John Wall and Martell Webster were soaking in a cold tub, literally chilling, after a voluntary workout at Verizon Center recently when Webster said he glanced over at Wall and asked, “Do you feel any pressure?”
Wall has dealt with nothing but pressure since the Washington Wizards drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010. After three seasons in which the franchise has failed to make the playoffs and he has failed to make an all-star team (while dealing with injuries to both knees), Wall was given an added bonus — and burden — this summer when the organization rewarded him with a five-year, $80 million extension.
“He goes: ‘No. Pressure for what? They extended me to play the way I’ve been playing,’ ” Webster said he recalled Wall telling him.
The massive contract represents the third-largest deal in franchise history and reflects the franchise’s belief in what the 23-year-old point guard will accomplish as the team’s leader. And as he enters what he called the “most anticipated” season of his career, Wall isn’t afraid of the added responsibilities that he has to assume on a team that is seeking its first postseason appearance since the 2007-08 season.
“Yeah, I feel like the pressure is a lot more,” Wall said Friday during the Wizards’ media day. “I embrace it. I love pressure. There is nothing to hide from. You hide from it, you don’t need to be playing. That’s just something I have — a competitive edge and a dog I think I was born with.”
Wall will be much more at ease when training camp gets underway Saturday at George Mason’s Patriot Center. He has the security of long-term stability, recently purchased a $4.9 million home in Potomac and is on a team that believes it has legitimate postseason aspirations.
More importantly, Wall is healthy.
That the Wizards’ journey toward respectability — and Wall’s personal path toward getting elite-level production out of his considerable potential — begins exactly one year after the team made the surprising announcement that he would miss significant time with a stress injury in his left knee isn’t lost on him.
“It’s huge for me,” said Wall, who remains baffled about how he was injured before last season. “Certain things come from nowhere. My main thing is how I took care of my body this year and knowing what I need to do. I took my time to get healthy coming into training camp, especially since I have bigger expectations for myself.”
Wall maintained the same workout strategy as the previous summer, holding early-morning sessions in Los Angeles with famed trainer Rob McClanaghan, who has helped former league MVP Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love reach all-star status. Oklahoma City all-star forward Kevin Durant also began training with McClanaghan last summer, which gave Wall the opportunity to work alongside the three-time scoring champion every day for two weeks.
“Working out with Kevin Durant makes you want to push yourself to another level, because you see how hard he goes,” said Wall, who averaged career highs of 18.5 points and 44.1 percent shooting, while adding 7.6 assists last season. “I always go hard, no matter what I do, but just seeing how effortless he makes things look helped me out a lot.”
Wall spent a good portion of his summer working on improving his jumper and also is taking steps to be more of a leader. He wasn’t self-assured enough to take on that role as a rookie. He was unable to handle the obligation his second season with so much instability surrounding the team because of the lockout. And last season, he was reluctant to speak up as he missed the first 33 games with injury.
But after agreeing to his extension, Wall arrived in Washington a few weeks earlier than usual to begin working out and scrimmaging at Verizon Center and urged his teammates to do the same to build better camaraderie. Wall said he also plans to soon have his teammates over at his new house to hang out and watch football.
“I think he understands the role he’s in now, the expectations that come with that, and he’s a guy that wants that. That’s the good thing,” Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. “He’s not a guy that wants to shy away from being more of a leader, being more of a guy that's going to lead us and try to inspire us to be the best that we can be.”
With injuries to Wall and Nene part of the reason the Wizards were out of the playoff race last season, the team had hoped to enter training camp with most of their core players healthy — until center Emeka Okafor was sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck. Despite the absence of the defensive anchor and best rebounder, Wall still has his sights set on playoffs and isn’t even considering the alternative.
“Then that’s the biggest disappointment I think I would have since I've been in the NBA,” Wall said when asked about how he would react to another season without a playoff berth. “I think it would be waste of a season, to be honest.”
The Wizards have surrounded Wall with better talent, adding former Georgetown star Otto Porter Jr. in the draft and signing backup point guard Eric Maynor and veteran forward Al Harrington in free agency. Wall believes that Wizards fans should have more confidence that better days are ahead.
“I really want to see how the city is going to react and just see everybody with a smile on our face, just to get this city back to the promised land,” Wall said. “I think the fans understand what our team is capable of now. I feel like guys that’s been on the fence should be on the bandwagon now.”