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David Aldridge

John Wall
From dealing with the media to his play on the court, John Wall has embraced being the Wizards' leader.
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Wall stands tall as task of reviving Wizards falls on him


Posted Oct 4 2010 10:31AM

He has Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook figuratively circled on his calendar, the guards that, like him, came into the NBA after the Great Leveling. The Lakers still dominate because of their size and talent in the paint, true, but they are now the exception, representative of pro basketball the way it used to be played. The league has gotten what it wanted; its rules changes have made it almost impossible to guard point guards, so point guards now rule. The league is getting smaller and smaller, and quicker and quicker, and players like Rondo and Westbrook and Rose are the new normal, which is why John Wall idolizes them so. He's the latest version.

"Me and my talent, I have to prove I belong on this level," the number one pick said on Saturday. "They've already proved themselves. And that's where I'm trying to get."

Wall has not been in the savior business that long. Five years ago, no one had the 19-year-old on their radar as a franchise-changer, one whose name would adorn the side of a building and provide hope for a moribund organization. But he came on like lightning on a summer afternoon, making the John Wall Dance a YouTube sensation and leading Kentucky to the Elite Eight as a freshman. Now he's expected to do the heavy lifting to make Washington relevant again.

He spent the offseason in a whirlwind, dominating the Las Vegas Summer League, going back and forth between Washington, Kentucky and North Carolina, playing with and against Gilbert Arenas in pickup games, and getting $25 million from Reebok to be the shoe company's new signature face as Allen Iverson fades into the sunset. But now the job begins in earnest, with the Wizards looking to the 19-year-old Wall to lead them someplace, anyplace other than where they've been.

The Wizards gave the keys of the franchise to Arenas, and he drove it off a cliff with bad luck, injuries and incredibly poor decision making that culminated in last December's gun incident with former teammate Javaris Crittenton that led to 50-game suspensions for both by NBA Commissioner David Stern. It will take years to overcome the damage to both the competitive prospects for the Wizards in the Eastern Conference and to the franchise brand, but Wall's arrival has likely shaved a couple of years off the rebuilding project.

"He is our leader," Wizards coach Flip Saunders said of Wall, less than a week into camp. "I think the bubble he was in at Kentucky probably prepared him as much as anybody for these types of these situations. Unless you were there in its heyday, that's kind of what he went through (last year). So I think that's probably helped him mentally."

But young almost never wins in this league, no matter how good, and Washington won't likely win this season, not in what may now be the toughest division in the league. Wall has so much to learn on the court, from mastering Saunders' voluminous playbook to figuring out all of his options on the screen and roll (defenses don't play it passively in the NBA, Wall has noticed; big men rotate, and do you attack them, or move the ball along?) . But that's just the half of it.

Washington is a city that recognizes stars, and Wall has the look of a budding one. New owner Ted Leonsis knows how to build buzz around a young talent, just as he did with the NHL's Capitals and their superstar (and two-time MVP), Alex Ovechkin. So Wall can't just develop at a normal pace. He has to sign every autograph and do the community stuff and help sell tickets as well as get down in a defensive stance.

He's trying to find a balance. His close friends/mentors, brothers Brian and Dwon Clifton, are living in a house just down the road from his in suburban D.C., to give him a familiar face and someone who can say no. (Wall turned down a July appearance at the ESPYs in L.A. so he could practice with the Wizards' summer league team in Vegas.)

Wall acknowledges all the hype is "a tough situation" to deal with, but no one's going to feel sorry for him.

"You've just got to be what I always stay: humble and hungry," he said. "If you stay humble then you're not going to get big-headed, and if you stay hungry, you're always going to get better and compete every time on the court. That all should keep you level-headed."

