John Legend

by December 27, 2010

Originally published in SLAM 144


by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker

Change is about to come to Washington DC. It’s a Monday night, the first day of November, and the nation’s capital is quiet as twilight passes. Tomorrow morning will commence mid-term elections, which are in turn expected to bring about serious modifications to the federal government. Walking through the District, you can read the uncertainty on people’s faces, feel it in the air. By tomorrow night, control could be shifting. For a city so predicated upon clout and influence, the prospect of power changing hands seems to be having a sobering effect, at least on this evening.

In the middle of DC, on the Wizards’ practice court deep inside the Verizon Center, another Washington newbie is looking to run a takeover of his own. In less than 24 hours, John Wall will be formally introduced to the DMV at Washington’s first home game of the season. He spent the morning at practice, got treatment on a sprained ankle, paid a visit to the dentist, got in a nap at his condo around the corner from the Verizon Center, and now he’s back in the gym, in front of the camera, posing for his first solo SLAM cover.

“I was like 2, 3 years old playing on my little Fisher Price goal,” Wall is saying, in response to a question about his earliest basketball memories. “I remember when I was 4, the Boys and Girls Club had a little 5 and 6 league, playing on shorter goals.”

Click-flash. Click-flash. Wall glares into the camera with his heavy-lidded eyes. He is asked if he can recall the moment he realized he was above average at basketball. He speaks fast, almost as fast as he plays, the words spilling out in a rat-a-tat flow, dipped in a slight southern accent reflecting his Carolina roots: “When I first tried out for the Garner Road Bulldogs—it was an 11-and-under team, I had just turned 11—I played one scrimmage with them and then coach took me out and said, ‘You’re on the team automatically.’ It was shocking, because they already had players that was returning. But I was basically out there doing whatever I wanted to. I was short then, but I made the team and that was when I realized I needed to take basketball seriously. That was a lot of fun. We went to nationals, and it was my first time traveling, really. So that got me the experience of traveling and visiting places I probably wouldn’t have been to if I hadn’t played basketball. When I got to high school, I started really noticing that maybe I could play in the NBA. But I always had dreamed of playing in the NBA.”

Now 20 years old, the 6-4 Wall, who moves up and down the floor faster than a rumor, is living the dream. His dream. A never-ending stream of Lil Wayne flows from a nearby MacBook Pro, and Wall seems to have every lyric committed to memory, effortlessly spitting along. In between songs and set-ups, Wall fires up full-court shots, talks video games and home electronics, even laughingly commiserates about dental hygiene with Gilbert Arenas, who swings by the gym for a late-night workout. Wall has the concerns of any young adult, though not many 20-year-olds are about to shoulder an NBA franchise.

If any NBA franchise needed a little help, it was the Wizards. A year ago, long-time Wizards owner Abe Pollin passed away at 85. A few weeks later, Arenas was suspended for the rest of the season following a gun charge. For most of the early ’00s, the Wizards were a Playoff team, winning at least 40 games four years in a row, but never advancing past the Eastern Conference Semis. With Arenas out, the Wizards hit the reset button, trading away Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and Antawn Jamison. The ’09-10 Wizards won just 26 games.

And then they struck gold, winning the first pick in the 2010 Draft Lottery, better known as the John Wall Lottery. Wall led the Wizards to the Vegas Summer League, where he won League MVP honors and, more importantly, showed Wizards fans change they could believe in. As new Wiz owner Ted Leonsis blogged, Wall “injected a shot of cappuccino into our franchise—strike that—it is ESPRESSO! A double shot of ESPRESSO!”

