When John Wall was selected first overall in Thursday night's NBA draft by the Washington Wizards, the first thing on his mind was getting in touch with another powerful man in the nation's capital: the commander in chief.
"I asked him to play one‑on‑one H-O-R-S-E," Wall said about his proposition to Barack Obama, the 44th U.S. president. "I will try to ask him again."
"We haven't spoken," admitted the 19-year-old point guard. "But he talked to our whole Kentucky team."
They're not the best of friends just yet, but Wall and Obama could get along just fine if they gave it a chance. After all, they both seem to know an awful lot about bringing change to Washington.
The Wizards have lost 119 games over the last two seasons, equaling the worst two-year stretch in their history. They've been through three head coaches in that time — Eddie Jordan (fired after 11 games in the fall of 2008), Ed Tapscott (finished the 2008-09 season on an interim basis), and Flip Saunders (lost 56 games last season, but is at the moment still employed). They traded away two-thirds of their veteran big three last season, sending Caron Butler to Dallas and Antawn Jamison to Cleveland. The other third, Gilbert Arenas, was suspended 50 games after pleading guilty to gun charges. To make matters worse, beloved team owner Abe Pollin died in November at 85.
It's been a terrible run for the Wizards. But just like President Obama, Wall is on a mission to turn Washington around.
"It's tough," Wall said. "I can't get frustrated if we're not winning that many games or we go on an 0‑10 losing streak. You just have to stay confident and trust in your teammates. In that level, it's different than high school or college — you might lose a couple of games in a row. So just stick together and keep your team together."
That's the scary part — Wall's barely old enough to vote, and this is already his team. If the Wizards want to turn everything around, it all starts with him. If they fail, the blame's going his way. You would think that for a wide-eyed college freshman making the leap into the pros, that would be a lot of pressure, but Wall doesn't see it that way.
"I feel like I had pressure since I became No. 1 in high school and was one of the top players," Wall said. "I always got there hungry wanting to fight hard and compete in every game. So when I step on the court, I'm going to take on any challenge."
The Wizards are working on solidifying the supporting cast around Wall for next season. Arenas will be back, presumably, as no NBA team will go near his massive contract and off-the-court baggage on the trade market. The Wizards are on the verge of getting Kirk Hinrich in a salary-dumping move from the Chicago Bulls, and they have a core group of young players — Nick Young, Al Thornton, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee — that they're hoping can make strides. Then there's a pile of other draft picks headed for Washington. We'll see how many make the team.
It's a motley mix, and Wall will have to step in and lead the way from Day 1.
"At Kentucky, we went in with a new group of guys," Wall said. "I know this is a different level, but I just have to go in and show those guys I'm willing to work and listen as much as I can and be a leader. That's the key, being a leader and trying to help them win games.
"Coach [John Calipari] taught me a lot and I became a better leader vocally. I was always a leader by example, being the first in the gym and last in the gym and working hard, but I'm a leader that won't mind speaking up to the older guys."
To the team, he's got to be a ringleader, and that's going to be a huge challenge. But for Wall as an individual, it should come easy. The sky's the limit — Rookie of the Year, All-Star selections, maybe someday MVPs and championships. It's all within his reach if he works for it.
"I think I can be very productive," he said. "Just got to have that confidence in working on your game. If you think you can do the right things at the next level, just going and having the confidence to play. If you have a coach like Coach Saunders, he'll give you the opportunity to play and make a couple of mistakes, and he can teach you at the same time and help you out."
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