“This feels like home,” Wall says, having signed on for a fourth season with the Wizards in the preseason. He arrives early for practice and stays late. He’s getting out into the community and seems to enjoy meeting local kids.
At Simon Elementary School in Southeast DC one morning in September, Wall strolled into the gymnasium to raucous cheers from kids participating in the national BOKS (Build Our Kids’ Success) program, which promotes early-morning physical activity among school-age children. Wall could relate—as a student, he picked gym as his first-period class to energize himself.
Wall joined the kids on the school’s field for games, warmups, and other activities. Limited by his knee injury, he didn’t run around much. But he answered students’ questions, bending down to hear them. He smiled the entire time.
“He wants to do the right things,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld says. “And it’s genuine. He understands the responsibility.”
Perks come with his position, too, such as throwing out the first pitch for the Nationals. In 2010, DC mayor Adrian Fenty named June 25 John Wall Day. And last August, Wall participated in a campaign fundraiser for President Obama in New York. He joined basketball legends such as Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Patrick Ewing in a benefit shoot-around at Chelsea Piers.
Wall first spoke to Barack Obama as a freshman at Kentucky; he challenged the President to a game of HORSE. (Obama declined.) But while the President had welcomed Wall to Washington on TV, he had yet to attend a Wizards game. So when Wall saw Obama at the fundraiser, he made a request.
“I put a little pressure on him,” Wall says. “I said, ‘I want to see you at a couple games this year.’ He said he’s going to do that for me.”
Wall lives five blocks from the Verizon Center with his friend Ty Williams, whom he calls a brother. Their circle is small, growing to five when Wall’s other closest friends—Reggie Jackson, Baine Okafor, and E.J. Grissett—come up from North Carolina.
Wall’s condo is on one of the top floors of his building, giving him panoramic views of downtown DC from his living room. TVs are stacked and framed in a grid on one wall, as in an ESPN studio set, and a Red Bull vending machine is in the kitchen.
Wall rarely cooks, but his mother visits at least twice a month, preparing her son’s favorites: fried fish, shrimp, greens, spaghetti, and corn. On nights without leftovers, Wall’s friends eat out at one of their favorite haunts: Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Fogo de Chão, Hot N Juicy Crawfish, District ChopHouse & Brewery. He has talked a few owners into staying open late so he has a place to go after games.
At Wall’s condo, NBA TV is the preferred channel. If he’s not watching classic games, he’s studying Wizards game film for hours at a time. Or surfing his laptop for information about NBA greats. Or out watching DeMatha High School’s basketball team. He’s a basketball fanatic—something Ernie Grunfeld learned during a half-hour pre-draft interview in 2010.
“You could tell,” Grunfeld says. “Very few young players nowadays know the history of the game. The Oscar Robertsons and going way back into the ’60s and ’70s. He knows all those guys.”
Bowling is another favorite pastime. Wall is proud of what others describe as the oddest, ugliest overhand, bent-wrist roll you’ve ever seen. “Janky,” Williams calls it, but he acknowledges his friend’s 160 average.
Wall doesn’t have a girlfriend, and he’s been criticized by fans for excessive partying, jet-setting from New York to Atlanta to Miami to California. His Twitter page is littered with celebrity photos: Kevin Hart, Floyd Mayweather Jr., The Game, Wale, Ludacris. Parties and club dates fill his calendar, but mostly in the summer off-season.
“It’s harder for a young guy coming into a city like this,” Williams says. “You have to be focused and remember what your main goal is and why you are here. You can get sidetracked quick with the nightlife.”
Wall defends himself: “Listen, man, the summertime I’m going to enjoy myself. But at the same time, as long as I’m up every morning by 6:30 am and going to the gym by 7, it doesn’t bother me. Throughout the season if I was doing it, that would be a lot different.”
• • •
One obvious link connects Wall to the kid I watched years ago: his inconsistent shot.
He was a 41.6-percent shooter from the field during his first two seasons and just 23.6 percent from three-point range—far below where the team needs him to be. Last year, he made only three of 42 attempts from the arc.
If Wall doesn’t improve his shot this season, he may never convince fans he’s the right man to be the Wizards’ franchise player. “If he can’t make a jump shot, it’s time for him to go,” says Scot Singleton, a Wizards season-ticket holder.
Wall knows it. He worked with a new trainer, Rob McClanaghan, during the off-season to improve his shot. He spent weeks in California to develop consistent habits and exaggerate his follow-through. Last year, he often faded away, splaying his legs and pulling shots short.
As a young player, he moved anywhere he wanted on the court, but he can’t rely only on speed to carry him in the NBA.
“If I start making jump shots, it’s going to be tough to stop me,” Wall says.
Looking in on Wall eight years after I first observed him in Raleigh, I admire what he’s accomplished. He’s learning on the job and making his mark. I’m glad to have been wrong about him.
With the Wizards’ 0-12 start this season, the team has little respect in the NBA. Plenty of people doubt Wall can turn the team around.
He believes differently.
“I just want to see how the city is going to be when we start winning and make the playoffs,” Wall says. “It’s kind of amazing how the fans get. I want to see it.”
This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.