AWWSOME

As one of the game's brightest young stars, do-everything point guard John Wall is having the time of his life—at least when he's not busy breaking down overmatched opponents or wondering why he doesn't get the proper credit for doing so.
When John Wall walks through the metal doors to the Wizards' practice court at the Verizon Center, he's alone. He drove himself to the arena, on this Saturday in late September, with no handlers, no entourage. He's wearing a gray, fitted adidas sweatsuit and a custom-made pair adidas Crazy 97s that feature a hologram of his college jersey number, 11, on the upper, near the outside of his ankle. His iPhone is in his pocket, but the speaker volume is turned up loud enough for him to be bobbing his head and mumbling along with the lyrics to Dej Loaf's "Try Me." Later, Wall explains that he befriended the Detroit rapper long before her single was one of the hottest songs in hip-hop, and he insists the track be played on repeat while he poses for the photos you see in this feature.

Wall is fresh off a trip to China, during which he went on a no-carb diet to keep his weight down while rehabbing from shockwave treatment to his knee ("It was tough, you know, being in China, they've got a lot of shrimp fried rice and all that," he jokes) and he's in good spirits.

And yet, there's something different about Wall today than in past seasons. It's not the considerable ink he's added, nor the noticeable difference in facial hair since his days as a rook. The 24-year-old speaks with an ease about him now, like a weight's been lifted. Is it the satisfaction of finally having tasted the Playoffs? In part, probably. Is it his excitement at the strength and depth of the Wizards roster? That's big, too. But more intrinsically, it just feels like John Wall is beginning to figure it out, and with a season like his last in the bank, he's not holding back anything anymore, whether playing the game or talking about it. He's tired of still being slept on as one of the most talented players on the planet, and he's licking his chops at the chance to shove it in his doubters' faces all year long.

For the first time in his NBA career, Wall played a full 82-game season in 2013-14, posting career-highs of 19.3 points and 8.8 assists per game en route to his first All-Star bid, with a Dunk Contest title to boot. He made more three-pointers than he attempted in both of the previous seasons combined, and he led the League in total assists. He helped push the Wizards past the first round of the Playoffs—a place the franchise hadn't been in nearly a decade.

Now, he's got his sights set on an NBA title for the capital city, and more. Just listen to his five-year plan: "I see myself being the MVP of the League, being a Finals MVP, winning a Championship for DC, being a multiple All-Star, All-NBA team and hopefully signing another five-year deal in DC. I love playing in DC."
* * *
There was a time, not too long ago, when the Wizards were in complete disarray. Having finally put the Michael Jordan player-owner comeback experiment in the rearview mirror, things were suddenly looking up for the Wiz. For a few years, things were good. Gilbert Arenas was hitting game-winning shots as "Hibachi." Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were All-Stars, too. Despite being handed a first-round Playoff loss by LeBron James and the Cavaliers in three consecutive seasons, there was reason to be optimistic, or at least, reason to watch.


Then, everything unraveled. Arenas got hurt. The head coach got fired. And famously, the locker room turned from comical to criminal.

"We were in transition," says Caron, who was traded to Dallas as part of the Wizards' roster firesale in 2010. "Once we lost coach Eddie Jordan, that was the system that we were running and that we were so successful with for years, once they did away with him, it was just downhill from there. Gilbert had caught the case, [owner] Abe Pollin had passed away, there was new ownership and it was time for a new regime and a new time in Washington."

No shit. Following back-to-back trainwreck seasons in DC, the team caught lightning in a bottle, landing the top overall pick in the 2010 Draft and selecting the Kentucky point god. From the rubble, like the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete, Wall began feeling his way into the player he is today. It wasn't without struggle, though.

"My first two years were very difficult for me," admits Wall, with some time to reflect. "The Gilbert stuff, for the city, for the team, was tough. We started off sluggish, couldn't win, we were like 0-28 on the road, we were losing coaches. There was so much going on in the locker room and around the team, it wasn't good. I was like, ‘Woah.' But I never let it get to me, I never got happy with losing. I always wanted to get better, I always wanted to win. I always would say, ‘It's my fault.'"

