John Wall’s reign as undisputed leader of the Washington Wizards commenced in mid-August about 2,600 miles from the District. Near his summer home in Los Angeles, Wall organized a three-day team minicamp, seeking to encourage camaraderie and welcome the team’s newcomers.
He invited teammates to bring their families and enjoy the weather, but given the short offseason and the grind of an NBA campaign, he wasn’t sure how many would show up; 11 of the 15 players and several members of the player development staff attended.
David Adkins, the Wizards’ player development coach, shepherded the group through drills at Loyola Marymount University. They lifted weights, completed a beach workout and played beach football. They ate meals together, and Wall invited the crew over to his house for dinner the first night. A chef cooked.
“It was just an opportunity to have fun, work out and get to know each other because some of the new guys never met the old guys,” Wall said. “We just came together as one.”
Just a few years ago, Wall wouldn’t have been comfortable asking teammates to fly to him from around the country. He was shy then, a franchise talent without the moxie to command. But the gathering was an example of the 25-year-old Wall’s growth entering his sixth season as the Wizards’ franchise player.
“At what point is he a veteran?” Coach Randy Wittman asked.
Wall has played the part of seasoned leader at practices so far. He is more vocal, instructing teammates and correcting their mistakes before a coach can intervene. Without Paul Pierce around, he has assumed the position as resident trash-talker.
“I’m the guy talking [junk] to everybody,” Wall said.
Wall still communicates with Pierce; the two were in contact just before camp started. He learned from the future Hall of Famer during Pierce’s memorable season in the District: how to motivate, how to approach teammates, how to push the right buttons. But the apprenticeship is over.
“I know coming in this is my team,” Wall said. “When I got the contract I knew that, ‘All right, I’m the franchise guy.’ Last year it was my team, but I still had Paul around, who was a great leader to help me learn more things. Now I just walk in and feel like I’m that guy. I’m more confident in the locker room saying stuff and speaking up. Doing the little things.”
For at least five minutes during every day the Wizards practice, Wall straddles a low block, his back to assistant coach Roy Rogers, and listens to Rogers deliver orders in his baritone as the coach’s 6-foot-9 physique applies resistance. Rogers instructs him to go right or left, to spin or go up and under.
Wall executes the sequences at game speed, but takes his time. He strives for patience. Oftentimes last season, he admitted, he rushed in the few instances he posted up a defender.
“I think before, when I was getting it, I’d go so fast trying to body somebody,” he said.
The drill is standard for Wizards big men. But Wall demanded he be included. He wants to use his 6-4 frame to capitalize on defenders and on the space the Wizards’ revamped offense should provide in the interior. He is still right hand-dominant on the block, but his left is improving, he said. So far, he has a few options in his repertoire — a spin move, an up-and-under, and a little hook shot — though he wouldn’t divulge the entire selection.
“I can’t tell them all,” Wall said. “But I got a couple up the sleeve.”
He worked on post-ups and floaters during the summer, and he plans to utilize them more often this season. He also wants to improve his shot selection and turnover rate. To incentivize the cause, Wall will pay assistant coach Howard Eisley $100 for every game he commits more than two turnovers. Worst-case scenario, that’s a $8,200 loss.
“So that means take care of the ball,” Wall said.
It is all part of his effort to advance another rung in the NBA hierarchy. The list of slights he can use as motivation has dwindled — he was an all-star game starter last season and is widely considered one of the sport’s top point guards. But there are still motivations, such as his 87 rating in the NBA 2K16 video game, which is one point higher than last year and tied for fourth among point guards.
“My goal is to be number one,” Wall said. “There’s a lot of great talent in this league, so it’s great to move up. Each year I move up, that means I’ve improved. And now I want to move up even more. I don’t want to be satisfied with where I’m at. I want to keep going up, and if I keep getting better, that means I’m bringing my team up with me and we can keep improving and we know what our ultimate goal is.
He wants to leap from all-star starter to All-NBA first-teamer, MVP candidate and the league’s assist leader. Washington’s overhauled offense — a modern, fast-paced, read-and-react operation — should benefit Wall. It is the ideal offense for his skill set, which is predicated on speed, athleticism and passing. The challenging part is the rigorous conditioning it requires.
If he masters the system and meets his individual objectives, Wall believes the Wizards will finally reach the 50-win mark, secure home-court advantage and bust through the second-round playoff barricade. He is aware that most outsiders do not consider the Wizards legitimate contenders, that the franchise is biding its time until it can make a run at Kevin Durant in free agency next summer.
Wall doesn’t deny the obvious. When the time comes, he will make his recruiting pitch to the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar and Montrose Christian product. He understands that adding one of the top five players in the game would catapult Washington to an annual championship contender during the prime of his career.
But Wall believes he is a superstar, too. And he is confident that with him as the leader of the deepest roster assembled since he arrived baby-faced in the District, he can guide the Wizards deeper into the spring than they’ve been in decades.
“We’re not trying to throw anything away,” he said. “I’m not trying to waste my sixth year on nothing. I’m trying to get to where I want to be. Everybody thinks we can’t win if we don’t have Kevin. Well, you can win because you have John Wall.”