John Wall learning to become a leader for Washington Wizards while learning the NBA

"I've always led by example throughout my whole life," John Wall said.
"I've always led by example throughout my whole life," John Wall said. (Jonathan Newton)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011

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."

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