So much has been said and written about how the Wizards have to, at all costs, keep Arenas away from Wall, as if Arenas was a parasite looking for a host body, and Wall's character was a lump of clay that anyone could mold to his or her liking. But if Wall is that impressionable, Washington shouldn't have wasted the first pick on him. A franchise does not turn around if its point guard is a shrinking violet, easily led. Wall may be young, and he'll make mistakes, but he does not show signs of anything other than being an alpha male in his own right, his own man, someone who is followed, not a follower. On a Kentucky team where each starter was a first-round NBA pick -- unprecedented in Draft history -- Wall was the man.

But can Wall and Arenas play together? The Wizards haven't shied away from having the two on opposite teams in scrimmages, but ultimately, they have to find a comfort level with one another. (They have been working on an intro dance, which Wall calls "Respect.")

"I think they've done well together," forward Al Thornton said. "I think a lot of people coming into it thought there was going to be conflict. Would they be able to play together? Would Gil massage the ball too much? But in this camp, it seems like they've been playing well and their chemistry's pretty good. Hopefully they'll be able to keep it up."

Wall says Arenas has been a willing teacher, showing him some tricks of the trade, how to improve his jab step, how to use his arms to create space for himself. He has not, he said, asked Arenas about the guns, and won't, nor will he make any judgments about Arenas' character because of what happened last season.

"Every time he gets in a drill and [he's] gotta be a point guard, he's like, he doesn't want to do it, he wants to be a two guard," Wall says. "It makes it a little easier. He knows that I'm looking to find him, and at the very same time, I'm trying to do as much as I can to help the team win. So whether it's finding him or finding one of the big men, he's cool with it."

Wall is also learning from Kirk Hinrich, the veteran guard the Wizards acquired from Chicago on Draft day, along with the rights to forward Kevin Seraphin. Already, Saunders says Hinrich and Wall are his two best at communicating with the other players on the floor. For all the talk about Wall and Arenas playing together it would be no surprise if Wall and Hinrich are in the backcourt just as much. Hinrich is already Washington's best perimeter defender, and Saunders has said he'll often play all of them in a three-guard lineup.

"He's not as fast as most of us," Wall said of Hinrich. "He's not as athletic. But he's a smart player. He knows the situations, and he's great on defense. He knows how to get through the pick and rolls. He knows the help side."

Someday, Wall will know all of those things. But he's on step three of a 1,000-move career. There will be many 7-for-19 nights, and double-figure turnover nights, and blown defensive assignments. The Wizards will need a lot more than the improved physiques of center JaVale McGee and Thornton, and the potential of rookie bigs Trevor Booker and Seraphin to be competitive. A fully engaged and healthy Arenas would make things really interesting. But the Wizards' future is Wall's, the two tied together and heading to open water.

"Coming from the situation I came from, I never had nothing," Wall said. "So I just stay level-headed. To see my mom happy is the key thing for me...Brian and Dwon, and my brother Ty, my mom, and my family (keep him humble). My sisters, they're happy for me, but to see my sisters still working, and still going to school, to know that they care but they're not just trying to live off of me. They still want to make it. So that proves to me that I have to still keep working."

Dribbles

Gregg Popovich is confused that you're confused. Why are you surprised that Popovich spent the summer working individually with Richard Jefferson?

"I'm his coach," Pop said via phone on Friday. "That's what I do. I realize these are the days of specialization, and we have 19 people working with these guys."

But Popovich knew he could not stomach another season with the Jefferson that showed up in San Antonio last season. It wasn't just that Jefferson, like any number of new arrivals in San Antonio, had a tough time adjusting to what Popovich demanded. Jefferson was sluggish and uncertain, and Popovich couldn't trust him at the ends of games to do the right thing. He hadn't really flashed, Popovich surmised, since the Nets made those consecutive Finals in 2002 and 2003, with Jefferson and Kenyon Martin filling the lanes for Jason Kidd's bounce passes and alley-oops.

Richard Jefferson
By working with the Spurs' coaches on his game, Richard Jefferson is more ready for 2010-11.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

And instead of being injected with the energy and excitement of a dynamic player -- as the Spurs had anticipated when they executed the three-team deal with Milwaukee and Detroit that brought Jefferson to town -- the Spurs were drained. Even though Jefferson shot the ball better than he had in five years, his average of 12.3 points last season was his lowest since his rookie season.

