Promenading about the Verizon Center practice floor on Monday during Wizards Media Day — the third of my unpaid, passion-driven blogging career – there was a palpable distinction in ambiance and vibe from past years events. While players laughed and joked among themselves and with the media, there was also strong, unprecedented perception of confidence and even a bit of superiority. Surely, the presence of newly acquired veterans as canny as Paul Pierce and DeJuan Blair helped instill some of that energy, and it was very hard not to sense it.
After achieving, and for some perhaps even surpassing some of the goals this Wizards team set for themselves last season, the approach in building off of that success is something all the players are emphasizing. Drew Gooden went all Ned Stark on us at Media Day, describing the Wizards’ mission for this year as “having a target on our backs” knowing that other NBA teams, namely the ones in the Eastern Conference, are “coming for our heads”. (You know I’m fully engaged in balls-out blogging mode when the Game of Thrones references start kicking in).
For John Wall, though, accomplishing his mission begins with a deep, personal challenge; a challenge that, if indeed accomplished, works out for the greater good of everyone who plays with him. A challenge that keeps him on edge at every single moment he’s on the hardwood. For many, his verbal feud with Dion Waiters was mere entertainment, a nice chuckle, or a measure to reignite a rivalry with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s all cool and more or less true, but what is most overlooked amid all of it was the seriousness in John’s retort. After all, we’ve know John to be a guy who doesn’t take criticism lightly from anyone. Not from the press, not from a Jeffrey Tambor-looking egghead like David Falk, and certainly not from a backup 2 guard on a rival team like Dion Waiters.
By the way, here’s a visual for all of you who didn’t get my Jeffrey Tambor joke.
“Oh! That guy! He’s in everything!”
Many have credited John’s “new found” feistiness to the presence of Paul Pierce, as if it never existed in years prior. What they sometimes fail to take in account is where John came from, how he embarked on his path to stardom as a wiry fatherless kid from North Carolina who stumbled into becoming a top recruit for Kentucky’s John Calipari after an unexpected takeover of a Reebok basketball tournament. Or the constant hounding he endured from fans and media for not performing a miracle by single-handedly turning around a dismal Wizards franchise. The pre-2014 All-Star snubs. The Team USA snub. The chip on his shoulder had eventually grown into a boulder, creating an edginess in John that has existed for a good while now, and continues to do so.
Just watch this video in which I thoughtfully used the instrumental of Eminem’s “Soldier”.
Paul Pierce, by all means, is a goldmine for a team already led by a guy like John Wall. He’s the glass shield to an iPhone 6 plus (Space Gray 128GB). He’s the luxurious car garage with stainless steel counters, housing a Bentley SUV (yes, they exist now) under bright halogen lamps. The leadership combo of Wall and Pierce could render something very special for these Wizards and if they drive this team like we expect them to, that 49-win projection made by the oddmakers in Vegas may be more achievable than we imagine now.
When I asked Wall about this “new approach” that the team had taken in how they prepare for practice, he responded by explaining the intensity and competitiveness of all the players. But what he keyed in on was the impression he got from the camp invitees, the guys giving it their all due to their non-guaranteed status on the roster.
“The main thing is these guys going out there and competing, even the guys that don’t have a spot and just got invited to training camp competing, that makes you want to step up your level up even more even though you have a contract.”
As for that personal challenge I was talking about earlier, the inference of that is John’s self-awareness when acknowledging his struggles, and the self-provocation to make the necessary adjustments. Like his turnovers, for example:
“That’s the biggest key. The more you don’t turn the ball over, the more possessions you have for your team .. we know aggressive I play, it’s just about the careless ones down the stretch .. I think most of my turnovers be trying to get into the middle and they just hit the ball from behind or jumping in the air with certain passes. Those are simple things that I can fix. Just watching film and studying plays, I can keep my dribble alive.”
The confidence Wall has in himself and his teammates is unmatched. The comradarie that exists within this Wizards locker room is squarely driven from him and it’s transparent when he talks. Wall was asked about how the team can make up for the absence of Trevor Ariza’s one-on-one defending and who can step up as the guy to fill that role.
“Me. Me or Glen Rice. Glen Rice does a good job of guarding the ball and being competitive.”
That question led to the next one, which pertained to Otto Porter’s development. Wall spoke highly of Otto and praised he and Rice’s breakout performances in the Summer League. Wall mentioned that he sent both youngins a “long message” before they took off for Vegas, explaining that this was a great opportunity to build on their confidence. If that doesn’t warm your precious hearts, your name is probably Colin Cowherd.
John Wall leaves us very little doubt in his stature as a top-class athlete and distinguished leader. It has little to do with stats and accolades. It’s about the ability and prowess of a player who’s steadfast and devoted to the betterment of himself and the guys he runs with. Those traits ooze out of him when he talks and speak for themselves when he plays, making him one of the most indispensable assets in this league.