Battling injuries, buried on a bad team, John Wall spent his first three seasons in the NBA taking the unsightly plunge from No. 1 overall pick to irrelevance. The Wizards were banished from national television, limiting his exposure outside the Washington area to the occasional images of him creating a signature tea-kettle dance at Kentucky, doing The Dougie before his home debut or rolling his eyes while holding the basketball as JaVale McGee ran back on defense.
Wall’s inability to elevate the Wizards beyond being a perennial lottery participant damaged his reputation, perhaps unfairly, as he entered his fourth season. He was blasted as an unstable foundation for a rebuild. The franchise was questioned for giving him a five-year, $80-million maximum contract last August. And, some of his new teammates had doubts about his dedication to the game.
“From the outside looking in, I thought John liked the lifestyle more than the game. That’s just from me looking outside,” said Al Harrington, who put aside his apprehension and signed as a free agent last summer.
Marcin Gortat arrived in a deal with Phoenix five days before the season began and was worried about what was about to unfold. “I had a lot of fear. I didn’t know how it was going to be. I was afraid of the city. I was afraid of the team. Obviously there were a lot of rumors about John and what kind of player he is.”
Gortat declined to elaborate when asked what he heard, stating, “It was just that he’s not that good and stuff like that. It was totally nonsense.”
In leading the Wizards into playoff contention and earning his first all-star selection, Wall was able to alter the perception that had been created of him. But some still held on to an inaccurate caricature, especially after Wall won the slam dunk contest and closed out the celebration by leaning, wailing and doing the Nae Nae dance.
“Your perception is TV and media,” said Andre Miller, who joined the Wizards less than a week after Wall’s all-star weekend activities. “You see the dancing and having fun, which basketball is fun. A young guy enjoying his early NBA experience and I was like – I thought he was a goofball at first. Just a little bit too playful.”
After spending time with Wall this season, Harrington, Gortat and Miller — a trio of 30-something veterans — all found a player who was seriously committed to his craft and determined to live up to the expectations that came with his draft status and exorbitant contract. They found a basketball junkie who loves the game, embraced the responsibility of being a team leader and was open to constructive criticism. And they also watched as Wall went through the painstaking task of maintaining his body and mind to ensure that he was on the court for every game, no matter what ailed him.
“When I got here, then I saw this kid really wants to win. He’ll do anything to win. That’s what it takes,” said Harrington, who challenged Wall to become a better leader this season. “Especially when your point guard has that type of attitude, it’s going to trickle down to everyone. The more he continues to work, the more guys continue to have faith in him and respect him; he’s not only going to leave his mark on this team but the whole NBA.”
When told what his veteran teammates had to say about him before coming to Washington, Wall said he understood why they would have those opinions.
“I came in young. I was having fun, enjoying it,” Wall said with a shrug. “I think when people not on your team, they just see what they see behind the scenes and what [gets] printed in the newspaper, that’s what you would probably think about people, what you hear around. But I’m glad all that changed and their perception changed when they got here and had the opportunity to be my teammates and see me play, and that’s the big change to me. I can’t control what they take from what they see, but I’m glad that when they got the opportunity to play with me and be on my team, they seen something different.”
Wall led the Wizards in scoring at 19.3 points and led the entire NBA in total assists in the best season of his career. He also knocked down 108 three-pointers, more than doubling his total from long distance in his first three seasons (49). Trevor Booker, who has been with Wall the whole way, had to marvel about the progression of his formerly jump-shot-challenged point guard: “When I first got here, I remember he couldn’t shoot a lick.”
The Wizards reached the playoffs for the first time in six years, and Wall was unable to consistently be effective with teams changing game plans to make his life difficult. His production dipped considerably from the regular season as he struggled to find his shooting stroke and experienced some self-doubt. Wall saved his best performances for Game 5s: He scored 25 in the series-clinching victory over the Chicago Bulls and recovered from a rough first four games against Indiana to have a career-playoff-high 27 to help the Wizards fend off elimination for one game.
“He’s growing,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “That’s an area he still needs to grow at, but he spoke more this year whether it was in the locker room, on the floor, in meetings than he ever has. That’s just the process of it. I think this being four years now and where he’s at in his career, the responsibility that goes with all that, I think he’s understanding that. I think through what he went through in his playoffs and having the understanding of the responsibilities that lie with that and how he deals with that is invaluable. You can’t teach that unless you go through that so I think those are all things that can help him in moving forward in the direction of leadership.”
Wall’s improved reputation around the league coincides with the differing opinions with regard to the franchise. Trevor Ariza said free agents would be crazy not to consider playing in Washington, and that is largely because of the presence of Wall and his backcourt mate Bradley Beal.
“Those guys are professionals,” Miller said. “They have something that I’ve never seen in probably 70 percent of the players: They have a certain level of passion for basketball where you’re like I can go play pickup ball with this guy and he’ll play this game without money. I see those two guys who are definitely passionate and care about basketball. They care about the guys around him and they care about winning, they care about competing. That’s one thing I enjoyed.”
Gortat will enter free agency this summer and has stated that being with a quality point guard will be near the top on his list of priorities. Wall’s presence in Washington certainly helps the Wizards in their hopes of retaining the 6-foot-11 center. And, their exchange before Game 5 in Indiana was evidence that Gortat has respect for the still-developing 23-year-old point guard.
“He’s a tremendous kid. He’s a tremendous talent. He’s improved his game since the first game in Detroit I was watching him to the last game. It’s just huge, huge step forward for him. I’m fan of him now,” Gortat said. “Just like I told him [before Game 5] in Indiana, it doesn’t matter how it goes, good or bad I’m with you. I’ll jump into a fire behind this guy.”