CHICAGO — The question was never whether Raleigh's John Wall was a good enough basketball player. Rather, could he learn to be a good enough person?
He knew it and his mom knew it, too. She promised him his father was watching over him from heaven, and wouldn't approve of how the son was acting.
Young Wall was in a rage, particularly when any man acted as authority figure. It would be virtually impossible for Wall to stay in basketball without taking direction from a male. Something had to give.
"My mom sat me down one day and said, 'If you want to play basketball, if you want to do something special and change your life around, you've got to change your attitude,'" Wall described Thursday at the NBA Draft combine.
"Once I figured that out, I realized basketball was my gateway."
After a single season at Kentucky, this long, absurdly quick point guard is the front-runner, perhaps a prohibitive one, to be the top pick. The Washington Wizards hold that pick, following Tuesday's draft lottery.
If you wonder what separates Wall from the rest, ask the rest. North Carolina's Ed Davis, a likely lottery pick, was emphatic Thursday.
"I'm telling you: You can get another Evan Turner, another Wesley Johnson, another Al-Farouq Aminu," Davis said of the various top-five candidates. "But John Wall is the only one in this draft who can do the things he can do — ALL the stuff that he can do."
It's the combination of talent, size and the position Wall plays. He is 6-3 with the quickness off the dribble of a 5-9 player. Point guards who can penetrate have always been valuable, but never more than now, with the NBA strictly enforcing a no-hand check rule in guarding a dribbler.
Without the ability to impede a point guard with your arms, it's nearly impossible to keep the best ones off the rim. It's what Rajon Rondo is doing for the Boston Celtics and what Derrick Rose does with the Chicago Bulls.
As Davis said, there's no one quite like Wall elsewhere in this draft.
But none of that might have mattered had Wall not addressed his anger in adolescence. His father died of liver cancer when John was 9. The father's decline was rapid — a six-month prognosis turned into six weeks before he passed — and the child had no coping mechanism and little support system.
"I didn't know too much about what death was; why God would take them," Wall recalled. "Now I understand, but at that point, there was so much anger and frustration. My anger started building up, and I wouldn't trust people."
His mom worked constantly to feed and house him and his older sister, who got him to his games. He'd revolt whenever a coach acted the least bit assertive.
"Invariably I wouldn't trust my coach. I wouldn't listen to him because I never had a father figure," Wall said. "I'd say, 'He's lying. He's not telling the truth.'"
His mother worried, not just that her son might squander his talent, but that he'd never learn to conform. So when Wall turned 13 — following two conflict-filled years of AAU ball — she gave him an ultimatum.
"She said the only way I'm going to keep playing basketball is if I start trusting, so that I'd start hearing," Wall recalled.
Wall said the biggest difference was enrolling in a Christian academy, Word of God. It got him to church, into Bible classes, into a place where he could trust and be trusted. "It changed everything about me."
Not everything, just the anti-social behavior. The rest — the long and wiry body, the gift for finding teammates in traffic and that absurd speed dribble — all flourished, and like Davis said, nobody else has all that in this draft.