BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – The NBA’s draft lottery had been reduced to three teams – the New Jersey Nets, Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers – and John Wall, a bundle of emotions for the previous half-hour, suddenly became quiet. He was watching his future unfold on a TV at the home of his agent. Wall’s childhood friend sat to his left, his advisors on the right, his cell phone buzzing incessantly in front of him. Someone started clapping.
“All big markets,” said Wall’s agent, Dan Fegan, reminding the room full of well-wishers about the bottom line.
Wall stood up alone and faced the TV. The Nets, the team Wall had expected would become his initial NBA home, was the first to fall, dropping to third. Once the Sixers were announced as the second pick, Wall knew where he was likely headed: the nation’s capital. He continued to stand there silently, letting the news wash over him. Tears began to well up in his eyes before he composed himself.
“I just felt like I couldn’t move anywhere, like a kid that just got hit by a car and couldn’t move,” Wall told Yahoo! Sports later. “This is big-time for us.”
It’s also big-time for the Wizards. About four months after Gilbert Arenas(notes) was suspended for brandishing guns in the locker room, followed by trades of the franchise’s other two stars, Antawn Jamison(notes) and Caron Butler(notes), Washington suddenly can envision a brighter future after landing the No. 1 pick in the June draft.
“I’m a good leader,” Wall said. “I can change an organization around like I did at Kentucky. They had losing seasons … and myself and a couple other freshmen and teammates that came back, we changed everything around. That’s what I hope to do for any team I get drafted by.”
Not lost in the excitement of the announcement was the one question that figures to hang over the Wizards in the month leading up to the draft: Can Wall and Arenas play together?
“I don’t know Gilbert, but I know he’s a great player, I’ll tell you that,” Wall said. “I think he is more of a scoring two-guard who’s undersized. You just got to see what happens. If I go there, I’m just going to do whatever I can do to help them win games and make the organization better.
“So much happened this year with them and trades that went on. They have a great coach, but they’re basically starting from scratch. It shocked me a little bit. I’m happy with any situation. Coming from where I came from a couple years ago not having nothing, I’m just happy to be in this situation.”
Not long after the Wizards won the lottery, Arenas texted Fegan, who used to represent him. Fegan was glad the Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t land the top pick because they already own the rights to another of his clients, Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio(notes). And while he’s intrigued about Wall trying to turn around the Wizards, Fegan wasn’t ready to say whether he thinks Wall and Arenas will benefit each other.
“That’s for coaches and general managers to figure out if they can play together,” Fegan said. “I’ve gotten to speak with Gilbert more frequently during his latest episode when he got in trouble. I’ve truly watched him mature in ways that will help him as a basketball player, and he will be able to play with anyone out on the floor.”
Fegan wasn’t even ready to declare he’s sure Washington will draft Wall.
“I’m excited about D.C. and I’m excited about the other top three picks, Philadelphia, New Jersey,” Fegan said. “All three of those teams are great prospects for J-Wall and great cities, big cities, East Coast cities. They’re teams that are transitioning so they will all afford a great opportunity for a young star to enter the league. Washington obviously is one of the media capitals of the world. A great place to live – the same with Philly and New Jersey.
“Who knows who trades up or trades down a little bit? When I saw those three selections, one, two and three, I was happy with all those. To say something was 100 percent sure right now is unclear. If [the Wizards] felt that way they would have pulled his jersey out. That didn’t happen.”
It’s hard to imagine the Wizards passing on Wall, given his explosive game and magnetic personality. Washington has long been cursed by bad lottery luck – nine years ago, the team took Kwame Brown(notes) with the top pick – and is looking for a young star to build around and give the franchise a new identity. Wall could be the most promising player to come to town since Wes Unseld. Selling tickets or jerseys won’t be hard with the 19-year-old anchoring the Wizards’ marketing efforts.
Wall was already talking excitedly about the possibility of playing in front of the nation’s most famous basketball fan, President Obama.
“That’s my homeboy right there,” Wall said. “We talked to him before we lost our first game [at Kentucky]. He tried not to jinx us, but I think he did a little bit.”
Wall’s big day began Tuesday morning with a workout with former NBA assistant coach Jarinn Akana. He went shopping at the Nike Store in the afternoon then returned to Fegan’s home to watch the announcement with friend Ty Williams and advisors Brian and Dwon Clifton. As the lottery approached, Wall stood on a ledge in the backyard performing his famous “John Wall Dance” for a TV camera crew.
Wall stretched his arms high above him. A picturesque view of Los Angeles served as a backdrop. Wall couldn’t be sure where he was headed, but it didn’t matter. Never had his future seemed so close.
- Dan Fegan