WASHINGTON — John Wall talks as fast as he plays. That makes him entertaining to be around, even when the ball gets thrown out of bounds, or when the sentences come out a bit funky.
"It was a little different Brandon Knight without being there tonight," he rattled off after a recent game. In that same interview, he dished out a rapid-fire sentence that included something that sounded like "vengtrest" — accidentally coining a new word that merges "vengeance" and "interest" and would probably make a good CD title.
"I think I'm just a fast talker," Wall said. "It's slowed down a little bit, but sometimes I still get back to those stages when I go real fast."
He's a blur on and off the court like few others in the NBA, but he's gradually learned how to control the speedometer since his reckless rookie days.
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"You've got to slow down, you've got to smell the flowers a little," said coach Randy Wittman, remembering the 19-year-old who was chosen No. 1 overall from Kentucky in the 2010 draft. "You're running by the flowers so damn fast the petals are coming off."
This season, Wall committed more turnovers than anyone in the league, but he also had the most assists. He's improved his jump shot, has a better veteran supporting cast and had an overdue healthy season that allowed him to play all 82 games.
The 23-year-old point guard motivated himself by writing "playoffs" on his shoes last fall. He's reached his goal, taking the Washington Wizards to the postseason for the first time since 2008.
"I learned how to slow down and change paces and things like that," said Wall, whose Game 1 debut comes Sunday night against the Chicago Bulls. "It takes time, getting healthy, learning from my coaches, me improving my game and watching a lot of film."
No one envies the mess that awaited Wall four years ago. The red carpet laid out for the post-draft festivities at the Verizon Center did little to mask the downward spiral of the final days of the Gilbert Arenas era. Wall was selected a captain from Day 1 — everyone now agrees that was probably a mistake — and he said he was surrounded by veterans who were more interested in playing for contracts and "not really trying to teach me anything."
While Wall learned his way around, the Wizards slowly improved the rest of the roster. Getting Bradley Beal at No. 3 overall in 2012 was a huge step. Trevor Ariza, Nene and Marcin Gortat have been invaluable pickups. And, this year, Wall has also been steadied by Wittman's "AARP group" of Al Harrington, Drew Gooden and Andre Miller.
Harrington called Wall "the head of our snake," but Gooden added: "We have a head of the snake that listens."
"That's an even more powerful head of a snake," Gooden said. "And so he is a guy that is our franchise, but a guy that's always open to listening, especially to the older guys."
Both Miller and Gooden agree that Wall still has some slowing down to do — "At his age, you just let him go out and play through his mistakes," Miller said.
"That just comes with experience," Gooden said. "I remember looking at Derrick Rose, thinking the same thing. Looking at LeBron James in his second year, telling him the same thing — and then telling him when to speed up."
Wall, who was an All-Star this year for the first time, said it's easy being both a leader and a listener.
"You've got to be able to take criticism, and take what those guys say to you," Wall said. "At the same time I'm trying to tell them what I see and what I know."
Wall's emergence in the public eye still has a ways to go. The Wizards sold out only four games this season, and he caught a moderate amount of flak for his whirlwind overnight trip to see Kentucky play for the NCAA championship. He didn't get much sleep that night, and he didn't play well in the first half of a big loss to Charlotte less than 48 hours later.
But Wall's ties to the Wildcats are strong, even though he played there only a year. He promised his late father he would get a degree, and he said he's completed his sophomore year in business management. He has an eye on perhaps being a general manager one day.
"It's been kind of tough because I really don't want to do just all online classes," Wall said. "I want to get an opportunity to go back in the summer for a session and do it that way. Online, you're not really focused.
"It won't take me long," he added. "I'll figure it out."
That's probably true. He's not easy to slow down.