Wall’s first few weeks in the NBA were a tour de force. He went for 14 and 9 on his opening night in a blowout loss to Orlando. In his second game, Wall posted 28 points and 9 assists in a 4-point loss at Atlanta, scoring 10 points in the fourth despite a sprained ankle to keep Washington in the game. Wall’s third game was Washington’s home opener, the day after our shoot, against the Philadelphia 76ers. He busted a particularly heated version of The Dougie during pre-game introductions before segueing into his own eponymous dance, then finished with 29 points, 13 assists and 9 steals, making him the first player in the history of the NBA to have those digits in one game. He also became the fourth rookie in NBA history to have at least 20 and 10 in his home debut, joining Norm Nixon, Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson. He followed these performances up with 13 points and 7 assists against the Knicks, and then 13 and 10 against the Cavs.

Wall’s approach to the game has been incredible to watch. The first two weeks of the season, he raced up and down the floor like a Bugatti Veyron. Hawks coach Larry Drew compared Wall to Rickey Green, and then noted, “John may be faster. And he’s powerful, he’s got size.” (If you don’t know, Rickey Green was a 6-0 point guard who played 14 NBA seasons, retiring in 1992. Green was so fast that Lute Olson once said, “Three defenders on Ricky Green is a mismatch in Green’s favor.”) Josh Smith called Wall “a blur.” Stan Van Gundy noted that Wall’s speed is “up there with anybody in the League.” Byron Scott said Wall is “one of the quickest guys that I’ve seen in the League with the ball.” Lou Williams said simply, “Dude’s a rocket.”

“He has the speed that you don’t see in the NBA anymore,” says Arenas. “Either you’re straight fast, or you’re laterally fast. He’s both. He’s quick and fast.”

Arenas then extends his right arm, flattens his palm and holds his hand perpendicular to the floor, then moves his hand in a swerving motion to his right, like a shark cutting through the ocean. “What makes him look so fast is when he’s going this way and then…”—and here Arenas abruptly jerks his hand back to the left, as though the shark is making a 90-degree turn in pursuit of prey—“…he cuts back that way. He can cut. He has that Tony Parker and TJ Ford in him, so he can just maneuver and it just makes him look so fast.”

It isn’t just that Wall looks fast, he is fast. At the end of the first half in the Wizards’ loss to Cleveland, trying to score before the half ended, Wall took an inbounds pass and went end-to-end with two dribbles, taking just over 2 seconds. Before the Draft, Wall was tested by ESPN’s Sports Science program, and they found Wall was able to react to a light trigger in 253 milliseconds, which is faster than a cheetah at top speed takes a single stride.

“It’s great,” says Arenas, smiling. “Just like when I used to play, and people just watch you play? I sit there and do that when he has the ball. I just watch and see what he’s going to do next. I used to yell at guys, and now he’s doing the same thing, yelling at everyone, ‘You guys gotta move somewhere!’ So that’s kind of funny.”

Speak to Wall, and the numbers he cares about are wins and losses. And for all Wall’s individual brilliance, the Wizards exited their first five games with only one victory, that home debut against Philly. “The main thing I tell everybody is it’s a learning experience,” Wall says. “We’ve got a couple of returning players, a couple of new guys coming in, so we’re all trying to get adjusted to the system. We’re working hard individually to get better, and as a team we’re working on defense. I feel like we’ll continue to get better. If we just focus on getting better and competing, we’ll have an opportunity to win a lot more games than they did last year.”

Through those same five games, Wall averaged 5.8 turnovers per contest. Wall promises he’s working to correct it—“I’ve got to be a better decision-maker for my team.” It’s Wall’s fearlessness on the floor, the same audacity that generates YouTube content, that sometimes works against him. “With John, his greatest strength can be his greatest weakness,” says Wizards coach Flip Saunders. “He wants to try and make something happen, and in the last couple of games he was trying to create something that wasn’t there. It’s almost like a young quarterback in football trying to throw into coverage.”

“The first things I’ve noticed are the speed and size of everyone,” Wall says. “Like when we played Atlanta, Josh Smith is so big and athletic. He showed me one time when he swatted my shot back to halfcourt. I knew he could do it, but I thought I could get into his body and get my shot off. But the veterans are so smart.

