John Wall has come a long way from his teenage years in Raleigh, when he wore his hair in dreadlocks like his idol Allen Iverson, when he was cut from Broughton High’s varsity team as a sophomore, when he showed as much attitude as talent on the basketball court.
The dreadlocks disappeared years ago, just before he began to emerge as a highly sought recruit by college coaches, and Wall’s attitude has matured into a confidence on the court and away from it.
In other words, John Wall is growing up, and he’s thinking about his place in the game.
“I look back on those days and I use it as motivation,” Wall, 23, said Tuesday before his Washington Wizards played the Charlotte Bobcats.
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“I’m happy with where I am. I’ve matured from a kid into a grown man, and now I’m playing at the highest level – the NBA. I’m reaching my dreams.”
Wall is reaping the rewards, too. A former No. 1 pick now in his fourth season, he is producing at a level that likely will result in his first NBA All-Star selection next month in New Orleans.
He is posting career-best numbers at 19.7 points, 8.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game. He’s third in the NBA in assists, just behind the L.A. Clippers’ Chris Paul and Golden State’s Stephen Curry, fourth in steals, and his scoring average is fourth among point guards, behind Curry, Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and Portland’s Damian Lillard.
Wall, 6-foot-4, also has Washington squarely in the playoff hunt, a notable accomplishment considering the Wizards have made the playoffs just five times in his life and not since 2007-08. The Wizards are fifth in the Eastern Conference.
It’s proof that Wall – who signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension – is becoming one of the NBA’s elite point guards, according to Washington coach Randy Wittman.
“He’s grown up a lot,” Wittman said. “He’s turned into someone who understands what a point guard has to be in this league – knowing where you have to be aggressive, where you have to get other players involved in the game, situations on the floor where calls have to be made. In those kind of things, he's really grown.
“It’s a process. When you come into this league, it's not like playing point guard in AAU ball or college. It's a process of being an extension of me out on the floor, and I think he's really grown into that.”
The one thing that could derail the Wizards’ plans would be injuries. Foot and knee problems cost Wall playing time in two of the past three seasons. He is second among point guards at 37.1 minutes per game, but Wittman said he wants that number closer to 30.
“It helps keep you fresh going down the stretch,” he said.
Wall is also listening to the coaches and trainers about taking care of himself after practice and games – advice a teenaged John Wall might not have heeded.
“It’s all part of maturing,” Wall said. “I'm learning the NBA game, and I'm finally healthy so I can play and learn to be consistent. I'm feeling pretty good right now. That's why I'm listening to the trainers, so I can keep myself as healthy as possible.”
Wall is not standing pat with his game. Building a more accurate 3-point shot has been a priority, and he’s now at a career-best 30.3 percent.
“I've never really had the confidence to shoot them, but I never had to,” Wall said. “But it was hurting my teammates and it was hurting me, trying to force the issue in getting to the rim and making too many turnovers.
“Now, I feel like I'm not down on doing that. It's opening up the court for me to get into the paint and get myself a shot, or get my teammates an open shot. When I'm at my best is when I'm getting into the paint and creating open shots for everybody.”
His improvement on defense? It goes back to Wall's maturation, and thinking about his place in the game once his career is over.
“It's a matter of commitment,” Wall said. “I want to be a player that's always remembered in this league – a legendary, Hall of Fame player. The only way you can be that is being able to play on both sides of the ball, learn how to win and be a leader.”