So Popovich gave Jefferson a choice, telling him there would be no hard feelings either way. Jefferson could agree to meet Popovich and assistant coach Chip Engelland during the summer in San Antonio to go "back to school," as Popovich put it, on regaining the fundamentals that the Spurs' coach thought Jefferson had lost over the last few seasons. He would also work with Spurs assistant Chad Forcier in New York. And he'd take part in Tim Grgurich's skills camp in Vegas in August.

Or he could refuse, and enjoy his summer.

"And I would have definitely tried to trade him on the spot," Popovich said. "I told him I would definitely go to work on getting your ass out of Dodge."

So Jefferson chose summer school, working out for two hours at a time with the Spurs' coaches all over the country. It was all basics: pivoting with the ball, jump-stopping, drills designed to improve his efficiency of movement on the court. On the defensive end, Jefferson got reinforcements on the Spurs' defensive concepts, which go into much greater detail than simply pushing everything baseline and keeping guards from dribble penetrations in the paint. He reported to camp last week with 7 percent body fat and a cut-up physique.

"I asked him if he wanted to reach his potential, or just let the next few years slough away and just put money in the bank," Popovich said. "He said 'I want to reach my potential.' "

San Antonio's core group, as we all know, isn't getting any younger. Even though Tim Duncan again came to camp in great shape, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are refreshed after taking the summer off from international competition -- neither played for France or Argentina, respectively, in the FIBA World Championship -- the Spurs' margin for error, Popovich said, gets a whole lot smaller if Jefferson isn't contributing. After opting out of his deal in June and agreeing to a four-year, $38 million deal, Jefferson is going to be crucial to any hopes San Antonio has of mounting one last championship push.

Popovich wasn't sure Jefferson would agree. He'd established himself as a star of sorts, and it's sometimes hard to get players on that level to keep from coasting. They are, they often say, who they are. But to his credit, Jefferson bought in.

"I just think he needed somebody to demand it of him," Popovich said. "He's a smart guy and he's got great character. It was lucky for me that I could address him straight on. If he was a dumb guy or a smart ass I would probably have had to try to trick him. Overall, I hope it translates to more consistent play."

Top O' the World, Ma!

1) L.A. Lakers: Kobe tests his knee out in London this week.

2) Orlando: They do better when they're the underdogs, as many have them coming into the season. You'll notice I don't.

3) Miami: Wade said something interesting the other day: LeBron pushes him to get better. That's something that's should give the rest of the league night sweats.

4) Boston: KG looking sensational in the early going, with explosiveness the Celts haven't seen in two seasons.

Kevin Garnett
So far in Celtics camp, Kevin Garnett has looked like his old, familiar self.
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

5) Oklahoma City: The Thunder drew 3,500 for an Video intrasquad scrimmage at a local high school last week.

6) Dallas: ESPNDallas.com reporting that Mavericks are trying to bring assistant Tim Grgurich to the bench. That would make a lot of sense.

7) San Antonio: Tiago Splitter out a couple of weeks with a calf strain.

8) Chicago: Bulls reportedly lock up Joakim Noah with an extension, thus ending the Carmelo speculation once and for all.

9) Atlanta: Larry Drew promising more ball movement this season.

10) Utah: Al Jefferson reported at 280 pounds, saying he and GM Kevin O'Connor had agreed he needed more bulk this season. Not sure they meant that much.

11) Portland: Blazers holding fast in their refusal to give Rudy Fernandez away. He's in camp, though not happy about it.

12) Phoenix: Josh Chlidress looked great in Video scrimmage on Saturday, continuing solid camp.

13) Milwaukee: Corey Maggette still not cleared for fullcourt work after ankle surgery.

14) Houston: Yao turned an ankle in practice last week; club says it's no big deal.

