It is common for top overall picks to endure some losing at the inception of their NBA careers as an extension of the circumstances that led to their selection. LeBron James lost 54 of his first 100 games as a pro, and while that seems remarkable in retrospect, it was nothing compared with the cruel awakening that awaited John Wall—who had won 34 of his 37 games at the University of Kentucky—after the Washington Wizards, winners of just 26 of their previous 82 contests, took him in 2010.
Complemented—or more accurately, compromised—by a cast of green bigs (Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee) and gunning guards (Nick Young, Jordan Crawford), Wall dropped 72 of his first 96 games as a professional, including a 17-point home loss to the Miami Heat on Feb. 10, 2012.
After that defeat, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade strolled out to him on the court, Wade putting a hand on Wall's shoulder, and James pulling his shirt up to his nose so the television cameras couldn't capture the advice he was offering. But, the way the trio told it, that counsel was consistent with what James had been sharing with the point guard pretty much from the time he entered the league:
Don't let the losing get to you.
Don't lose focus.
Mostly, don't lose hope.
And while the tables haven't entirely turned—James has since captured two championships, while Wall has won only one playoff series—it's hard to ignore the recent shift in their relative positions as they face each other again Wednesday night. It's not just that the Wizards beat the Cavaliers last Friday in Washington or that, even after a home loss to Atlanta, they lead Cleveland by three games early in the Eastern Conference chase.
It's that Wall, still the central figure of a tweaked but somewhat familiar squad, has already done much of what James is now attempting to do in Cleveland, in terms of helping to cleanse the organization of its selfish habits, its collective fragility, its losing ways.
So much so that, after scoring 28 points with six rebounds, seven assists and four steals in Friday's 91-78 win against the cratering Cavaliers, Wall was asked how long it would take Cleveland to click.
"I have no idea," Wall said. "LeBron's a great leader. He's proven that he can do it when he was in Miami. Their coach is a new coach, but they have a new coaching staff, and they have great guys on that coaching staff. It's just about them getting it together. Like LeBron said, it's tough for him to be patient with it. That's something he has preached to me since his rookie year. When you've won two championships, you really want to win right away."
Wall is winning now, at a higher rate than he ever has, even as his major statistics so far are nearly identical to what he's produced the past two seasons. How close? Entering Tuesday, he was averaging 19.4 points (compared with 19.3 in 2013-14) and 9.1 assists per game (compared with 8.8 in 2013-14) while taking the same number of shots (16.3) as in 2013-14, and shooting the exact same 45.8 percent from two-point range.
So the evolution has been more subtle, and only noticed by those who matter most: his coaches and teammates.
"Taking responsibility, taking control on the floor, from an offensive standpoint, getting guys where they need to be," coach Randy Wittman said. "Defensively, being able to pressure, he's the head of our snake. It starts with him and it feeds down into the other four guys. Those kind of things, he's steadily, each year, improved. He's got a great understanding of what I want, which makes it nice. I don't have to be up there and orchestrate everything. And I don't ever want to coach that way. Sometimes you have to. (But) he has a great understanding of where we need to attack at times, and gets up into that."
Marcin Gortat joined the Wizards in a trade late last October, after spending his first six seasons playing with point guards such as Jameer Nelson and, more notably, Steve Nash.
"What I see as the difference from last year to this year?" Gortat said, repeating the question. "Last year, (Wall) had those days where he would let it slip. Maybe he'd be a few minutes late to practice, or wouldn't be there from the first minute, or maybe he wouldn't be tying his shoes until he got out there on the court. As the leader, you always have to be the first guy to set an example. Last year, he didn't really lift a lot. This year, he is in there lifting with us every day. This is really huge. And on the court, he is leading much better. His decision-making is much better. Everything he does is much better. Overall, he’s on a good path, to become a good leader."
But Gortat believes Wall can become a better one, still. On the court, he wants Wall to continue to progress as a passer; admittedly, the Polish product got a little spoiled with Nash, since, "I don't think there was any pass he couldn't make; his left hand was a copy of his right hand."
But Gortat also wants Wall to trust him more, to throw more passes in traffic and to use him more, by allowing Gortat to screen for the point guard in the middle of the court, before screening again and maybe even again, until Wall can find a seam to dart through to the hoop.
"We don't have to rush," Gortat said.
Some things can't be rushed, especially when you come into a losing situation at age 20.
Wall admitted, in a conversation with Bleacher Report late Friday night, that he wasn't comfortable early in his career with all the requirements of leadership.
The most unnerving aspect?
"Just learning how to talk to people," Wall said. "You know what I mean? It's very tough. Because coming in, I was a No. 1 pick, everybody said I was this and that, so I just came in quiet, led by example. But when I got Trevor Ariza and those guys on my team, they told me, you're our franchise guy, and you've got to be more vocal, we want to hear you talk, tell everybody what your role was. Since that day, my life has changed. So I give a lot of credit to Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington."
Ariza was with the Wizards in 2012-13, when they started 0-12 and finished 29-53. Harrington joined during the 2013 offseason, before the Wizards started 2-7. Then they had a players' meeting that Wall credits for his change in perspective, his greater understanding of how he needed to act, and play.
"It wasn't about me scoring 40 points or 30 points, but just leading, knowing how to talk to guys," Wall said. "It's something I work at. A lot of guys see me from the outside-in. I just wanted to change people's perceptions of John Wall."
He largely has but, here again, Gortat calls for even more.
