John Wall sat perched in a corner of the visitor’s locker room by Bradley Beal at Madison Square Garden.
It was Christmas morning. They laughed and chuckled. Earlier, they had opened gifts and exchanged pleasantries with their families.
But on this morning, what Wall was most grateful for was where the Wizards have found themselves: In New York City, near the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference and with a legitimate opportunity to win an NBA Championship.
Wall was grateful that his Wizards have emerged as a true contender.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Wall told Basketball Insiders when asked whether he expected so much from these Wizards, who enter play on December 28 with a win-loss record of 21-8. “We have a great group of guys. I think we just understand and everybody respects their role and we go out there and try to do it as one group and not just one guy.”
But in order to succeed at the highest level, every NBA team needs that one guy. The coach needs a player who can be his voice and conscience both on and off the floor. The veteran players need a player who they believe is young and spry enough to help to lead them to the promised land. The younger personnel need a player who galvanizes them with his effort and leads by example.
Today, Wall is that player.
He has long been searching and toiling, attempting to earn the respect of his peers and everyone else who watches the game. When asked, Wall called himself the best point guard in the league and discussed his personal journey. He spoke about his past teammates and past experiences.
And he spoke about where he and his teammates are now.
Andre Miller, one such veteran who has been enamored with Wall, spoke with Basketball Insiders about the young All-Star’s progression.
“I think him, along with all the other point guards have taken the NBA to another level,” Miller said, including Wall in the elite class of point guards that includes Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. “They’re more polished as thinkers, leaders, shooters, scorers, it’s just a whole bunch of them coming in and that’s good for the league.”
Two years ago, the idea of Wall being on the short list of All-NBA guards was almost as laughable as the five-year, $80 million extension that the Wizards signed him to.
Since then, though, he has proven to be worth the investment.
Entering play on December 28, Wall’s nine 20-point, 10-assist double-doubles is first in the NBA. His 10.3 assists per game trail only Ty Lawson’s 10.4 and Rajon Rondo’s 10.5.
For now, he has mostly silenced the critics that never thought he would amount to anything more than a point guard who could not excel at the next level. Wall knows that the silence is just temporary, though.
“I still don’t think I’ve answered them,” he said, with emphasis on still and answered. “I think I’m playing better, but I still have a lot to prove. I feel like I’m nowhere near my full potential.”
The next step for Wall is diminishing his turnovers and developing a consistent go-to move on the offensive end. To this point, he still relies heavily on his athleticism to create his own scoring opportunities, though his pull-up and step-back jump shooting off the dribble has improved immensely.
Not too long ago, though, many had feared that Wall was a lost cause and would ultimately go down as a bust. Collectively, as a basketball culture, we come to believe that a player’s light should gleam almost immediately. We often recall the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard—players who came into the league and hit the ground running—and forget the others who were slow climbers. The latter list includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LaMarcus Aldridge and even the aforementioned Rondo.
What we should have learned from watching Wall’s development is how important the support system built around a younger player is. When asked about what it takes to succeed and his personal development into a leader, the first thing that Wall mentioned was the support system that he has in Washington. He mentioned certain players no longer being with the team and immediately brought up the likes of both Miller and Paul Pierce.
Since taking over in January 2012, coach Randy Wittman has impressed everyone in Washington, D.C. with his ability to relate to his locker room and get the most out of his players. He took over for Flip Saunders after the club got out to a 2-15 start to begin the 2011-12 season, and although Saunders certainly had reason for the abysmal start to the season, Wittman and Wall have clicked. The proof is in the pudding.
Today, Wall is a leader and the Wizards are a winner.
“When guys get to be your teammate and be around you, they see how hard you work, how you communicate with guys and how you talk,” Wall said. “If you want to be the guy, you’ve gotta show that you’re willing to put in that type of work. When people are talking to you and saying certain things, you’ve gotta be willing to take criticism from your teammates.”
Fortunately, for him, there isn’t much to criticize anymore.
As the NBA season continues on into the New Year and into All-Star Weekend, Wall—who claimed that before Christmas Day, he hasn’t had a non-playoff national television game since his rookie year in 2012—has emerged as the apple of many eyes.
On Christmas Day, it was revealed that after the first returns of the 2015 All-Star balloting, Wall was first among all Eastern Conference guards and was second among all Eastern Conference players, trailing only LeBron James.
Irving, Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Kyle Lowry? They all trailed him. Even better? With the exception of Lowry, those players trail him in another important category, as well: team wins.
From top to bottom, the Wizards have everything that a team needs to win a championship. The only area in which they are sorely lacking is experience.
Even still, sometimes, it’s easy to forget that.
Wall has proven himself to be one of the top lead guards in the NBA and by running through Wall, the Wizards have emerged as a serious contender to win the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
As he sat in the locker room and pondered the additional stops that his journey would take en route to him hopefully becoming an NBA Champion one day, Wall opened up a little bit. His normally serious and stoic demeanor softened, for just a moment.
Appropriately, Wall looked and sounded like a young man on Christmas morning.
“This is exciting,” he said of playing in New York City with the entire nation watching him and his team. His voice pitch was uncharacteristically high and his hands were up in the air.
Yes, it was just one game on one day in New York City. But for Wall, it was more than that: It was a reminder of his legitimacy and an ode to the work that he has put in and the success of his team.
“[This] is a humbling experience for me,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I’m excited to represent the Washington Wizard organization and the city of Washington, D.C.”
It may have taken four long years, but with an appreciable collection of talent around him, a capable running mate in Beal flanking him and potential still oozing, I’m pretty sure that both the city of Washington, D.C. and the Wizards franchise are just as excited to have Wall representing them.
This is his team, his franchise.
In D.C., they are running through the Wall, and if what has already transpired is any indication of what is to come, the Wizards could be running well into June.
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