It’s been a few weeks now since John Wall was named a reserve for the Eastern Conference All-star team, marking his first selection to the elite midseason roster that is representative of the best players the game has to offer. For Wall, it marks the first moment in his career where he’s truly recognized as part of that fraternity after 3.5 years of professional basketball often hindered by injuries, losses, and franchise ineptitude. Throughout his tenure with the Wizards, the jury has been out on Wall. Can he run an offense while playing at a breakneck pace? Is he willing to put in the work to fix a broken jump shot? Does he play hard enough on both sides of the ball to make a difference? Granted, Wall still has ways to go to become the complete basketball player that Washington desperately needs him to be, but he’s made great strides this year in dispelling those critics and promoting the opinions of his backers. Yesterday, when he hit the floor in his debut NBA All Star Game, it wasn’t about playing with guys who are better than him. It wasn’t about passing to players with far more endorsements or sponsors. It was about Wall taking his rightful place amongst the 24 players selected as the highest achieving this season. This one trip to New Orleans won’t make a career, but for Wall, the weekend likely marks the first of many he’ll make in a career that could turn to superstardom with the right amount of work. And the very least, it’ll change the perception of this former No.1 pick as someone still waiting to live up to his enormous potential. Fans and peers alike will have to accept that he is here on the stage, and is very intent on keeping that spot.
It can be argued that John Wall was probably the least ballyhooed top pick in the draft since the Toronto Raptors selected Andrea Bargnani first in 2006. Despite coming from a stalwart program at Kentucky with a heralded freshman class, including DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and Daniel Orton, the team didn’t make good on their No.1 seed, and lost in the Elite 8 to an upstart West Virginia squad. Wall came into the combine and pre-draft workout as the presumptive first selection but had enough holes in his game to get picked apart early and often.
He also didn’t benefit from years of dominating the AAU circuit prior to college and adding to his legend, as his basketball playing career got off to a relatively late start. Regardless of those hurdles, Wall joined the Wizards and immediately became the face of an organization dying to move past locker room gun incidents and more appearances on Sportscenter’s Not Top 10 than wins in the standings. But things did not go as scripted, both individually and as a team. The Wizards lost a LOT of games, and though Wall put up impressive baseline statistics, it was evident that racking up points and assists was more a byproduct of heavy minutes and a dearth of roster talent. Now, Wall appears to be much more mature than his formative years in Washington. He’s earned the trust of his teammates and often can be seen leading and guiding the team through critical in-game situations. He’s improved his body language to not sulk after every negative play and has upped his effort on defense against the league’s premiere opponents. Wall has clearly worked on his game as well, as he’s shooting a career-high 32% from 3-point land, just two years removed from a ghastly 7% performance in 2011-12, and is setting personal records in points, assists, and steals per game. Although he’s still only spent just a grand total of two days above the .500 mark in the NBA, Wall is clearly the reason this team has not spiraled downward, and his importance can be witnessed in his comical on-off court point differential. He’ll most likely lead the team to the playoffs for the first time in half-a-decade and will finally begin to come through on the goals set out when Washington nabbed him with their pick nearly four years ago.
All this progress as culminated in a nearly unanimous selection by head coaches to represent the East in last night’s showcase event, but it hasn’t been an easy route. He’s been overlooked by everyone from USA Basketball to NBA agents and coaches. For must of his time in the league, Wall hasn’t played to the level of a star, but he has also dealt with his share of bad luck and poor timing. The biggest drawback is that he plays for one of the more irrelevant franchises in all of sports. The Wizards are usually not in the news unless used as a punching bag for cheap monologues for their organizational decisions or sideshow antics. On the court, Wall’s stellar rookie season was overshadowed by the Blake Griffin Show, and he was unable to put in crucial work with the team’s staff before his sophomore year because of the NBA lockout. Once the players got back on the court for 66 regular season games, fans were wowed by hotshot Kyrie Irving’s tight handle and silky smooth jumper. Wall’s third season saw him miss 33 games with a stress injury in his knee and by the time he returned the court the Wizards were already 23 games below .500 and getting comfortable in the oblivion they so often frequent. In Wall’s fourth season, the Wizards were finally expected to compete and make the postseason. The year has been a roller coaster, as wins against Golden State, Miami, Oklahoma City, and Portland are countered with losses against Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. But Washington is still in a comfortable position to finish in the top eight, and they’ll be aided by the easiest schedule in the league down the stretch. Wall’s reputation around the league, in turn, is starting to change. A strong finish to the season and some playoff success could add fuel to the fire that he’s a star that someone would want to play with. Wall could be in the conversation of free agency recruiting and create the district as a true destination.
He may not have Irving’s Uncle Drew alter ego, or Derrick Rose’s endearing humility, or Chris Paul’s golden boy persona, but Wall can still create a name for himself in the league and amongst his fellow players. It starts with the All-Star game, when he isn’t simply known as a blur on the court but rather a true point guard that makes his team better and can win games against any competition. That path to notoriety will continue every day for the rest of the season. His play, coupled with the Wizards’ performance, will dictate a lot about how people view this situation. Wall should still continue to get better and there are aspects where he remains a work in progress. But just remember that when you watch, you can call him one thing: NBA All-Star. You know the rest of the league is doing it too.