Perceptions of John Wall's tenure with the Washington Wizards have been obscured by factors that were beyond his control. He joined a franchise seeking to distance itself from the unfulfilled promise and scandalous end to the Gilbert Arenas era. His second season was delayed when the NBA locked out its players. A knee injury robbed him of half of the first 66 games this season.
In his third professional season, the former University of Kentucky star remains a developing and somewhat unknown commodity; a talented athlete whose speed is his greatest weapon; someone who still raises doubts about whether a sparkling diamond remains underneath the unpolished edges. He has no all-star or playoff appearances, but this season, the Wizards are 19-15 with him in the lineup, 5-28 without.
In a wide-ranging interview this week, Wall discussed his often-bumpy career, including why he believes that after this season he deserves to be offered the maximum contract allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, worth about $85 million over the next five years.
"You never know, but I feel like I proved myself for them to give it to me," Wall said. "I feel like the organization, the ownership knows what I'm capable of and what I bring to the table as a point guard. I feel like I put the pressure on myself to push myself to show that I'm willing to be a max player. ... I feel like I did what I have to and still want to prove myself. I'm still not done. I still haven't reached my peak and I feel like it's up to them to make the decision."
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The Wizards have budgeted to keep Wall with the organization "for a long time," according to a person with knowledge of the team's thinking. Teams are allowed to designate one player to a five-year maximum contract at a time, essentially forcing them to make that decision between Wall and emerging rookie Bradley Beal, a No. 3 overall draft pick.
Wall is eligible for a contract extension after this season; otherwise, he will become a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014. Negotiations between Wall's agent, Dan Fegan, and the Wizards cannot begin until July 1. Wall said he would be disappointed if an agreement isn't reached by the end of October.
"I would be hurt. I feel like anybody should that feels like they are a franchise guy and proven themselves and still working to develop and get better. But this is a business and you have to deal with the stuff that comes with it and goes with it. I leave that up to those guys, but I love playing for D.C. I love this team, my staff, my teammates."
In 169 career games, Wall has averages of 16.2 points, eight assists and 4.3 rebounds. The only players in NBA history to average 16 points, eight assists and four rebounds for their careers are Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Chris Paul.
But Wall's game is in clear need of improvement in some areas, including his jump shot, his turnover rate and his ability to control his emotions when faced with adversity. He has also missed 46 games in his first three seasons, with a bone bruise in his right knee and a left foot problem that forced him to sit out 13 games a rookie.
On Wednesday night, the Wizards (24-43) achieved their most wins in a season since drafting Wall with the top overall choice in 2010, despite starting in a 5-28 hole. Since Wall made his season debut on Jan. 12 after a stress injury in his left knee, Beal, Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza have all seen their three-point shooting percentages increase with Wall's ability to penetrate and find them in open spots. Emeka Okafor has nearly tripled the number of double-doubles he had in the first 33 games, going from five before Wall's debut to 14 more after it.
With Wall in the lineup, the Wizards are scoring more (96.5 points per game to 89.2) and shooting better from the field (46.3 percent to 40.8) , while also allowing fewer points (92.8 to 97.2) and holding teams to a slightly lower field goal percentage (43.4 to 44).
"Coming into the situation I came in, I knew it wasn't going to be easy with an organization that's been losing," Wall said. "It takes time to build and get what you want and I feel like this is a great team that we have. If we was healthy, we'd easily be a top-five team in the East. All we can do is keep going, keep getting better and get ready for next season."
Knee nearly cost him a year
Wall was worried that his knee injury would cost him his entire third season, he publicly admitted for the first time this week. His knee failed to respond to two injections given by New York-based orthopedic specialist David Altchek. If the third shot had not been a success, Wall said: "I was basically going to have to have surgery. So I was just praying."
Wall tried to stay connected to the team by joining it on road trips and sitting next to the coaching staff during games. But every time he slid on his suit or sport coat and walked through the tunnel at home games, he was greeted with the same question from fans and other concerned observers. Wall could never give a definitive answer for his return.
Wall's mother, Frances Pulley, drove up from Raleigh, N.C., and was a frequent visitor while he was sidelined. She recalls the agonized look on her son's face as he dealt with sitting out from basketball for the most extended period of his life.
"He didn't talk about it. You could tell," Pulley said. "You know he loves ball. I told him, 'Keep your faith. Time comes for you to play, you'll be able play. Before your time, don't go out there.' "
Wall finally made his debut more than three months after his injury was announced and produced immediate dividends, but he hit a rough patch after the all-star break as he struggled to regain his form and overcome fatigue.
"I think last summer was when I really focused and got my body in the right shape to do it," said Wall, who worked out separately with the Team USA select team and with well-known trainer Rob McClanaghan last off-season. "Just think, when I was sitting out, couldn't run. Couldn't jump. It's tough to watch what you eat and do stuff, so I was out of shape. And then you come back, oof! This is totally different than practice, so I really had to find a way to get back in shape and that's where I'm at now."
In 11 games this month, Wall has elevated his game and offered more evidence that his evolution is far from complete. He is averaging 20 points, 7.7 assists and 4.3 rebounds and shooting 52.2 percent from the field. He has also made six three-pointers after making a total of three in 42 attempts last season.
"It's great to show that all the work I went through this summer didn't go to waste with me having to sit out that long," Wall said. "It's all paying off and I just wish it was the beginning of the season all over."
The Wizards have built their team around Wall's skill set and have been tied to his development from the moment he was selected. The team has reworked the roster several times, leaving Wall as its longest-tenured member. "First two years was tough, because I didn't want to come in and step on nobody's toes. I didn't want to feel like I was bigger than nobody," he said.
Now Wall feels the responsibility of being a leader and the weight of expectations that come with his position. "A lot of critics are going to say what they are going to say but you can't be mad at those guys. They are just doing their job. You just put it in the back of your head when you're working out, you push yourself and motivate yourself," he said. "I like pressure. It's been something I've (been) dealing with since I first got known. They said it's a fluke. He had one week, let's see if he can do it for the rest of the summer. And I've been proving myself ever since."