The extended NBA offseason allowed John Wall to cash in on his burgeoning celebrity in ways that he never could have imagined just four years ago, when he was barely known outside of his home town of Raleigh, N.C.
After a relatively successful rookie season with the Washington Wizards, Wall heard his name dropped in a popular rap song and found himself filming a promotional video for his shoe company, Reebok, with Grammy-winning producer Swizz Beatz and rappers Rick Ross and Meek Mill. He celebrated his 21st birthday in several cities, with hip-hop mogul Diddy and platinum-selling rapper Drake as special guests at a party in New York.
And, shortly before NBA owners and players reached an agreement that created a 66-game regular season, Wall sneaked away in late November for his first flight across the Atlantic to film another Reebok commercial and check out the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
“It’s crazy how life can change in the snap of a finger,” Wall said recently. “You’ve just got to thank God. But I’m still the same person — humble and hungry.”
No matter how the circumstances may have changed around Wall, he hasn’t lost focus — even with more of his favorite musicians on his cellphone contact list and more fans recognizing him as he practices moves while air-dribbling on the street. Wall has made being an all-time great, not fame, his ultimate goal, and won’t let the ancillary benefits of his talents deter him from elevating the franchise that selected him No. 1 overall in 2010.
“That’s how I am as a person. I have a lot of goals for myself. But I’m more focused on the Wizards organization, D.C., representing them,” Wall said. “I just got to go play my game. That’s the main thing I’ve got to do here, but also do it in the right way to keep my team happy and keep myself happy and try to win games.”
As Wall gets set for his second season, which begins Monday against the New Jersey Nets, his shoe company already has begun a TV, print, digital and in-store marketing campaign promoting this as a possible breakout year. And the Wizards already have given Wall, still their youngest player, more responsibility as a leader on and off the court.
When he started his first season, Wall had to contend with the presence of the former face of the franchise, Gilbert Arenas, and had Kirk Hinrich around for half the season to serve as a mentor. But at times, the pressure of being asked to lead when he didn’t exactly know where he was going and the pain of playing games when his left foot and knees were damaged were overwhelming for Wall.
Wall quickly showed he is one of the fastest players in the league with the ball. But his inability to slow down at times led to careless turnovers and poor, rushed decisions.
He also struggled with playing for a team that sometimes lost more games in a week than Wall did in his only season at Kentucky. He was prone to frowns, glares and helpless looks in tough situations in games and practices. “At times last year, he’d get down on himself and pout when things didn’t go right,” Wizards Coach Flip Saunders said. He added that Wall has matured some since the season ended.
Few outside the Wizards’ locker room expect the team to do more than make a fourth consecutive lottery appearance and possibly add another building block to pair with Wall. But Wall has higher aspirations after studying film and watching playoff games of all-star point guards Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, who all reached the postseason by at least their second campaigns. What Wall will have to discover, to follow their ascents in the NBA, is how to contain his emotions and stay under control.
The Wizards didn’t add much to a roster that won just 23 games last season, so for the team to make a dramatic improvement, Wall would likely have to do the same. “Last year is over with. It was good for me — 16 points and eight assists. That’s good for a rookie, but I think I could’ve had a better year, fighting through injuries. When I’m fully healthy, you’ll see what I’m capable of,” Wall said.
But “it’s not all about that,” he said. “As a point guard on this level, it’s not about stats no more. It’s about winning.”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis hasn’t placed playoff expectations on Wall and has had several conversations with him about the organization’s rebuilding plans, which could result in another challenging season.
“John gets it. He knows this is going to be hard,” Leonsis said. “What I told him, [is] ‘we’re going to deconstruct the team totally and build it around you. You’re going to have to be equally as patient, and your improvement will drive a lot of the team’s improvement. But we’re committed to building a team that you’re proud of, an environment around you and a fan base around you that you are appreciative of.’ ”
Wall takes his end of the obligation seriously. First, he took time to rest and heal. Then he worked on regaining the explosiveness he often wasn’t able to display in his first season. He played in summer league pro-ams in Raleigh, Baltimore, Washington and Seattle, showed up for charity exhibition games in Miami, Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Washington, and dominated September’s “lockout league,” which featured several NBA players in Las Vegas.
“That guy is going to be an all-star in this league for years to come — as fierce a competitor as they come,” said Oklahoma City all-star forward and District native Kevin Durant, who teamed with Wall for five exhibition games in the local Goodman League.
Wall’s YouTube-worthy performances during the lockout seemed to justify the investment Reebok made when it decided to make him the face of the brand.
“John has more than an incredible basketball talent, and we continue to be amazed by what he is able to offer,” Brian Lee, head of Reebok Basketball, wrote in an e-mail. He called Wall “a young, aspirational athlete with an incredible back story and a game with unlimited potential.”
Before he signed his five-year, $25 million deal with Reebok, Wall sat down with one of his childhood role models and the shoe company’s most recognizable endorser, Allen Iverson, who provided a convincing pitch.
“It’s a dream come true. It’s still unbelievable to this day. I’ve been wearing other people’s shoes my whole life,” said Wall, who helped design the ZigSlash Encore shoe and got his mother’s approval for a logo that melded his “JW” initials.
“It means that they believe in me,” he said. “A lot of guys say I’m the future and I have to prove myself.”
Wall scored more than 25 points several times last year, but he struggled against legitimate defenses. His jump shot appeared to have improved during exhibitions, but the results through two preseason games left something to be desired.
While discussing the design of his new shoe on a video that accompanied his commercial, Wall made a bold statement with relative nonchalance: “I just want to be the best point guard to ever play the game.” When asked to explain recently, Wall said, “I’m far away from that. You’ve got guys like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Jerry West, Pistol Pete. . . all those guys. Then you’ve got guys like Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Deron Williams. All those guys are where they are. Every year, you’ve just got to keep getting better. And that’s my goal.”
Wall’s profile rose this offseason to the point that some gossip Web sites even speculated about his relationship status, which amused Wall, who recently said, “I ain’t had a girlfriend in five years. I don’t know what it feel like.”
He has learned, however, how it feels to put a rap lyric that mentions his name on repeat, catch a flight to Paris on short notice and film a movie-style commercial for almost 20 hours. But don’t ask him about French cuisine.
“You know I’m a picky eater so I didn’t know what to eat, so I ate steak for like three days,” Wall said with a laugh. “It was definitely an experience where I would like to take a vacation over there.”
He has too much work ahead before that.