- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ORLANDO, FLA. (AP) - Dwight Howard remembers the hype, drama and expectations surrounding his debut as the No. 1 overall pick. All eyes were on him. So was all the pressure.

Pretty much what John Wall feels now.

Wall begins a new era for the Washington Wizards on Thursday night, opening the regular season against Howard and the Orlando Magic in a matchup featuring past and present top picks and the opening of the NBA’s newest arena.

“It wasn’t easy,” Howard said of being the first pick in 2004. “You can try to do too much. Everybody’s going to want you to do this and do that. But you just have to learn how to play your role.”

The major difference between Howard and Wall _ other than their size and position, of course _ is that Wall had the benefit of a season at Kentucky while Howard came straight out of high school.

The rest couldn’t be more similar.

Wall comes to a team that has been the Southeast Division doormat the past couple seasons and faces a long road back to even be considered contenders. The Wizards have centered their marketing campaign around the rookie point guard and are relying on him _ much the same way the Magic did with Howard _ to lift the franchise back to prominence.

The anticipation is almost overwhelming.

“It’s exciting. I probably can’t sleep as much at night,” Wall said. “At the same time, I’ve just got to go out there and play, don’t try to do stuff that I’m not used to doing, do the best thing I can do to help myself do good and help my teammates. That’s the key thing.”

The Wizards haven’t exactly tempered expectations.

They drove Wall in an SUV-size limo to their arena for his introductory news conference in June, rolled out a red carpet surrounded by scores of fans, had massive banners constructed, played a video of the city’s sports stars welcoming him to the city and even the Mayor proclaimed it “John Wall Day.”

Wall’s teammates, however, don’t want him to feel like he has to burden all the responsible.

“I don’t want him to go out there and be frustrated if things start going wrong. I just want him to stay cool and be the player that he is,” Wizards forward Andray Blatche said.

The rookie also will have a sparkling stage for his debut.

Wall’s opener will be the first regular-season game at the Amway Center, the Magic’s dazzling new arena that is almost three times the square footage of their old. NBA Commissioner David Stern will be in attendance to commemorate the facility, there will be an abundance of festivities, a video presentation and a pregame speech by Howard.

As if that wasn’t enough, Wall and the Wizards will be facing a Magic team that was only stopped this preseason by a slippery court in Tampa that forced the cancellation of its final preseason game against Miami.

The Magic finished the preseason 7-0 and won by an average of almost 25 points per game. They’re the three-time defending division champions, two years removed from the NBA finals and still seething about being booted by Boston in the Eastern Conference finals in May.

Not exactly an ideal situation for Wall’s first act.

“It’ll be fun to see him, a different situation,” Wizards coach Flip Saunders said of Wall. “You always worry about him, you know, rookies like that being too hyped.

“There’s a lot of hype going into the game,” Saunders added. “It’ll be interesting to see how he responds.”

The new kid has been anything but coy.

Wall is a fast, furious point guard with great court awareness and awesome athleticism. All of 20 years old, Wall is mature beyond his years, a cool public speaker and already a team captain along with Kirk Hinrich.

If Wall has any jitters, he certainly hasn’t showed it.

In his final practice before the team left for Orlando, an inbound pass came to Wall, he took one bounce, launched above the rim, threw down a one-handed dunk and roared. At practice in Orlando on Wednesday, he was the picture of cool: dunking, driving, dishing. He enjoyed some laughs and walked to the team bus with a hop in his step.

The only possible distraction for Wall is the same one the Wizards have dealt with for some time.

Three-time All-Star point guard Gilbert Arenas, suspended 50 games last season for a felony gun conviction after bringing the weapon into the locker room, faked an injury in the preseason _ now he actually has a strained tendon in his right ankle that will sideline him at least two games _ and has been a constant topic in Washington.

Putting the attention back on Wall couldn’t come soon enough.

At least for the opener, Washington isn’t expecting an All-Star performance. After all, Howard had 12 points and 10 rebounds in a quiet rookie debut against Milwaukee, and now he’s the NBA’s twice reigning defensive player of the year.

The Wizards are just ready for Wall to take the first step, get out any jitters and move on to what they hope is a promising career.

“The best thing about John’s first opening game as a rookie,” Saunders said, “is that it only happens one time.”


AP Sports Writer Joseph White in Washington contributed to this report.

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