Now the sea­soned vet­eran, Wall is on point in lead­ing Wizards

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY JORGE CASTILLO

JohnWall’s reign as undis­puted leader of the Washington Wizards com­menced in mid-Au­gust about 2,600 miles from the Dis­trict. Near his sum­mer home in Los An­ge­les, Wall or­ga­nized a three-day team mini­camp, seek­ing to en­cour­age ca­ma­raderie and welcome the team’s new­com­ers.

He in­vited team­mates to bring their fam­i­lies and en­joy the weather, but given the short off­sea­son and the grind of an NBA cam­paign, he wasn’t sure how many would show up; 11 of the 15 play­ers and sev­eral mem­bers of the player de­vel­op­ment staff at­tended.

David Ad­kins, the Wizards’ player de­vel­op­ment coach, shep­herded the group through drills at Loy­olaMary­mount Univer­sity. They lifted weights, com­pleted a beach work­out and played beach football. They ate meals to­gether, andWall in­vited the crew over to his house for din­ner the first night. A chef cooked.

“It was just an op­por­tu­nity to have fun, work out and get to know each other be­cause some of the new guys never met the old guys,” Wall said. “We just came to­gether as one.”

Just a few years ago, Wall wouldn’t have been com­fort­able ask­ing team­mates to fly to him from around the coun­try. He was shy then, a fran­chise tal­ent with­out the moxie to com­mand. But the gath­er­ing was an ex­am­ple of the 25-year-old Wall’s growth en­ter­ing his sixth sea­son as the Wizards’ fran­chise player.

“At what point is he a vet­eran?” Coach Randy Wittman asked.

Wall has played the part of sea­soned leader at prac­tices so far. He is more vo­cal, in­struct­ing team­mates and cor­rect­ing their mis­takes be­fore a coach can in­ter­vene. With­out Paul Pierce around, he has as­sumed the po­si­tion as res­i­dent trash-talker.

“I’m the guy talk­ing [ junk] to ev­ery­body,” Wall said.

Wall still com­mu­ni­cates with Pierce; the two were in con­tact just be­fore camp started. He learned from the fu­ture Hall of Famer dur­ing Pierce’s mem­o­rable sea­son in the Dis­trict: how to mo­ti­vate, how to ap­proach team­mates, how to push the

right but­tons. But the ap­pren­tice­ship is over.

“I know com­ing in this is my team,” Wall said. “When I got the con­tract I knew that, ‘All right, I’mthe fran­chise guy.’ Last year it was my team, but I still had Paul around, who was a great leader, to help me learn more things. Now I just walk in and feel like I’m that guy. I’m more con­fi­dent in the locker room say­ing stuff and speak­ing up. Do­ing the lit­tle things.”

For at least five min­utes dur­ing ev­ery day the Wizards prac­tice, Wall strad­dles a low block, his back to as­sis­tant coach Roy Rogers, and lis­tens to Rogers de­liver or­ders in his bari­tone as the coach’s 6-foot-9 physique ap­plies re­sis­tance. Rogers in­structs him to go right or left, to spin or go up and un­der.

Wall ex­e­cutes the se­quences at game speed but takes his time. He strives for pa­tience. Of­ten­times last sea­son, he ad­mit­ted, he rushed in the few in­stances he posted up a de­fender.

“I think be­fore, when I was get­ting it, I’d go so fast try­ing to body some­body,” he said.

The drill is stan­dard for Wizards big men. But Wall de­manded he be in­cluded. He wants to use his 6-4 frame to cap­i­tal­ize on de­fend­ers and on the space the Wizards’ re­vamped of­fense should pro­vide in the in­te­rior. He is still right hand dom­i­nant on the block, but his left is im­prov­ing, he said. So far, he has a few op­tions in his reper­toire— a spin move, an up-and-un­der and a lit­tle hook shot — though he wouldn’t di­vulge the en­tire se­lec­tion.

“I can’t tell them all,” Wall said. “But I got a cou­ple up the sleeve.”

He worked on post-ups and floaters dur­ing the sum­mer, and he plans to uti­lize them more of­ten this sea­son. He also wants to im­prove his shot se­lec­tion and turnover rate. To in­cen­tivize the cause, Wall will pay as­sis­tant coach Howard Eis­ley $100 for ev­ery game he com­mits more than two turnovers. Worst-case sce­nario, that’s a $8,200 loss.

“So that means take care of the ball,” Wall said.

It is all part of his ef­fort to ad­vance another rung in the NBA hi­er­ar­chy. The list of slights he can use as mo­ti­va­tion has dwin­dled — he was an all-star game starter last sea­son and is widely con­sid­ered one of the sport’s top point guards. But there are still mo­ti­va­tions, such as his 87 rat­ing in the NBA 2K16 video game, which is one point higher than last year and tied for fourth among point guards.

“My goal is to be num­ber one,” Wall said. “There’s a lot of great tal­ent in this league, so it’s great to move up. Each year I move up, that means I’ve im­proved. And now I want to move up even more. I don’t want to be sat­is­fied with where I’m at.

“I want to keep go­ing up, and if I keep get­ting bet­ter, that means I’m bring­ing my team up with me and we can keep im­prov­ing and we know what our ul­ti­mate goal is.

He wants to leap from all-star starter to all-NBA first-teamer, MVP can­di­date and league as­sist leader. Washington’s over­hauled of­fense — a mod­ern, fast-paced, read-and-re­act op­er­a­tion — should ben­e­fit Wall. It is the ideal of­fense for his skill set, which is pred­i­cated on speed, ath­leti­cism and pass­ing. The chal­leng­ing part is the rig­or­ous con­di­tion­ing it re­quires.

If he mas­ters the sys­tem and meets his in­di­vid­ual ob­jec­tives, Wall be­lieves the Wizards fi­nally will reach the 50-win mark, se­cure home-court ad­van­tage and bust through the sec­ond-round play­off bar­ri­cade. He is aware that most out­siders do not con­sider the Wizards le­git­i­mate con­tenders, that the fran­chise is bid­ing its time un­til it can make a run at Kevin Du­rant in free agency next sum­mer.

Wall doesn’t deny the ob­vi­ous. When the time comes, he will make his re­cruit­ing pitch to the Ok­la­homa City Thun­der su­per­star and Mon­trose Chris­tian prod­uct. He un­der­stands that adding one of the top five play­ers in the game would cat­a­pult Washington to an an­nual cham­pi­onship con­tender dur­ing the prime of his ca­reer.

But Wall be­lieves he is a su­per­star, too. And he is con­fi­dent that with him as the leader of the deep­est ros­ter as­sem­bled since he ar­rived baby-faced in the Dis­trict, he can guide the Wizards deeper into the spring than they have been in decades.

“We’re not try­ing to throw any­thing away,” he said. “I’m not try­ing to waste my sixth year on noth­ing. I’m try­ing to get to where I want to be. Ev­ery­body thinks we can’t win if we don’t have Kevin. Well, you can win be­cause you have John Wall.”

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