The smile is somewhat crooked, so at times, John Wall looks like he’s scowling. But the Wizards’ 20-year-old point guard, team captain and future of the franchise looks forward to the days when he can smile a little more, and he doesn’t think those days are as far away as fans might think.
“It was tough being 20 years old, coming in here for my first year and having a lot of older guys that have played three or four years and me trying to tell them what to do,” Wall said. “It’s kind of tough because I don’t want to come in here like I’m trying to put my foot down and think I’m better than everybody.”
But he is.
Fortunately, Wall seems to have the leadership skills to go along with his talent, and the Wizards will need both in order to make this franchise a championship contender. Wall credits his mother, Frances Pulley, for his natural leadership abilities.
“I think it came from my mom,” he said. “She worked three jobs and I had to be the man of the house. I had to learn how to speak up and take care of my sisters, so that really helped me out.”
Providing guidance and direction for sisters Cierra Wall and Tonya Pulley had to be a pretty good place to start, because John Wall is now doing the same for an NBA franchise. But Wall understands what’s expected of him; Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has already told him.
“I had the same conversation with John Wall that I did with Alex Ovechkin, which starts with, ‘There’s a reason that we were able to draft you. We’re really bad. But the good news is it’s by design, and you’re going to be one of our building blocks who we’ll be building around,’” Leonsis said.
The owner told his young point guard, “You’re going to have pain. And there’s going to be days when you’re miserable. And that pain needs to drive you because it will get better, because we’ll be bad again.”
But if anyone understands the importance of tearing down to rebuild bigger, better and stronger, it’s Leonsis - he used the same plan to remake the Capitals, who are now one of the NHL’s top teams and a Stanley Cup contender.
“Our mantra is picks and prospects,” Leonsis said. “When you get young players to start and they can become your core, you can create a culture and a style and an environment that they feel comfortable in and they grow up in. Then you can make trades to fill in some of the blanks.”
NBA analyst for ESPN Chris Broussard thinks Leonsis’ approach is right on the money.
“I think their plan to go young is a good one,” he said. “They’re not stuck in mediocre, they’re just bad. They have good young talent in John Wall. Nick Young has played well since [Gilbert] Arenas was traded. You hope JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche will develop. For a team that’s not in contention, they have a lot of [salary cap] money to spend.”
But Broussard believes the last thing the team needs to do is spend money on free agents just because it can.
“There’s nothing in this free-agent class I’m trying to spend money on,” Broussard said. “That would just take you from bad to mediocre, and then you have less flexibility. If I’m the Wizards, I stay young and save my money to go after someone in the 2012 free-agent class, like a Dwight Howard.
“What the Wizards need to do is to put their franchise in a good light and make this a place where free agents want to sign. If I’m them, I spend the next season trying to turn around perception.
“If Wall and the other young players can mature and develop, and become a team that looks like they are a player away, you can a attract high-quality free agents and make Washington a hot destination.”
Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld also believes Washington will be a very attractive place for free agents once a strong core of young players has been developed.
“Our blueprint, as Ted has laid out many times, is to build through the draft, develop our young players and continue to add pieces,” Grunfeld said. “We’ve come a long way since last year, when we were way over the luxury tax, and we’ve turned over the roster.
“We’ve positioned ourselves very well salary cap-wise, so at the right time, we’ll also play the free-agent game. I think players like Washington, D.C. We won’t have a problem finding the right player to come here.”
Wizards coach Flip Saunders has seen this team’s roster turn over many times since his arrival last season; he is ready to see the rebuild begin to move forward.
“I think if you look at where we are in the rebuilding process, we’re probably ahead of where we thought we’d be, as far as the amount of young players that we’re playing and how they’re developing,” Saunders said.
The recent spate of injuries has forced Saunders to give his rookies, particularly forward Trevor Booker and guard Jordan Crawford, significant playing time.
On several occasions, Saunders has put five rookies on the court at once for significant minutes and come away impressed with their competitiveness and refusal to be intimidated.
“We have to see how much [the young players] are improving with the time that they’re getting on the court,” Saunders said. “That’s how we’re going to evaluate them to make sure that we have the right pieces in place to rebuild around John Wall.”
Still, the losing takes its toll. The team is currently 17-51, the fourth-worst record in the NBA.
“You just have to keep your head up,” Wall said. “We’ve have shown that we can play with the good teams if we just play hard. The toughest thing is that we’re a young team, not too many veterans, so we have to compete every night. We’ve got to try and finish this season strong and prepare for the next one.”
And the next one, and the one after that. A proper rebuild will take more than a year or two. But as Leonsis has proven with the success of the Caps, if you build your foundation correctly, that success can last for years to come. The building blocks include approximately $30 million in cap room (after the 2011 season, when several big contracts fall off the books) and six first-round picks over the 2010 and 2011 drafts (four on the current roster and two for ‘11), including Wall.
“I’m proud of John Wall,” Leonsis said.
It’s a pretty good place to start.