You know that feeling when an older relative is asking you to pose for a vacation photo? Say cheese, Johnny. A little to the left. One more time for me? Smile. Not that wide.
Family time is fun, and sightseeing, too. But that stuff can be annoying, right? Well, imagine if your “family” numbered in the high teens. And the only person posing for a pic is you. And it’s over 90 degrees and insanely humid on a stereotypically sticky July day in the Nation’s Capital. And there’s a writer asking you questions between photos [*raises hand meekly*]. AND all the commotion is drawing even more people to the photo posing, people who quickly realize you’re not just another tourist posing for increasingly elaborate photos.
I don’t know about you, the KICKS reader, but I, the veteran of many a sightseeing trip in this very city, would get pretty agitated.
Newsflash: John Wall is not like me. Or you. Or just about any other person out here.
There are the basketball skills we will dwell on more in a moment. There’s the unique fashion sense that puts him firmly in his own lane in an era when, for better or worse, many NBA stars are hiring similar stylists and rocking similar looks.
But more than those undeniable facts that make John Wall an outlier, there’s this: The dude is as cool as they come. Even—or perhaps especially—when he’s on camera, tuning out the bright sun, selfie sticks and clamoring tourists to debut, with he and adidas’ fans around the world, the crisp and clean J Wall 2.
“I stick to me,” the 24-year-old Wall says about who he leans on for business advice. “I kind of just sit back and watch—not talk to too many people, just stay to myself, sit back and watch how guys are making moves. Just be me.”
It’s a couple hours before Team adidas and Team SLAM accompany John down to the Lincoln Memorial for photos and sig shoe unveiling. For now, we’re sitting in a large production studio on the outskirts of DC, where John’s doing his KICKS cover shoot and talking business, hoops, kicks and style.
Wall came into the A as the first pick in the 2010 Draft, joining a 19-win Wizards team and a shoe company (Rebook) that had taken a bunch of Ls as well. Things went about how you’d expect: Player, team and shoe struggled. Five years later, the man is an All-Star, the Wiz have advanced in the Playoffs for two straight seasons for the first time since the late-’70s, and John’s feet now rock adidas, having shifted over from adi-owned Reebok to the mother ship during his third season.
“[Coming into the League and signing with Reebok] was a very exciting time. There was a lot of pressure on me. Allen Iverson is one of my favorite players, and he talked to me about signing with Reebok, and that’s why I decided to do it,” Wall says. “That’s the player I wanted to be like growing up. I was small when I was younger—before I grew to 6-4 I was only 5-7, 5-8 in 10th grade—had braids, wore all his shoes. I liked everything about him, just how he was. Pound for pound, one of the best to ever do it. That’s who I took after–that was my era. I mean, it was great, but I had the opportunity to switch over to a great business partnership with adidas and that makes it even more fun.”
No less an authority than the crew here at SLAM called John “the new Iverson” on the cover of Issue 144. Wall welcomed the comparisons, but in many ways, they’ve proven not to be apt. Oh, John can light up the scoreboard when he needs to and he’s also hella fun to watch play, but the success he’s achieved has come more gradually and without the headlines that accompanied AI’s rise to stardom.
Well before Wall got to the NBA, he learned that any success his gifts could provide for himself would have to be complemented with a healthy dose of non-stop grinding.
In a nifty bit of symmetry, one of the folks on set today is long-time friend of SLAM, Chris Rivers, who is now Senior Player Relations Manager for adidas Basketball. If you don’t know, Rivs is the man. He was Sonny Vaccaro’s right hand in Grassroots at Reebok—and then ran it himself—during the period when the top kids in the land were wearing RBKs.
“I was there when John’s journey started,” Rivers says. “Some people think it started with the Reebok Camp in Philadelphia [in the summer of 2007 when the North Carolina-bred Wall was a rising high school junior], but it happened before that. [Wall’s former coach and later business manager] Brian Clifton drove John 15 hours to play in the Chicago camp weeks before that just to get invited to Philly. And sure enough, he BROKE OUT. Once he got there, and got on the court, it only took about six or seven possessions to realize he was a special player. He was so hungry to be noticed.”
