Jonathan Hildred Wall Jr. was born on September 6, 1990 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) John was the second of three children born to Frances Pulley and John Wall Sr.
For most of his life, John saw his dad on weekends only. John Sr. was incarcerated for armed robbery for much of his adult life. John and his younger sister, Cierra, were too young to judge their father. In fact, Frances never told them why he was behind bars. It was just the place where dad lived. The family drove from their home in Garner, just outside Raleigh, to visit him. The kids were allowed to touch and hug him. John Sr. would hand his children superhero drawings he had made during the week.
In 1998, John’s father was diagnosed with liver cancer. Doctors told him that he might not live out the year. He was granted compassionate release and rejoined his family that summer. Frances and John Sr. decided to take their kids on a beach vacation to White Lake, near the North Carolina town of Lumberton. Father and son talked about the challenges John Jr. would face and how he might overcome them. John Sr. told his son to always find ways to be a better man, and to do whatever he had to in order to get a college education.
On the final day of the trip, John Sr. began hemorraging in the motel bathroom and was rushed to the hospital. He passed away a day later at the age of 52. John still finds it hard to go to the beach.
The loss of his father affected John tremendously. He became bitter and angry. John got into a lot of fights and was constantly tangling with authority figures. His mother, meanwhile, had to work two full-time jobs to keep the lights on and food on the table. John’s sisters also worked to bring money in.
John’s behavior problems threatened to derail his sports career. He was strong and fast—a superb football and basketball player in the mold of a young Allen Iverson. But his penchant for talking back to coaches and questioning their methods was wearing thin. Adults like LeVelle Moton, who let John join his basketball camp for free because of his impoverished background, said he just became too hard to handle.
Around the age of 12, John first encountered the Clifton brothers, Dwon and Brian. They ran an AAU basketball program and served as “advisors” to young athletes being recruited by colleges. By the time John joined their team, he was sporting gangsta dreadlocks to go with his surly attitude. Brian Clifton would have no part of it. He told John that he could not represent the team on the court until he got a haircut.
John relented and quickly became the star of the D-One Sports basketball squad. Within a few months, he began to build a national profile, starring at AAU camps and tournaments. Meanwhile, Frances helped John focus solely on basketball by forbidding him to play football—over the frantic objections of local gridiron coaches. She also told him that he had to change his attitude or he would be miserable the rest of his life.
John did not immediately take these lessons to heart. He started his prepr career at Garner Magnet High School, which had previously produced NCAA stars Donald Williams and David West. But when Frances moved the family to Raliegh, John enrolled at Broughton High School. He assumed his star would continue to rise. He was shocked when coach Jeff Ferrel cut him from the varsity—in large part because of his attitude. John left Broughton and joined the Word of God Christian Academy. There he flourished as a person and player under coach Levi Beckwith. It didn’t take long before he attratced a wave of college recruiters.
John repeated his junior year at Word of God, essentially to make sure he could play four full seasons of high school ball. He was the fastest player on the floor regardless of who the Rams played. He was a master penetrator and an unselfish floor general, involving his teammates in the offense at all times. By his senior year, he had sprouted to 6–4 and some were saying that if he decided to skip college and go pro he might possibly be the NBA’s #1 lottery pick.
Nothing John did on the court in 2008–09 changed those views. He averaged 19.7 points for the Rams and racked up triple-doubles on a regular basis. He led his team to within a hair of the state 1-A championship. A 40-footer by United Faith at the buzzer denied the Rams their moment of glory.
A major improvement in John’s attitude was a hyper-awareness of how others viewed him. From not caring who he offended, John was now careful not to be rude to, or disappoint, anyone in any way. Though admirable, this approach was not particularly productive during the college recruiting process. John didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by turning them down, but it also kept him from accepting any offer.
His choices were many. John could stay local and go to Duke or UNC. The 2008 NCAA champion Kansas Jayhawks invited him to their ring ceremony. Georgia Tech was on his radar for a long time. Baylor had hired Dwon Clifton as an assistant, so there was great pressure to go there. Ironically, it was advice from Dwon that helped John make his final pick. Years earlier, Clifton told him to ignore the counsel of friends and family and pick the program that felt best.
John had been eyeing Memphis and its Dribble-Drive offense, which seemed perfectly suited for his game. Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans had thrived in this system and became high NBA picks. The offense was the brainchild of John Calipari. John liked “Coach Cal”—he was honest with him about what it would take to reach the heights of a Rose or Evans. When Calipari moved from Memphis to Kentucky in 2009, that made John’s decision easy—he would follow Calipari to Lexington.
That is, if Calipari would have him. Shortly before making his decision, John and two friends were arrested for entering an abandoned home in Raleigh. Nothing was taken, but they did not force their way in. Fortunately, the charges were eventually dropped. But the incident made people take a closer look behind John’s new veneer. Later he would be suspended for a game for having taken $800 from Brian Clifton during his junior year at Word of God. Clifton was technically a registered agent at the time, though John claims he was unaware of this.
John enrolled in summer classes at Lexington, sat in the front row, and had a perfect 4.0 average coming into the fall semester. He was engaging and polite with teachers, students and administrators. He spent much of his time hanging around UK’s cavernous athletic facilities, talking with coaches and reading basketball magazines.
There wasn’t a student at Lexington that doubted John would be the top pick in the 2010 NBA Draft after his freshman year. Barring an injury, it would be one season and done. For his one year at Kentucky, John was the classic Big Man on Campus, unable to walk more than few paces without someone asking him to pose for a cell phone picture or sign an autograph. He had so much trouble getting to class on time that he decided to wear headphones and walk fast with his head down.
