NEW YORK – Wizards guard John Wall is a long way from completing his hoops journey.
But the scenery is becoming more attractive the closer he gets to the destination.
In 2008, after watching him win the dunk contest and earn all-tourney honors at the renowned City of Palms tournament in Fort Myers, Fla., I thought he was special. The crazy hops, 360-spin move and blurring speed that have become staples were in full effect. If you look up the YouTube mix-tape of the highlights, you’ll see all of that plus a mid-range jumper (which he didn’t fully develop until this season).
But dozens of high school phenoms passed through Fort Myers during my nine years there, including Lance Stephenson, Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Michael Beasley and former No. 1 draft pick Kwame Brown – which proves that prep performance is totally unreliable in predicting NBA stardom.
Reaching even one NBA All-Star Game is a great accomplishment and Sunday was Wall’s second. He validated his first selection as a starter by scoring 19 points with seven assists and three rebounds. The fine outing included power dunks, blow-by drives, pinpoint passes and a three-pointer for good measure.
His game and his confidence have grown from the happy-to-be-here, scared-to-death novice we saw in 2014, to the blossoming national star who garned the league’s seventh-highest vote total.
“You could really see the difference in him this year,” Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul said after the West escaped with a 163-158 victory against the East at Madison Square Garden. “He was a lot more relaxed and a lot more comfortable.”
Maybe not quite as comfortable as Paul, who enjoyed his eighth All-Star Game, or greybeard Tim Duncan, invited to the party for the 15th year. Kobe Bryant didn’t play but was named to the team for the 17th time, while Dirk Nowitzki dunked off an alley-oop to celebrate his 13th game.
Spending a weekend with the NBA’s biggest names and top players isn’t something Wall wants to happen infrequently.
“This is somewhere I want to be,” he said afterward. “Hopefully I can be an All-Star the rest of my career as much as possible. It’s an honor to be here with these other great guys. It’s an opportunity for us young guys to try to improve and get to the superstar level those guys are at.”
The benefits of All-Star get-togethers pale in comparison to USA Basketball gatherings. The former is more like happy hour, where players seek to have fun, enjoy each other and entertain the crowd.
Conversely, wearing the red, white and blue to represent the USA is strictly business, with intense practices, a clear-cut mission and a strategic plan to accomplish it.
It’s no coincidence that several members of the 2014 USA World Cup team are having breakout seasons, including Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. Along with Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, they received their championship rings in honor of winning the FIBA gold medal.
Paul, a two-time Olympian admits that the All-Star experience is nothing like international ball. But he said the intangible impact can rub off on young players like Wall.
“Just being around the guys is going to help you, regardless,” Paul said. “It gives you a sense of who you are as a player and gives you more confidence in your ability. It lets you know that you belong.”
In addition to the camraderie, Wall enjoyed the chance to market himself and build his brand, which is rising with a bullet. He made more appearances with fans and sponsors than he could count, but understands and welcomes that part of the territory.
“It’s nerve-racking at times when you’re doing it so much,” he said. “But it’s a great opportunity and it’s an honor to be here.”
As for switching from playground mentality to regular-season mindset, it won’t be a problem when Cleveland visits Verizon Center Friday night for a game on ESPN.
“It’s easy for me to get back to playing for real,” Wall said. “That how I play anyway; I like to be a team player. We (the East) didn’t even go through any plays or anything in practice. We were just shooting around.”
The extended break lets him relax a few more days during a vacation in the Bahamas. Then it’s back on the grind against the Cavaliers, who went 14-2 to close out the first half.
“I think it’s going to be a great test for us,” Wall said. We’re 1-1 against each other and we both won at home. They’re playing like one of the best teams in the league right now.”
Thankfully for the Wizards, their point guard is playing like one of the league’s best at his position.
Even better news: He’s not yet at the level he’s headed toward.