John Wall is impressive in his Washington Wizards' debut

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; D02

LAS VEGAS -- John Wall was so calm, so quiet, as he sat in the stands at Cox Pavilion with some gold headphones wrapped around his neck. Wall looked so distant and disinterested nearly an hour before his debut with the Washington Wizards summer league team, that it seemed like someone would have to nudge him to get him ready for the game. He was simply hiding his anxiety, as Wall was so overwhelmed that he eventually snuck away, going downstairs to be alone.

"My stomach was turning on me a little bit, so it was nerves there," Wall said.

But once Wall walked from behind a curtain, saw the cameras surrounding him, and the capacity crowd filling every seat and anticipating his every move, Wall instantly went into a different character. He danced to arena music, wiggling side-to-side in the layup lane, and dazzled the fans during pre-game warm-ups with a few left-handed windmill dunks.

It didn't take long for it to be clear than Wall has two personas -- the serene and the showman. And, after an impressive performance in which he had 24 points and eight assists in leading the Wizards to an 84-79 victory, Wall also let it be known that he plays basketball at two speeds -- fast and faster. "If he gets a full head of steam, there is nobody who can slow him down," said Golden State Warriors point guard and District native Brian Chase, who was the first man asked to defend the 19-year-old No. 1 overall pick from Kentucky.

Wall was able to break down defenders with stutter steps then darted right past them. He went on one-man fast breaks. He flexed his muscles after breezing past dizzy defenders.

At times, though, Wall also moved too fast for his own good, as he committed eight turnovers. But given how anxious he was to play a competitive game for the first time in nearly four months -- when his Wildcats were eliminated by West Virginia in the round of eight of the NCAA tournament -- a few miscues could easily be forgiven.

"Too many turnovers in my debut. As it goes along, I'll calm that down," Wall said. "I haven't played a game since Kentucky. It was a lot of excitement in me, that's why I was going too fast. Playing a real game, with a crowd. I haven't did that in a while. Nerves was there a little bit."

Wall got off to a rough start, as he drove down the lane only to have the ball slapped away. He missed a jumper and then threw a behind-the-back pass off the knee of teammate Trevor Booker. He made a beautiful spin move in the lane, leaving Chase frozen in the process, and cruised to the basket for what should've been an easy jumper -- until Warriors guard and Virginia Military Institute alum Reggie Williams slapped the shot off the backboard. He later was leading a three-on-two break, when he saw teammate Cartier Martin in the right corner and expected him to cut to the basket for a layup. Instead, Martin moved to the three-point line, and Wall's pass hit a cameraman.

"We got to work on that," Wall said afterward with a laugh.

Wall eventually found his comfort level when he got the ball after a made shot, zipped up the floor and was fouled making a layup. He pumped his fist to celebrate, and Wizards Coach Flip Saunders probably wanted to do the same. Wall went from end-to-end to score and needed only three seconds.

The rest of the game, Wall found the balance between seeking his own offense and setting up his teammates, as he was repeatedly heard yelling, "Get me assists. Get me assists." He has already formed a nice chemistry with third-year center JaVale McGee (21 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocked shots), as the duo connected on three alley-oop dunks. And, he had to tell his teammates where he wanted them to be on the floor.

"To say a guy had 24 and eight, and say he had sort of an average game, that shows you the potential that he has," Saunders said, adding that Wall seemed to relish being in the spotlight. "I think he's used to this. This is how it's been since his senior year in high school and at Kentucky. I think that's why he's comfortable in this environment. He looks forward to this environment. It kind of gets him going, juices him up even more."

Wizards assistant Sam Cassell coached the summer league team and was constantly in Wall's ear, offering suggestions and patting him on the backside and the back of his head. He also gave Wall the same message during nearly every timeout of break in the action: "Relax. Just relax."

"John is 19 years old," Cassell said. "He's going to make some mistakes. But you see when he gets going, he makes our team better. He's a guy who can accept coaching. He accepts criticism. He also loves the game of basketball."

Wall said he understands where he needs to improve, and expects the nerves to eventually subside. "My mom and LeBron [James] always tell me, 'Don't try to live up to the hype, just go out there and play, enjoy the moment. You have a chance to play the game you love,' " Wall said. "If I stay hungry and humble as I am, I'll get better every game."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company