Training camp hadn't even began, and when Martell Webster reported to Verizon Center for Media Day last Monday he was surprised at what he'd seen. It was John Wall who already was there. He'd come in a few hours early to work on his shot before going through hours of posing for photos and interviews.
The Wizards are loaded with veterans, but there's no one like Paul Pierce on the roster this season. Wall is the closest thing with his other mentors, Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington, long gone. In his sixth season, the responsibility is mostly his -- as the point guard, the All-Star and best player -- and it's something that coach Randy Wittman has been emphasizing with him since his rookie season in 2010 when Wall was the No. 1 overall pick.
"It’s shown early here. It’s been really good," Wittman said after the first week of training camp. "His leadership, just not talking but leading by example. First in the line of drills, actively helping somebody on a mistake on the floor, encouraging teammates, those are all the things he’s taken a huge step this year. He’s got to continue that. … I like what I’ve seen."
When Wall first arrived, the locker room was dysfunctional and role models for him were scarce. Emeka Okafor was a good influence who called him out for blaming teammates for not catching his passes, which led to an argument in the training room in 2013. Ariza took the initiative to call a players-only meeting when the Wizards began 2-7 before making the playoffs in 2014.
Wall had to figure out how to talk to teammates. He also was put under the microscope by Wittman, who wouldn't let his star off the hook when he fell into 1-on-1 battles with opponents that proved counterproductive or slacked off defensively. And Wall won the old coach's respect with his will to win and refusing to take games off when he could because of minor injuries.
"Leadership, you’re born with it. It’s hard to press someone and say, ‘Hey, you be a leader,'" said Jared Dudley, who had spent most of his career playing with Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns before coming to Washington this summer. "Steve wasn’t a vocal leader. He’s someone in the locker room who led by example. He was the first one in there. He was the hardest worker. He didn’t talk a lot. Shaq? All he did was talk. You got different people who do different things.
A leader, you got to know personalities. The NBA is different. Some guys you can curse at. Some guys you have to encourage them."
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