John Wall just began his seventh year in the NBA. He's been an All-Star for each of the past three seasons. He puts up 20 and 10 like a reflex. Wherever he goes on offense, open looks follow for everyone else. He's making almost $17 million this year. He's probably one of the 15 best players in the league. Objectively, he's a success. The problem is subjectively.
"They still don't respect me," Wall said when we sat down and I asked about his reputation nationally. "But I mean, that's something that comes with the games. I'm gonna let people know this season." Wall speaks in a perpetual fast break, but there's a pause here.
"And I don't know," he adds. "You know what I mean? You have career years, when you're winning games, you start an All-Star Game, and you're still not put on the top three All-NBA teams. That lets you know. But all I can do is control what John Wall does. Going out there and leading my team. You're not getting any recognition as a point guard if you ain't winning."
Then we hit the other controversies from this summer. We talked about his relationship with Bradley Beal. "Not everybody's going to have a perfect relationship with every great player on their team," he says. "But when I step between those lines and I'm with my team, we're a brotherhood. We're not great, and I wouldn't be myself, without him. He's able to knock down shots for me, I knock shots down for him, we make plays for each other. We're fine, we're perfectly fine. We both want to be great. We just gotta figure out how to balance it out. We both know, if we're not both averaging 20-plus, our team's not going very far."
And his feelings about contract numbers around the league: "The point I was getting across to everybody was, when I got five years, 80 million, everybody said, 'Oh, he don't deserve it. Why is John Wall getting that? He didn't earn it.' All I'm saying: let everybody earn it. They all getting paid this crazy money, I can't control that, I'm not the one that got the CBA going wild. And I know in two years, if I keep doing what I'm supposed to do, I'll be taken care of. So I don't worry about what the next man got. I can't be saying, 'Michael Jordan's got a billion dollars in his bank account, I want to live like Michael Jordan.' All I can worry about is what's in mine, and how I can take care of my family, and have fun with it."
This is the state of John Wall at the moment. He's saying the right things, but it's hard to say how much he believes them. He's not necessarily unhappy, but he doesn't seem satisfied, either.
This is a story that can go a number of different directions as the season unfolds. So a week before the year began—before an 0-2 start, and before a home opener Wednesday that Marcin Gortat has called a "must-win" already—I went to Verizon Center to talk with Wall about everything that’s happened so far.
SI: Let's go back. From a basketball standpoint, you went from Kentucky, which is one of the wildest scenes in sports, to the Wizards. This team hasn't won 50 games in 30 years, and there's not much of that crazy fan support. The craziest people get is for free chicken...
John Wall Wall: (laughs) Yeah.
SI: So how hard has it been to try to change that culture around here?
Wall: Well, it's been tough. Kentucky, they showed me what loyalty is to the game of basketball. Their fans are amazing. They don't have no other sports down there. You love horses, you love basketball. And here? My ultimate goal is to bring a championship here. I don't want to go nowhere. I'm one of those guys that likes to lead, not follow. So when we get to that 50-win point, they'll be happy all over again. I think our fans... They have their ups and downs. And it's tough, because it's like a curse that's been going around with playoff teams. The Nationals lost in the first round, the Redskins will go and they'll lose, we'll make it to the second round and lose. I just want to bring the sense of urgency back. Get us to the Eastern Conference finals, get a chance to make the Finals, see what can happen.
SI: As you came from Kentucky, there was a lot of criticism early on. You had David Falk say Kyrie was a much better player. Stan Van Gundy said you weren't a franchise player. Both those guys have since retracted those comments, but what was your reaction to all that as it happened?
Wall: I loved it. You know what I mean? I enjoyed it. When people talk trash about me, and doubt me, I just use it as motivation. And, I never played with another All-Star. I dealt with injuries early on in my career, so for me to get to where I did, improve every year… How can you hate somebody like that?
SI: And obviously, Colin Cowherd ...
SI: Did you even know who he was? Did you care about proving him wrong?
