While You Were Sleeping
A kneecap injury is the latest bump in the road for John Wall, but don’t think the 22-year-old is done improving just yet.
The Verizon Center is sound asleep.
Out on the court, the courtside seats are folded up straight, the lights are dimmed to a dark brown and the basketball hoops are lifted only a few feet off the ground. There’s a cold silence filling the hallways that snake up and down the building’s outer layers, save the occasional staffer pushing a rumbling cart filled with towels or jerseys or t-shirts to some unknown destination.
The middle of the afternoon in the middle of a busy city may seem like an odd time and place for a nap, but neither are stopping this building from peacefully snoozing the day away.
It’s late in the 2012-13 preseason, a couple weeks before the regular season tips off, and I’m sitting alone in the family room of the Washington, DC home of the Wizards, where wives and sons and daughters hang out 41 nights a year while their husbands and fathers go to work on the maple wood floor a couple hundred feet away.
It’s real nice in here. The walls are painted a cozy blend of light blue and light beige. Two flat screen TVs are mounted up on opposite sides of the room, each surrounded by a set of soft, tan couches. In the near corner is a modern kitchen, not all that different from the kind of modern kitchen you might find in a large suburban home, and in the opposite corner is a carpeted children’s play area, not all that different from the kind of carpeted children’s play area you might find in a big-ass Barnes & Noble.
And suddenly, John Wall’s here, too. Fresh off a less-than-exciting trip to the dentist, the point guard slides in and plops down on one of the soft, tan couches perpendicular to the one I’m nestled on. He’s clad in standard off-duty athlete garb: flip-flops, red-and-black socks pulled up to his knees, a blue-and-red t-shirt and matching Reebok athletic shorts sagging a few inches beneath his waist.
Wall’s close friend Ty Williams strolls in and turns one of the televisions to NBA TV—which is showing a replay of the previous night’s Jazz-Clippers preseason bout—while the future of the Wizards glances at his phone and settles in, seemingly very down to talk hoops, though it is a bit of a sensitive subject at the moment. “When I’m sitting there watching my team, I’m always gonna be there to support them,” he says, clearly frustrated, “but it’s tough for me, ‘cause I wanna goddamn play.”
Having been diagnosed with a stress injury in his left kneecap back in September, this quick-footed ball-handler won’t be doing any goddamn playing in any official capacity until at least mid-winter. This isn’t exactly Derrick Rose going down with a torn ACL in the first round of the Playoffs, but it’s an undeniable hiccup before the start of what was expected to be a step-forward type of year. A damn shame, because the delay followed what seems to have been a pretty solid summer of on-court improvement.
Following the late-April end to the Wizards’ 2011-12—in which they finished 20-46 and a lowly 14th place in the Eastern Conference—Wall didn’t wait long before his agenda turned to personal improvement. Seated alongside Washington assistant and former NBA point guard Sam Cassell, Wall was spotted in the stands at Games 3 and 4 of the Clippers-Grizzles first-round Playoff series in Los Angeles early last May.
What was he doing there? “I’m not just going for fun,” he says. He went to learn. There’s plenty to take from watching Chris Paul, possibly the League’s best point guard, but the Washington Post reported that Cassell was more interested in having Wall observe less-heralded Memphis PG Mike Conley Jr. “Chris Paul has already proven himself as an All-Star, and Mike Conley is one of those underrated guys. I just wanted to see how he held his own against [Paul], and see how the Playoffs are different. Just seeing how they control and run their teams. Those two, they did a hell of a job.”
Leadership, running a team, handling a Playoff atmosphere—important facets an up-and-coming NBAer unquestionably needs to grasp firmly. But first there are a few technicalities that Wall needs to hammer down. Like, say, shooting. Nobody’s ever doubted this 6-4 speedster’s ability to get to the basket and finish, but in pick-and-roll situations, defenders have been more than happy to duck under the picks, allowing Wall the opportunity to roam the top of the key and launch open jumpshots—if he wants them. For the most part, he hasn’t. After launching threes at a relatively poor 29.6 percent during his rookie year, that number sank last season, when he shot an abysmal 7.1 percent from deep and attempted just 0.6 per contest.
So getting that jumper in check became a priority this summer. Along with bodywork with fitness fanatic Gunnar Peterson and skills training with Rob McClanaghan (who has also boosted the careers of Rose, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook), Wall put some time in with renowned shooting savant Dave Hopla.
“I’ve been following John since he was in college,” Hopla said a few days before he signed on as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks this past September. “In the NBA, he just has a tendency to go up right, or his balance hand is on top of the ball. The reason the balance hand gets on top of the ball is you’re not shot-ready. If you’re shot-ready, you should only see the palm of the shooting hard and the fingertips of the balance hand.”