They say Year Three is when star young point guards are supposed to make the leap. John's was stunted by an injury, and even with a noticeable impact on the Wizards upon his return mid-season, the team limped to 29 wins. The North Carolina native credits his mental toughness over that three-year stretch to critical moments in his upbringing, which included the death of his father when John was just 9 years old. It doesn't hurt to have mentors like King James on speed dial, either. "LeBron has been an older brother to me, telling me like, ‘Things get better, just stay patient.'"

Finally, as the team started to sell off spare parts and began to build around Wall, he faced a new challenge: convincing the incoming veterans that he was serious about winning. He remembers guys like Andre Miller, Drew Gooden and Marcin Gortat being skeptical when they first got to Washington. Until last season, Wall was known as nothing more than an exciting player on a laughable loser.

"They thought I was a joke and that I didn't take basketball serious," says Wall. "That's what they thought looking in from the outside. They were looking at what I was around."

"I had some injuries, and my first couple years we weren't a winning team. Everybody was saying, ‘He can't lead them to the Playoffs.'"


"All you know is what you see on TV. I saw him doing the stuff young players do, with the dancing and all that type of stuff," says Miller, now Wall's backup and almost 15 years his elder. "You form your perceptions from what TV shows you. But when I got here, I saw something totally different than what the media portrays. I saw a total professional, a leader, a hard worker. And he understands how to play basketball."

With the vets on board, Wall has led the way in turning Washington from a laughingstock to one of the scariest teams in the East. Wall's ranked in the top five in the NBA in assist rate each of the last two seasons, and at one point early this season was setting up nearly half of Washington's buckets (he's at 43.8 percent currently). In four of his first five games to start this season, Wall notched a double-double, two 30+ point, 10+ assist performances included. With his per-game averages hovering around 19 and 9 at press time, Wall could flirt with rarified air this season; only nine players in League history have ever posted 20 points and 10 assists per game for an entire season—names like Chris Paul, Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson.

"It's crazy to say," Wizards guard Garrett Temple says, "but he can be the best point guard in the League. He's going to be in that discussion this year."

With the best supporting cast he's ever had to run with and his confidence swelling to an all-time high, Wall has the opportunity to be the best point guard in the NBA by season's end. In all likelihood, though, before he's judged against CP3 or Russell Westbrook, he'll be compared to Kyrie Irving. Whether for their similar career trajectories or seemingly polar opposite styles of play—John the lightning quick, uber athletic pass-first PG who gets chasedown blocks, Kyrie the lights-out shooting, crazy handle-having scorer who breaks ankles nightly—Irving vs. Wall remains one of basketball's most talked-about matchups.

Adding fuel to the fire was a pre-season war of words between the Wizards and Cavaliers, as Cleveland SG Dion Waiters exchanged barbs with Wall and running mate Bradley Beal through the media about which pair was in fact the "best backcourt in the NBA."

"I see myself being the MVP of the League, being a Finals MVP, winning a Championship for DC, being a multiple All-Star, All-NBA team and hopefully signing another five-year deal in DC. I love playing here."


Wall, for his part, has no problem with the constant comparisons to Irving. Matter of fact, he welcomes the conversation, and he understands why Kyrie has gotten the best of him in barbershop debates until recently. Circumstances, endorsements and public perception may have earned Kyrie the popular vote before, says Wall, but with a postseason berth under his belt, the Wiz Kid can feel the tide turning in his favor, and he's not afraid to air his opinion on the argument openly.

"He's had great individual success early on in his career," Wall says of Irving, who now has the benefit of LeBron James as a teammate in Cleveland. "I think the difference is, his first three years, he didn't ever make the Playoffs, but you didn't ever hear anybody talk about it. My first three years, I don't make the Playoffs, it's, ‘Oh, he's not a Top 10 point guard, he's not a Top 25 point guard, he's not living up to the hype.' But we both were No. 1 picks. Both guys have to live up to some type of hype.

"I think I easily should have won Rookie of the Year, but they gave it to Blake Griffin, his second year. So that's something [Kyrie] has over me," adds Wall. "He was an All-Star earlier, won the All-Star Game MVP. I'm happy for him having that type of success, but being a young point guard, that's who they're going to compare me to, especially in the East. I think everybody sees that that's a big rival. Either me and Kyrie or me and Derrick [Rose], everyone wants to see that game. I think I still get overlooked, to this day. And that's something I use more as motivation, because I know what I can do against those guys. I'm an all-around point guard. I don't just score. I don't just pass. I block shots, I rebound, I get assists, steals. I do everything. I commit myself on both ends of the floor. I don't feel no hate towards anybody. I wish everybody success, but I wish the best for me."

