John Wall believes he’s got a damn good shot. He believes that if he keeps taking shots, one by one, they’ll fall and the Washington Wizards will rise. He’s sure of it.
His shots, though, don’t always fall on first attempt.
There he was launching shots this past November. Finally free to go home after a long day, he walked toward the steps leading out from the practice court in the Verizon Center. But instead of leaving, he grabbed a ball from the rack.
He’s a basketball junkie and doesn’t like to walk off a court without trying one last shot. He chucked a 20-footer up toward the rim. Clank. No hard feelings—he wasn’t really trying. Time to go home.
But before he reached the door, a Wizards staffer challenged him to make a shot from the top of the staircase. It was a long, tricky baseline shot with a low ceiling overhead.
Five shots turned to ten, and no one made a bucket. Not Wall. Not the three staffers who joined him. Wall came closest, his shots twice landing softly on the rim and spinning out. This didn’t look good, considering his reputation as a poor shooter and his insistence that he’d improved as he headed into his third NBA season. He was going to make one.
“I can’t leave with a miss,” he said. “Tell Twitter I made it in one try. It’s never taken me more than five.”
It was 5 o’clock on a Monday evening. An hour earlier, Wall had entered the facility full of energy, taking the stairs swiftly down to the court for a photo shoot. He’s the face of the Wizards organization and knows that life as an NBA star is more than showing up for games. Sometimes you have to smile for the cameras even though you’ve finished a long practice, undergone treatment for an injured knee, endured a long post-practice meeting, and, as he said, “just want to go home.”
Wall was cool. Everyone else in the building seemed on edge as they adjusted to the rock-star presence of young Justin Bieber and his circus-like entourage roaming the Verizon Center halls on Segways. Asked if he planned to stick around for the sold-out show—if he was a Belieber—Wall said, “Naw.”
While Bieber signed autographs, Wall did the only thing he’s been allowed to do while recovering from a knee injury. He posed for pictures: palming the ball with one hand, squeezing it with two, shooting a free throw, crossover dribbling, dribbling behind the back, faking a pass. Flexing his muscles. Turning this way. Standing that way. Sitting on a chair. Stepping back. Dribbling faster. Again and again.
“I need a smile from you, John,” the photographer said.
Wall dutifully cracked a semi-smile well rehearsed to show the right amount of teeth without looking cheesy. He never complained, but his puffy eyes betrayed his fatigue.
“I know how Bieber feels,” he said.
The photo shoot done, Wall started shooting baskets. Miss after miss, the count swelled to 20 and everyone but Wall was laughing.
Finally he nailed one, yelling, “Get the f--- in there!”
For those who know him, this was quintessential Wall. He’s competitive. He’s playful. He’s determined. He’s restless. He’s moody. He’s addicted to basketball. He has a potty mouth. All of which make him a strong candidate to be an NBA franchise player. But can he handle that responsibility? Does he even have a shot?
The Wizards haven’t won a championship in 35 seasons, and they’re counting on the 22-year-old point guard from Raleigh, North Carolina, to turn them into a playoff-qualifying team. It’s a near-impossible job for one player—despite his prodigious talents—especially one who missed the first 33 games of this 82-game season with a stressed left patella.
Wall wants to be beloved in this city. He wants to prove he’s as worthy as those household names from other cities—Chicago’s Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, Los Angeles’s Kobe Bryant, Miami’s LeBron James.
“There’s so much work I have to do,” he says.
He believes he can get there. One shot at a time.
• • •
“I believe in my talent,” Wall tells me. And rightfully. He’s the wunderkind who got cut from his high-school team in Raleigh but shook it off to become the top-ranked high-school player in the US in 2009. Then after one year of college at Kentucky, he grabbed the spotlight in 2010 as the NBA’s number-one overall draft pick.
So, yeah, he believes in himself—even more in his power to focus his talents and achieve the unthinkable. That’s his humble plan for the Wizards. Playoffs. Championship. Locker-room Champagne showers. Pictures with President Obama. The whole thing.
As Wall enters year three of his pro career—he considers it the most important year—there are many reasons to doubt him. Then again, he’s proven naysayers wrong before.
“When I was in high school, there were so many people that said, ‘John Wall can’t do this, John Wall can’t do that,’ ” he says, looking my way as he recalls his teenage years.
I remember. I was one of the doubters. As a sports reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh, I had a front-row seat for Wall’s remarkable rise. One day no one’s ever heard of him, the next they’re playing videos of his ferocious dunks on YouTube as if it’s Gangnam Style.
By 2010, Wall had his own dance—the John Wall Dance. On ESPN you’d see people imitating the silly arm move where you pump your bicep and then rotate your balled fist. Soon after the 2010 NCAA tournament, before the Wizards selected the 19-year-old as their top pick, he received a special endorsement from President Obama, who said in an interview with Marv Albert: “Wall is a terrific player. He’s got NBA speed, NBA body, great jump shot, unselfish, really impressive. There’s only upside for that kid. And I think it’d be great for him to come to Washington.”
Back then, that blew my mind. Had I missed something? He had been impressive at Kentucky—scoring the most points of any freshman in school history and earning SEC player of the year. But I recalled an earlier version of the kid, five inches shorter with a defective jump shot and a surly demeanor.
I saw Wall play for Garner Magnet High School in North Carolina when he was a sophomore, then later at Word of God Christian Academy. I thought he was too short, too scrawny, his game too incomplete to amount to much. He walked around angry and played in a reckless, out-of-control way.
Later, as his name caught fire, I shrugged it off, telling one coach there were many more talented players in the region. “He can’t shoot,” I said. “How is he a pro if he can’t shoot?”
They said he was an elite NCAA Division I basketball player—perhaps the greatest ever to come from North Carolina.
So it’s strange to sit across from him in the Verizon Center eight years later, in an empty arena where he’s the franchise player. When he talks about how people used to doubt him, I raise my hand and admit, “I missed it.”
“I appreciate you being honest,” Wall says. He doesn’t seem to take it personally, as though his opinion is the only one that matters. And in a way he’s right.
Wall’s the future of the Wizards. He’s positioned to become an NBA All-Star—a spot he proclaimed for himself at age ten. He’s always believed this was his destiny.
“I just wanted to prove people wrong,” he says. “I tuned everything out and went for it.”