The two worked early in the summer at NC State’s practice facility, not far from Wall’s childhood home in Raleigh, NC, and then once again out in L.A. “It really wasn’t too much of changing my shot—it was making sure I jump, stay on balance and follow through,” Wall explains. “I beat [Hopla] two times in a shooting game, so I’ll take credit for that. He won’t tell you that.”
That’s true; he didn’t. But he did note that Wall absolutely can improve his range, as long as he keeps his reps up, staying in the gym putting up shot after shot after shot after shot.
John Calipari, who coached Wall at the University of Kentucky and remains close with him to this day, was quick to echo Hopla’s sentiments: “[Wall] and I talk about how he’s got to work, what he’s got to do to develop that middle game. He’s gotta get in the gym and feel more comfortable shooting the ball.”
Then Cal, supreme master of both the art of recruiting and the art of conversation, swiftly flipped our Q-and-A session around. Phoning in from Lexington, KY, Coach decided it was his turn to ask the questions.
“Derrick Rose, when he walked into the NBA, what didn’t he do well?”
“Right. So if you want to get in the gym, is that the biggest part of Derrick Rose’s game now, shooting?”
“Right. But he keeps you honest now, doesn’t he? If you go under a ball screen, what does Derrick do now?”
“John just has to get to that point. It never has to be your strength, but you gotta be able to keep them honest.”
Of course, some help from the array of faces around the Wizards’ locker room would be nice. When Wall joined the Wizards in June of 2010, they were a mess, a smattering of talent with little direction that was still reeling from the infamous Gilbert Arenas gun incident a half-dozen months earlier. The group followed that Draft with a pair of lowly and stagnant seasons, but toward the end of ‘11-12, the organization made a seemingly conscious decision to create a bit of a culture change, bringing in some veteran guidance in the form of Nene (at the 2012 trade deadline) and then Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor (over the summer). GM Ernie Grunfeld then drafted Brad Beal, an athletic shooting guard with a sweet touch who’s overflowing with promise and potential.
Immediately after his name was called, Beal received a congratulatory text from Wall saying he was excited to get on the court with the rookie. “He was just glad I was a part of the team,” Beal says. “That meant a lot to me, too, being the guy that he is and the status that he has. Hopefully I can able to contribute and help him a lot.”
But sadly, Wall can’t get on the court with Beal, or any of his new teammates, just yet. So he waits. He promotes his new sneakers, the Reebok ZigEscape Season 3s, as he did a few hours after our sit-down, when he visited the Foot Locker at the Mall at Prince George’s in Hyattsville, MD to sign autographs and take photos and play pop-a-shot with fans who came from all over the DMV area to meet their favorite basketball player. He reads books, like Power & Beauty, a novel written by Atlanta rapper T.I. (When he’s finished, he says he’ll move on to the sequel, Trouble & Triumph.) He plays a lot of NBA 2K13, and watches The Dark Knight, his favorite movie, over and over.
When Wall does return, he’ll do so with a renewed motivation. He told me he’d never take his health for granted ever again, and expanded on something he mentioned to reporters on media day: that he’s been thinking about his father—who passed away from liver cancer in 1999 after spending the majority of his son’s childhood in prison—a lot recently, and using those thoughts as inspiration to push himself forward.
“You don’t get to play this game forever,” Wall says. “It’s not good to always look back and be like, What if I did something different this year or that year? I just use [memories of my father] as more motivation, that I shouldn’t have no reason to hold anything back. I always wanted to always play hard and went hard, [did] whatever I wanted to do. But I think that when I just put that in my mind every time I step on the court, it’s like, I can be gone just like him. You never know when your time is up. I just use my dad as motivation to push myself.”
He then looks up at the TV, where the Jazz and Clippers are still going at it. Jamal Crawford is dribbling about, setting up a muddled offensive set with a few minutes remaining in the tilt’s fourth quarter. “He was one of my favorite players growing up,” Wall says, pointing toward the screen, toward the Clips’ shooting guard. “That’s how I learned my handle, watching Jamal.”
We sit around for a half hour or so, shooting the shit as the game ends and a stream of preseason highlights follow it. I ask Wall if he’s been keeping up with the preseason action. “Yeah, I don’t watch any other TV,” he says. “Just this.”
Minutes later, Wall takes off and disappears into a silent stairwell, heading to the parking lot, where he’ll leave the quiet arena for the day. He’ll heal up soon enough, eventually given permission to wander out onto that maple wood floor and go back to work. Hopefully the Verizon Center will wake its ass up when he does.