I took my time working my way to the court in the back corner of the Riverview Park Activities Center in North Augusta, S.C., in July 2008. I'd spent the first few hours of my first Peach Jam tournament watching some surefire future stars. I'd seen DeMarcus Cousins. I'd seen Xavier Henry. I'd even seen Seantrel Henderson, who would become a top recruit in football.
Still, every coach I spoke to asked the same question. Have you seen John Wall yet?
So I finally made my way to that back-corner court, and there he was. At first glance, without a ball in his hand, the Raleigh, N.C., native didn't look so special. Sure, he was a 6-foot-4 point guard, but unlike Cousins and Henry, he didn't already look like a full-grown man. Then Wall brought the ball up the court.
He dribbled to the top of the key and paused. (Sound familiar, Kentucky fans?) He locked eyes with his defender, who stared back with the same look the wildebeest usually gives the lion. Wall spotted an opening, and he attacked. In what seemed like one fluid motion, Wall was at the rim. I don't remember if he dunked, if he dropped in a layup or if he passed to an open teammate for an easy bucket. It didn't matter. He'd already destroyed the opposing defense. The basket itself was an afterthought.
Surrounding the court were coaches from every conference in America. Even the most stoic among them couldn't suppress a smile or a head shake when they saw Wall move from top of the key to tin faster than the lightning strikes from the summer storm outside.
I wondered how Wall's game would translate at a higher level. He certainly appeared to play at a different speed than his elite classmates, but would a good college team be able to contain him? We know now that good college teams cannot contain him. We know now that he still appears to play at a different speed than everyone else on the court.
That's why the 2010 NBA Draft Lottery may as well be called the John Wall Sweepstakes. It's also why Wall is the nation's most outstanding college player this season.
We'll ignore the fact that most NBA general managers would saw off a limb for the right to select Wall. We'll also ignore the dance craze sweeping the nation. The college basketball Player of the Year should win the award for what he did this season, not because of his professional potential or because of his ability to incite a coast-to-coast fad. Based on numbers alone, the choice probably would have to be Ohio State's Evan Turner. But before you hand Turner -- a worthy candidate, to be certain -- the Player of the Year Award, ask yourself one question.
This is the same question I posed to myself before I cast my ballot for the Heisman Trophy, and it works for any Most Outstanding Player award in a team sport. If you were starting a college team from scratch and the only information you had to work from was what you've seen this season, who would you pick first?
I'd pick Wall, and it wouldn't be close.
Wall is an excellent passer, a pretty good rebounder and a decent defender, but his ability to make a defense collapse into itself like a dying star makes him the best player in the country.
Sometimes, an athlete can be so much better than everyone else at one particular facet of the game that he tilts the odds in favor of himself or his team. The object of tennis is to hit the ball past an opponent, so a player with an unreturnable serve would be favored to win every match, even if his ground strokes were only above average. A golfer so proficient with his putter that he never, ever three-putts would keep himself in every tournament in spite of his average driving distance.
The object of basketball is to put the ball through the basket, and Wall, because of his preternatural ability to slice into the lane and make a defense implode, is better than anyone else in the country at making it easy for his team to put the ball in the basket. Sure, he can improve the other facets of his game, but even if he never does, he is so superior at this one critical skill that night-in and night-out, he is the nation's most dangerous offensive player.
He's also the most valuable. While Turner's value to his team is undeniable, Wall probably doesn't get enough credit for Kentucky's metamorphosis. Obviously coach John Calipari and Cousins and junior forward Patrick Patterson have played large roles, but the primary reason Kentucky has turned from an NIT team to a likely No. 1 seed in the space of 11 months is Wall. Without Wall, the Wildcats would be a good team. They almost certainly would make the NCAA tournament, but they wouldn't be special. With Wall, Kentucky is great, even without a legitimate long-range threat.
Remember, North Carolina doesn't win the national title last year without point guard Ty Lawson, whose speed decimated defenses and opened up the offense for Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and everyone else. Wall is a taller version of Lawson -- on rocket fuel.
Wall leads the Wildcats in scoring, with 17.0 points a game. He leads the SEC in assists, with 6.17 a game. Want a better stat line? In the final two minutes of Kentucky's first 29 games, Wall scored 62 points in 66 minutes while shooting 60 percent with only four turnovers. The numbers don't tell the whole story, though. Remember, Turner's numbers are better than Wall's. Of course, take away Cousins and Patterson and fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe, and Wall would score more points and grab more rebounds than he has. Turner posts huge numbers because he must. Wall's supporting cast is far more talented, so he doesn't have to win games single-handedly most of the time.
But guess who has the ball when Kentucky needs to score? When the Wildcats escaped Mississippi State with an overtime win last month, Wall finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Five points came in overtime. Wall did this by slicing up the Bulldogs' defense to the point that they had no other option but to foul him.
No other player in the nation can make a defense implode the way Wall can. Just as he did in AAU, he dribbles around the perimeter, hunting for a weak spot. As soon as he identifies it, he zips past the guards and into the lane. By now, at least three defenders are actively engaged in stopping Wall, which means at least two Kentucky players are wide open. Much of the time, Wall hits one of those open teammates for an easy basket. Other times, Wall just makes everyone in the opposing jersey look foolish.
Against Tennessee last Saturday, Wall darted toward the lane. Volunteers forward Kenny Hall had a sound idea. Wall was moving so fast. Certainly, he couldn't stop or change direction. So Hall broke down at the elbow and waited for Wall to plow him over for an obvious charge. Wall planted one foot and spun around Hall and into the paint. Once there, he rose. Then he flipped the ball over Vols forward Wayne Chism and into the basket.
Wall had moved up a level since that day on the back-corner court, but nothing had changed. He is still the best player on the floor and the best player in the country.