Wall didn't make the final Team USA roster selected to compete in the World Cup, despite being invited to training camp in Las Vegas (again). Irving did, as did Rose. Sports Illustrated  ranked Wall outside the Top 30 best players in the NBA prior to this season. Kyrie and Derrick were inside the Top 25. Forget his Eastern Conference peers; one Washington Post columnist even declared Wall to be the fourth-best player on the Wizards roster, behind fellow starters Beal, Nene and Gortat.

"I'll never bash nobody for writing anything, that's their opinion. I just take everyone's opinion and write it down, and use it as motivation. I put it in my notes in my phone, and before every game I look at my notes. And then I go prove people wrong."
* * *
Minutes after what amounts to a meaningless pre-season loss to the Knicks a few weeks later, Wall's voice can be heard bellowing above all others in the Wizards locker room. But he's not cracking jokes, nor is he scolding a teammate or excitedly announcing his plans for the rest of the evening. Instead, he's engaged in an animated exchange with veteran swingman Rasual Butler about the specific X's and O's of one of the team's sets, motioning vehemently with his hands as he describes floor spacing and rotations. "When that guy fades to the corner..." he begins, pointing towards Butler, then back at himself, imagining the play developing in front of him.

Ask any Wizard within earshot and they'll say the same thing, and maybe not what you'd expect: "He has a very high basketball IQ."

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

On this occasion, the words come out of Butler's mouth, moments after his tactical discussion with Wall is finished. "It's his ability to read the game," Rasual adds. "He's really smart, he understands what his teammates are good at, and he puts them in a position to succeed."

Temple, who has played behind and alongside Wall since joining the team in 2012, echoes Butler's sentiment. Temple met a 19-year-old Wall at the NBA's Rookie Transition Program back in 2010, before himself bouncing around the League for a few years, including a stop with the Miami Heat. Temple says he was impressed, then, by Wall's physical gifts. Not until he joined JW in the locker room did he learn to appreciate just how deep Wall's understanding of the game goes, too.

"You don't think IQ crazy high, you think athletic. Everybody knows about his speed, which is probably the fastest in the NBA, baseline to baseline. But I think what people don't know is his basketball IQ," says Temple. "He's a student of the game, just in terms of how much he watches basketball, how much he watches film. He understands concepts, and understands where people need to be to put the defense in a bind. I think that's the biggest thing about his game that people don't understand and that's probably the most important part of his game.

"Honestly," Temple continues, "the only other guy that I know, who I played with a little bit, is LeBron, in terms of understanding spaces and where people need to be."

Credit the Wizards for surrounding Wall with more weapons than ever in 2014-15, most notably by adding future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce, who steps into the void vacated by departed free agent Trevor Ariza. At full strength, Wall—who says he could see himself as an NBA GM some day—thinks the Wizards are a top 2 or 3 team in the Eastern Conference, "easily." And in case there was any lingering doubt, Pierce's presence is already paying dividends for Wall's confidence.

"The best advice Paul told me was, every time you step on the court, know you're the best player. I already feel like that anyway, but just hearing that from a guy that has a great leadership mentality, that won a Championship, a Hall of Fame player who's been to those places where I'm trying to get to, I take all the advice I can from him," says Wall. "The organization did a great job of adding the right pieces around me, and making me feel comfortable as the franchise guy."

Comfortable. That's it. That's the difference: John Wall is comfortable. With his teammates, with his role, in front of the camera and in his own body, he's more comfortable than ever. The angst of missing out on the Playoffs is gone and, thanks to all the free motivation he's had thrown his way lately, he's playing angry. A comfortable, pissed off John Wall is a scary thing for the rest of the League.

Near the end of the photo shoot, as "Try Me" loops back to the first verse for what seems like the hundredth time, John bops his head and raps, "I really mean it, I'm just not recording" under his breath, almost like he wrote the line himself as punctuation for every answer he's given during our time together. With DC rolling early, the doubters have died down some. But Wall knows they're there, and he can't wait to prove them wrong. Again.

Abe Schwadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @abe_squad

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

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