Wall received plenty of scrutiny, though, because he was the No. 1-rated point guard prospect in the country, and Duke, Miami and Kentucky, which had just hired coach John Calipari, were still waging a fierce recruiting battle for his services. Wall's mother, Frances Pulley, was not particularly enjoying the situation, and she said in the stands after the game, "This is all very stressful. John's lost right now. ... I'll just be glad when it's over."
Her son took until May 20, the final day of the NCAA's spring signing period, to decide on Kentucky, and made news in the interim by being charged with misdemeanor breaking and entering for hanging out in a vacant house in Raleigh. There was so much John Wall Drama in the recruiting world that some message-board fans began to wonder whether he was worth the wait.
On Wednesday, Wall was back at the Garden, where he proved not only that he was worth the wait, but that he is unequivocally the biggest star in college basketball. This time the drama was on the floor, where his fourth-ranked Wildcats trailed 14th-ranked UConn 61-60 with just under 40 seconds left. Wall already had 22 points to his name when he took a handoff from teammate Darius Miller just above the free-throw line, blew past Huskies defender Stanley Robinson on a left-handed drive, slammed into Alex Oriakhi in mid-air under the rim, and found a way to kiss the ball off the glass for a game-winning and-one layup before falling to the floor. Wall scored 12 of Kentucky's final 15 points to finish with 25, hitting all four of his free throw attempts and his lone three-point try. He rallied the now 9-0 Wildcats back from a six-point halftime deficit to win 64-61, and inspired UConn coach Jim Calhoun to say, "He's no freshman. He's a big-time player. If think if any guy dominated the game, he won the game."
Just how valuable is Wall to Kentucky? In a game won by three, the 'Cats were plus-10 when he was on the floor, and minus-7 when he was off it. He spent more than 10 minutes off it, too, most of it because he picked up his second foul -- on a charging call that had UK fans apoplectic at the refs -- with 7:56 left in the first half. "That was the toughest part of the game," Wall said of having to sit until halftime. It was one of his teammates' toughest stretches, too; UK had started the game on a 12-0 run, then let UConn pull even. During the nearly eight minutes Wall was out, the 'Cats managed to score just five points.
And when they needed offense in crunch time, they just gave him the ball, much as they did in his first game this season, when he hit a game-winning buzzer-beater against Miami of Ohio. "We rode John Wall," Calipari said on Wednesday. "We were groping for offense and we just gave it to him and said, make some baskets."
In his first month as a Wildcat, Wall has established himself as a Lexington demigod and the frontrunner in the national player of the year race, and so, during the stretching portion of UK's last practice before the New York trip, Calipari asked his team a question: "Anybody have a problem with John Wall getting all the press?" He then turned specifically to junior Patrick Patterson, who like Wall is an All- America candidate and projected first-round pick, and said, "Patrick, do you have a problem?"
Patterson said, "I don't care." But one (unnamed) player did pipe up, according to Calipari, and say, "You know, coach, [Wall]'s pretty good."
Wall's talent is impossible not to recognize. He's averaging 19.0 points and 7.0 assists through eight games, and as Patterson said, "Nothing he does surprises me. He's one of the best basketball players out there." On Wednesday, in front of a packed Garden crowd that included at least six NBA general managers -- mostly notably Rod Thorn of the Nets, the favorites to have the No. 1 pick in June -- Wall went toe-to-toe with UConn's Kemba Walker, a fellow NBA prospect and one of the country's quickest point guards. Walker acquitted himself in front of the scouts, scoring 12 points and dishing out six assists, but Wall emerged victorious by bearing down and hitting a series of clutch baskets in the second half.
The layup in the final minute was a fitting coda, but his greatest play came with 7:16 left, when he stole the ball from Huskies star Jerome Dyson, and then engaged in what was essentially a three-quarter-court footrace to the other rim. Dyson bore down on him from behind -- and actually skimmed the tops of Wall's hands, fouling him on a block attempt -- but could not stop Wall from throwing down a two-handed slam to put UK up 54-47. The crowd, in which Kentucky fans surprisingly outnumbered the UConn contingent, went mad, and the momentum was fully in the Wildcats' favor.
Wall's knack for making these breathtaking plays in the open floor is what makes him so enthralling. In the first four minutes of his network-TV debut against North Carolina on Dec. 5, he showed Tar Heels point guard Larry Drew just how futile it is to attempt to stop Wall at full speed. He grabbed a defensive rebound in the lane with 16:33 on the clock, and then went on a one-man fast break with four dribbles -- lefty, lefty, righty, lefty -- until he reached the point where Drew was near the top of the key. Wall moves so fast -- "maybe 200 miles an hour," as Calhoun would describe it -- in these situations that a squared-up defender's only shot is make like a soccer goalie in a shootout, and guess a side. Wall was leaning left, so Drew took a tiny step to that side -- and it was over. Wall crossed over to the right with his final lefty dribble, took two more steps, and ripped down a two-handed dunk. When the ball exited the net, the clock read 16:29. The whole thing had taken less than four seconds.
Just before Wall's highlight play started to develop, CBS announcer Clark Kellogg had been talking about how Drew would handle the pressure of replacing departed Carolina point guard Ty Lawson. "The key to handling that," Kellogg said, "is to be who you are. You've got tremendous DNA ..."
At this point Wall interrupted with his dash to the rim. And it became clear his DNA is superior to everyone else's in college basketball. This was evident again Wednesday, when the 6-foot-4 guard raced past Robinson for the final layup. The 6-9 Robinson is an NBA prospect because he's absurdly agile, and he was assigned to Wall in the final minutes to stop him from taking easy pull-up jumpers over the much shorter Walker. But no one -- especially not Robinson or Oriakhi -- could stop Wall from getting to the rim and keeping Kentucky undefeated. The scariest part is Wall still has so much room to improve. He committed seven turnovers (against two assists) Tuesday and knows he needs to become a better floor general early in games. But Calipari still was comfortable with saying that his star freshman is ahead of where Derrick Rose was as a Memphis rookie in December of 2007, and Calhoun, who played Rose at the Garden that season, said that Wall, in comparison, "is all of that."
Who wouldn't want John Wall running their team right now? As he left the Garden floor on Tuesday -- after an interview live on ESPN -- a crew Kentucky fans hung over the rails, desperate for the slightest bit of contact with the toast of Lexington. When he finished with postgame interviews, he made a beeline down a back hallway to meet up with his mother and other family members. Wall didn't look lost. Pulley didn't look stressed. "There you are," she said, smiling, decked out in a Kentucky sweatshirt. They hugged, and then walked into a freight elevator together, to head up and out of the Garden, and on to even bigger things.