Wizards Call for Wall, and DC Finally Celebrates
It was never a secret, but neither is New Year's Eve every year, so the hundreds of season ticket-holders wedged onto the practice floor at Verizon Center in downtown Washington acted as if the big ball had just dropped in Times Square. They celebrated, cheering and shouting as they watched Wall, the point guard from Kentucky, grin, hug his family and walk to the stage. Minutes earlier, they had been treated to televised clips of their last No. 1 overall pick, Kwame Brown in 2001 (booing him ferociously), and of disgraced onetime favorite Gilbert Arenas (widespread groaning). The long-suffering fans knew exactly what they were celebrating.
Wall will be introduced to the city in person at a noon rally Friday at Verizon Center, even though he has been embraced as one of Washington's own, and as the potential savior of the franchise, since the moment the Wizards won the draft lottery last month. Very few attempts have been made to temper the enthusiasm and expectations of the team's supporters, not even by anyone in the organization, including the one at the very top.
"Obviously the number one overall selection in the draft is a unique opportunity for a franchise, a city and a fan base,'' new owner Ted Leonsis, officially approved by the league just two weeks ago, said in a statement by the team. "The selection of John Wall is exciting for any number of reasons, but his combination of talent coupled with a supreme passion to win is what excites me most. Our best players need to be the hardest workers and the most coachable, and John has those characteristics."
In finally breaking the seal on what he refused to speak aloud about for so long, Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld acknowledged that he knew who his first choice would be from the very first possible moment.
"When I was in the back room (at the lottery), when (NBA president) Joel Litvin said the Wizards have the number-one pick, I said to myself, 'I can't believe it, we're gonna get John Wall,''' Grunfeld said with a smile after making the pick.
Nothing he saw in the ensuing six weeks made Grunfeld waver from taking Wall first -- no thoughts of taking anyone else, nor of moving the pick. "We just felt like John is a player with special physical tools that can really make him a great player down the road,'' he said. "It's gonna take some time; he's only 19 years old, he's a rookie, so he has a lot to learn. But he has a great work ethic, and we think he's gonna be a dynamic player for us.''
What Grunfeld didn't address then -- but still is hanging over the franchise like a dark cloud -- is what kind of team Wall will take over. Arenas, now finished with his 50-game NBA suspension and term in a halfway house in the wake of his gun incident last season, is still on the roster, plays the same position as Wall, and remains a prominent reminder of the mess the Wizards became last season. Their chance at drafting Wall came from finishing 26-56, after Arenas' suspension and felony gun-possession plea prompted the Wizards to unload the remaining core of what they had believed would be a playoff contender.
Then again, rather than him and the last four years and $70-million-plus of his contract being openly shopped around the league, Arenas has gotten public praise from Grunfeld, Leonsis, head coach Flip Saunders and others on the Wizards for his attempts to get back in the franchise's good graces.
Wall joined the chorus, saying in a conference call from New York that it "means a whole lot'' to hear that Arenas has, so far, not pushed back against the idea of Wall taking over at point guard and sliding him over to off-guard.
Still, Wall is far from oblivious to what he is walking into, yet he appears to be arriving with an inherent belief that he can make things much better.
"They had tough times, on and off the court last year,'' he said, "so I'm gonna help them as much as I can, help them win games, learn as much as I can from the staff, from the coaches, from (assistant coach) Sam Cassell and them, and the rest of the players, and the new guys they get in there, and try to be a better team next year, on and off the court.''
Among the "new guys'' will be veteran guard Kirk Hinrich, arriving in a trade with the Chicago Bulls that also garnered them the 17th overall pick; the deal cannot be finalized until July 8, the date during the free-agency period on which contracts can become official. (Picking for the Wizards, the Bulls selected 6-foot-9 power forward Kevin Seraphin from France; later, they moved up again in the first round, using their 30th and 35th picks as part of a deal with Minnesota for the rights to Clemson forward Trevor Booker. The 56th pick by the Wolves, Hamady Ndiaye from Rutgers, is part of the Booker trade with the Wizards.)
Otherwise, the Wizards will have few guards under contract, primarily Wall, Hinrich, Arenas and Nick Young (Randy Foye will be a restricted free agent).
Both Grunfeld and Wall preached patience, which could be a hard sell. Yet even Wall admitted he believed a playoff berth wasn't out of the question for next season. As often as he emphasized Wall's youth, Grunfeld also repeatedly called him "special.''
"We'll expect him to come in, play, work hard and learn,'' Grunfeld said. "He knows himself -- he's 19, but he's confident, as well he should be, in his abilities. But any time there is a transition from college to the pros, there's a learning curve.
"But we're gonna work with him, and we believe he has the ability to be a real special basketball player.''
As a final punctuation, Grunfeld couldn't turn down a request to imitate the now-ubiquitous John Wall dance -- a very quick imitation, and not the smoothest, but one executed with a grin on his face.
As for Wall himself? He recalled that the same questions about his impact were raised when he arrived at Kentucky as the most highly-touted freshman in the country. The Wildcats spent much of the season at No. 1 in the polls and reached the Elite Eight. Thus, his observation Thursday night that he believed he could "come in and pretty much do with this team what I did when I came in last year.''
Clearly, from the NBA championship-level celebration near the Verizon Center playing court when Stern called his name, Wall's new Washington constituents believe the same thing.