When John Wall discovered last Thursday that the soreness in his left knee was the early stages of a stress injury that would keep him sidelined for approximately eight weeks, he walked out of orthopedic specialist David Altchek’s office in New York and took a few minutes to be alone, dejected, and process it all. He sat silently on the ride back to Washington, shutting off his cellphones, so that he wouldn’t have to share his anger and disappointment.
Wall had invested significant time and effort in preparing for his third season, one that he believes will define his career in the NBA. He hired a noted trainer and new strength and conditioning coach. He looked forward to getting on the floor with Nene, developing chemistry with first-round draft pick Bradley Beal and several of the other new pieces, and getting the Washington Wizards back on the path toward respectability. Suddenly, that was all delayed.
The emotions remained raw Monday, but Wall tried to appear upbeat as the Wizards players gathered at Verizon Center on the eve of his first NBA training camp as a spectator. He spoke with owner Ted Leonsis, joked around with his teammates as he posed for pictures and dribbled standing still — about all that he is allowed to do because of his current predicament.
“It’s definitely a big blow for me,” Wall said of the injury. “That’s something I definitely don’t want to hear, but it’s something I have to deal with in this game of basketball. I just have to be strong, smart and mature about it and let it pass.”
The knee injury was an obvious setback for Wall and the Wizards, because so much of this season is centered around his ability to ascend tothe status often reserved for the top pick. In his first two seasons, Wall posted respectable numbers — his career averages are 16.3 points, 8.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds — especially considering he was asked to carry a supporting cast with limited talent and experience.
But Wall won’t place the blame elsewhere for his inability to quickly elevate the Wizards, because the expectations for him far exceed those for his teammates — and he will receive the bulk of the criticism if the team fails. With the Nationals and the Redskins generating excitement throughout the city, Wall feels he has a responsibility to help the Wizards “get back to where they belong.”
“When you get drafted number one,” Wall said, “it’s on you to change the program around, change the organization around, be in the playoffs and contend for a championship. That’s something I want to do.”
Kwame Brown was the last No. 1 overall pick  who needed more than three years in the NBA to reach the playoffs. In the draft lottery era, the longest time a No. 1 pick needed to reach the postseason was six seasons — and by then, Pervis Ellison, Michael Olowokandi and Elton Brand were no longer on the teams that selected them.
John Calipari, Wall’s coach at Kentucky, says his former pupil has had to handle a difficult situation in his short time in Washington.
“What happened for Derrick Rose, the balls dropped right and he went to a good team as the No. 1 pick,” said Calipari, who also coached Rose at Memphis. “But it didn’t happen for John. It’s going to be rough on Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, going to Charlotte [as the second overall pick this year]. You’re going to get them to 40 wins? Okay. It’s all a tough road. And then they put it on you, like you’re the guy that’s supposed to change it. There is no one player in the NBA that can do it.”
Wall hired trainer Rob McClanaghan, who helped Rose become the league’s youngest MVP ever in his third season and also worked with Oklahoma City all-star point guard Russell Westbrook. Wall focused on staying balanced with his jump shots, taking pull-up jumpers in transition and making sharp cuts — skills that have made Rose and Westbrook two of the league’s toughest matchups. Wall also added 10 pounds of muscle.
With the Wizards overhauling their roster in the past nine months, Wall is now the team’s longest-tenured player, and he will be looked upon for more than just numbers when he returns. He wants to win and said he would like to be the “savior” for a Wizards franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since President Obama was first elected.
“I’m the leader of this team and I’m the guy that leads, but I’m not saying I got to do everything every night,” Wall said. “I’ve got other pieces out there to help me out, but I want to be the leader and let guys know I’m willing to do whatever it takes to take the step in my game and for the team to keep going.”
Wall still believes the Wizards will be able to compete while he’s gone. They signed Jannero Pargo on Monday and will look to A.J. Price and Shelvin Mack as other point guard options in the interim.
“They are not going to be expected to do the things I do. It’s once in a lifetime for people like that and I’m blessed,” Wall said, “but I believe in my teammates, I trust those guys and I believe they can win games.”
Wall said his injury came as the result of the “wear and tear” of working out. He didn’t participate in the voluntary workouts last month as a precautionary measure and has been using his spare time playing video games and sleeping because he can’t play basketball or even bowl, his second-favorite activity.
“It’s tough. Just try to keep positive people around me. Try to stay positive, don’t think negative,” Wall said, while hinting that he hopes to return sooner than expected. “Luckily I’m young. Hopefully, I can heal quicker than it takes for older people.”