NEW YORK -- You know about the blinding speed, the freakish athleticism and the explosive first step. But what you might not know about Wizards rookie point guard JohnWall is how high his basketball IQ is.
Before Sunday's exhibition game against the Knicks, coach Flip Saunders explained Wall's uncommon court awareness.
"It seems like he's got a photographic memory," Saunders said. "If you tell him something once, like a certain play, he remembers what all five positions should be doing. We knew he was athletic and we knew he had great competitive spirit, but I don't think anybody understood his intelligence and being able to carry that through.
"Is that uncommon in our league? Yeah, it's very uncommon. You have some guys in the sixth month of the season and they still can't remember where they are supposed to go. But we show him a play one time and he knows where everybody is supposed to be."
Game-changer. That's what they are calling the 20-year-old Wall in Washington, and it's because of him that the Wizards sold 400 season tickets over the 24-hour period after the team won the draft lottery. Last month, they cashed in on 2,000 new season-ticket holders. He gives a moribund sports franchise what it craves most: hope. The Wizards (then the Washington Bullets) last reached the NBA Finals in 1979, a year after winning their only championship. They are the only franchise -- outside of the 6-year-old Charlotte Bobcats -- that has not had a single season with at least 47 wins in the past 30 years.
"I think they think I'm a franchise guy that they can start over and rebuild with -- and then add more pieces to it," Wall said.
Watching Wall, you question previous definitions of explosiveness. Against the Knicks -- he finished with 19 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals -- Wall needed just 3.9 seconds to speed down the court for a layup at the end of the first quarter. In a recent NBA.com survey asking GMs which player was the fastest with the ball, Wall finished fifth behind Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo. And Wall has yet to play in a regular-season game.
"He's efficient-fast," said Knicks center Ronny Turiaf, who placed Tony Parker and Deron Williams in the same category. "He uses his speed at the right time."
Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni had similar praise for the NBA's preseason assists leader: "He's probably one of the fastest, most physically gifted players we'll have in the league. I hope he never learns to shoot real well because he'll be unguardable."
Wall is the Wizards' youngest player but has already been named captain, sharing that assignment with new arrival Kirk Hinrich.
"He's a very mature 20-year-old," Saunders said. "He's very vocal as far as practice goes and very demanding of players, both veteran and young players. If the game is not being played at a certain level, he is not afraid to voice his opinion."
The Wizards must balance keeping Wall accessible but not overwhelmed by all of the demands of being the face of the franchise.
"He's been really easy to deal with," said Michael Lee, who covers the team for The Washington Post. "He's accommodating and ready to answer any question. I thought it was great that during training camp, he was talking about the skits that rookies had to perform for veterans at the team dinner. Instead of just telling us how it went, Wall actually sang for reporters. [The song was TLC's No Scrubs.] He just seems to have a very good understanding of what is happening around him."
Asked what he does to get away from basketball, Wall said he loves sleep and video games (his favorites are Madden Football, NBA2K11 and Call of Duty). He also has an active Twitter account (@jimmywa11) with more than 100,000 followers. (His Twitter handle of JimmyWa11 comes from people calling him by the nickname Jimmy; Wall said too many people had already swiped more traditional versions of John Wall.)
So how good will Wall be as a rookie? Very good. He's an active perimeter defender and few players possess his ability to get to the basket. But his perimeter shot must improve and teams will dare him to hit the mid-range jumper.
"From Day 1, I expect this guy to be a 20-point, 10-assist threat, night in and night out," an Eastern Conference scout said. "That's not to say he will average that, but he will be threat to do so. He is so good off the dribble that teams will do everything they can to keep him in front of them and out of the paint.
"His ability to consistently make shots either coming off pick-and-rolls or a catch-and-shoot on the perimeter will be big in terms of how the defense will have to adjust to him. The more consistent he can become as a shooter, the more dangerous he will be in every facet of the game. The mental things he has to deal with are understanding time and situation, knowing when to pass or take it himself, and knowing when to pull up after beating the initial defender."
Saunders said that ideally the Wizards would play a three-guard lineup with Hinrich, Gilbert Arenas and Wall. Whether it works will be up to Arenas -- whose comeback from a 50-game suspension last season for bringing guns into the locker room was hindered by a groin injury -- is not exactly the bulwark of reliability and consistency. (Last week, the Wizards fined Arenas $50,000 for faking an injury when he was still healthy; he made up the knee injury so third-year guard Nick Young could see more action.) There is something to be said for having two guys who can handle the ball against pressure, and Arenas, a combo guard who averaged 22.6 points in 32 games last season, could be freed up for plenty of open shots. But Arenas is also as unpredictable as an AgathaChristie novel.
Wall appears to be the opposite, and the scout said he expected Wall to have a similar year to Rose, Chicago's third-year star.
"The guy who immediately conjures up images for me is Rose because they are both point guards with great size, and both great off the dribble," the scout said. "Right now, I would give Wall a little more of an edge in terms of scoring ability. But if you are looking for the type of impact John Wall is going to have, I think he will have a Derek Rose-type impact on the Wizards."