John Wall grew as a player, person under Flip Saunders’ tough love

WASHINGTON, D.C. –€” Five years ago this week, Washington Wizards point guard John Wall scored 14 points and dished out nine assists against Orlando in his first NBA game. When asked to evaluate the rookie’s regular-season debut, then-Wizards coach Flip Saunders was more concerned with the team’s 112-83 loss.

"We got beat by 29," Saunders demurred after the game, "so he didn’t do very good."

This Wednesday, five years to the day after that professional inauguration, Wall and the Wizards will be back in Orlando for their 2015 regular-season opener against the Magic. Returning to the site of his first game is always nostalgic for Wall, but this time, Wall said he’d be playing with an especially heavy heart in the wake of Saunders’ passing Sunday after a four-month battle with cancer.

"It’s something you think about," Wall said Monday after the team’s practice at Verizon Center. "Everybody knew he’s been kind of sick lately and kind of knew certain things that he went through. So you think about it, but it’s going to be a good opportunity to play (where I played) in my first NBA game with him coaching, in Orlando.

"So you’ll definitely think about it," he continued. "But the main focus is just trying to … get off to a great start."

As for that tough love Saunders showed Wall from Day 1 of his professional career? Wall says now that it helped make him not only a better player but a better person.

"They brought me in right away and wanted me to be great," said Wall, echoing the sentiments of the tribute to Saunders he posted to Instagram on Sunday. "He took me through the steps and wanted me to be well, and we dealt with some tough times early on, but he always stayed positive and told me how good of a player I could be if I just kept working."

Still, it’s the "love" part of tough love that always resonated the most.

When asked about his fondest memory of his first NBA coach, Wall recalled a time during the summer before that rookie season when Saunders invited him to spend a week at his house in Minnesota. Over the course of a few days, Wall worked out and grew close not only with Saunders –€” who returned to Minneapolis for a second stint coaching the Timberwolves in 2014 — but with his entire family, including Saunders’ wife, Debbie, and his son Ryan, who served as an assistant for his father in Minnesota.

Wall called the experience "a great opportunity" for a then-19-year-old trying to live up to the expectations that come with being a No. 1 overall pick, but beyond that, he praised Saunders as "great person" who just wanted him to succeed.

"Coming in as a rookie, I didn’t want to say as much, and I didn’t want to do as much," Wall said. "But just him sticking with me and saying, ‘This is the same process I went through with Kevin Garnett,’ and just giving me the little pep talks that he had with (Garnett) kind of gave me motivation and built my confidence."

It’s not just Wall, either. Ask anyone who knew Saunders, and they’ll tell you the same thing: that as much as he loved basketball, he loved the people he met through the sport even more and made it a point to treat them like his own family.

"It’s just tough when you lose a colleague, but not only a colleague, but a great friend, and that’s what he was," said Wizards coach Randy Wittman, an assistant to Saunders in Minnesota and Washington. "He was a good friend, and he’s been there for me many times to pick me up when I’ve been fired or something in my family has gone wrong.

"It’s a tough day," an emotional Wittman added, his voice softening. "That’s about all I’ve got to say."

In the weeks after the 2010 draft, Saunders once remarked of Wall that, "Point guards are not made, they’re delivered from heaven, and I believe he was delivered from heaven." In death, Saunders will continue to inspire Wall, just as he did from the very beginning.

"He wanted me to excel," Wall said. "When there were times when I was having a lot of turnovers or going too fast, he could have been a coach who said, ‘We’re going to bench him, we’re going to sit him down.’ But he let me play through my mistakes and try to learn."

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