15) Denver: Kenyon Martin says he was misquoted in Denver Post story that implied he would be playing now if he had gotten a contract extension from Nuggets. Martin is coming off patella surgery he had in June.

Nobody Asked Me, But ...

Can we ever have a real conversation about race in America?

LeBron James didn't "play the race card," as those who always lazily refer to discussions on race say, last week. (Once again, as FanHouse's David Steele said years ago, race is not a card to be played in any game.) He answered a question asked of him by CNN's Soledad O'Brien. His manager, Maverick Carter, seconded James' notion. Just as with James going to Miami, there was nothing wrong in James' decision -- in this case, to answer the question. It was, again, the execution that was faulty.

James is mature enough and experienced enough to know that race is never a throwaway line. Race never winds up on the cutting room floor. He should have been able to handle what was an imprecise question from O'Brien -- "Do you think there's a role that race plays in this?" -- much better. He could have asked O'Brien to be more specific -- did she mean the reaction from fans? the media? Dan Gilbert? He could have said more than, "I think so, at times. It's always, you know, a race factor," which was even more vague than the initial question.

LeBron James
Plenty of people would want to listen if LeBron James talked honestly about his worldview.
Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

And Carter certainly didn't need to chime in; he has not helped his friend much this offseason, finally acknowledging to O'Brien what everyone on earth by now knows -- "The Decision" is not destined for the Museum of Television and Radio.

Of course, James has not been front-and-center in the past when it comes to racial issues, which makes his bringing it up now, even indirectly, ring hollow to many. He didn't talk about race when he was winning back-to-back MVPs and collecting tens of millions in endorsement dollars, the argument goes; why is he noticing race only now, when he's getting bad press for the first time in his career? There's some validity to that.

But that doesn't mean James is never allowed to talk about race. To think that race played absolutely no role in anyone's reaction to James joining the Heat is naive in the extreme. Now, that is a far, far ways away from thinking racism was involved; that is a system of behaviors and decisions that affect the ability of those who are its victims to live their lives freely. (Frankly, there are very few people of any race who can impact James' life in a meaningful way.) But race is involved in everything in American life, from our music to our politics to our religion. To think it's somehow not involved in our basketball is ridiculous.

The question is whether race played a significant role in the reaction, and surely, no one believes that. James can't believe that. Carter can't believe that. Again, this is why he needed to be exact in what he meant.

Yet this can be constructive, if only to pound home how sensitive and defensive we all are about racial matters. Race is the ultimate dog whistle, producing different sounds for different people.

None of us think people of different races really hear what we're saying when we talk about it. Ultimately, we seem to find it easier to just shut up rather than be thought of badly. It would be welcome if a public person like James wasn't afraid to offend, wasn't afraid to learn, wasn't afraid to talk about something that almost no one volunteers to discuss.

"The Decision" was horrible. But if James wants to have a serious conversation about how his worldview has been shaped by being a black man in the United States -- even one as wealthy and as famous as he -- that would be must-see TV.

... And Nobody Asked You, Either

David, can you please explain why, if a team can hang onto 15 players for the entire season, what is the big deal about letting all 15 play. The Lakers have a player [Adam Morrison] who went two years in the playoffs and almost never got to get on the court. The "Inactive vs. Active List Rules" say teams must have 12 total active players and three inactive players, but in the playoff only 12 are important and the three are excess baggage. Yeah, and I know that the rules were changed not very long ago to swap out during the regular season. So why not this year let the coach have 15 to swap out in the playoffs and maybe the following year just have 15 players on a team period? Morrison played a total of 13 out of over 2200 minutes in two years in the playoff for the Lakers. Two NBA rings for 13 minutes of work -- what a deal.

What was it Pat Riley said? Something like "dress nine, play eight, trust seven, win with six?" Coaches -- and, truth be told, players -- are of the firm belief that you just can't play everyone on the active roster and have any kind of continuity or flow. Minutes equal numbers, and numbers equal contracts. So everyone wants them. But coaches have to win to stay employed, so the people they actually trust to finish games is usually much smaller than their normal rotation.