Relatively late for high school phenom status in this era, Wall was indeed noticed that summer, and after a couple of extremely successful seasons at Raleigh (NC) Word of God, he headed to Kentucky to run the show during John Calipari’s first season in Lexington. You may recall that talent-laden team (which appeared on the cover of SLAM 137) included future pros such as Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson, and drew an explosion of interest and support from a Big Blue Nation that at that time was starving for success. Wall, according to then-Cal assistant and former college and NBA star point guard Rod Strickland, was not cowed by any of it.
“JWall’s energy was amazing,” recalls Strickland, who is now an assistant at the University of South Florida. “You know, we (meaning he and Coach Cal and as a coaching tandem) had some great PGs before and after John—D-Rose, Brandon Knight, almost every year we had one—and John was the first and only one to really have no adjustment period. It’s like he got our offense and what to do from the door. He picked everything up so quick.
“We did some work together as point guards, but my main job at Kentucky was getting guys to understand the coaching they were getting, and how to handle it. They had never been coached like that, never had the expectations that come with playing at a Kentucky. John had his moments adjusting to that, of course, but for the most part he was such a super, super competitor that once he got on the court, anything that he was dealing with got wrapped up into him just competing.”
The Wildcats’ ’09-10 season ended disappointingly in the Elite Eight, but Wall won SEC Player of the Year and smartly turned pro for the 2010 Draft. As mentioned before, the first few years in DC were messy, as the team dealt with post-Gilbert Arenas fallout and Wall dealt with a variety of injuries.
By the spring of ’14, things had fallen into place for the 6-4, 195-pound Wall, who had gradually picked up an all-around floor game that put him on the level of the other elite points in the L. Wall was also a full-on adidas athlete by that point, and he celebrated his outstanding season by locking in the J Wall 1. “I had a lot of input into that shoe,” Wall says. “I’m the type of guy that likes to flash things, likes different colorways and all those types of things so a shoe can be worn on and off the court, and we did that.”
Last season, Wall’s career reached its highest point yet. He started his first-ever All-Star Game, averaged 17.6 ppg on a career-high 45 percent shooting from the floor, notched 4.6 rebounds, 1.7 steals and a career-best 10 assists per game and recorded a Player Efficiency Rating of 19.9.
Long an offensive dynamo who just needed a little more range on his jumper, Wall also became an elite defender in ’14-15, earning Second-Team All-Defense honors. SI.com’s Rob Mahoney wrote during the season: “Merely having Wall play them closely makes ball handlers antsy; after getting even a half-step on Wall, some opponents will force a pass they might otherwise look off or bumble in their attempt to make some other quick move. Wall picks up plenty of steals just by being active and engaged, benefiting from those who try to do too much to drive by him. More and more, he’s there—pestering, hurrying, and deterring as much as he can…Wall legitimately seems to have a better sense of when and how his defensive talents can be applied, which can only be earned by feeling out the game and his role within it.”
Co-signs Strickland, who had a few excellent seasons with Washington in the late-’90s, “J-Wall has been great in the League. He keeps adding stuff to his game, growing and getting better. That’s how you succeed in the NBA. I think he probably played a little too fast at the beginning of his career; just moving faster than his teammates. But he’s slowed things down, become a better leader, more vocal, more mature. I mean, he now has all the qualities of an All-Star. Not a one-time All-Star. John is a bona-fide, every year, NBA All-Star.”
The season didn’t end so well for John and the Wiz, but that’s because of bad luck. After sweeping the Raptors in the first round of the Playoffs, Wall broke his left hand and wrist in the very first game of Round Two against the Hawks. He fought back to play in the series, but without a healthy Wall, the Wiz were eventually knocked out by Atlanta in six games.
Today, looking back on the season from the production studio, John is positive and philosophical. “I think it was a great season, other than the injury I had in the Playoffs,” he says. “I feel like we could have gone even further and we still had a chance when I came back. I have great teammates, a great coaching staff and amazing fans in DC and they all made our season so successful.”
Washington’s strong play, particularly against the Raptors, helped wash away memories of an odd stretch late in the season when they did not look good at all. Wall brushes past that without much concern. “We started the year off so hot, and then everybody was talking about us,” he says. “We felt like we was a contender and then guys started to fall off, couple of guys got injured. So, like, going into the All-Star break and coming out the All-Star break we lost a lot of games and let our seeding drop. But at the end we knew we had to have a different focus and mindset of what the Playoffs was all about, every possession counting, and we showed that.”
