NEW YORK — John Wall at age 14 was a mess, particularly off the court. As detailed in a must-read piece by Mike Wise at ESPN, Wall was a hot-head nicknamed “Crazy J” who was thrown out of one prominent basketball camp, a guy whose father was in prison for armed robbery then died while Wall was young, and whose brother remains in jail to this day. Wall could have easily gone down that same path.
So what would 14-year-old Wall think of 24-year-old Wall, the All-Star Game starter voted in by fans?
“Very, very proud of him,” Wall said in an Adidas store in Manhattan where he was promoting his shoe line before heading to Madison Square to play last Sunday. “I mean, 14-year-old John Wall played basketball because he loved it, when I got outside of that I did whatever. Just to release my pain and hurt from losing my father and not having a father figure around. I was just doing anything; I didn’t have anyone who could tell me yes or no. I listened to my mother, but it’s not the same when your dad’s like ‘come here, I want to tell you something.’ It’s totally different.”
It wasn’t smooth or painless, but John Wall has grown up.
For a lot of fans that’s evident on the court. Wall is averaging, 17.4 points but more importantly leads the league with 10.1 assists a game. He also leads the league in assist percentage at 45.9 percent (the percentage of teammate field goals a player gets an assist on while he was on the court).
However, it’s on the defensive end where Wall is having a bigger impact for the Wizards. The Wizards are fifth in the NBA in defensive rating (giving up 1 point per possession) and Wall is key to that — Washington is 10.8 points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he is on the bench.
Wall admits he used to take plays off on that end, knowing he had to attack and lead the offense on the other. No longer. Wall said it started with improved conditioning so he could have the energy at both ends, it allowed him to be more aggressive. Then it just became about focus.
“I think just fighting over screens, you’ve got a lot of pick-and-rolls that teams run,” Wall said of what he’s doing better defensively this season. “And just being more locked in and focused, knowing that I’m the head of the snake on my team. So the better I start off the game, going the whole game playing defense, it gets my guys going.”
That commitment to conditioning is something that took shape last summer and is continuing in the season.
“A lot of stuff, changing my diet, and just being in better shape,” Wall said of what he’s done. “I have a chef now, so I’m eating healthier. Just making sure I’m staying with my workouts and staying stronger for the whole season. I think most of the time the second half of the season your legs start to get heavy, you start to lose muscle in your legs, all that factors in to what I’ve got to do to stay healthy.”
It is all part of a more mature Wall — the one the Wizards hoped they were drafting No. 1 back out of Kentucky back in 2010. The one that could be a foundational piece for a team.
“My first two years, me I was just excited to be in the NBA, going through the things,” Wall said. “I came in at 19. I think being injured taught me I need to do things so I’m not injured every year. And I think just maturing, growing up helped me out a lot.”
That maturing includes the people he keeps around him.
“I’ve just never been a person that likes yes people around me,” Wall said. “I want someone to be honest with me — if I’m doing something wrong I need somebody to be able to tell me ‘no’ and keep me out of trouble.
“In the past, you had a lot of people who was leeches, all they want to do is be like ‘yes, yes, yes’ as you’re taking them to shows and inviting them to events and paying for certain stuff. I don’t need you around for that.”
On the court, Wall puts a lot of pressure on opposing defenses with his speed, especially off an opponent miss, but his game has evolved into much more than that. Anyone that tells you he’s a shoot-first guard hasn’t watched him play in a couple years (and there still are talking heads saying that).
“They say I’m a shoot first point guard but I’m like how, I only take 12-13 shots a game?” Wall asked, although the answer is he takes 14 shots a game on average this season. “I think I lead all guards in double-doubles, so I was like ‘I don’t pass?’ That’s my job for my team; I key into passing first.”
NBA fans got it, which is why they voted him an All-Star starter for the first time this season.
“It was shocking to me when I first seen the (All-Star) ballots and I was one of the top guys in vote getting,” Wall admitted. “It was a surprise. I know I got some amazing fans, I just didn’t think my fans would vote me so high so quickly. I think my game and the way I developed during the season, they’re starting to see it.”
With all that notoriety comes opportunities, and Wall has a lot going on off the court now. He has his shoe deal and a lot of apparel with Adidas. He’s one of the guys that’s part of American Express’ new pivot campaign.
In the end, Wall’s personal success will be judged through the prism of how the Wizards do as a team. Wall knows if his team is one round and out in the playoffs this April he will take the brunt of the criticism. So what does he have to do for the Wizards to advance?
“My job is to just keep playing the way I am, and I got to play a little better,” Wall said. “When guys get injured a little bit, or we lose a couple close games, I have to do a better job of closing out games and getting those guys open shots.”
If he can do that come the playoffs — and if the Wizards are healthy and execute consistently — they are capable of pushing, if not beating, anybody in the East. The Wizards defense and Wall’s play on offense makes the Wizards a team that is a threat to be in the conference Finals.
And that would be another step in the maturation of John Wall.