Before he turned the NBA’s annual showcase of top rookies and second-year talents into a platform for his incredible playmaking and sharing skills, John Wall received a request. Rookie assistant coach and Hall of Famer Kevin McHale walked up to Wall at halfcourt and told him that he had promised fellow NBA-TV analyst Chris Webber that he would get him to do the “Dougie,” the popular dance that Wall had used to informally announce himself to Washington and the league at the Wizards’ home opener.
Wall smiled, tapped fists with McHale and said, “Okay, sir.”
Wall won most valuable player honors at the Rookie Challenge at Staples Center as he set a record with 22 assists and did the dance not once, but three times, celebrating the final time after being on the receiving end of an alley-oop dunk that secured the win. The stellar performance during All-Star Weekend — on a night when he upstaged Los Angeles Clippers rookie Blake Griffin in his own building — was a perfect example of what has come to define Wall in his infant stages as a professional basketball player: his eagerness to put on a show and to make those around him happy.
Coach Flip Saunders often described Wall last season as a “pleaser,” and the No. 1 overall pick supported that assessment — whether it was by being the only player to rank in the top 10 in assists despite playing the entire season on a team that ranked in the bottom third in both scoring and field goal percentage, or how he waited in the locker room to answer two rounds of questions from reporters on the night he was ejected for throwing a closed fist and forearm at Miami Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
“He wants to be great and he wants to please everyone,” Saunders said of Wall.
That quality helped Wall transform his life from that of a trouble-maker to a purpose-driven, standout basketball player. But it may have also hampered him during a season in which he posted one of the best statistical seasons ever for a rookie point guard — averaging 16.4 points, 8.3 assists and 4.6 rebounds — though he admittedly played hurt for the final four months.
If he could’ve done anything differently last season, Wall said he would’ve taken his time before coming back from a foot injury he claims “was the downfall for me.” Wall sprained his left foot while contesting a jumper by Chicago’s Derrick Rose on Nov. 13, but he returned after missing just four games, only to suffer a more debilitating bone bruise in his right knee in his first game back. When asked why he rushed back from his initial injury, Wall said, “I didn’t want to disappoint anybody.”
Wall understood the immense pressures that came with being the top choice, and he felt he had an obligation to the franchise and its fans to be a quick-fix savior and help it return to the playoffs. He was encouraged by how the Wizards (23-59) finished the regular season, winning five of their last eight games, but disappointed that he couldn’t rescue the organization in his first season.
“It was every bit of who John is, was and will be, to come in and turn this thing around in a year. He absolutely had every intention of being in the playoffs and it didn’t work out. So from that standpoint, it was definitely frustrating,” business manager and longtime mentor Brian Clifton said in a telephone interview. “It wasn’t this cakewalk of an existence and he just walked in and it was perfect. He was forced to realize, as exceptional as he is, he’s human and he does have limitations.”
Wall dealt with his share of adversity in his first season, as the prototypical pass-first point guard had to adjust to an ever-changing roster that featured 23 players and 29 starting lineups. He shifted his role and quickly matured after the team dealt the former face of the franchise, Gilbert Arenas, to Orlando and later traded his backup, Kirk Hinrich, to Atlanta.
He also happened to join the league at a time when point guard is the league’s most prestigious position, with arguably more depth in talent than at any time. But the more frustrating part for Wall was that he couldn’t always reach into his bag of tricks and respond as he was slowed by injuries that forced him to miss 12 games.
“I knew after the first couple of games I could play in the league,” said Wall, who had a triple-double in his sixth game. “I think I did good for my year. I wasn’t fully healthy and being myself, but I can’t hold nobody accountable for that. Things just happened. I just fought through it and helped my team out as much as possible.”
Even though he wasn’t at his best, Wall said the right things to persuade the team to let him come back from his foot injury and learned a valuable lesson about being more patient.
He came off the bench in his first game back against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 23 and led the Wizards to an overtime win, but it came at a cost. Wall tried to get into the lane, but his sore foot kept him from making the move that his mind wanted him to make, so he wound up colliding with another player. Sixers reserve Marreese Speights fell on him, contributing to a deep bone bruise in his right knee that Wall said limited him to being no better than “85 percent” the rest of the season.
There was some concern within the Wizards organization in early December that Wall’s Reebok Zig Slash shoes could’ve been the source of his initial foot problems. After meeting with Wall, Wizards officials and their training staff, Reebok made some adjustments a few months later to make the shoe firmer, but Clifton said the changes were “cosmetic more than anything functional.”
Wall, who has a five-year, $25 million deal with Reebok, also dismissed the speculation. “I don’t think nothing was wrong with my shoe. Udonis Haslem sprained his foot the same way. Brandon Jennings hurt his. Are you going to blame Reebok, Converse or Under Armour? I don’t know,” Wall said. “A sprained foot you can’t really control if you land on somebody’s foot. My shoe wasn’t the problem at all.”
Wall accepted early on that he wasn’t going to follow Rose and Tyreke Evans and become the third consecutive player to play one season under John Calipari and claim rookie of the year honors. While Wall sat out, Griffin exploded and became the runaway favorite for rookie of the year, turning Wall into an afterthought by the time he returned in late December.
“I think that’s what happened. But certain things happen, you can’t really control them. It was tough trying to get back, and seeing every time you turned on the TV, it was a highlight reel,” Wall said of Griffin. “I think more than likely, he’s going to win it. It’s well deserved. When I was out with injuries, he came up in big games. I wanted to win it, but if you come up short, that’s just another motivation next year to do something better.”
Wall said the Arenas trade forced him to be more responsible with regards to the Wizards. “I thought we was going to stay together and play, but I knew from that day forward what it was, it was going to be my organization, my team. I wasn’t trying to step on anybody’s foot or come in like I was bigger or better than anybody. I just stepped back and accepted a role as much as I could as a rookie. But I think next year, I’m really going to step into the role more and be a different player for this organization.”
Saunders said Wall was able to succeed this season because he consistently stayed upbeat and brought the same energy and effort to practice, no matter the results of the previous game. “He’s very receptive. He’s a guy I could get on in practice. And he might groan a little bit, but he’s going to pick it up. When John gets down, it’s because he gets down on himself, because he is a perfectionist. And the great ones, that’s what makes them great. They aren’t satisfied with being mediocre, and they keep on striving to be better and better.”
Wall plans to work on improving his jumper, flexibility and physique this offseason, hoping that the changes can also help elevate the Wizards. He said he would hire a personal chef and work on his diet after realizing the physical challenges of playing at a high level while snacking on junk food. “You can’t run a Porsche on kerosene,” Clifton said.
“I want to be known as a player that’s very talented but also willing to work,” Wall said. “Like Derrick [Rose], he got better every year. Like [Russell] Westbrook, he got better every year. Those type of guys, I want to be in a category with those types of guys in the next two or three years, and I think if I just sit back and study the game like those guys did and work as hard as they did, as I should, and I am, I think I can be up there.”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said Wall’s eventual progression will strengthen the connection he already has with fans. “I think John is going to be an incredibly popular player here for a long time, because they’ll remember him as a baby 20 years old,” Leonsis said. “They’ll remember in three years, four years, five years, when he first came and how ‘aw-shucks’ and how sweet he was, and now he’s a man and an all-star. They’ll watch him develop and I think there is a positive chemistry between fan base and players that way.”
And Wall will do his best not to let them down.