John Wall reflects on his rise to stardom and his hoops journey which ironically began in Chicago.
by Bryan Crawford / @_BryanCrawford
If you go back in your memory bank a few years and try and remember all of the “elite” prep basketball prospects in the recruiting class of 2009 back when they were freshmen in high school, you might recall that John Wall’s name wasn’t even on the list. In fact, John Wall wasn’t even on anybody’s radar back then. He was just a kid from Raleigh, NC with a hoop dream that nobody knew about.
Then it happened.
At a basketball camp in suburban Chicago a little over three years ago, John Wall burst onto the national scene and hasn’t looked back since. Just this past week he was back in Chicago–where it all started for him–preparing for the biggest moment of his life, the NBA Draft which will be held next month in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Wall is widely expected to be taken by the Washington Wizards who have the No. 1 pick in the draft.
His is a story about hard work, determination, and never letting go of your dream; but don’t just take it from me. John Wall can tell you what he had to go through to get here a lot better than I can…
SLAM:What has it been like for you to go from a virtually unknown player a few years ago to more or less becoming the consensus No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft next month?
John Wall: It’s been a dream come true, basically. I was always talented and I got a chance to go to the [Reebok] Break-Out Camp in Chicago. Then I went to Reebok U [basketball camp] and that’s where it all started changing. People started to see my talent and started writing about me.
SLAM: When your name first began to circulate nationally, what do you think made people so intrigued and what did you feel you needed to do to keep people talking?
JW: Well, people wanted to see if my game was a fluke, but then I went to Las Vegas [at the Reebok Summer Championships] and I played the same way. From there I just kept getting better and developing my game.
SLAM: You said that you always knew that you had talent, but at what point did things click and you felt like you could compete with the elite level HS players?
JW: When I was at Reebok U playing against talented guys like Brandon Jennings, Renardo Sidney [Mississippi State University], and Isaiah Thomas [University of Washington]. I saw that I could play with those guys and I was reading about them, watching them on TV, and I’d gone to see them play at Bob Gibbons’ camp. So I figured if I could do the same things against them that I was doing against guys in my age group then I had a chance. So I started taking basketball more seriously.
SLAM: Did you ever get frustrated at times because you knew that you could play but you weren’t necessarily getting the attention?
JW: It wasn’t really frustration. I wanted to play with D-One Sports [AAU club] because I played with the Garner Road Bulldogs for three or four years and we were in-state. We never traveled and never had that kind of money. So when I played in the D-One Sports tournament, I felt like that was the team I needed to play with. They get to go to Vegas, they get to go everywhere and I never would’ve experienced any of that without those guys.
SLAM: How did you finally end up changing AAU programs?
JW: My momma finally let me make my decision myself. She wanted me to be loyal to Garner Road, but she let me make my own decision and I went to D-One Sports and that’s where everything started to change for me.
SLAM: Growing up in North Carolina which is a basketball crazy state, what was it like growing up and playing there?
JW: Aw man, it’s crazy. Like you said, it’s a basketball state. If you put the ball in your hands and say you can play, you’d better be able to back it up. You gotta play. It’s just like being in New York or Chicago which are basketball cities.
SLAM: What’s the talent-level like in the state right now?
JW: We have a lot of talented young guys that’s coming up now and getting better. All it is now is they’re getting hyped pretty early, I got mines pretty late. So it’s important for the kids to stay motivated. When you get hyped early, some guys won’t have the same work ethic as before. They might feel like, ‘Well, I made it to the top’ But you’re still far away because you have to prove yourself in college and that’s the biggest step to make.
SLAM: What kind of advice would you give to kids who have similar stories as yours, meaning, they came from nowhere and then exploded on the national scene?
JW: Basically, just to do the same stuff you did to get there. You know, you thank God mainly for blessing you with your talent and giving you the opportunity, and you also thank the team you play with and the guys that got you the chance to go out there and showcase your talent to the nation. That’s the biggest thing I’d say. Me, I’m always going to stay humble and hungry. I was 5-8 in the ninth grade and then I grew to 6-2 and it all changed from there. So basically just keep working hard and keep getting better and listen to the group that you have around you. Also, watch people who are trying to get into your circle now because of who you are.
SLAM: You played college ball at Kentucky. How did the state of North Carolina ever let you get away?
JW:[Laughs] Man, it was tough. You know, North Carolina kind of recruited me, but it was a tough process. NC State was a great school with a great coaching staff, but I didn’t feel like we could’ve done something special. Duke, they have a great coach and they just won a national championship and sometimes you sit back and be like, ‘Man, I should’ve went there to win it’ but the experience I had being with Coach Cal [John Calipari] was the greatest experience for me and the best choice for me. So I’m happy with that.
SLAM: How did your mom feel about you leaving home and going to college in Kentucky?
JW: Well, my mom didn’t know too much about basketball because she worked a lot. She just knew that I played and that’s all she really knew. She’s pretty educated now though [laughs]. After my 12th grade year she got real educated. But she didn’t want to make my college decision for me. She said that choosing a college would be a good decision for a kid about to become a man. Her thing was, if she trusted the coach and felt like I could go away from home and be safe with him and not get in trouble and that he was going to take care of me, then go where you want to go.
SLAM: How big of an adjustment was it going from high school to college? Especially playing in the SEC which is a pretty tough league.
JW:It was tough, but playing for Coach Cal is tough anyway. You know you’re going to have a tough non-conference schedule, but basically it was adjusting strength wise and defensive wise. You know teams have so many different gameplans, there’s no three-second calls, lots of zones and help-side defenses, so the key was getting prepared for that. I knew my talent was going to let me play, it’s just I had to get smarter with my basketball IQ and mature.