UK's Wall winning opponents' respect

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 7, 2010 

Long before he soared across the cover of Sports Illustrated, John Wall shone bright in the basketball firmament. His exploits for Kentucky this season merely add to his reputation (renown? omnipotence?)

"All summer long, people were saying I was going to be playing against a future No. 1 draft pick," said Kenny Hayes, the point guard for Miami (Ohio). "So I looked him up a couple times on YouTube."

Hayes made a quick judgment on Wall.

"I told myself, this guy is legit," Hayes said.

Guards who've played against Wall already and those ahead on the Southeastern Conference schedule react visibly to the mention of his name.

"If you're a fan, you're going to watch ESPN," Casper Ware of Long Beach State said, "and you're going to hear a lot about him."

During SEC Media Day interviews in October, Vanderbilt senior point guard Jermaine Beal smiled like Jack Nicholson as the Joker when asked about playing against Wall, who already was considered the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NBA Draft before playing a college game.

When a reporter noted that the smile suggested thoughts going through his mind, Beal said, "Nothing goes through my mind."

Perhaps. But Beal, the league leader in assist-to-turnover ratio the past two seasons, did suggest Wall would face an upgrade in competition.

"If he gets all the hype, I guess he's earned it," the Vandy guard said before adding, "It's the SEC. It's a challenge."

LSU wing Tasmin Mitchell, an All-SEC player last season, echoed the sentiment.

"I don't get caught up in hype," Mitchell said. "I just want to see what he does on a SEC floor. A lot of guys average 40 in high school, (then) come into our league and average six."

Of course, SEC veterans taking a wait-and-see attitude in October might be convinced now. In his first 14 games, Wall has made game-winning shots against Miami (Ohio) and Connecticut, hit two free throws in the final 2.5 seconds to send a game against Stanford into overtime, set a school freshman record with 14 assists against UNC-Asheville, set a school record for any player with 16 assists against Hartford (equalling the eighth-highest assist total ever for any SEC player) and shook off a sub-par (for him) game to make several clutch plays in a victory over Louisville.

Hayes, a Player of the Year candidate in the Mid-American Conference, played against a one-and-done phenom, O.J. Mayo, earlier in his career. He compared Wall favorably.

"Mayo settled for a lot of jumpers and I had it kind of easy guarding him," Hayes said. "He made some tough shots, but he didn't make me work.

"Wall made me work. I had to sprint back and try to contain him."

That's the chief strategy for opponents: Keep Wall out of transition as much as possible. Hayes said Miami practiced that tactic for several days.

"Get back and form a wall," he said, presumably not intending a pun. "He wants to get to the basket more than he wants to shoot the ball.

"Then his first basket against us was a three. We were, OK, now what are we supposed to do if he's hitting threes?"

The thought of facing Wall played on the mind of Rider guard Ryan Thompson. "A lot," he said. "They were saying he's a NBA prospect and I had never seen him play. I was excited to see him play."

Wall did not disappoint. "He's real fast off the dribble," Thompson said. "I didn't know he was that fast."

While Wall voices concern that hype surrounding him can drown out the accomplishments of teammates, there's also an effect that at least one opponent welcomed.

"Of course, I was anxious to play against him because of the hype," Kemba Walker of Connecticut said. "That took a lot of pressure off me. Everybody was going into the game talking about him."

But there's a limit to the admiration Wall evokes in opposing guards. Indiana's Jeremiah Rivers acknowledged Wall as "a great player," "probably Freshman of the Year" and a "one-and-done."

Yet, Rivers bristled at the suggestion, first made by UK Coach John Calipari, that a matchup against Wall excites opponents like gunslingers in the Old West eager to take on the fastest draw.

"Ah, that has no swag with me," Rivers said. "I feel in my career I've been against the best of the best. I don't feel it gets me any more pumped up.

"He has to guard me, too. That's how I look at it."

For North Carolina guard Larry Drew, the game against Kentucky this season marked the second time he'd experienced the Wall phenomenon. After committing to UNC, the Encino, Calif., native played a high school game against Wall's Word of God Academy team.

"I didn't really know a lot about the East Coast basketball players, especially kids who were younger than my class," Drew said. "I can remember everybody was talking John Wall, John Wall. He was so hyped up, I was eager to see what he could bring to the table."

Earlier in his high school career, Drew had played against such stars as Jrue Holiday and Brandon Jennings. Wall brought enough to the table to impress Drew.

"He was right up there, right with them," the UNC guard said.

The opponents so far gave Wall credit for not trying to rub in his superiority.

"Some guys are arrogant and talk a lot of trash," Miami's Hayes said. "He was cool. I'll make a play (and) he'll walk up and say, 'That's a good move' or 'Man, you're quick.' "

To which, Hayes said he thought, "I'm quick? You're fast as hell."

Drew admitted feeling he did not play well against Wall and Kentucky. He'd like a rematch.

"I'm looking forward to playing him again," the North Carolina guard said. "Hopefully before this season is over. I'm sure we will."

If that happens, Hayes would consider Drew doubly blessed.

When asked if playing against Wall would be an experience he'd tell his grandchildren about someday, the Miami player said, "Oh, yeah. Yeah. Of course."

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