regular contact with his former pupil, who is still working himself back into game shape. “You could see he was excited about playing. . . . And they are winning.”
Johnson, Calipari and Kidd all agreed that the former No. 1 overall pick has a solid foundation but plenty of room for improvement as his career progresses.
“I see some of the quickness and getting steals and those seams,” said Johnson, who was in town to discuss HIV awareness and overcoming stigmas at Howard University. “The only thing left for him is that pull-up shot. That’s the only thing left. Once he gets consistent with that, he’ll be an all-star every year.”
Johnson was a career 52 percent shooter, but the 6-foot-9 Hall of Famer with the Los Angeles Lakers was able to score in a variety of ways without ever having to rely on a jumper — until he got upset that opposing teams didn’t respect his shot.
“I was just telling Ted, ‘You know what’s funny: I was in the same position as John,’ ” Johnson said. “I could get in there, I could run the fast break but they used to double off of me. I used to really take that personal, them slacking back off of me into Kareem’s lap,” Johnson said, referring to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Hall of Fame center.
“So I decided to just work on my shot. He’s got to put the work in and once he does that, it becomes automatic.”
Wall spent last summer working on his jumper with Knicks shooting coach Dave Hopla, but his percentages from outside are only slightly better than last season — he is connecting on 38.2 percent (39 of 102) of his shots between five and 24 feet after making just 30.9 percent (143 of 462) last season. He is, however, more willing to take the shot and doesn’t seem deterred when they aren’t falling.
Before the game, Wall met with Calipari — in town for the National Prayer Breakfast — and the coach encouraged him to not be discouraged by misses and to only take pull-up jumpers when there are enough teammates under the basket for offensive rebounds.
“I missed a lot of them, but I feel confident,” said Wall, who missed 10 of the 18 shots he took against the Knicks. “Some games I’m making them and some games I’m not, but I just got to keep defenses honest and instead of making a turnover and forcing something. I’m not going to stop.”
Calipari said Wall isn’t the first player who had to develop a shot when he entered the NBA, using Johnson and Kidd as examples. “Get in the gym,” Calipari said he told him. “Because when you get that right, which he will, you’re on a different level. You’re on a different playing field because of all the other stuff.”
Kidd has transformed from a speed demon whose jumper was so nonexistent early in his career that he was sometimes called “Ason,” because he didn’t have a “J.” On the back end of a career that began when Wall was 3 years old, the 39-year-old Kidd has blossomed into a dangerous threat from beyond the three-point line. He stressed that Wall, 22, has time to discover a consistent shot and should focus on pace and tempo until it comes.
“When you have the strength of speed, it’s your job to use it,” said Kidd, who claimed he never possessed Wall’s speed. “He can get it to sixth gear and he’s as fast as anybody with the ball. If you don’t trust [your shot], it takes time, trial and error. When you see the success, you start to understand it’s not always about being in sixth gear. I think it’s just a matter of knowing when to use the gears and knowing, ‘I can be just as fast as anybody if I’m in fourth or fifth gear.’ ”
Wall believes that the time he spent observing from the bench the first 33 games helped him gain a better perspective about how he could influence the game and run the team.
“It’s a development process for me. I learned how to change pace, when to attack, when not to attack and get my teammates involved,” said Wall, who is averaging 14.6 points, 6.9 assists and 3.1 rebounds in just 27.8 minutes. “Not being fully in shape and being able to play right away and it was tough to not have my rhythm, but I’m having fun, man.”
Calipari said Wall is clearly “playing with a chip on his shoulder” after becoming forgotten or dismissed while sitting out with injury and advised him to “just keep leading. Keep learning how to lead, how to move people, how to take responsibility.”
Wall’s injury perhaps denied him the opportunity to help take the Wizards to the playoffs and allowed other up-and-comers to grab the spotlight this season. But Johnson said Wall can’t concern himself with what’s behind him.
“That always happens, when you get hurt, you’re out, people are going to forget,” Johnson said. “Then there is somebody else new. So they pay attention to whoever it is, Kyrie [Irving], Jrue Holiday, all those guys now get the publicity, so what he’s got to do is just get healthy. Don’t worry about that. His game will take care of everything else.
“He has to help these guys understand, he’s here to win,” Johnson continued. “Make this franchise into a winner and I think John is ready for that. He has the talent. That’s not the issue. We know he has the heart for it and he’s a gym rat, so you have those things going for you.”