From Arenas to Wall, D.C. Still Awaits a Basketball Savior
“Gilbert is a phenomenal player and his value to the franchise goes beyond what he brings to the court. We’re proud and excited that we were able to take care of our own free agents and open the 2008-09 season with a healthy core intact.” —Team President Ernie Grunfeld, July 13, 2008
Two years later, the Wizards were holding yet another press conference to celebrate the arrival of John Wall—the top pick in the 2010 NBA draft. Grunfeld was once again in attendance, but this time Ted Leonsis was at his side instead of Pollin, who had passed away in 2009. Eddie Jordan was fired in 2008—just three months after the Arenas extension press conference—and replaced by Flip Saunders, who sat on the dais at the Wall press conference. Red carpet was laid out, a short video of D.C. area athletes saying hello to Wall was shown, and then-mayor Adrian Fenty declared June 25th, 2010, “John Wall Day.” It was Wall’s job to restore the hope stolen by Arenas, and eventually become a game-changer who would lead the Wizards franchise to that elusive second championship—or at the very least return them to the playoffs.
“This is a very important and special day for this organization. This is a new era … and what better way to start a new era than by having a No. 1 pick… We found out that he has outstanding character, obviously his physical attributes are off the charts… He has a real competitive nature. Winning and losing is very important to him, and those are the kind of players we want to build this team with, players that care about winning and losing, and have pride, and have great character and a great work ethic.” —Team President Ernie Grunfeld
Thursday’s celebration of Wall’s $80 million contract extension had elements of both the 2008 and 2010 press conferences. Grunfeld was there reprising his role as Team President, alongside owner Ted Leonsis. Randy Wittman—who was an assistant coach under Saunders in 2010—was now in the head coach’s chair, and of course Wall was in attendance. August 1, 2013, was not declared “John Wall Day,” but Washington, D.C. mayor Vincent Gray was in attendance, presiding over the occasion (surprisingly he did not have a chair, he stood the entire time). And although Gilbert Arenas’ name was not uttered once during the presser, Leonsis acknowledged the effect Arenas had on this franchise during Wall’s rookie year by mentioning that the “organization has had enough drama,” and how important Wall has been during this rebuilding process.
“John and I talked about what we had to do the day we drafted him … rebuilds are hard. And we’ve had 100 percent turnover on our team, and so we owe a lot to our fans for the patience that they’ve shown and also the players, because it was going to be messy and we’re through that point now. And I felt that John earned this because of what he’d been through and his level of commitment” —Owner Ted Leonsis
“Last year and him missing the first three and a half months of the season and then him coming back and trying to jump in and play at an NBA level without being physically in shape … you guys mentioned that you were hard on him, a lot of people were hard on him, he was hard on himself. I think that was big determining factor in all of our minds of what and who John Wall will become. And as a coach I don’t have a problem in going to Mr. Leonsis and saying ‘This is a guy we gotta keep at all costs.’ ” —Coach Randy Wittman
“The day we drafted John we said we want to build this franchise with him and around him, and I think over the last three years, we’ve shown that he’s capable of leading us where we want to go and that’s back to the playoffs… He’s grown on and off the court, he’s matured, I think his game has improved, and I think last year when he came back after missing some games early in the season, he showed what kind of an impact he can have on this franchise.” —Team President Ernie Grunfeld
Wall went through the full gamut of emotions during this presser. He made philanthropic gestures by promising to donate $1 million toward Monumental Network-influenced charities to be named later; Wall became emotional when discussing his mother’s role in his journey from next to nothing in North Carolina to the signing of this contract; and he discussed the desire to develop his post moves and add a floater (Wall said he watched Tony Parker’s lethal floater during the playoffs). Wall also mentioned that he’d be working with former NBA player Gary Payton and Portland Trail Blazers point guard (and 2013 Rookie of the Year) Damian Lillard before returning to Washington D.C. sometime in August.
Wall also seemed to take a subtle shot at some of his fellow NBA players who leave the team that drafted them in search of an NBA title:
“I’m not a follower, I like to be a leader. I feel like I had the opportunity to go anywhere and I feel like I would have been following a lot of people trying to build a legacy somewhere else. I feel like I’m a person who gives their word and commitment to where I started, and that’s where I like to finish. They [the Wizards] haven’t been to the promised land or won a championship in years, and I know we’re a long way from there. That’s my ultimate goal.”
Wall admitted he wouldn’t mind a stretch “4″ and a couple more veterans, and both Grunfeld and Wittman mentioned that they aren’t done searching for more deals aimed at improving the roster. Given the evolving nature of the NBA, even the Miami Heat would admit that they are in search of one or two roster moves designed at improving their team, so who could blame the Wizards—who haven’t been to the playoffs since LeBron was in Cleveland, not South Beach—for wanting to do the same? But the biggest takeaway from today’s presser, from Wall to Grunfeld to Leonsis to Wittman, was that the Wizards are finally in a position to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season when Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood lost to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games (Arenas played just 13 regular season games, and four inconsistent playoff games).
Wall mentioned his excitement at having Eric Maynor as a backup point guard, as well as how well his summer workouts with Bradley Beal have gone. Ernie Grunfeld praised Kevin Seraphin, Otto Porter and Beal at their willingness to workout in the Verizon Center this summer, while Leonsis mentioned how pleased he was with versatility of the Wizards’ roster, and how well they fit with his newly signed point guard. By no means was anyone praising this roster as NBA title bound, but to a man, it was crystal clear that the motto for this year has little to do with new beginnings and everything to do with making the playoffs.
This didn’t have the feel of the 2008 press conference where the Wizards (specifically Abe Pollin) seemed to be thanking Arenas for time served via a max contract, rather than dealing with the harsh realities of his knee and the incomplete, offense-heavy roster around him. Yesterday’s press conference also did not have the desperation of the 2010 John Wall Day, when the Wizards brass seemed hellbent on celebrating everything Wall wasn’t (Arenas), rather than embracing his potential as the top pick in the draft. Thursday’s presser had the feel of a franchise that is finally ready (barring the real and legitimate “Curse of Les Boulez”) to demonstrate that the three- to four-year plan has worked, and that the Wizards are ready to be contenders once again. Some call this inflated optimism, yet another example of #SoWizards, while others have already diagnosed potential flaws in the future, but there remains a distinct possibility that this team has finally turned that elusive corner.
As Leonsis mentioned on Thursday, the Wizards roster has experienced a 100 percent turnaround since 2010, leaving John Wall (along with Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker) as the team’s longest-tenured players. Last season, Wall gave a 49-game sample size of what he could accomplish when he’s healthy with a legitimate arsenal of players around him. Who knows what he can accomplish in seasons to come. What is certain is that with Thursday’s contract signing, Wall has committed himself to the Wizards until 2019, which means he will be in D.C. every step of the way.
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