As he sat, arms folded, face frowning, John Wall spoke loudly with his perturbed silence during training camp last season. Wall had just begun recovering from a stress injury in his left knee, which was diagnosed only a few days before, and he was confused about his purpose as a spectator.
When asked recently to reflect on his emotions this time last year, Wall rolled his eyes and shook his head.
I was “miserable and bored. Didn’t know what to do. Didn’t know if I was going to play or not,” Wall said, describing his feelings when training camp began last season. “Then every week it got worse and worse and then eventually it got to a point where I could finally play. I couldn’t miss all of last year so it was exciting when I could start the season and just have fun.”
Wall is healthy and his voice is usually the most noticeable sound heard when reporters are allowed into the gym at George Mason’s Patriot Center. With teammates surrounding after each practice, Wall has been jovial, cracking jokes, encouraging players as they shoot jumpers and relishing being back in his element at the start of the season.
The longest-tenured player on the team, Wall is still the fourth-youngest player on the roster behind second-year guard Bradley Beal and rookies Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. But he is also most familiar with what Coach Randy Wittman system and is playing the role of coach on the floor during practices – much to the delight of Wittman.
“It’s been good. He’s [taking] another step forward. Obviously, we didn’t have John last year. But he’s much more vocal,” Wittman said. “He’s a critic to some of our guys and correcting, which you’ve got to be as a leader sometimes and then also accepting. That’s the thing with our group that’s going to be important this year. For you to take another step and we all talk about the step we want to take in making the playoffs and doing the things that we want to do this year, this group as a group has to come together and be able to coach one another and fix things on the floor.”
Wittman said he has constantly encouraged his players to handle problems from within, without relying on a timeout and lean on the coaches. “Sometimes that’s a hard thing for players to take criticism from another player. That’s where this team has to get to and I’ve seen some of that and we’ve got to continue to grow. When things aren’t going good, or somebody needs a pat on the back or somebody needs a kick in the rear end. As teammates and peers of one another, they’ve got to be able to do that…All the good [teams] have that and this team didn’t have that last year. It’s a quality that I’m trying to get these guys to grow in and I’ve seen a good step from John.”
Wall has been offering instruction to the Wizards’ new additions such as veteran Eric Maynor, who was signed to serve as Wall’s steady-handed backup at point guard. Maynor has played with Deron Williams in Utah, Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City and Damian Lillard in Portland, so he is used to being paired with an explosive point guard. Wall wants to make sure he quickly picks up the system.
“That’s my job, to try and be a leader, help guys as much as possible,” Wall said. “Especially Eric because he’s coming from a different system than what he played in at OKC and Portland. It’s probably the same plays with just different names you have to get adjusted to.”
Wall has been much more encouraging thus far to teammates. Flashing a more consistent jump shot, Wall has also talked a little trash during the team’s scrimmages the first two days. Newcomer Al Harrington said he has traded a couple of words with the former No. 1 overall pick.
“I’m trying to see what kind of player he is to the core – and so far, he’s a beast. He’s an animal,” Harrington said. “That’s the kind of guy you want in the fox hole with you.”
A year ago at this time, Wall solemnly looked on as the Wizards carried on without him. But now he’s back and ready to do some heavy lifting from the beginning – with his play and his words.
“I was hurt coming into this situation last year, so I really didn’t want to come into this situation, be much of a leader,” Wall said. “I feel like I can be more of a vocal leader and a leader that leads by example.”