Wall: Yeah, I knew who he was. I hear everything that goes on. You got social media, you're gonna see what everybody posts about you and says about you. I'm just one of those ones who enjoy it and laugh at it. I really don't care if I come out on top or at the bottom in anybody's eyes. As long as I know what I'm doing for myself and my family and friends, and my team, I feel like I'm on top every time.
SI: Early on it was you and Nick Young, Andray Blatche and Javale McGee. What do you remember from that experience?
Wall: It was tough. Tough and very frustrating. There really weren't any veterans around. Those guys were still young at the same time, and very talented. They were trying to get their careers started and build their name up, get a face in this league. I'm coming in as a young guy trying to establish myself in this league. It was all just mixed up. Great group of guys, we had fun, but we just didn't know how to play together. We didn't know what was going on. We didn't have any veteran sitting in the locker room to control everything. It was all just fun and games.
SI: Then you had the flipside a few years ago. What did you learn from Paul Pierce?
Wall: Just his work ethic. He has a routine he does every morning, every day. He sticks to his routine. And he's a great leader. He knows how to lead by example, but also talk to guys. He helped with my leadership. Just giving me that demeanor to say, "Every time you step on this court, you're the best player, no matter who you're playing." I always had that confidence in myself, but it just gave me more. No matter who you're playing, they can't stop you.
SI: Then you guys had that playoff run. The Hawks series. Your hand was swollen to the size of a basketball, and then a few days later you were playing. Let me ask you: HOW?
Wall: Paul Pierce.
SI: What about Paul Pierce?
Wall: Just... Come on man. You gotta think, when I first came here we were the laughingstock. They used to call us the Washington Generals. You would've never thought a Hall of Famer like that would want to come play with us. So to have a guy like that meant a whole lot, and I felt like we had an opportunity to do something special. Go to the Eastern Conference finals, and give ourselves a shot. My ultimate goal was to get back and play for him. I mean, we were basically one rebound away.
SI: Do you win that series if you're healthy?
Wall: Oh, if we were healthy we would've won that series in five games. And they knew that. They knew that.
SI: Pierce is someone who survived some down years with the Celtics, before getting the help he needs, winning his title. Does that kind of story appeal to you?
Wall: You know, it's a new era in the NBA right now, but I'm a loyal guy. If people stick behind me like the city's been doing for the first six years, going on seven... You never know what can happen, but I love being here. I enjoy playing here. My dad was from here. And it's a short drive to North Carolina if I ever want to see my family, or they want to come see me. Like I said, my ultimate goal is to hang up another banner in this arena.
SI: OK, so then… last season. What was that experience like from a mental standpoint?
Wall: It was frustrating. Playing through a lot of pain, some nights not knowing if I could be myself. Just us dealing with a lot of injuries. Every year I've been in the league, my team has had a lot of injuries. Sometimes we overcame that, but the Eastern Conference got better. Usually .500 will get you in the playoffs in the East, but the East got better last year, and this year it's even better. I think that was like a slap in the face. We kinda walked in last year like "OK we've been here the last two years, we're going back to the second round," and it slapped us in the face. We wasn't dedicated every day, we didn't give 110%. We took shortcuts.
SI: You led the team in points, assists, steals, and minutes last year. You played through injuries the entire year. But you just didn’t have the supporting cast around you. Was it tough to stay positive?
Wall: Nah, it wasn't hard, because I'm always positive. I believe in the guys we put out there. No matter who we played at certain positions, I feel like whenever I'm on the court, I like our chances. The frustrating part was playing through the injuries.
SI: You're human, though. Was there a point where you started to look around last year, look at the coaching staff, and think it's time for a new era?
Wall: Yeah. I think sometimes, it just gets to a point where things run out. When things run out, you have to make adjustments and make changes. We did that. We added some new guys, made the team a lot deeper. A great coaching staff, and those guys believe in us. [Scott Brooks] is a players' coach. He understands what the players want, and what we need, and how to get our best.
