John Wall learning to lead Washington Wizards
When the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft inherited the end-of-row locker that used to belong to Wizards captain Antawn Jamison, the stall still held a framed photo of the gleaming Larry O'Brien Trophy. Wall decided to keep that picture in place; it stares out at him whenever he's in Washington's locker room.
''They wanted to get rid of it, and I said, `No.' That's the goal,'' Wall explained, his rat-a-tat patter off the court as swift as his play is on it. ''I don't touch it, though. I don't want to touch one `til I win one.''
Even Wall would concede that isn't happening this season for the Wizards, who are coming off a 23-59 record and last-place finish in the Southeast Division. They are in the early stages of rebuilding a roster that used to revolve around All-Stars Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Jamison, but now is based on Wall.
''We can sneak up on some people this year, because we're smarter, and I'm smarter, and learning how to close out games and doing whatever it takes to win down the stretch,'' Wall said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''And next year, for sure, we're going to be a team that can surprise a lot of people.''
It's clear to everyone that Wall is going to be the player that leads the Wizards, wherever they go.
President Ernie Grunfeld and coach Flip Saunders, meanwhile, are holding out hope that players such as power forward Andray Blatche and center JaVale McGee can fulfill the promise each has demonstrated occasionally.
Blatche, in particular, regularly finds himself defending his effort, which is why he announced at the team's media day: ''I told my teammates, `I'm going to give y'all 100 percent every game. I'm going to die for this.' Whatever we do, we've got to change this whole atmosphere from losing, and people used to us losing, to winning.''
At 25, he's older than nine other players expected to be on the roster when Washington opens its regular season next Monday.
Such youth prompted owner Ted Leonsis to use variations on the word ''build'' more than a dozen times during a recent half-hour news conference. As in: ''I've been unabashed on what we're doing. I hope I've been honest and transparent, that we were rebuilding the team.''
It all starts with Wall.
Despite dealing with injuries to his right knee and left foot, he averaged 16.4 points, 8.3 assists (tied for sixth in the NBA) and 4.6 rebounds last season, finishing second to Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers in voting for rookie of the year.
''He has such speed and quickness in the open court that you've got to get back and proverbially build a wall against Wall, so he's seeing bodies,'' Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins said. ''He'd be the equivalent to a guy who sees cracks as a running back who's got great vision. If you don't close those down, when he starts running downhill, he puts all sorts of pressure on your team.''
While Wall's ball skills are unquestioned, and he spent a lot of time in the lockout-extended offseason working to improve his jumper - he shot only 40.9 percent on field-goal attempts in 2010-11 - he might very well have made his most significant, strides in other ways.
''Part of his development is from going and being a very gracious young person to being a person who's not afraid to take over, and I'm seeing that in the practices. He understands that it's his team,'' said Leonsis, who also owns the NHL's Washington Capitals and talks to Wall about the way two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin helped turn around that team.
''It's been great to see him not be shy, to understand that if he leads the pack in terms of running suicide drills, that gives him permission to yell at somebody if he thinks they're not working as hard as he is,'' Leonsis added.
The 21-year-old Wall agreed that he feels more comfortable chastising teammates.
He set out to figure out which players he can shout at in front of everyone else during practice and, as he put it, ''What guys I've got to walk up to and talk to with a little demeanor.''
His offseason improvement plan included seeking advice from more established NBA point guards such as fellow Kentucky product Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul.
It also involved spending time watching last season's games to study his body language.
Saunders remarked that Wall occasionally would ''get down on himself and pout when things didn't go right,'' and the player wanted to fix that.
''I always try to be perfect, but you can't be,'' he said. ''When we started losing a couple of games in a row, and how we were playing in stretches of games, I was getting frustrated. I knew we could play with those teams, with the talent we have, but just not being mature enough - and turning the ball over and taking bad shots - really hurt us.''
Howard Fendrich is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich