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Wizards: A franchise in John Wall’s hands

‘Put all the pressure on me,’ the second-year pro says

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2011

For John Wall, the Monday before Christmas was especially busy. After an early practice with the team, he got on a bus with Wizards teammates Shelvin Mack, Hamady Ndiaye and Jordan Crawford, along with a few Capitals players and team executives, and delivered gifts to three local families. Then it was off to the airport for a flight to Philadelphia for the final preseason game the following night.

"I like doing stuff like this," said Wall, clad in a navy sweatsuit with white stripes and a Santa hat with the Wizards' logo.

"It's just like when I was playing in all those charity games this summer. A lot of people don't get to see NBA players for a $5 or a $25 ticket. It's an honor to me and a lot of NBA guys that I hang out with to give back to the community. That means a lot to me."

In a lot of ways, Wall is very much like a typical 21-year-old, one who enjoys spending time with his family in North Carolina, and beating his friends at video games. But Wall knows that for him, life's not quite that simple.

"There's a lot more pressure on me now," Wall said.

Since he was selected by Washington with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft, no one had to tell Wall that rebuilding this franchise starts with him.

"Yeah, it's my responsibility," Wall said. "Even though I'm a young guy, if I want to be a leader and the franchise guy on this team, I've got to put all the pressure on me.

"When we lose games, no matter if it was me making the last shot or missing the last shot, I've got to put the pressure on me. I've got to be the best. I've got to be the one that takes on all the losses and all the individual stuff that's going on. You've got to really be mentally strong to deal with it, so yeah, I'm ready for it."

The Wizards finished last season 23-59, and it was obvious that the losing wore on Wall. There were times when he let his guard down and let his frustrations show, even calling out his teammates on more than one occasion.

But what a difference a year makes. Wall grew half an inch and now stands 6-foot-4 1/2. He's gotten stronger, and added muscle. He spent the offseason studying film of the elite point guards in the league, along with his busy summer-league game schedule. But most of all, Wall says, he's learned a few things about what it takes to win.

"I'm totally a better player, just by one year of experience," Wall said. "Last year, I was playing games and just trying to pick things up on the fly. Even though the lockout was tough, that gave me a lot of time to watch film, study myself, study other guys who I'm playing against and see what I can learn to add to my game."

Wall says he's been told his game most resembles that of Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose. It's a lot to live up to. Rose, the No. 1 overall pick in 2008, was Rookie of the Year in 2009. He's also a two-time All-Star and the reigning MVP.

Wall's teammate Mack thinks it's a fitting comparison.

"He's ready," Mack said. "I think you can start talking about John in the same breath with Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Deron Williams this year.

"He's a competitor, on and off the court.

"Whether it's basketball or video games, that's what makes him special. He's also one of the fastest guards in the league. I learned a lot trying to guard him in training camp.".

Backcourt mate Jordan Crawford said Wall is "something special."

"He's taught me some things, I've taught him some things," Crawford said. "He gets all that spotlight, but he's just a regular dude in the locker room. Sometimes, he kind of shies away from all that attention so he can feel regular just like everybody else."

Wall often says he's interested only in team goals. He acknowledges he does have personal goals but prefers not to focus on them. To him, becoming an elite point guard, like Rose, Paul and Williams, is about winning.

"It doesn't matter how many points you average, you have to win in this league," Wall said. "Those guys that are on the top, the top point guards, they all made the playoffs. They're all competing for a championship. That's what the NBA is about, making the playoffs and competing for a championship.

"I'm not saying we can compete right now, but we need to focus on making the playoffs and making a run and giving people a scare. Everybody's writing us off right now, and maybe that's the right way to do it because we haven't proven anything. That should put a chip on all of our shoulders to prove everybody wrong."

That chip is something Wall says he's always had. It's that attitude that Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld values most in Wall.

"The thing I love about John is really his competitive spirit," Grunfeld said. "He's very competitive. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, and he wants to win. That's important to him. He brings a lot of leadership. For a young player, he's a natural leader.

"He was right up there with just about all the good point guards of the past, but the thing about John is he's a team-first guy. He wants to win, and he makes people around him better."

Wall says he's aware of the changes he needs to make this season. He realized that sometimes he moved a little too fast for some of his teammates last year, and plans to work on that. He also says he's learned how to improve his decision-making and his play-calling abilities. And, he vows to cut down on turnovers.

"In the NBA, you've got one split-second to make that pass," Wall said. "It's like if you have an open shot, you have to take it. I have to make my decisions quicker."

Wall and his teammates have been vocal all through training camp about making the playoffs, but Wall knows that realistically, this team could be looking at a lot of losses. Part of his job, he says, is to help the Wizards stay focused through the ups and downs this lockout-shortened 66-game season inevitably will bring.

"Basically, as a leader, and being a point guard, I just have to keep my head up," Wall said. "If I show the team that I'm really frustrated by losing a couple of games, it can start wearing off on everybody else, and then a small losing streak can turn into a big losing streak.

"I know its a learning process for me and a learning process for us. Hopefully from last year, we really understand now what it takes to win."

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