ON THE RISE
John’s coming out party with the Wildcats was Big Blue Madness. The preseason event is held to introduce the Kentucky players to the students. As each player is introduced, he takes the stage backed by loud music. When John came out, he busted a move that would later come to be known as The Dance. John's first appearance in the Wildcat lineup came in an exhibition game against Clarion University. He led Kentucky with 27 points and nine assists.
John’s first regular season game is still talked about in reverential tones. In a tight game against Miami, he put up a shot that ripped through the net at the buzzer for the victory. Eight days later he calmly sank a pair of free throws with two seconds left to send a contest into overtime. In early December, Kentucky and UNC—both ranked in the Top 10—faced off in a crazy game that saw the Wildcats squander a double-digit lead. John, slowed by leg cramps, toughed it out and helped his team win 68–66.
The hits kept coming. Against UConn in the madhouse of Madison Square Garden, John netted 12 of his team’s final 15 points to squeeze out a 64–61 win. In Kentucky’s final game of 2009, he smashed the school assist record with 16—and turned the ball over only once. The Wildcats went deep into January before losing their first game, a 68–62 road loss at South Carolina.
Led by John and fellow freshman sensations DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Eric Bledsoe and junior power forward Eric Patterson, the Wildcats clawed their way to a 29–2 record in the regular season, including 14–2 in SEC play. They won the final of the conference tournament, 75–74 in overtime, against Mississippi State. Cousins netted the fourth-quarter equalizer and then John scored seven of his team’s 11 points in the extra period. He was named SEC Tournament MVP.
With their first SEC tourney win since 2004, Kentucky fans now fixed their gaze on an NCAA title. Their quest for the Final Four began well enough, with blowout wins over East Tennessee State, Wake Forest and Cornell. In the Elite Eight, however, the Wildcats ran into a tough West Virginia team. The last time the Mountaineers made it to the Final Four, Jerry West was bringing the ball upcourt for them. Kentucky couldn't buy a basket in the early going and couldn't close the gap late, falling 73–66. The Wildcats missed their first 20 three-point attempts. When John went inside to Cousins, West Virginia triple-teamed him, forcing the young forward into bad decisions and turnovers.
John’s final numbers in what would be his only college season were impressive—16.6 ppg, 6.5 apg and 4.3 rpg. He was named SEC Player of the Year, a First-Team All-American and Freshman of the Year. John was also a finalist for the Wooden Award. Junior Evan Turner of Ohio State ended up winning the award.
With the NBA draft approaching, John began looking at the possibility of a new address. The New Jersey Nets had the league’s worst record, but the Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers finished 1–2 when the pin-pong balls were pulled. Most experts felt the choice for #1 came down to John and Turner, a small forward.
Washington, looking to rebuild a fallen franchise, nabbed John with the top pick. Cousins, who also left Kentucky after one year, went at #5 to the Sacramento Kings. Incredibly, Patterson, Bledsoe and Orton also were tabbed in the first round, marking an historic exodus from a single program. John stood out in this group in more ways than one—he was the first Kentucky player in the school’s proud history ever taken #1 overall in the NBA draft.
MAKING HIS MARK
John’s first public appearance in D.C. was literally a red-carpet event. More than 1,000 fans joined the press in welcoming him to the Verizon Center, where team officials—owner Ted Leonsis, President Ernie Grunfeld and coach Flip Saunders—sang his praises. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty added extra flair be declaring it John Wall Day.
John joined a club with both promise and problems. John, Nick Young and Andray Blatche gave the Wizards a core of talented young players. Kirk Hinrich and Josh Howard provided a veteran presence. Gilbert Arenas, the team’s troubled star, would be asked to move aside for John. The club, however, eventually traded him to the Orlando Magic for Rashard Lewis. Saunders wasn’t expecting any miracles, but Washington fans hoped he would cobble together a .500 club in the Eastern Conference’s most challenging division.
John’s first NBA game was a loss to the Magic in Orlando. He was nervous until he hit his first shot, and then settled down to score 14 points and hand out nine assists. He missed 13 of 19 shots and turned the ball over three times. It was an inauspicious debut.
John’s first home game went a lot better. He scored 29 points in an overtime win against the 76ers. He dished out 13 assists and tied a team record with nine steals—finishing just one swipe short of a triple-double. Eight days later, John tied his season high with another 13-assist performance, adding 10 rebounds and 19 points for a triple-double in just his ninth NBA game—a win over the Houston Rockets. Only LeBron James and Lamar Odom had recorded triple-doubles at a younger age.
After missing a week with a bruised knee, John returned to the court to score 25 against the 76ers. It was Washington’s third victory of the campaign against six losses. In each of the Wizards’ wins, John was clearly the best player on the court.
The early season brought more hope and disappointment. John notched 13 and 14 assists in back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks. However, the Wizards lost both times. That may be the pattern for the foreseeable future. Watching John play, it is easy to forget that he has been handed the reins of an NBA franchise at the tender age of 20. There will be bumps in the road and a lot of personnel changes. That being said, as building blocks go, they don’t come much better than John. Washington’s long-suffering fans should soon have reason to dance.
JOHN THE PLAYER
The key to John's game is his quickness. He makes seasoned defenders look helpless at times. He also uses his speed and leaping ability to make eye-popping defensive plays—which makes up for his lack of experience in guarding opposing point guards.
Until John’s outside shot becomes more consistent, his primary weapon will be his explosive first step. And second step. And third step. In a pre-season drill, he was actually timed faster dribbling a basketball than sprinting without one. Let that sink in for a second.
John’s ability to penetrate should improve the Wizards immediately. He is unselfish and good at finding the open man. And should NBA defenses choose to let him rise to the rim, they do so at their peril, for John is a quality finisher.
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