By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 1:05 AM
Rod Strickland noticed it the moment John Wall stepped on the basketball court for his first practice at the University of Kentucky. Coaches, players and fans were well aware that Wall had arrived in Lexington as the top high school recruit, but Strickland could tell through the first set of drills that although Wall possessed a lot of swagger he wasn't content to rest on his reputation.
Even before he was told to take the reins, it was clear Wall was a leader.
"He competed. He was the hardest worker. He tried to make his teammates better. Those are the three things you see. That's a hard thing to do, and everybody can't do that. He was the one who did them all," said Strickland, 44, the former Washington Wizards guard who was an assistant coach at Kentucky last season. "There may have been some guys who were better, maybe competed as hard - maybe - but they didn't put in all the time he put in. Once you see that, it doesn't matter, freshman, senior, once your teammates see you do that, you become the leader."
After Wall, 20, survived the pressures that came with playing for one of the most rabid fan bases in the country for one season, the Wizards drafted him No. 1 overall, believing the franchise could go far if he led it. Wall's first season in Washington has been difficult, with the Wizards (15-39) entering the all-star break having already lost more games than he won (35) during his one-year career at Kentucky.
But his development as a player and a leader remains compelling in the team's third consecutive trek to the lottery. Wall is becoming more comfortable in his role as team leader, as he gains more confidence in his abilities and recovers from a collection of ailments that have hindered him throughout the season.
He is shouldering even more responsibility than the average rookie trying to find his way through the highest level of the game. Wall gained an understanding of what it all meant during his elaborate introduction at Verizon Center the day after the NBA draft.
"The biggest challenge for me was when they said I was the face of the franchise," said Wall, who will participate in the Rookie Challenge on Friday and the Skills Challenge on Saturday during the NBA's All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles. "At a young age, some people are expecting so much right away. At the same time, I hope people understand that I'm a 20-year-old kid that's still developing. I think I'm good now, but [there's] so much more that I can learn about basketball."
He's also learning how to speak to individual teammates if they start slacking or going astray. He didn't know how they would handle the criticism, especially since he was still making mistakes of his own.
"I can say something, and I might be right, but think I'm wrong," said Wall, who is averaging 15 points and 8.9 assists and could become just the fourth rookie in NBA history to average at least nine assists in his first season, joining Oscar Robertson, Mark Jackson and Damon Stoudamire.Leading by example
Wall believed he always had "leadership capabilities," but Kentucky Coach John Calipari was the first to tell him that he needed to assume that role as the team's best player. Wall had already taken a huge step as a leader when he initiated a meeting with Eric Bledsoe, who had signed to play point guard for Kentucky before Wall arrived. Wall not only made it work, with Bledsoe willingly moved over to shooting guard, but became a close friend.
Calipari also implored Wall to push his teammates, encourage them to take open shots and pick up their energy when it waned. At times, Wall was able to get through to talented but temperamental forward DeMarcus Cousins, now of the Sacramento Kings, when others couldn't.
"No matter where he is, no matter what team he's on, he's a leader from Day One," Cousins said of Wall. "That's something that was put in him. God's blessed him with that talent. He's got it."
The task of being a leader was simpler when Wall could walk on any court and know that he was the best player. Now he is routinely matched up against players who are more experienced and sometimes better, and surrounded by older teammates who head their separate ways after practice.
"Toughest thing is, these are grown guys that's veterans. Everybody is getting paid to do this for a living," Wall said. "At first I was nervous about going in there, and saying something, because I didn't want to walk around and think I'm bigger or better than anybody. I never want to walk into a situation like that, but I've always led by example throughout my whole life."Putting team first
In Washington, Wall took on a leadership role on one of the league's youngest teams. He showed up for his first practice with the Wizards with the same attitude he displayed at Kentucky. Coach Flip Saunders named Wall and eight-year veteran Kirk Hinrich co-captains right away.
"Even if he wasn't a captain, he is naturally a leader," Saunders said. "Does he go through stretches because he's 20 and he's got a lot of things coming at him? Yeah, but he is still a guy that has more of a personality to lead than a lot of our other guys, because he's more vocal and more outgoing. We don't have a lot of guys with that kind of personality."
Wall shows up for individual workouts before each game under the tutelage of assistant coach Sam Cassell and sticks around for extra film and skills sessions with assistant Ryan Saunders. He also picks the brains of former teammate Gilbert Arenas, as well as Cassell and Hinrich, to gain an understanding of the nuances of the NBA, or just to find out how to defend certain point guards.
"I ask him a question every day in practice, even if it's something simple," Wall said of Hinrich. "He'll say, 'Why?' I'll say, 'I want to know.' "
It takes time to build the confidence to feel empowered as a vocal leader, something former No. 1 overall pick LeBron James can attest to.
"I think I was a natural born leader, but it still took me a while," said James, who felt a similar amount of pressure when he joined the Cavaliers. "I was going to a team that picked me No. 1, and basically felt like it was my team. It took me a few months to say, they are not only looking for me to lead by example but to lead by other things, but then honestly, it still took me a few years to realize this is how it's going to be and I need to lead every night."
After he sprained his left foot and later suffered a bone bruise under his right knee cap, Wall definitely felt uncomfortable speaking up. But since he returned in late December, Wall has started to take command of his team. The Wizards' 85-83 upset win over Boston on Jan. 22, when he hit the game-winning three-pointer off the glass, showed how Wall could will his team to a win.
Wall still has doubts, such as when the Wizards played in Oklahoma City last month. Wall twice got the ball in overtime and hesitated before he badly missed two open three-pointers. Wall's teammates jumped on him during a timeout, imploring him to shoot. A flustered Wall walked away from the huddle, looking and feeling unsure of himself. Wall said the Thunder had made him second-guess himself, but he later admitted that he was also grappling with pain in his right knee.
"He learned from it," teammate Nick Young said. "You've got to go through things like that. He's starting to get it more, how we are and what to do with us. Him being a 20-year-old, that's a lot. I think he's handling it well."
Unaccustomed to losing, Wall has tried to temper his emotions, realizing that his teammates respond to his disposition, good or bad. He recently asked to be fined $50 every time he displayed poor body language. "Like Coach says, it all starts with me. When I get it going, it gets everybody else going," he said.
Wall has made some other quiet gestures to put his team first. At the beginning of the season, Wall did post-game interviews from the podium after Saunders. Now he answers questions in front of his locker room stall, most of the time seated.
He said the change was made mostly because his mother, Frances Pulley, had grown tired of waiting for him after games, but also because he didn't like separating himself from his teammates. "I don't want to seem like I get any privileges or advantages," he said. "I try to keep everything as a team."
Strickland, a 17-year NBA veteran, offered Wall some advice about what to expect when he entered the league and he expects him to have things figured out soon enough.
"J is going to be fine. We can't hold everybody and think they are going to be perfect all the time, but at the end of the day, J is a good kid and he wants to do the right thing," Strickland said.
"There's times he would come to practice, crusty-eyed and don't want to practice and he might walk in there all slow and moping. As soon as the ball goes up, as soon as he steps on the court, it all changes. J-Wall is on the court. He wants to be the best player on the court, like all the time. So he'll be fine."