While some of Washington’s Eastern Conference rivals showed a major hunger for improvement this offseason, the Wiz have stood relatively pat, losing Paul Pierce to the Clippers and adding Alan Anderson, Jared Dudley and Gary Neal, all of whom should be able to spread the floor for their slick point guard. DC also picked up intriguing rookie Kelly Oubre and is hoping that former No. 3 pick Otto Porter continues to improve.
“I feel like [the Eastern Conference] is still open,” Wall says. “Even though the Cavs made it to the Eastern Conference finals, made it to the Championship last year, we felt like last year it was open—anybody could have made it out of the East. Couple injuries away, we could have had the opportunity to play the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals and see whatever could have happened. You still have LeBron that you probably have to go through to get to the Finals, just how dominant of a player he is, but we feel like we have a good opportunity to get back to where we were and even further. The main focus is that you gotta have a lot of luck in those times and you gotta try to stay healthy.”
As John and the Wizards continue to loom large on the NBA landscape, so too do he and adidas in the sneaker world. The Wall 2 will launch at US retail on October 31, another good-looking, high-performing shoe that its namesake is extremely proud of.
“It’s a great shoe that does a great job helping with my quickness when I’m cutting, driving to the basket and just stopping on a dime,” Wall gushes. “It has my logo on it—I’m very excited to have a J and W. With the whole shoe, it has a lot of partnerships and stuff that means a lot to me and my family, like my dad’s initials and name on the tongue or my mom’s name, or Great Wall—that’s my nickname. Now everyone knows where I’m from and my crew is Five Deep so it’s great to have all that [engraved] in the shoe. That is all who I do it for and also my fans—it’s amazing for me.”
Wall also enjoys the lifestyle aspect of his signature clothing line, and what adidas—home of the insanely hot Yeezy Boost 350 and ever-popular Originals line—is doing in general in that lane.
“I like to show flashiness and that’s kind of how we were trying to work and make my partnership with my clothing line be,” he says. “[adidas gives me] partnerships with great people. You have Jeremy Scott, Rita Ora, Kanye West, Pharrell. Those guys are making shoes and that’s just a style they’re adding to the mix, something that’s making people want to wear adidas even more. And like I said, I’m the type of guy that wants to have a shoe that you can wear on and off the court to make it pop. That’s the type of style you want to have and put it out there for people.”
In general, John is a cat who dresses how he wants. “No stylist for me,” he says. “I always wear what I feel comfortable in. Some people are going to be negative about what you wear, some people going to be positive. But I’m always confident in myself and what I feel comfortable in.”
Back on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial...It’s hot AF but John is still cool as the Rita’s Ices on sale down the block. “I’ve been down here a bunch,” John tells me. “The night I got drafted I walked this whole thing—from the arena to here. Checked out all the North Carolina stuff along the way.”
This is the first shoot he’s ever done like this, though, going around the city and whatnot. Once the Memorial shoot is done, and John’s posed with some super-excited bros on his walk to the car, we caravan it to the nearby W Hotel. There, in the hotel’s plush, 11th-floor bar, the day’s last photos are taken, last questions asked.
“I want to be a marketable person and have a great image, be a role model to kids, but also just want to leave a legacy—not just known on the basketball court, but also in the community and giving back,” Wall says. “Having great endorsements, having great business moves and great partnerships with people so later when your career’s over these guys will still remember you, and remember you as a great person that works hard and does everything he needs to.”
adidas’ staff members are rightly fired up at what they’ve pulled off today. “We’re so excited to show people something new,” one says to me behind the cameras.
John doesn’t talk like that, exactly. He’s non-plussed about just about everything, but his actions indicate that he is very much down for the cause.
It’s like Strickland says: “J-Wall has two sides that work well. He’s got the cocky, ‘I’m the best’ side that all the great players have. And then he’s got this real humble, respectful side that I think he gets from his moms. He’s really just a great kid.”
It’s like John is wowed and appreciative of all the trappings that come with NBA and sneaker stardom in a way many players are not, but he also doesn’t get too worked up about it because those same humble beginnings taught him what really matter.
That’s what I think/feel, anyway. And if I’m not doing a good job explaining him, or you’re not doing a good job understanding my explanation, well, fall back on this: John Wall is cool.
End of story.