John Wall smiled late Saturday night as he explained the relentless, aggressive, high-leaping, trash-talking model of himself that has been popping up on YouTube videos all summer. It was all over the floor at Trinity University — where Wall scored 28 points and helped the local Goodman League defeat the Los Angeles-based Drew League, 135-134, in an East-West summer league showcase for bragging rights.
“I’m back. I’m back, man. I’m back to myself,” Wall said after an electrifying performance. “Now I feel I can do whatever I want to do again, blow past people, get to the basket. I think those things that I started the season with last year, I got that back. It’s coming back. You’re going to see some stuff this year, it’s just whenever — hopefully the season starts as soon as possible. The main thing is just working on my game.”
Wall showed some of what he has been working on early in the summer league game, when he slowly brought the ball up court and dribbled left to get into the lane. When DeMar DeRozan slid in front to cut him off, Wall stopped, pivoted and spun around another defender for a layup, to the delight of the fans at Trinity University. Wall then held out his hands and shrugged, looking around as if to ask, “Did you forget who I was?”
There were times last season when Wall admittedly lost track of who he was, with a left foot injury and later a bone bruise in his right knee limiting what he could accomplish on the court for the Washington Wizards.
Wall wanted to dominate, ease into the lane, leave defenders trailing on the break, catch alley-oop lobs and flex his muscles after getting fouled while making difficult layups. “But I couldn’t do it,” Wall said. “After the first couple of games, I wasn’t myself, I was just basically fighting through injuries and trying to play. But now you’re going to see what I did in the summer league and those types of things. You’re going to see the beginning of me, when I started out and had a triple-double in six games.”
Wall finished a distant runner-up to Blake Griffin for rookie of the year, averaging 16.4 points, 8.3 assists and 1.3 steals, but he estimated that he never reached better than “80, 85 percent” of his abilities after getting hurt in the middle of the November.
When the season ended in April, Wall said he took nearly two months off, spent time with his family in North Carolina, played video games and let his body heal. He then went to Los Angeles to begin a vigorous training regimen that helped him build more muscle, get stronger and regain the explosiveness and quickness that led the Wizards to select him No. 1 overall in 2010.
Wall decided to test the latest version of himself at summer leagues around the country, playing pickup games in the District, Seattle, Baltimore, College Park and Durham, N.C., and also joining a Kentucky alumni team for two exhibitions against the Dominican national team. At every stop, Wall has been breaking down defenders off the dribble, breezing into the lane at will, and leaping for emphatic dunks.
He ran the show on Saturday, setting up Kevin Durant for lob dunks and igniting a fourth-quarter comeback with some ferocious plays — at one point, he dived into the stands, plowing through fans, for a loose ball. Even his mistakes were impressive, such as a turnover in the second of half when he moved up the court so swiftly that he not only left gasping defenders behind but his dribble couldn’t keep up either. The ball bounced behind him and into an opponent’s hands.
Wall said he is “very disappointed” about the NBA lockout, which threatens to cancel an entire season. “I love playing basketball,” he said. “It’s like your mom saying you can’t go outside after dark. It’s tough.”
Wall said he has stayed updated on the labor dispute through his teammate, Maurice Evans, a union vice president. He is not considering going overseas this fall (“That’ll probably be later down the road, but not right now,” he said), but the lockout has led him to sign up for four distant-learning classes at Kentucky, so that he can pursue his degree in business management. Wall said he would alternate between working out in Los Angeles and Lexington until the labor dispute is resolved.
“I want to take online [classes], because, say the lockout might end in the middle of my semester and I can’t finish the classes. I don’t want to lose those credits,” Wall said. “I promised my dad before he died. My sister [Cierra] is right behind me, so I’m trying to be the first or second person in my family to get a degree.”
Wall said he probably wouldn’t have played so many games this summer, if not for the lockout. “Some of us like to go to different neighborhoods and play once and keep it going,” he said. “But most us didn’t have nothing else to do, so we just kept it going, three, four times and just enjoyed ourselves. Most important about that, we really like going to neighborhoods with kids and families that might never see any of our games. It’s just giving back. It’s not about being scared or anything. It’s about going, showing love, having fun in the ’hood.”
He felt obligated to take part in Saturday’s game. “I just want to show them that I love being in D.C. I don’t want to leave. I love playing here,” Wall said. “Things are going to change around. It’s taking time right now, but things are going to start getting better for us. [Fans in Washington] support, no matter what. Even though we had a tough season and we was losing, they still support me. They still show love.”