Monday, September 27, 2010

His Rookie Season Approaching, #1 Overall Pick John Wall Talks Shoes and Hoops

On June 24, 2010, the Washington Wizards, fresh off a turbulent (to say the least) 26-56 season, used the first overall pick in the NBA Draft on Kentucky point guard John Wall, a First Team All-American, SEC Player of the Year, and winner of every meaningful freshman honor.

In the storied history of Kentucky basketball, no freshman has ever scored more points in a season (616) and no player, freshman or otherwise, has ever had more assists in a season (241) or in a single game (16). Also, shockingly, prior to Wall, no player from the University of Kentucky had ever been picked first overall in the NBA Draft.

The day before the draft, it was announced that Wall had inked a deal to become the face of Reebok basketball, and the first player to wear the company’s latest basketball shoe, the ZigTech Slash, which is scheduled for release on October 15.

The day after he was drafted—June 25, 2010—was declared John Wall Day by the Mayor of Washington D.C.

It was a solid 72-hours for Wall and his family.

A couple of weeks later, Wall took his talents to Vegas for the 2010 NBA Summer League. Wall played in four of the Wizards’ five games from July 9-18, all of them wins, and led all summer league players with 23.5 ppg and 7.8 apg. As a result, he took home the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

It’s worth noting that Wall’s performance was hardly flawless—he must become a more efficient scorer (38 percent FG), his jump shot needs work, and he was turnover prone, with 21 in four games. However, it’s also worth noting that after committing 16 turnovers in his first two games, Wall settled in as the week wore on, committing just five in his final two games.

Whatever’s missing from John Wall’s game can be added through a combination of experience and time in the gym.

What’s already present in his game—amazing speed and quickness—along with an innate ability to find the open man and instinctively deliver the ball in the right spot (after just four games in Vegas, JaVale McGee will back me up on this) cannot be taught and are the foundation of stardom at the “1.”

Throw in an ability and willingness to take over offensively without forcing the action, and Wall is a smart bet to become a special NBA player. He showed flashes over the summer when, despite the inconsistent shooting and turnovers, Wall was often the best player on the floor.

To see this on full display, however, we must go back to December 9, 2009, and Kentucky’s game at Madison Square Garden against No. 12 UConn. Holding a 49-47 lead with 7:30 remaining, Wall proceeded to rip off 12 of Kentucky's last 15 points (he ended the game with 25 and six steals) to lock up a 64–61 win. For all the talent on the court that night, there was no denying that Wall was playing a different game. I was in attendance that night, and went home convinced that Wall was the real deal.

With hard work, innately gifted players are able to improve their efficiency and shooting range (think of the growth in Kobe Bryant’s game through the years). Conversely, an underskilled player with a tireless work ethic who’s clawed his way to stardom will never do certain things that John Wall does with little effort.

So last week, when presented with the opportunity to travel to Boston to sit down with John Wall at his hotel, I was both extremely excited and a bit skeptical. As my train pulled out of New York’s Penn Station and headed north, I wondered what was in store.

Given the culture that surrounds today’s basketball prodigies, I was prepared for any number of scenarios. Toss in Wall’s hellish schedule that day (three-hour practice at 9:00 am, travel delays that pushed his arrival in Boston to 8:30 pm from about 5:00), and the fact that he celebrated his 20th birthday just three weeks ago...

I just remember being an absolute peach at 20, and I didn’t really have anything going on. So, I was understandably skeptical.

It was little bit after 9:00 p.m. when I sat down with Wall, and for all of the reasons outlined above, my expectations were not sky high. Over the 20 minutes that I spent with him, I was blown away by how gracious and polite Wall is—even while obviously exhausted—and what a seemingly good group of people he’s surrounded himself with. Also striking is just how humble he is when discussing the NBA journey on which he’s about to embark:

EA: As the top pick in the draft, you had your pick of shoe companies and chose to sign with Reebok. I‘ve heard your back story and understand you are very loyal to Reebok. I’d love to hear you tell the story of why that is.

JW: I wasn’t really known nationally until I played at the Reebok Breakout Camp in 2007. Then I got to play against guys like Brandon Jennings during Reebok U All-American Camp (a summer camp for top HS athletes) and then at the Reebok Summer Championships in Las Vegas. To this day, I credit Reebok with giving me the opportunity to showcase my skills on national stage. They believed in me when others didn’t.

Also, when it came time for me to decide what shoe I was going to wear in the NBA, Reebok’s package went beyond money. They had a great plan outlined for me, they really showed me how they are planning to work with me to build my brand and let me be the face of my own shoe.

But the connection with Reebok began back when they gave me my first shot at national recognition.

EA: Let’s talk a bit about your shoe, the ZigTech Slash. ZigTech technology existed before you signed with Reebok, but in terms of feel and support, what is it that you like about your shoe and how do feel it helps your game?

JW: It’s really a great shoe. In the past, ZigTech models have generally been used as training shoes, but now Reebok’s made this model, the first ZigTech basketball shoe, for me. It’s lightweight and very comfortable, which is helps me when I need to make a really quick cut. It’s also important in helping me save energy and save my legs late in games. Thanks to that, I know that I’ll have the burst I need to get by somebody late in games.

EA: You mention that before you came aboard, Reebok’s ZigTech line was used exclusively as a training shoe. You’re going to be the first athlete to wear ZigTech shoes in competition. What does that mean to you?