“The thing is, every game you’re going against talented guys. There’s not a night off, there’s not a night that’s any easier than any other night. And it’s great. You have to learn how to develop your game and add things to your game. Things are going to come game by game.”

A few nights after the SLAM shoot, about an hour before John Wall’s NBA debut in New York City, Wall is out on the court being led through a very specific drill by Washington Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell. The rest of the Wizards have trickled back toward the locker room, or perhaps to visit the chapel or the trainer. Wall is still working.

If you listen to John Wall field inquiries from the media, he repeatedly makes references to defenses “going under” against him. As it’s played out early in his NBA career, defenders going under picks are John Wall’s few moments of freedom on the basketball court. Every other second Wall is on the floor, defenders focus on him like politicians trying to find earmarks. Yet whenever Wall dribbles around a pick, defenders mostly seem content to lose him for a second or two, balancing the time it takes to recover defensively versus allowing Wall the chance to shoot a jumper, and usually deciding they’ll give him that jumper.

Wall and Cassell are working assiduously to make it easier for Wall to take what he’s being given. “He’s helping me a whole lot,” Wall says of Cassell, “especially in the mid-range area, where he was dominant. He wasn’t the fastest or most athletic, but he was smart and a legend in the League.” Cassell was so good at the mid-range game that when TNT made a series of basketball instructional videos, Cassell was the player chosen to demonstrate how to excel in the mid-range game.

And so each day, Cassell has Wall facing up from 16 to 18 feet. With a defender trailing him, Wall runs toward Cassell on the right wing, catches a pass, approaches a pick. Time and again, as Wall goes around the pick, the defender doesn’t even bother to chase him, instead going under the screen and letting Wall briefly roam free with the ball. Wall squares himself, hoists a jumper, snaps his wrist. Again. Again. Again. Again.

Wall is no stranger to hard work. Born and raised around Raleigh, NC, despite his dominance of adolescent leagues, John Wall wasn’t always a household name. It was a run during the summer of 2007, at the sneaker camps and while playing AAU ball for D-One Sports, that Wall really stated his case.

“Everything I did I tried to take advantage of it,” Wall says. “When I went to Reebok U as a special invite to the underclassmen camp, I knew you had to be top five to get invited to the main camp. So I was going in with the mindset of having to prove myself. Then going to the main camp, the main event, going up against players I looked up to and guys I was watching on, I had an opportunity to play and prove myself against them. I used to watch all of them—Brandon Jennings, Renardo Sidney, Isaiah Thomas. I’m still cool with most of them and still talk to them. But those are guys I looked up to, since they were top of their class. I wanted to see where I stood against them.”

By the end of the summer, according to several ranking services, Wall was atop the Class of ’09. After just one season at the University of Kentucky, Wall again found himself at the head of his class, although this time it was the 2010 NBA Draft class. Wall declared for the Draft, and a few weeks later the Wizards hit the lotto.

In many ways, so did Wall. Washington is a passionate sports town, about four hours from Raleigh, with a new owner intent on turning the franchise into a contender. And it was also a franchise in need of exactly what John Wall brings: a touch of magic; a dash of electricity; a double shot of espresso.

What matters now is what Wall accomplishes now that he’s here. Weeks into his NBA career, he’s been drawing the sort of awe-filled reviews that make the Double Rainbow Guy sound jaded. The highlights are great, but in order to effect real change in DC, Wall has bigger plans.

“I got goals. Hopefully win Rookie of the Year, that’s everybody’s goal. I want to keep developing, improve my jump shot and prove I can make it so people will stop going under screens. Keep learning as much as I can, prepare every day, get better every day. Watch film. Listen to Coach Saunders, Sam Cassell, listen to all the coaches I can. See how teams are going to guard me so I’ll know how other teams will try and guard me.
“But the main focus is really the team goal. I really want to see what we can do as a team.”