ORLANDO, Fla. — Dwight Howard remembers the hype, drama and expectations surrounding his debut as the No. 1 overall pick. All eyes were on him. So was all the pressure. Pretty much what John Wall feels now.
Wall begins a new era for the Wizards on Thursday night, opening the regular season against Howard and the Orlando Magic in a matchup featuring past and present top picks and the opening of the NBA's newest arena.
"It wasn't easy," Howard said of being the first pick in 2004. "You can try to do too much. Everybody's going to want you to do this and do that. But you just have to learn how to play your role."
The major difference between Howard and Wall — other than their size and position, of course — is that Wall had the benefit of a season at Kentucky, while Howard came straight out of high school.
The rest couldn't be more similar. Wall comes to a team that has been the Southeast Division doormat the past couple of seasons. The Wizards have centered their marketing campaign on the rookie point guard and are relying on him — much the same way the Magic did with Howard — to lift the franchise back to prominence.
"It's exciting. I probably can't sleep as much at night," Wall said. "At the same time, I've just got to go out there and play, don't try to do stuff that I'm not used to doing, do the best thing I can do to help myself do good and help my teammates. That's the key thing."
The Wizards haven't exactly tempered expectations. They drove Wall in an SUV limo to their arena for his introductory news conference in June, rolled out a red carpet surrounded by scores of fans, had massive banners constructed, played a video of the city's sports stars welcoming him to the city. The Mayor even proclaimed it "John Wall Day."
Wall's teammates, however, say they don't want him to shoulder the entire burden.
"I don't want him to go out there and be frustrated if things start going wrong. I just want him to stay cool and be the player that he is," Wizards forward Andray Blatche said.
The rookie also will have a sparkling stage for his debut. Wall's opener will be the first regular-season game at the Amway Center, the Magic's dazzling new arena that is almost three times the square footage of their old. NBA Commissioner David Stern will be in attendance to commemorate the facility. There will be an abundance of festivities, a video presentation and a pre-game speech by Howard.
As if that weren't enough, the Magic finished the pre-season 7-0 and won by an average of almost 25 points. They're the three-time defending division champions, two years removed from the NBA Finals and still seething about being booted by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals in May. Not exactly an ideal situation for Wall's first act.
"It'll be fun to see him, a different situation," Wizards Coach Flip Saunders said of Wall. "You always worry about him, you know, rookies like that being too hyped."
At least for the opener, Washington isn't expecting an All-Star performance. After all, Howard had 12 points and 10 rebounds in a quiet rookie debut against Milwaukee, and now he's the NBA's two-time reigning defensive player of the year.
"The best thing about John's first opening game as a rookie," Saunders said, "is that it only happens one time."