Ex-Cats

As John Wall has evolved, goal of winning NBA championship hasn’t

Washington Wizards guard John Wall left the court and gestured after the team's game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 4. The Wizards won 105-91.
Washington Wizards guard John Wall left the court and gestured after the team's game against the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 4. The Wizards won 105-91. AP

John Wall has just returned from his NBA All-Star responsibilities a wet and sullied mess. It was pouring in New Orleans East and yet he still had to support the NBA Cares Day of Service — intended as an hour-and-a-half photo opportunity to make players look like good guys. However the site, a home wrecked by a recent tornado, was less public relations and more pure labor as Wall had to move heavy furniture, board up windows and dig holes in the front yard. Still, Wall didn’t complain once he was back at the Ritz-Carlton and grass and grime still covered the white soles of his Nike Air Max.

“Look at my shoes,” Wall said, erasing any doubt that he was simply out there for the cameras.

Truly, Wall didn’t mind helping out. This has been his mind-set throughout his seventh and best season in the NBA. Wall has epitomized a basketball truism that a point guard elevates the games of his teammates, as he has done it for Washington Wizards Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat.

“He’s one of the few players in the league that makes players around him better,” Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld said. “That’s so hard to find.”

Even off the court, Wall acts as an individual stimulus package, seeking not to employ but more so empower the closest friends he views as family.

He’s the point guard, and he wants everyone to enjoy his assists.

Even so, Wall knows he needs to give more.

Over this weekend in New Orleans, the old narrative of being overlooked and underappreciated should have been put to rest. It’s hard to feel ignored when wrestling great Ric Flair strolls through the upscale hotel lobby, stops in his tracks and exclaims, “John Wall!”

“That’s one of the best right here!” Flair said, introducing his fiancee to the beaming Wall.

After all, Wall is now a four-time All-Star for the 34-21 Wizards, the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. There’s no longer anonymity. Just greater demands.

“If you don’t want to be underrated, start kicking everyone’s ass,” NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said about Wall, but also proclaimed: “When he shows up as he has the last couple months, he’s as dominant as any player in the game.”

Now living in a brighter spotlight, Wall has expanded his motivations to fill these new horizons.

“I’ve got some individual accolades, that’s great, [but] I want to be [on a] team that wins 50 games,” Wall said. “You want those MVPs, All-Star MVPs, all that, but my goal is to bring an NBA championship to this city.”

Self-study helps it all click

Earlier in the season, the Wizards stumbled, and after all those losses Wall would review game footage. He’d squirm uncomfortably, barely recognizing the point guard on the screen.

“When I started watching the film and just looking at it,” Wall said. “This was not me.”

Last offseason, Wall finally decided to stop playing through pain and had two surgeries on his knees. He now smiles as he recalls how his doctor marveled that he had made three previous All-Star Games because the injuries should have made him a lesser player. Then the 2016-17 season started and Washington struggled. But while some close to him sensed trouble — “I panicked when they had that 2-8 start,” said John Calipari, who coached Wall at the University of Kentucky, “like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ” — Wall studied himself and settled down.

“I could do better than this,” he thought, “and it all just started to click at one time.”

Through 53 games, Wall has averaged the best statistics of his career: 22.8 points, 10.6 assists and 2.1 steals. However it’s his shooting — 45.2 percent from the floor, another career best — that now appears on highlight reels (before the Eastern Conference all-star practice on Saturday, a replay of Wall’s game-winning jumper over the Chicago Bulls appeared on the big screen).

His improved jumper also garners the most respect from his all-star teammates.

“You’d go under the screens all the time against him in the past but now not too much anymore,” Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker said. “His shooting has gotten so much better now, you’ve got to mix it up a little bit with him. That’s what’s really getting him over the top.”

“We would go under his screens. You can’t do that anymore with John,” Indiana Pacers forward Paul George said, echoing Walker’s scouting report on Wall. “He’s unguardable pretty much across the whole floor. Before you just had to watch out for John on coast-to-coast stuff, fast break. Now, man, he’s a threat as soon as he cross the half-court line.”

Though peers praise his offensive skills, Thomas believes Wall can be the best two-way point guard in the league.

Thomas, who works as an NBA TV analyst, has often dared Wall to become even greater for his team. Last year during their last phone conversation before a road game in Chicago, Wall listened and jotted down notes. The legend issued a challenge.

“When he wants to sit down and defend, there’s not a point guard in the game who can defend like him. And when he does it, his team goes to another level,” Thomas said. “If John Wall dominates both sides of the ball, then we’re talking about a championship team.”

Emerging as a leader

As much as Wall enjoys bringing others along, he still stays to himself.

Under headphones, Wall, who has taken to wearing dark designer shades while inside, will rap his favorite lyrics out loud to his audience of one. But back at Kentucky, Wall hated mornings and couldn’t bring himself to even call out a play loud enough during Calipari’s early practices. Even after becoming the top pick of the 2010 draft, Wall refused to speak out.

“I think as a rookie, I kind of didn’t want to say much because everybody was like, ‘He thinks he all that. He’s the number 1 pick, been talked about for so long,’” Wall said. “So I stayed in the shell, to myself on the court.”

Wall felt the only time he needed to speak as the floor general was to fuss at teammates when they dropped passes. However his definition of leadership began to change when the Wizards brought in Trevor Ariza, then Andre Miller and finally, for one pivotal season, Paul Pierce.

Last summer, the Wizards decided they didn’t need to bring in another veteran to serve as the conscience of the locker room. They entrusted Wall. And in his first big move as the newly established leader, Wall spoke up and admitted how he and Beal had spent too much time on the court together while at odds.

“I’m not a person that’s going to sugarcoat,” Wall said months later.

Despite the attention his comments sparked, Wall knew he needed to say something. He’s glad that he did.

“I think it was good for one of us to air it out. It’s not like we dislike each other. You have two guys who want to be superstars and want to be great,” Wall said. “If you watched our games, you could see little tensions here and there and every great [pair] goes through it. But it made us even stronger.

“So if he’s going home and hearing stuff from outside people and his crew and I’m going home and hearing stuff from the outside, now we can put that to the side. What we need to worry about what they’re saying?” Wall continued. “We need to worry about this right here and I think that’s what [made] us stronger.”

The ultimate assist

After a long morning of work, Wall finds a quiet corner inside the Ritz and reclines on the carpeted steps leading to a banquet hall. He’s too tired to walk across the street to his favorite Chinese restaurant, aptly named the Golden Wall.

“Ay yo!” Wall calls out to his burly bodyguard, David “Flav” Best. “I need some chicken and shrimp from around the spot.”

Wall and Best have known each other since grade school, and this season, Wall hired his good friend to protect him wherever he goes. Wall refers to his closest group of friends as 5 Deep, and many make up his professional team: Ty Williams, newly minted as a manager, and Reggie Jackson, soon to be his financial advisor.

“One thing I can say about those four guys, I call my brothers … they don’t look for handouts. They want to earn it,” Wall said. “I’m blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to make it from where I made it from and play in the NBA and the game I love but the most important thing I take pride and joy in is giving back. It can be money, it can be just words of advice. Winning the community assist award might be the biggest thing I’ve accomplished because a lot of people get to see the real personality and true character of me. And to be able to bring my boys on and give them opportunity to get closer and closer to their goals, it don’t get no better.”

As for Wall’s goals, they’re simple. Last week, as he recorded a podcast with his former college coach, Wall stated what he’d like his greatest assist to be.

“He was very clear and he didn’t hesitate,” Calipari said. “He just said ‘I made All-Star Games, been to playoffs, [but now] I want us to win a world championship.’”

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