Monday, February 1, 2010

How Do I Love Thee....Let Me Count the Ways (John Wall Edition)

It’s coming up on Valentine’s Day (which I usually ignore) and love is in the air, so I thought I’d expound a bit on why I love John Wall. To set the record straight, I also love Patrick and Boogie, but Wall has been in the media a LOT in the last few days and so, naturally, he’s on my mind.

My love fest has to begin with the disclaimer that while I agree that Wall’s basketball skills are AMAZING, they aren’t the reason (or at least the main reason) why I love him. UK has been privileged to be the alma mater to a number of highly talented players over the years, but most of them don’t make my top five favorite players (Chuck Hayes, Tayshaun Prince, Travis Forde, Tony Delk, Cameron Mills). What you might notice about my all-time top 5, is that while 3 of them made it to the NBA, 2 didn’t, and one (Hayes) is relegated to mostly a back up role for his team. What made me love these guys wasn’t their on the court skills, rather it was a list of off the court qualities like attitude, team spirit, and emotion. (And the fact that Hayes cried on Senior Night.)

You might also notice that every one of those guys was a 4 year player at UK. I don’t really like the idea of One-and-Dones. I’ve never been a fan of players who come in highly regarded and stay only a year or two (Rondo, Morris, I’m looking at you). While I recognize their benefit to the team, I never really take to them for the simple reason that I don’t want to develop a relationship with someone who is going to leave early. So I was predisposed to hate Wall from the moment he signed his Letter of Intent.

I also tend to dislike players that come in with lots of hype. They rarely seem to live up to the expectations, and often come with egos that outstrip any talent they might have--can we say Rashad Carruth? (Carruth, Carruth, Carruth is on fire!) Yet another knock against Wall. How could a kid that was as hyped as Wall was not come in with a huge ego? How could he possibly live up to the hype? How much trouble would he cause?

What I found, almost from the first moment Wall set foot on campus, was that he wasn’t what I expected at all. First off, he was humble. Despite being asked about himself constantly, he rarely gave an interview where he didn’t mention at least one, if not more, of his team mates. He praised Cousins, Bledsoe, Patterson, everyone else on the team. And, surprisingly enough, the rest of the team didn’t seem to mind that Wall was getting the lion’s share of the attention--and they seemed to genuinely like Wall. Already I could feel my dislike beginning to crack.

He also went to class and studied hard (rumor has it that he got a 4.0 during his summer session and at least a 3.5 during the fall). For a kid who would be spending at most 3 semesters on campus to care that much about his school work seemed--well crazy. But he does care. And being a bookworm myself, that certainly made me love him (at least a little).

On the court he was even better than advertised. Did he make freshman mistakes? Sure. But after watching him play a few times, I was willing to give him a couple of stupid passes a game in exchange for some of his thrilling break away dunks and fabulous passes. And watching him take over games (but only when we needed him to) made me realize just how talented he was.

But what has cemented my love for John Wall is how he has handled the pressure cooker that is being the most talented freshman to play college basketball this year for the greatest college basketball program of all time. He has done amazingly well for a kid who is only 19.

Take, for example, this latest dust up about Wall and Cal not getting along. Did he make a rather ill-advised comment Saturday after the game about being unhappy and frustrated? Yeah. But he’s 19. Most 19 year old kids don’t have to deal with swarms of media every time they step into public asking about everything from his choice of shoe to why he isn’t smiling. Most 19 year old kids vent all the time to all kinds of people via Twitter, Facebook, and text. As far as I’m concerned, all Wall was doing was venting. His coach had gotten on him, and he was mad about it. He felt wronged. Most teens do at some point. So he said something he probably shouldn’t have.

What impressed me about the whole thing wasn’t that he slipped up and made the comment (although that did prove that he’s human). What impressed me were the comments he made today. He admitted that he was wrong about how well he played at USC. He admitted that Cal was right when he said Wall hadn’t played well and that he and Cal were “good.” And he admitted that there were things he wanted to work on.

What, might you ask, does Wall think he needs to work on? His scoring (17 points per game)? His rebounding (3.6)? Steals? Blocks? No, the thing that Wall thinks he needs to work on most is his assist per game average (6.8). He isn’t worried about the stats that most guys focus on, he wants to make sure he is getting the ball to his teammates enough.

For a little perspective, the all time assist leader at UK for a single season was Roger Harden who had 232 assists in the 85-86 season and averaged only 6.4 a game (over 36 games). Roger Harden also holds the record for the highest Assists/Game average in a single season. Wall already holds the single game assist record (16 vs Hartford). And the only other freshmen to ever lead the team in assists were the great Rex Chapman who averaged a measly 3.6 a game over 29 games and Liggins last year with an even more meager 2.8.

So, for Wall, arguably the best player in Division I basketball this year, to want to improve on his 6.8 assist per game average says a lot about this young man’s character. He wants to make his teammates happy when he has every right to think of them simply as “those other guys on the floor.” And so, despite the fact that I was predisposed to dislike him, Wall has wormed his way into my heart. Will he become one of my all time favorite players? Probably not. It is going to take a lot to crack my top 5. But he has certainly made himself one of my favorites on this team--and it has little to do with what he’s been doing on the court. Keep it up, John.

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