Adam Morrison
Thirteen playoff minutes + two championships = Adam Morrison.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

A game of Windy City Musical Chairs. From Ryan Jody:

Love your work! As a Bulls fan I think they are making a big mistake not offering [Joakim] Noah and [Luol] Deng for Carmelo [Anthony]. With large extensions coming for [Derrick] Rose and Noah, the Bulls will be paying four players (Deng, Rose, Noah and Carlos Boozer) $10 million-plus per season and are still probably not a title-contender. If Chicago traded Deng and Noah, it would be a little thin at center this season but it would have a legit "Big 3" and would only be paying three guys large sums of cash ... tell me what you think?

Someone said this to me the other day and I think it makes sense: the Bulls still need someone to guard Dwight Howard in the post if they're going to have any shot of getting out of the East. Without Noah, Chicago would have almost no rim protection. Ultimately, Bulls executive VP John Paxson and GM Gar Forman may pull the trigger anyway and include Noah in a deal for Anthony, but I think it would leave the Bulls in the same predicament Utah has found itself in the last few seasons: being a very talented team, but too small to beat the elites in their conference in the playoffs.

Root, root root for ... none of the above. From Johannes Seidl-Schulz:

I was just wondering, what is your own favorite team (are you even allowed to have one as a journalist?) and what is your favorite, but maybe not so well-known, player?

I always tell people I root for good basketball, not any particular team. Whether they win or lose, I still have to do a story on 'em, so rooting interests don't help me one way or the other. As for players ... well, I love watching Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton work off of screens. I love watching Pau Gasol's footwork in the post. I love Chris Paul in the open court. I love watching Kevin Durant rising up to shoot. I love watching LeBron with a head of steam, coming left to right, about to take a whole bunch of people up to the rim. I have a soft spot for Caron Butler, a guy that decided he didn't have to live the life he was leading as a teenager, and changed it, and became one of the NBA's real good guys.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and corrections to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If it's sufficiently funny, snarky or otherwise engaging we just may publish it!

By the Numbers

3 -- Minutes for overtime in the NBA D-League this season, instead of the normal five. The NBA uses the D-League to experiment with new ideas, and will continue to do this season. In addition to the shorter overtime, the D-League will test out the European system that allows defenders to knock balls off the rim without being called for goaltending.

$5,000 -- Fine amount for this season for any player that receives a 16th technical foul, double the amount players were fined last season after reaching the 16-T mark. The league is doubling fine amounts across the board ($2,000 for each of a player's first five technicals, followed by $3,000 per tech for the next five and $4,000 per tech for the five after that, through the 15th technical).

$100,000 -- Fine for Wizards owner Ted Leonsis by the league after Leonsis told local businessmen he expected a "hard cap" from the next collective bargaining agreement similar to the one the NHL current has.

I'm Feelin' ...

1) They had none of the fanfare--they never do. The U.S. women's national team just keeps winning. Another gold medal in the World Championships on Sunday, Video an 89-69 cruise over the host Czech Republic. They avenged their 2006 bronze medal performance in the Worlds by winning by an average of 35.1 points. This Sue Bird-Diana Taurasi-Swin Cash era has been pretty incredible.

2) The new standards for what triggers a technical foul are a very, very bad idea. This is a very, very good idea.

1004-josh-mcroberts-300.jpg
Who will fill Troy Murphy's power forward spot in Indiana? You're looking at him.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

3) Haven't seen the latest 30 For 30 on Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, Once Brothers, but the buzz is encouraging. It's a wonderful (and tragically sad) story about one of the great teams that almost no one outside of Europe saw -- the Yugoslavian national team of the late 1980s that featured future NBAers Divac, Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. When Yugoslavia dissolved into civil war, and emerged split into Croatia and Serbia, so did the friendship between Petrovic, a Croatian, and Divac, a Serb. Divac made his peace with most of his Croatian teammates but never could with Petrovic, who died in a car accident in 1993.

