Note: Rashad Mobley is in Los Angeles for the 2011 NBA All-Star Weekend festivities where he will be chronicling the activities of John Wall and JaVale McGee as they put their great individual talent on display to the world. First up? The Rookie-Sophomore Game…
It feels like an eternity since we’ve seen John Wall outwardly having fun in a Washington Wizards uniform, and no one in good conscience could blame him. At the All-Star break, the Wizards are 15-39 overall, 1-26 on the road, and injuries, trades and flat-out inexperience have kept them from achieving more.
The last time Wall took the court, his Wizards were spanked 101-76 by the Orlando Magic, and he had little help from his teammates. Wall scored 27 points but dished out just one assist — mainly because all others in a Wizards uniform shot just 28-percent from the field.
Tonight at the 2011 T-Mobile Rookie Challenge was a bit different. With a record 22 assists, Wall led his fellow rookies to a 148-140 victory over the sophomores, but it wasn’t just how he did it that was refreshing, it was the company he kept while doing it.
At the center position he had his former college teammate and current Sacramento Kings rookie, DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. At the backup point guard slot, he had yet another college teammate in Eric Bledsoe of the LA Clippers, who had six points and five assists. And at the forward position, Wall had fellow rookie-of-the-year candidate Blake Griffin, also a Clipper, who finished with 14 points and combined with Wall to do this:
When the game ended, Wall won the MVP award with 12 points to go along with his 22 assists, breaking the previous Rookie-Sophomore game record of 17 assists held by Chris Paul. Maybe it was from not having to play defense through countless screens, but Wall was noticeably looser and and more carefree than he’s had a chance to be in a while with the Wizards. In a drastically more fun environment, Wall entertained with Dougie-ing, behind-the-back passes and by hanging on the rim longer than usual after catching an alley-oop from Cousins. Afterward:
“It felt good. Going in there I was just happy to play with all the other rookies and get a break from our teams and just refresh our memories. It was great to be back out with my teammates, my old teammates.”
Cousins, who recently had a scuffle with Kings teammate Donté Green, and has also been at odds with head coach Paul Westphal, also admitted it was nice to see his old teammate:
“I had some flashbacks, it was fun being out there with John. That year didn’t last long enough, but it’s over now. We kind of had that connection going out there again. It was fun to be out there on the floor with him. I knew what his mentality was coming in the game. He brought it up, but I knew what it was. He’s not trying to score 250, he’s going to share the ball and break the [assist] record, and that’s what he did.”
But despite the support of Cousins, Blake and to a much lesser degree Bledsoe, the night belonged to Wall. By game’s end, he managed to find each of his teammates for open shots at least once, rarely having regard for his own offense. In his post-game press conference, Wall did not even try to hide the fact that he was gunning for the assist record:
“I was keeping track before the game. I asked what the assist record was and before the game, my team was telling me I was four away or five away.”
The Kentucky Wildcats team featuring Wall, Bledsoe and Cousins went 34-3 last season, winning their first 19 games. Hopefully being around familiar faces and the carefree nature of All-Star weekend will temporarily give Wall a reprieve from the situation back on the east coast. But in getting back to the rest of the season, he needs to use this experience as an energy boost to keep improving (even though people will surely be calling for the Wizards to tank). Wall found time after the game to briefly discuss his maturation process and what he needs to do differently in the second half of the season:
“I’m just trying to get better every game. I think we have a great coaching staff and we’ve lost a lot of tough games. I want to take over the team more an lead it, not just by scoring, but getting in the offensive set, and learning how to close out games in the fourth quarter.”
But before Wall returns to the business of leading the Wizards, he has the Skills competition to tend to on Saturday night, where he will be up against Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Chicago’s Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and New Orleans’ Chris Paul.