Wall starts shaky, finishes strong

LAS VEGAS – John Wall(notes) wore a backpack and headphones. His Reeboks were unlaced. Sitting among his Washington Wizards teammates in the Cox Pavilion stands, he looked like the picture of calm.

He was anything but.

In the minutes before Wall made his summer league debut as the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick, he walked downstairs to find a quiet place alone so he could settle his nerves. A sold-out crowd awaited him, and many of the fans were wearing University of Kentucky T-shirts.

By the time he took the court, Wall hardly looked calm. His first shot would have slammed hard into the backboard had it not first grazed the rim.

By game’s end, however, Wall had shown the talent that’s made him the centerpiece of the Wizards’ future. He totaled 24 points and eight assists – to go along with his eight turnovers – in Washington’s 84-79 victory over the Golden State Warriors. The NBA asked him to stay 15 minutes afterward to sign autographs for fans. He stayed an hour.

“There was a lot of excitement in me,” Wall said. “That’s why I was going too fast and I was losing the ball.”

Said Wizards coach Flip Saunders: “To say a guy got 24 and eight and played kind of an average game, it shows you the kind of potential that he has.”

Wall committed two quick turnovers and his opening shot looked like it was launched from a cannon. He eventually settled down.

“The first shot hit the backboard so hard I thought it was going to shatter the glass,” said Sam Cassell(notes), the Wizards’ summer league coach.

Wall’s first basket came on a 16-foot shot. He followed with the first of several pretty alley-oop passes to Wizards center JaVale McGee(notes). He also led a one-man break, in which he rushed the ball down the floor and pulled up for a jump shot in just three seconds – getting fouled in the process.

Cassell, Wall said, “keeps telling me the right things. He said my key is staying humble and hungry as I am improve every game. When he told me that, I got the and-1 and it got me going.”

Whether it was Saunders, Cassell or assistant Mike Wells speaking to him, Wall listened intently to any advice offered his way. He was also vocal with teammates, pointing out where they needed to be on the floor.

Former Georgetown coach John Thompson watched from behind the Wizards’ bench. Thompson recently said on his Washington radio show that the Wizards should have taken Ohio State guard Evan Turner(notes) over Wall. After watching Wall’s speed in person, Thompson – who coached Allen Iverson(notes) in college – had a different opinion.

“He’s very special,” Thompson of Wall. “He's got a unique talent and quickness with the ball with anyone I’ve seen. He gets through traffic. He’s tough. I like the way he pays attention to people, too. There’s not a whole bunch of [drama].

“He’s going to be special, but they’re going to have to have a transition team. His talent is so good that he is going to have a big bearing on how the team plays.

“You don’t get that guy and go slow.”

The big question facing Wall and the Wizards: Can he co-exist with Gilbert Arenas(notes)?

The Wizards distanced themselves from Arenas after the NBA suspended him for his locker-room gun incident last season. The team removed posters of him from the arena and has been quick to embrace Wall as the foundation for its future. Arenas, one league source said, has privately bristled that Wall has become the face of the franchise so fast.

The Wizards have explored trading Arenas, but his expensive contract makes any deal difficult – even while Saunders continues to insist the two guards can play together.

“That’s the issue,” Thompson said. “I think it’s on Gilbert’s part more than his. I don’t know that it won’t work, but I think Gilbert has to conform. If I’m Gilbert, I love playing with him. As fast as [Wall] is, he’s going to get a lot of attention and Gilbert is not slow. This kid is a true point guard. He has to be put in that position.”

Wall has plenty of time to adjust to Arenas. For now, he’s focused on improving, listening and leading during his next game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday.

“My mom and LeBron [James] always tell me don’t try to live up to the hype,” Wall said. “Just play and enjoy it. You have a chance to play the game that you love. That’s all I can do.”