"Just the relationships off the court, how to develop with people, how to respect people," Gortat said. "I think he knows better how to talk to people. He’s got to continue to grow. He’s got to become more open, to older players, to advisors, and he’s doing a tremendous job with that. He definitely needs to get better as a motivator, the stuff he's saying, the speeches, but he has been in the league four, five years. That has to come with age."
No longer is Wall the youngest Wizard, not with Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., around, but he's not the oldest either. That's Paul Pierce, born nearly 13 years prior, with a dozen more years of NBA experience.
"I mean, everybody is growing from Paul," Gortat said. "He is a living and playing legend. Being around him automatically gives you a lot of confidence, and knowledge and experience. It’s great. You are becoming a teammate with someone who has won the championship, who has played 17 years. You just got to eat all this experience with a big spoon. And he’s a great dude off the court too."
But Pierce has made it clear that Wall is the dude in charge on it, warranting that privilege, bearing that burden.
"He's our leader, man," Pierce said. "He's asked to carry a big load for this ballclub. He's an All-Star, he's going to do the scoring, he's going to do the assists, he's going to be a defender. That's why he gets paid the way he gets paid, that's why you see a lot of his jerseys in the stands. He's going to be asked to deliver."
Wall said that Pierce has reiterated that the time of arrival, and that the respect and communication, has run both ways.
"I'm trying to be what he is. Hall of Fame, championship," Wall said. "He was telling me, like (against the Cavaliers on Friday), he said, 'That's what I'm talking about. You started being aggressive.' He wants me to know that I'm the best player on the court every night. He wants me to be aggressive, in the right way, getting teammates involved, getting to the basket. When you have a guy like that, that wants you to be great, after telling (me) that, when I came in the league, 'You ain't getting no calls, you're a rookie,' and things like that, it's pretty exciting. It's huge. Big time."
Naturally, a huge part of a leader's responsibility is presentation to the public, and it was clear Friday, at shootaround and after the game, that Wall has improved in that area as well.
He spoke in platitudes for sure, but they sounded convincing, and he was always under control.
He credited teammates for the recent collective success. He admitted his disappointment with his shooting performance in the previous game, a loss to Dallas, and his determination to get extra shots up at practice. He refrained from gloating that Cleveland's Dion Waiters, after declaring that the Cavaliers had the NBA's best backcourt, was now coming off the bench: "Nah. Still got to go out there and play. He could come off the bench and get 20 points, you never know."
He related the reality that "just this whole year, anybody we play, we're not sneaking up on anybody like we were last year. Everybody knows we're a pretty good team, what we're capable of. But it all starts when we step between those lines. It doesn't matter what anybody says in the media, about being the best backcourt, or having the best player in the world. It's when you step between those lines, who is having the best game that night, and whatever team wins."
He echoed his coach's sentiments, by reminding reporters, and in turn teammates, of the need for greater team maturity than the Wizards had shown against the Mavericks, since "good teams don't hold back when you got emotions going, and you're mad that you're not playing well and you got a turnover or something. They're gonna keep it moving. And they showed that to us on Wednesday when they went up 10 in like a minute span. They're not waiting for nobody. And that's something you got to do if you want to be a winning-caliber team."
He emphasized the irrelevance of individual statistics.
"If I would have lost this game and had those same amount of points, I wouldn't be talked about," he said. "As long as my team is winning games, that's all I can do. Is try to go out there and lead my team the right way, passing, assists, scoring if my team needs me to."
And he challenged the notion of complacency, noting that the Wizards needed to follow up their wins with strong performances in the next outing, and needed to remember the rough times that they recently put behind them.
"Well, (we) could never get complacent, because (we) know where we were a couple of years ago, well, I do, definitely being here," Wall said. "So we know what we're capable of, and what we can do. Just got to go out there and prove it on the court. Any given night, anybody can be beat."
He wasn't beaten on Friday by the Cavaliers, not when he kept confidently stepping into jumpers every time the defense sagged off him—a strategy many of the scouting reports on him still suggest. And he's only lost four times all season, three fewer than Cleveland so far. Yet Wall certainly hasn't gloated about that either. He and the Cavaliers superstar have been more than friends since meeting at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron when Wall was a teenager.
"He's like a bigger brother to me," Wall said.
And a big influence.
"Just seeing how he was vocal," Wall said. "He has always been a guy who has led by example, but he was a very mature guy who was very vocal at a young age. Just seeing the tough times, where I was losing, and he would tell me, keep your head up, keep working, don't get caught up into the losing and the bad habits that are going around. Always working, wanting to improve."
That's what he's sharing with his squad now. Wall noted that James didn't go through quite the same adversity in his first few seasons, even though Cleveland didn't make the playoffs in the first two, and James didn't win his first title until his ninth. James hasn't had the same sort of injuries. He didn't suffer through as many seemingly hopeless stretches. Even now can't compare. The Cavaliers are enduring some growing pains, for sure. But James isn't playing with McGee and Blatche. he's playing with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Everyone assumes they'll get it right.
Wall does too.
"I think the key is, well, they're starting off in the right place," Wall said. "You got to have a great veteran guy that comes in and knows what it takes to win."
The 24-year-old mentioned Ariza and Harrington again, specifically how Ariza had been around a championship environment with the Los Angeles Lakers and taught the Wizards how they needed to work, how they had to change their habits, how they might need to sacrifice some of their games to make the team better.
"And that's something we had to deal with at the beginning of last year, going 2-7, and changing around after a team meeting," Wall said. "It takes time. It's not going to happen overnight."
Not even if the Cavaliers win Wednesday night, against Wall's Wizards.
"Patience is the biggest key," Wall said, sounding sage, a student starting to become a teacher.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.