Mar 27, 2012 4:07 PM
WASHINGTON (AP) - John Wall banked in a 3-pointer just before the shot clock expired, giving his team a 99-96 lead with 17.1 seconds to go. He threw hands up to celebrate, flashed a big broad smile and traded high-fives with his teammates.
Then he played some solid defense, forcing his man to miss a potential game-tying shot. He rubbed it in with a playful taunt: "I told you! I told you! No shot! No shot! Sit down."
When the final buzzer sounded, he declared "I'm a winner." The final score: 103-98.
Doesn't sound familiar? Of course not. That was a Blue vs. White intrasquad scrimmage at a recent Washington Wizards practice, one of the few settings these days in which Wall can actually enjoy some regular success.
Such scenes have yet to become a part of the standard NBA game repertoire for the No. 1 overall pick from the 2010 draft. The body language is just as likely to feature a sag of the shoulders rather than a smile on the face. His buzzer-beaters miss the mark more often than not. His trademark "Dougie" dance is on hiatus, nearly forgotten amid all of the losing.
While there are many positive things to say about Wall as a pro as he wraps up his second season - talented, hard-worker, well-behaved - one thing he isn't, at least not yet, is a winner.
"There's moments when you get down," Wall said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's like you get down on yourself and the whole team - because you know when you play together, you play hard."
The Wizards want to build their franchise around Wall, but so far he's essentially been waiting for the rest of the construction to take hold. Washington has been the worst team in the NBA since his arrival, with a record of 34-97. This season alone the Wizards have hit the reset button in multiple ways, firing coach Flip Saunders and trading supposed-to-be linchpins JaVale McGee and Nick Young and then telling another one - Andray Blatche - to stay home and work on his conditioning.
With team president Ernie Grunfeld's contract expiring at the end of the season - and a renewal definitely in question as the team heads for a fourth straight appearance in the draft lottery - Wall already sticks out as a rare piece of franchise stability, even though he's not been around that long. The Wizards can only be thankful that he's no longer the player whose attitude problems got him cut from his high school team in Raleigh, N.C., and that he - at least publicly - displays remarkable perspective at age 21 and buys into the rebuilding program touted by owner Ted Leonsis.
"It's not easy for me. When I was picked, I knew it was going to be a tough rebuilding process," Wall said. "You come in and you just try to compete. I asked KD (Kevin Durant) the same thing - how did he deal with his two years when he was struggling.
"One thing is, you just come in early and be the last one to leave the gym, just be a leader that way and make sure you're working on your game and getting better every day. The time will come that things will change around."
The recent days have been especially tough on Wall. He dribbled out the clock before getting a shot off in a two-point loss to Indiana on Thursday. He went 1 for 10 and missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer in a three-point loss to Atlanta on Saturday. He drove baseline and missed a layup in the final seconds of a two-point loss to Detroit on Monday.
Wall leads the league with 193 turnovers, and his 3.9 per game average is second worst behind Deron Williams of New Jersey. Wall is also averaging 17.1 points, 7.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds.
"Sometimes you have to fall a little bit, before you get there, and right now that's happening to him," teammate Roger Mason said. "But he's a young player. He'll learn from it. You've just got to be mentally strong in this league. This league isn't for children. He'll be fine. He's tough-minded and it's going to make it that much more sweet when they go the other way."
Wall has the additional burden of being a team captain, an honor given him from Day One of his rookie season by Saunders. All now agree that it was probably too much too soon but that he's started to grow into the job. Wall says he now has a better sense of "knowing which ways you can talk to certain guys."
Still, the Wizards have their rudderless moments, particularly a recent loss to Golden State that had coach Randy Wittman apologizing for the team's "unprofessional" effort. Those are the times when a captain needs to be an assertive leader.
"He does lead a lot by example," teammate Maurice Evans said. "We (the veterans) supplement vocally, and obviously it's such a tall task because there's so much that needs to be done here. But just from being a teammate of John, it's impressive the work ethic that he employs and how much of that leadership role he embraces."
Of course, considering some of the exploits of some recent Wizards players, one could argue that Wall sets a new team standard just by staying out of trouble. He describes a life consumed by basketball, family and not much else.
His mother drives up from North Carolina for every home game and cooks him his favorite meals. He lives in an apartment in the city with his best friend. He's a devout student of the game, one who studies video with assistant coach Sam Cassell before tipoff and spends his late evenings watching games he's recorded simultaneously on his three television sets at home.
"Basically, I try to watch games at all times of night," Wall said, "especially if one my Kentucky guys is playing."
Wall was one-and-done at Kentucky, but the decision to leave was tougher than he expected because he liked the college scene. He took two classes toward his business major during last year's lockout and is determined to get his degree. The work ethic issues faded long ago, when he switched high schools and then got benched for not wanting to carry out his new coach's instructions in the final minutes of a close game.
"We lost that game, and the next three games I probably played two minutes total," he said. "My momma said, 'If you want to be something special and do something, you've got to change your attitude.' And ever since that moment, my momma telling me that, everything changed."
The overhauled mindset is getting tested with a Wizards team still trying to put together a rebuilding plan that actually shows some promise. Fair warning: They've only got two more years before Wall can become a free agent and seek other pastures if he no longer feels there's a winning future in Washington.
"I know things are going to change," he said. "I know there's going to be a time when we're going to be in the playoffs and fighting for the Eastern Conference championship. That's what you live for."
AP Sports Writer Howard Fendrich and AP freelance writer Daimon Eklund contributed to this report.
Joseph White can be reached at http://twitter.com/JGWhiteAP
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