John Wall needed a wakeup call last weekend before his first training session against the U.S. Olympic team at Thomas and Mack Center on the campus of UNLV. Confusion over the departure time led him to oversleep and had him scrambling from his hotel room to catch the team bus, then running back upstairs to grab his gear before realizing that it was already stored on the bus.
Panicked about being late, Wall was suddenly on edge when USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo told him that he would be fined $600 for tardiness — before later acknowledging that he was joking.
A few minutes later, once he stepped on the court as a member of the Select Team, Wall received a different sort of wakeup call. An aggressive Team USA squad — featuring the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — smothered him every time he touched the ball.
“The way they was doing the first two days, we didn’t fight back and we wasn’t getting them any better. They was just basically punking us,” Wall said after practice on Tuesday. “It’s great to play these guys for a week. It makes you better and makes you respect the game even more."
The experience this week has been part humbling and enlightening for Wall, with the level of play exceeding what he has faced in regular season games. It has also served as a reminder of what Wall needs to do to elevate his game and his team.
When Wall reflects on his first two seasons in the NBA, the former No. 1 overall pick doesn’t view it as time wasted, but more like an opportunity lost. He has come up short of the team and individual goals that he set for himself — rookie of the year, an all-star appearance — but believes that individual accolades are within his grasp once the Washington Wizards start to win.
Wall is eager to taste some success in the NBA after winning just 29.5 percent of his games in his first two seasons. Since acquiring Nene at the trade deadline in March, the Wizards have continued to attempt to make moves to take the franchise from laughingstock status.
Owner Ted Leonsis recently stated that he doesn’t “want to be in the lottery anymore.”
“It kind of makes it tough, but at the same time, you’ve got to weigh your options,” Wall said, when asked about making a long-term commitment to a foundering organization. “D.C. is a great city for me. They give us a lot of support, even though we're losing and going through tough times. But the owner, the organization and [President Ernie Grunfeld], those guys are moving in the right direction. It's up to them to put the pieces together and it's up to us, as players, to do better and playing on the court.”
Wall is doing his part as he trains with the Select Team through Wednesday. Colangelo said this week that Wall has been “great” and has an opportunity to learn, gain valuable experience and possibly leave an impression for future consideration with the senior national team.
“He’s one the top point guards in the league today, one of the best young point guards,” Colangelo said. “When you look at Wall and Kyrie [Irving], you’re looking at the potential guards for the future. That’s why they’re here. Many, many players have used the Select Team as a springboard for making our team.”After experiencing some initial struggles, Wall said he has gained more confidence and believes he “can play at any level. . . . This gives me a great chance to know what I need to work on and keep getting better. It’s great to play against those players; they are the best players in our league right now. I’m just trying to get myself to that level one day.”
His first challenge is getting the Wizards back in the postseason after a four-year drought. He also wants to finally make the expected leap that failed to materialize last season.
“I feel I got better, but I didn’t play as well as I could. I couldn’t get the type of numbers that I thought I could average because I wasn’t doing the type of work that I needed to,” said Wall, who has career averages of 16.3 points, 8.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds. “As a team concept, we didn’t make no playoffs. I knew the first year was going to be tough, but I felt the second year, we had a chance even though it was a shorter season, throughout the lockout. We didn’t play to our full potential and I hope the third and fourth year get better.”
“I know it’s a tough process,” he said. “LeBron [James] didn’t make it his first two and Kevin [Durant] didn’t make it his first couple of years.”
Wall was encouraged by the team’s decision to bring back Randy Wittman as head coach, something he lobbied for during his exit interviews with Grunfeld and Leonsis. “I’m not going to say I’m the guy that told them to bring him back, but me and Nene had a big word in bringing him back,” Wall said. “We just like the way he coaches, how much he made us better. He made us be committed to the defensive end and just letting the offense come. And he gets on everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are, he gets on you. If you aren’t going hard, he’ll let you know.”
And he believes that the Wizards are on the verge of vying for one of the top eight spots in the Eastern Conference after trading Rashard Lewis to New Orleans for Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, and then drafting Bradley Beal with the third overall pick. “We finished the season very strong and then you make those trades in the offseason and drafting the right people, we’re going the right way,” Wall said. “We have a great chance now to make the playoffs, but it’s up to us.”