4) Steve Blake has already impressed the Lakers, and Kobe, with how quickly he's picked up the triangle. Shouldn't be a surprise. The Flex offense he played in college at Maryland has some similarities with the triangle, and Blake has always been a quick study. He was a terrific pickup for L.A.

5) Always liked the way Josh McRoberts played, even when he was in Portland. Now that Troy Murphy is in New Jersey, McRoberts looks like he'll be the starting at power forward for the Pacers.

6) Fred, Barney, Wilma and Betty are 50! With both of my parents working, I was pretty much a latchkey kid growing up. It's not an exaggeration that I have watched every episode of the Flintstones at least a dozen times and can recite most of the dialogue word for word. Or, at least I could. Yabba Dabba Doo.

Not Feelin' ...

1) Ugh.

2) I just can't dodge this inexplicable feeling that the league must have better things to do with its time.

3) We are all guilty of Heat Overkill, but do we really have to hear how "fierce" LeBron was at practice during training camp? One of my old journalism professors used to say they don't write stories about cars that drive on the right side of the road, or leaves that fall from trees.

4) Well, it didn't take long for Vinny Del Negro to come to much the same conclusion that Mike Dunleavy did about B Dizzle, did it? At least he was a little nicer about it.

1004-stan-van-gundy-300.jpg
Is policing Stan Van Gundy's game-day clothing choices the best use of the league's time?
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

5) I really don't understand why the Twins are so upset with this. It's not like it's an ad for something ilicit, or illegal. There's signage all over, and around, ballparks all the time. They're part of the tableau. If Jim Thome gets a hold of one during the playoffs, the radio call "he hit it over Sanford!" will become iconic in Minneapolis. Like Mary Richards throwing her hat.

6) A man named Frank Jordan died late last month. Most of you under 40 have no idea who he was. Many of you over 50 may not, either. But Frank Jordan is as responsible as anyone outside my immediate family for my becoming a journalist. A former radio reporter, he became Washington bureau chief for NBC News in the 1960s and early 70s, coordinating that network's coverage of the Kennedy Assasination and the resignation of President Nixon. After Frank left that job he came to American University in D.C. and became Dean of the School of Communication. That was where we met, when I was 18 and didn't know jack about being a reporter.

Frank was the faculty advisor of the school paper, and he was the person who convinced me, a sophomore, that I could be editor-in-chief -- a job that changed my life. He was always prodding me and my staff, demanding we put out a better paper the next week. His post-production critiques of the paper could be withering. But he also provided quiet counsel and comfort to me when I needed it. (He was the one who calmed me down the first time someone said they were going to sue.) When I left AU, I knew I could be a reporter for a living. That would have never, ever happened if I hadn't met Frank Jordan. He made my life better. I thank him for his.

Tweet of the Week

"Success/Wealth a big magnifying glass; If U were nice b4 U got em, U now nicer but if U were an (expletive) b4 U got em, U now bigger (expletive)" DG

-- Cavs owner Dan Gilbert (@cavsdan), Friday. Can't imagine who he's talking about. (To see the unedited version, you'll have to get on Twitter and follow Gilbert. I'd love to write it all out for you here, but there are kiddies who read this.)

They Said It

"I sent him a text message that said: welcome to the club."

-- Mark Cuban, telling the Dallas Morning News about his communication with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis after the league fined Leonsis $100,000 for talking about the collective bargaining agreement negotiations.

"It was unfortunate for the fans what happened, but it's time to move on. I'm sure they've moved on. But in the back of my mind, I still have a thing for Seattle and always am going to remember what they've done for me."

--Kevin Durant, according to The Oklahoman. What he said.

"Sign the extension."

-- George Karl, to NBA FanHouse, on what it will take for Carmelo Anthony to get back in the good graces of Nuggets fans. Anthony was booed when he was shown on a video screen Thursday night during a Mixed Martial Arts event in nearby Broomfield, a Denver suburb.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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