SI: Obviously, the Kevin Durant stuff added an additional layer to everything happened last year. Did that talk bother you guys?
Wall: Yeah, that was the most... That was a wild thing. I tried to tell everybody, you can't focus on that. We're worried about the Wizards, and he's worried about OKC. It was frustrating, because everybody was basically like, "Forget this season. We don't care what goes on this season. We're worried about this summer." Well, nobody gonna come if you ain't winning.
SI: I mean, I’ll be honest, I was definitely all in on Durant to DC. Mostly because of you. I figured if you could make Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza look good, KD would come here and drop 40 every night.
Wall: (laughs) Yeah, everybody looked at that. And that's why I say, a lot of people understand what I can do as a basketball player. Reporters, I know those guys are going to say what they say, because you have to make a story. I understand. But people in the league know what John Wall's all about. Now my job is just to lead this team.
SI: Are you excited to have Beal healthy to help out?
Wall: Yeah, he has his contract out the way. Now he wants to become an All-Star. I feel like if he plays 82 games, he's got a great opportunity to do that. If we're winning games and he's playing the way he played when he's healthy, he's got a great opportunity.
SI: And everyone talks about Beal, but what about 82 games with Markieff Morris?
Wall: Totally. I mean, we were over .500 when he was with us last year. He's a four-man that if you want to switch pick-and-rolls with us like a lot of people do, he can score in the post, he can pass. If he's healthy and plays the way he can play, you never know, he might have a chance to be an All-Star. If you're one of those top two or three teams, sometimes you get two or three guys in. You never know.
SI: So what's success for this team? As you guys talk things through together, what are the goals?
Wall: Success for us is getting over 50 wins. The Finals, that's our ultimate goal. And we gotta take the next step, make it to the Eastern Conference finals. Because you never know what could happen in those situations. You could be one injury away. I mean, you don't wish anybody gets injured, but it can happen. It's the same thing that happened to us.
SI: Big picture, next to Wes Unseld and maybe a few others, you could be one of the best players this team has ever had. Is that something you’ve considered? Do you want to be here for your entire career?
Wall: Totally. I love being here. I love the city. I do so much here, my Dad being from here, it's easy for family to come see. I'm an East Coast guy. I love the weather. Like people don't like cold, but that's how you feel the freshest. So yeah, I look at all those things. Being the assists leader, the steals leader. I want to set records here that people won't break for a long, long time. But none of that will mean anything if I don't hang a banner here.
SI: You were just in Lexington with Boogie for a preseason game... That team with you guys and Bledsoe was so much fun. But since then, you guys have been in some tough situations in the NBA. You've all had to carry teams, you haven't always had help. Do you guys ever talk about those challenges?
Wall: We talk about it all the time. Boogie's going into his seventh season and hasn't seen the playoffs yet. That's frustrating. I just try to tell him what he can do. Keep being the beast, and lead your team. He's matured a whole lot, not being the hothead that everybody labeled him early on. It's tough coming in as a young guy, not winning, a lot of pressure on you. Every time you do something, they say you're bullying somebody, ‘cause you're already 7 feet, 260 (pounds). We all talk about it.
SI: What does Boogie tell you?
Wall: He'll tell me if not being the real John Wall. Like, go out there with that killer instinct that I always know you had. We'll text each other before the games, saying, "I need you to do this." It's not about who we're playing, but we know we each other is capable of. How great we can be in this league.
SI: Speaking of the league, looking around at your point guard peers, you see someone like Kyrie, he gets to play with LeBron. Steph has Draymond, Klay and KD. CP3 has Blake. Do you ever feel like you're at a disadvantage in some of these battles?
Wall: It's a disadvantage, but at the same time, I've got Bradley Beal. I've got Markieff Morris. It motivates me. I feel like we can go out there and compete against anybody. No game's gonna be easy. There's gonna be nights when they're hot, there's gonna be nights when we're hot. But no point guard is ever gonna say they overwhelmed me, or they dominated me. I have too much heart for that.