JW: That means a lot to me. Reebok gave me my first opportunity to get to where I am today, and to select me to be the first basketball player to wear the shoe really means a lot. I think the shoes looks great and ever since I’ve been wearing them, in practices and in summer league, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on how they look and how they play.

EA: Shifting gears a little bit, you came out of high school as a fifth-year senior. As a result, you would have been eligible to jump straight to the NBA. Instead, you chose to go to Kentucky for a year. What were the biggest benefits of spending that year in college?

JW: First off it was my dad. I had talked to him about the idea of not going to college, and he really wanted me to be the first one in my family to go to college, and I promised him that I’d do that.

Also, even though it was always my goal to play in the NBA, I felt like wasn’t mature and mentally prepared to be in that situation right out of high school.

On the court, I wanted to get better as a player and to prove to people and to myself that I could do well at the college level before going to the NBA. I really got a lot of help and support from Coach Cal [John Calipari], coach [Rod] Strickland and the whole coaching staff really helped me grow and mature.

EA: As an NBA nerd, I watched all of your summer league games. I was really struck by your connection with JaVale McGee. I got a little bit of a Chris Paul/Tyson Chandler vibe, from when they were together in New Orleans. What was it about his game that clicked so well with yours?

JW: Well, I’m a pass-first point guard and he [JaVale McGee] is a really athletic big. People don’t really know how athletic he is. I told him every I came off a pick and roll they were going to go under and help [on to Wall], and he’s so athletic all you’ve got to do is basically throw it up near the rim and he’ll go and get it. And that’s basically what I was doing with him.

EA: Based on watching you in summer league, it’s clear that you have “NBA elite” speed and quickness that will set you apart right away. In what areas do you think your game has the most room for improvement?

JW: Everything. I want to work on everything. Even though I have speed and quickness, the key thing is going to be making jump shots so defenders have to respect my shot and aren’t able to just go under screens. That’s been a big focus all summer. We’ve got a great coaching staff and they’ve been working with me. I spent some time with Coach [Flip] Saunders—I went to Minnesota for a week and a half and worked with him every day.

It’s that, and also my defense. I think I play good on-the-ball defense but I’ve been working hard to improve my help-side defense.

Really, I’ve been working on every aspect of my game, but it’s mainly been my jump shot.

EA: As the No. 1 overall pick, obviously all NBA fans now know who John Wall is, but for those who didn’t see a lot of you at Kentucky, how would you describe your game and your attitude on the court?

JW: I have a killer instinct. I have no friends on the basketball court. I can be friends with you or anyone in my group right now, but when we get on the basketball court, there’s no friends, I just want to win. We can be friends again after the game’s over. On the court it’s all about business. I’m the type of point guard that has the will to win. I want the ball in crunch time situations, and want to get my teammates involved and do whatever it takes to get the win.

EA: Other than yourself, which rookie do you see think will have the greatest impact in the NBA this year?

JW: I’d have to say DeMarcus Cousins, my teammate from Kentucky. He’s a skilled big man that proved a lot of people wrong in college by showing that he has great low post skills and he has ball skills. He’s going to be a big man that can play with his back to the basket, but can also step out and shoot the ball.

EA: Looking ahead to the Wizards’ season, you and Gilbert Arenas are clearly the starting backcourt. Coach Saunders has said that both of you will be playing off the ball at times this year. How do you feel about that and how do approach playing off the ball when that’s typically not the type of game you’re asked to play?

JW: The key thing is, when we’ve talked about it, is me being the point guard. I want to do what it takes to be the point guard, lead this team as best I can and set people up in situations where they can be successful and we can win many games as possible.

As the point guard I think I’m going to have the ball in my hands a lot of the time, but there will definitely be times when Gilbert is going well and taking over a game when the ball is definitely going to go through him.

EA: Whether in college, AAU, or offseason pickup games, which current NBA players have you already had a chance to play against? Whose game has most impressed you?

JW: I’ve played against guys like Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings. Haven’t played against Derrick Rose, but I have watched his game a lot. They’re all really talented players and like me, every year those guys trying to get better. I’m coming in as a rookie and I’m trying to prove myself.

EA: Which opposing player(s) are you most looking forward to squaring off against as an NBA player?

JW: All the point guards. It’s really going to be great, because every night you’re playing against a really talented point guard. The most important thing for me to do is to come out every night and make sure that I’m prepared.

It’s going to be a big adjustment playing an 82-game regular season, and playing against NBA competition every night, because you don’t get any nights off. In college you may play a really good team one night and then you’re next game will be against D-II school. In that spot, the point guard is still a good player, but he’s not as strong or as quick, you know?

In the NBA there’s none of that. There are no nights off.

EA: Finally, in the opinion of John Wall, what should fans be expecting from the 2010-11 Washington Wizards?

JW: A turnaround. We’re going to try and change and improve the situation as best we can. We can’t make any promises, other than we’re going to work and play as hard as we can. As with any team in the NBA, we’re going to have our ups and downs, but the most important thing for is going to be to take my time, make sure I learn the NBA game right, and hopefully we turn the organization around very soon and make a playoff run.

EA: Thanks so much for your time, John. Best of luck in not only your upcoming rookie season, but what is hopefully a long and successful career.

JW: Thanks very much.

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