Washington Wizards should think about John Wall’s ink before signing him to a max deal


John Wall recently decided to get some tattoos, despite his longtime stance against them. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Jason Reid
Columnist June 24, 2013

Wizards point guard John Wall hasn’t proven himself on the basketball court. And apparently, Wall still is a bit of a mystery off of it, too.

Posing shirtless recently for an Instagram photo, Wall revealed several tattoos. Wall’s interest in body art is surprising, considering he previously said he did not have tattoos because of concerns over his image for marketing reasons. Many NBA players do have tattoos, and Wall isn’t breaking new ground in sharing his ink with fans through social media.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

But not every player flip-flops on a topic in such a public way. Factor in that Wall is expected to receive a huge payday from the Wizards next month, and the timing of his tattoo revelation raises questions about his decision making. For a franchise with a history of backing the wrong players, that’s food for thought.

This isn’t about the merits of body art. Wall, 22, has the right to put whatever he wants on his body, and one of the advantages of youth is that you can reinvent yourself. As the face of the Wizards’ franchise, however, Wall is going to be scrutinized more than the last man on the bench. He’s always under the microscope.

Judging by his new look, Wall, who declined an interview request Monday through the team, might not be as concerned as he once was about appealing to a wide audience. In interviews before the 2010 draft, Wall made a point of presenting the type of clean-cut image teams want from college players to whom they’re considering giving millions of dollars.

The Wizards, then trying to dig out from the Gilbert Arenas mess, needed the straightest arrow possible with the No. 1 overall pick. Wall’s public comments were refreshing. Wall also conducted himself appropriately when the curtain was drawn. Basically, Wall was the anti-Arenas. The summer after he was drafted, Wall continued to make all the right moves, telling The Post’s Michael Lee, “When I first cut my hair and all that and didn’t get any tattoos, that was the main thing, having a clean image . . . to help you to be more marketable.”

Tattoos didn’t stop Miami’s LeBron James from becoming the league’s top corporate pitchman. Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant has intricate body art and makes millions in endorsements. Chicago’s Derrick Rose is “all tatted up,” as the kids say these days, and he rakes in big bucks from his corporate partners. What’s the difference between those guys and Wall? Well, everything.

James, Durant and Rose, in that order, are considered the best players in the game. In his first three seasons, Wall didn’t appear in an all-star game, didn’t participate in the playoffs or lead the Wizards to so much as a .500 record. James and Rose never tried to sell mass-appeal images to the public. They just let their play do the talking.

Durant, who cultivated a broad-appeal persona, did throw fans a change-up a couple of summers ago by unveiling his “business tattoos,” which cannot be seen when he’s wearing his jersey. Before he shook it up, though, Durant already had established himself as a potential great. Even if Durant had tattoos all over his face, the Thunder would have offered him a maximum extension. He’s that good.

Like Durant, Wall has strategically put tattoos on parts of his body that might not be visible when he’s in uniform. But if he wanted to keep the ink to himself, why the photos on Instagram?

Perhaps Wall decided to let his guard down because it seems he’s about to get paid. Maybe he believes he has arrived. He hasn’t. He’s coming off a season in which he didn’t play until January because of an injured left knee. And while he showed flashes of being an improved scorer, he’s hardly a proven commodity.

As we saw during the NBA playoffs, many young point guards are ahead of Wall. Mike Conley Jr. of Memphis is an old-school floor general. Golden State’s Stephen Curry is a shooting star. Denver’s Ty Lawson is a one-man fast break. And they all received less than the maximum deal that Wall says he’s entitled to now.

So if you still have something to prove on the court, why give your employer reason to be unsure of who you are off it?

The Wall situation almost makes you feel sorry for Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld. The way things work in the NBA, Grunfeld almost has to give Wall what he wants, even though Wall probably doesn’t deserve it at the moment. Often, when teams take a wait-and-see approach, players get miffed and then bolt when they become unrestricted free agents. The Wizards can’t afford to lose Wall, but handing out a huge contract to an unproven commodity has to give them unpleasant flashbacks.

The Wizards gave Arenas a $111 million extension despite his immaturity and history of knee injuries. They rewarded Andray Blatche with $28 million despite the big empty space between his ears. Depending on the size of the salary cap, Wall could receive a contract for as much as $79 million or $81 million.

Wall’s best basketball should be ahead of him, and the Wizards are confident they’ve seen enough to roll with him long-term. But the Wizards’ poor record in picking winners brings one thought to mind: Buyer beware.

For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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