Driving with John Wall

Can the NBA's quickest point guard save its most stagnant franchise?

Originally Published: October 3, 2012
By Kevin Van Valkenburg | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Oct. 15 DC Issue. Subscribe today!

IT'S 5:48 P.M. on a lazy Tuesday in September, and I'm sitting next to John Wall, the 22-year-old saddled with the Herculean burden of salvaging pro basketball in Washington, D.C. He's behind the wheel of his ruby red Bentley GT, and Ace Hood's "Wanna Beez" is spilling out of the car's exquisite speakers. Rush hour traffic on 7th Street NW in Chinatown is moving at the speed of continental drift, which gives us ample time to delve into topics big and small. Wall can be stone-faced and serious around strangers, occasionally lapsing into sullen silences. He's worked hard in recent years to be more open, more trusting.

"I've always had kind of an edge, a chip on my shoulder," he says as we idle at a red light. It changes; we barely move. Outside the Verizon Center, home to the Shakespearean tragedy that is the Washington Wizards, cars bleat their horns and creep along at a petty pace, just as they will tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. The Transportation Planning Board and Census Bureau recently ranked DC as the worst commuter city in the country. Sure, getting a spending bill passed is still harder than navigating New York Avenue during rush hour -- but not by much.

I sense that the NBA's quickest end-to-end point guard would like to step on the gas and let the Bentley's engine purr if not for obstacles in every direction. The scenario strikes me as an apt metaphor for his first two seasons, trying to rescue the Wizards from a perpetual standstill.

Of course, when your commute is a grand total of four blocks, a traffic jam becomes less exasperating. That's how far Wall's apartment is from his office, but every day he drives his Bentley, an act that seems as logical to me as riding a Kentucky Derby winner from your front stoop to the corner store. I ask him if he's ever considered making the trip on foot, a walk that might take 10 minutes. He shakes his head, dismissing the notion as if I've just offered him a plate of broccoli. (Wall can't stand vegetables.) In a way, he's warmed to the chaos. This is home. At least for now.

"I really do love the city," Wall says. "People here are just waiting for basketball to explode again." The Wizards have certainly become an afterthought to Georgetown hoops and the resurgent Redskins and the October-bound Nationals. Not since Wes Unseld and the Bullets brought DC a title in 1978 and went to the Finals in '79 has Washington experienced sustained NBA success. Over the past three decades, the franchise has won two playoff series. The Wizards (Bullets was dropped in 1997 because of its negative connotations) have cycled through 15 coaches since '78 and countless failed draft picks, including 2001 overall No. 1 pick Kwame Brown, who played a bit part in Michael Jordan's head-scratching third act. Then, six months before Wall was taken No. 1 overall in 2010, the Verizon Center was home to one of the most embarrassing incidents in NBA history, when Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton brought handguns into the locker room over a reported gambling debt.

[+] EnlargeJohn Wall
J. Dennis/Einstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWall was one of three players to average 16 points and eight assists last season.

But whether or not Wall truly has the game to lift this collapsed franchise is a hotly debated topic. And it will continue to be one until Wall returns from a left knee injury discovered days before training camp. When he was drafted, critics wondered aloud if he could blow by NBA guards like he did during his one season at Kentucky. Their skepticism has grown as his tempo-pushing, freewheeling transition game has gotten stuck somewhere between second and third gear. "I'm not sure Wall is or has ever been a player to build around," says an Eastern Conference scout. "He is an important piece, but his ceiling depends on his work ethic, developing the three and being a better on-ball defender." He has shown flashes of greatness, becoming the sixth-fastest player in history to record 2,000 points and 1,000 assists, in just 124 games. But he has also shown signs of vulnerability: Wall led the league in turnovers last season (255) and was the NBA's worst three-point shooter (3-of-42).

Numbers, however, only begin to explain his psychological struggles. Wall sensed that former coach Flip Saunders had so little faith in his jumper that Wall felt paralyzed when a shot opened up off a basic pick-and-roll. "I never really had to use my jumper before," he says. "I was so much better and faster than everyone, it didn't matter." Uncertainty kept him from playing on instinct, and even worse, he subconsciously made on-court decisions because of locker room politics. "At Kentucky, my teammates pretty much accepted me getting all the pub," Wall says. "In the NBA, I didn't want to step on toes."

Still, the Wizards drafted him to be the leader they lacked, and no matter how unfair, Wall continues to receive most of the pub for a pitiful 43-105 record since he arrived. "I knew he'd struggle with being on a bad team," says Kentucky coach John Calipari, who keeps in regular contact with Wall. "Every NBA team exposed his weaknesses, because they knew if they stopped him, they stopped their team."

Wall is hopeful that the recent roster explosion will alleviate the triple-teams and that the official hiring of interim coach Randy Wittman will create a locker room with more chemistry. Long gone are Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee and their highlight reel of bonehead plays, replaced by solid veterans Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza. Washington also grabbed Florida shooting guard Bradley Beal with the No. 3 pick in the 2012 draft, banking on his range to complement Wall's ability to draw and dish.

Before the injury, though, Wall's focus had been on his own shots, and he would take advantage of living four blocks from the Verizon Center. Some nights, after hours of drinking Red Bull and playing Madden or Call of Duty, he would conclude that his body wasn't interested in sleep. So around 3 a.m., Wall would drive his Bentley two minutes, seeking the familiar, solitary rhythms of a ball bouncing in an empty arena. "If you've got anything going on in your life, it helps work all those problems out," he says.

As we continue to fight traffic, Wall concedes that he might ride his bike to work one game this season, just to see how the trip feels unencumbered. But he's not quite ready. For now, Wall prefers the comfort of his Bentley to navigate the imperfect DC streets as he inches toward an arena full of expectations.

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Kevin Van Valkenburg | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine