As I sat on the Washington Wizards practice court, and watched the elaborate production of a press conference that was rolled out for John Wall a day after they made him the number one pick, I could not help but be impressed.
There was a plaque from Adrian Fenty, Mayor of Washington D.C., declaring Friday, June 25th, 2010, John Wall Day; There was a three minute, welcome-to-DC-John Wall video featuring D.C. sports celebrities like Donovan McNabb, Alexander Ovechkin, and Steven Strasburg; And whether it was the banners bearing his name outside the arena, or the Wizards’ employees wearing shirts with “Wall” across the front, there was no mistake that this day belonged to John Wall.
Team President Ernie Grunfeld kept using phrases like “new era” and “character” to describe Wall’s arrival, and head coach Flip Saunders joined in by also praising Wall’s character, and calling the arrival of the point guard “heaven sent”. Both Saunders and Grunfeld could barely finish their sentences without thunderous applause from the kids and fans who were also in attendance.
At that moment it was became crystal clear to me that the pressure on John Wall would exceed that of a normal number one draft pick. He isn’t just expected to be the starting point guard on a team that has designs on returning to the playoffs, but Wall is being called upon to restore the emphasis on good character and behavior that has been absent since Gilbert Arenas was suspended in January of this year.
That type of pressure would arguably be easier for Wall to handle, if Arenas had been cut or traded to another team. But according to Grunfeld and new owner Ted Leonsis, Arenas is still very much a part of this Washington Wizards team, and is expected to be in the starting backcourt with Wall.
The opinions on whether Wall and Arenas can play together seem to vary greatly. On draft night, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy and Fox Sports Radio contributor Stephen A. Smith seemed to think they would fare quite well together, but he seems to be in the minority with that opinion. Most people whose job it is to follow these things, like ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption co-host Tony Kornheiser and Yahoo’s Adrian Wajnarowski seem to think that it is mistake to combine the two players, and tension will be in the air as a result.
Not only do I agree with Van Gundy and Smith, that Wall and Arenas can play well together and thrive, I believe that these players need each other to have a successful 2010-2011 season.
Arenas needs Wall to deflect some of the well-deserved criticism and questions, that will come the minute he sets foot on the court for training camp. Even though he’ll attempt to lean on the tried and true ”it’s all in the past” cliche’ for comfort, Arenas will have to explain his gun incident, his halfway house stay, his feelings on Leonsis, Grunfeld, Saunders and the possibility of him being traded.
Last season, just the return of Arenas from injury, caused a frenzy in the Wizards locker room, and there were crowds of media camped out in front of his locker for answers. There was no other story and no other player to deflect the attention away Arenas. This changes with Wall’s arrival, because no matter what Arenas is doing, saying or not saying, there will always be a number one draft pick in the same locker room who commands the same if not more attention.
On the court, the same concept will apply. Arenas will be sharing the backcourt with a player who is quick, can penetrate and kick, get his own shot, and has the ability to pass the ball better than he can. This allows Arenas to focus on the one thing he has been so good at during his nine-year career and that’s score with great proficiency. The guilt associated with not moving the ball or not keeping the offense moving as a point guard is diminshed greatly with Wall’s presence. As with anything, there will surely be a period of adjustment, but between training camp and the first few weeks of the season, those problems can be solved.
From Wall’s standpoint, the presence of Arenas, who is an All-Star and a proven scorer, can only help his job as a rookie point guard. In football, the best friend of a young quarterback is a proven running back who keep the offense out of third and long situations, and what Wall will have in Arenas is no different.
Based on Wall’s talent and his Kentucky highlight reel, he can run an offense and mix in his own just fine, but he is still a rookie. As good as Rajon Rondo played in the playoffs this year, when he first played with Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, he struggled with gaining their confidence as well as his own. Luckily for Rondo, the three All-Stars were able to carry the team until he was fully ready. In Arenas (and Andray Blatche once he recovers from foot surgery), Wall will have players who can bail him out while Coach Saunders, Assistant Coach Sam Cassell (and maybe Kirk Hinrich) teach him how to efficiently play point guard. Once Wall learns that, Blatche, Arenas and others will only continue to compliment him and make him better.
Off the court, it would be nice if Wall had a mentor and/or a big brother figure in Arenas, but that may not be realistic. But again, on those days when Wall has to meet with the media and answer tough question after tough question, the mere presence of Arenas will lessen the mounting pressure that’s being placed on him daily.
From now until training camp, we will continue to hear about John Wall and Gilbert Arenas separately. Wall in be in the Vegas Summer League getting his feet wet in the NBA game, and Arenas will continue to workout in Chicago, performing maintenance on his knee. The Wizards braintrust will continue to sell Wall as the face of the team and Arenas’ as a valued, but very much secondary member of the team. But by the time training camp ends and that first regular season game tips off, not only will the Wizards realize they need both of these men for a successful season, but Wall and Arenas will discover just how much they need each other.