ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — What’s the most surprising thing about John Wall? Is it his superhuman speed? Is it how he returned from injury last season to post the best numbers of his career, averaging 18.5 ppg to go with 7.6 assists per? Or maybe it’s that even though he’s entering his fourth NBA season, he’s still just 22 years old?
It may be the last point that is most relevant, because as Wall is quick to point out, he’s a player still in development. And this season he’s looking to build off his superb second half and get the Wizards to the postseason.
Last week just before the Draft, I caught up Wall in Los Angeles at an adidas event.
ME: So how are you feeling?
WALL: I’m feeling good. Just making sure I’m staying healthy this summer, that’s my main thing. Getting the right treatment, taking care of my body, and making sure I’m getting stronger in the right places. That’s the main thing for me, just trying to have a full, healthy, 82-game season.
ME: What do you mean, getting stronger in the “right places?”
WALL: Just getting stronger around my thighs and leg area, my knees. Having tendonitis and playing so many minutes, that’s a lot of wear and tear, especially at a young age. So I just want to make sure my quads are strong, my hamstrings are strong, and all the joints and ligaments around my knee are fully healthy. I’ve had check-ups and they’re doing great.
ME: And you have to be 100 percent because you kind of only have one speed. I remember I saw you play pick-up ball in Vegas during the lockout and you were the only guy who went full-speed in every game. You were taking some hits, getting up and down the floor.
WALL: That’s all I know how to do, is go 110-percent when I play. Even when I play pick-up, I play against guys who are serious about it. This is a game I love, this is what I love to do, I don’t just do it for fun. So I feel like when I’m out there playing. Even if it’s just against a little kid, I end up playing harder than I’m supposed to. That’s a bad thing, but it’s just my competitive edge that I had growing up.
ME: No, that’s good! That’s what you need! You should always try to dominate, right?
WALL: Yeah, I dominate when I play my nephew. He’s like 11th grade, and I dominate him. I feel like whenever I’m between those lines, I have to be competitive. I can’t take it for fun. Like, I went to a camp in Kentucky and was playing knockout against some little kid, and the little kid almost beat me, and so I just got serious at the end. I started playing serious. I was like, “I can’t miss any shots!” (laughs)
ME: What was it like last season for you, dealing with the injury?
WALL: It was the longest I’ve ever been out. I think it made me mentally stronger. And I think it made me a better leader. I already loved and respected the game, but I think now I respect it to another level. Especially being there with my teammates on every road trip, knowing I can’t play. Being there early to work out and make sure I’m getting treatment. I could have stayed back in D.C. while my team was traveling, but I wanted to be a leader, be the guy just sitting right beside the coaches and help guys learn, help guys out. That was my main focus. When I came back and played, they all knew what I was capable of and they accepted me for who I was.
ME: Was having to sit and watch frustrating for you?
WALL: It was really frustrating. But my teammates and my coaches did a great job of just making sure I stayed level-headed. And I think that made me stronger, mentally. Because I fought through a lot. Going into the last part of the season and getting tested, it was like, “If this doesn’t go good, you’re done for the season.” So I was nervous. I was kind of excited, and then kind of not excited. I just went out there and tried to some jumping and cutting and nothing happened. I went out there for three or four days straight and nothing happened, so I was able to come back and play last season.
ME: Damian Lillard told me when he broke his foot in college, it took him three or four months even after he came back to feel like he could fully trust that he was healed.
WALL: I felt exactly how he felt. When I first came back, I played pretty good against Atlanta but I just didn’t have the legs to shoot. I got fatigued — I ran down the court like two times and I was already tired. It was different from practice. So it took me a while to get into a rhythm, where I knew I could play and get back And then you also have to think, you’re playing twenty minutes (per game). You can’t really get into a rhythm when you’re playing twenty minutes, because you’re playing five minutes a quarter. Sometimes I’d play one minute in the third quarter, because my coach wanted me to finish the game in the fourth quarter. So I was really just trying to help my team out as much as I could by being out there.
ME: How do you feel about the way the team played the second half of the season, once you were back and healthy?
WALL: I feel like my team played well without me there, it was just they lost a lot of close games. I don’t think we had the closer we needed to close games out down the stretch, but we did a good job of playing hard and playing for our team. We had a great second half of the season. I feel like we don’t want to keep hearing about a playoff push, but I feel like if we were healthy, we were definitely a playoff team last year.
ME: Do you think you will be this season?
WALL: Yeah, that’s my goal. I’m not even trying to make predictions, but I have to get to the playoffs. This is my fourth year, and the point of being a franchise player or a leader, as a point guard, is you have to be known as a winner. I don’t want to be someone who didn’t get their team to the playoffs. So, that’s one of my goals.
ME: I keep hearing you talk about being a leader. Leadership is interesting because it’s not really something you can work on in the weight room or on the practice court by yourself.
WALL: See, how I grew up is lead by example. Lead by example is great, but sometimes you have to speak up. And you just have to learn which ways you can talk to certain players. That’s something I was capable of doing when I was at the University of Kentucky, and it’s what I’m doing with the Wizards. I’m learning ways to talk to certain players and certain teammates, and be able to take criticism when they something to me.
ME: So you’re learning which buttons to push with each guy?
WALL: Some people you have to bite your tongue. Some people you can yell at. Some people you just have to talk to on the side. And then you can’t control how some people take it. Especially when you need a person on his game, you don’t want to mess up their rhythm. So you have to know how to talk to them.
ME: And you have to do all that in the middle of an NBA game when everything is sort of frenzied and out of control.
WALL: That’s why point guard is not an easy job. I see why head coaches need their point guards, because you’re basically a second head coach on the court. Your coaches have to be able to trust you, just like your teammates have to be able to trust you to call the right plays and do the right things.
ME: Where do you think the Wizards can improve next season?
WALL: Well, I feel like if we bring the same team back, and then if we bring in a couple of veterans or whatever we do with the Draft pick, I feel like we can be a great team. We do a good job on the defensive end, we just have to know how to do it for 48 minutes. We can do a better job of winning games on the road. We did a good job of protecting our home court, we just have to learn how to win more games on the road.
ME: It feels like that’s something that comes with experience.
WALL: Yeah, it comes with experience, and it comes with just being healthy, trusting each other on the road. And knowing you’re not going to have your fan base behind you, you’ve got the other crowd behind you.
ME: And then what about yourself? What part of your game are you working on this summer?
WALL: I’m working on jump shots. I think my midrange got a lot better when I got confidence. I’m knocking down threes off the dribble, catch-and-shoot. And especially my floater. Just trying to keep improving everything.
ME: It’s funny how everybody has a floater now, right?
WALL: That’s a key part. You can take hits when you drive but you won’t last long in this league. I think the best floater shooter to me is Tony Parker. He just makes it look so easy.
ME: I just don’t remember the floater being such a prevalent part of the game six, seven years ago.
WALL: I think he kind of invented it. You’ve got to add stuff to your game every day, and he’s one of the best at doing that.
ME: What’s next for you? You’re leaving for China on this adidas tour, right?
WALL: Yeah, I’m excited to go over there. I’ve never been, so I’m excited to go. It’ll be great to have this Quick vs. Fast tour.
ME: Which team do you belong on?
WALL: I’m a Quick.
ME: Not fast?
WALL: No, I like to be quick, because quick ain’t fair.
ME: Well, I think you should be on the fast team. I’ve seen the video of you going coast to coast in, what was it, under four seconds?
WALL: (laughs) Maybe so, I don’t know.
ME: You know. I saw it! This happened!
WALL: (laughs) I think it was the Cleveland game I did that?
WALL: OK. But yeah, I’m on the quick side.