Tuesday, June 15, 2010
By Aggrey Sam
It all started in Chicago--rather Deerfield, Ill., not far from the Bulls' practice facility--in June of 2007. Two virtual novices to grassroots basketball's whirlwind summer scene in their respective fields. One was a soon-to-be junior point guard from Raleigh, N.C. The other was a Philadelphia-based writer, entrusted by a magazine to canvass the nation's top high school talent at various all-star camps, AAU tournaments and various showcases.
The kid was John Wall. The writer was yours truly. The setting was the now-defunct Reebok Breakout Camp for under-the-radar underclassmen prospects throughout the country.
In truth, the camp was less of an opportunity for unknowns than it was a chance for Reebok to decide which of the younger players from the numerous summer travel teams the company then sponsored were worthy of being selected to participate in its All-American camp in Philadelphia, a month later. Furthermore, some of the youngsters in attendance were already household names in their respective regions (many of them future McDonald's All-Americans, arguably the top accomplishment for a high school player), and simply living up to the hype would be enough to warrant them a place in Philly. John Wall wasn't among those kids.
Wall was a true "sleeper," a kid none of the national recruiting gurus was aware of, due to his limited exposure on the scene. A skinny kid with blazing quickness and explosive athletic ability, he had bounced around to a few different schools in Raleigh and there were whispers that he had attitude problems. By the end of that weekend, none of that mattered.
Wall stole the show at Breakout, leaving onlookers marveling at his NBA-type speed, always-attacking slashing game and overall feel. This writer, judging prospects less on reputation than actual talent (as I was limited to seeing mostly players on the East Coast in person before that summer), surmised that he was at least one of the top 25 players nationally in his class.
Wall was one of five players at the underclassmen camp to receive a coveted invitation to Rbk U., then the name of Reebok's All-American camp in Philadelphia. Once there, he showed a wider audience what he was capable of, while matched up against the likes of more highly-touted competition, such as current Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings.
While the post-high school season spring months and June are a building prelude to July, when college coaches can observe prep prospects in person, August is regarded as a cool-down period for players, as the school year approaches in the fall. However, one late-summer event, the Elite 24 game (which was held outdoors at New York's famed Rucker Park; it will be held in Los Angeles this summer), featured the top high school players in the country, regardless of class, in a unique, traditional playground atmosphere.
Even though Wall was now a name, he didn't have quite enough stature to be selected for the game. But as I was leaving the park at the game's conclusion, I ran into Wall, walking alongside his AAU coach and mentor, Brian Clifton of North Carolina-based D-One Sports.
I'll never forget the response Wall gave me when I asked him why he made the trip up from down South to the game: "If I want to be the best, then I have to see what it takes to get there.
"Clifton really believed in me. That was the key that pushed me to believe in myself. When you first met me going to Breakout camp, I did well there and everybody thought it was a fluke, so going into playing against Brandon Jennings, that proved I could play against those guys I was reading about back home," Wall told CSNChicago.com at last month's NBA pre-draft combine. "That gave me the motivation that I really can play, I can be something special if I keep working hard."
"From that point on, I just took it to another level and kept working every day."
As a junior in high school, Wall's progress was monitored more closely by recruiting analysts, as he ascended to amongst the top of his class in the national rankings. The following summer, in 2008, he rose to just about the very top (some outlets ranked him No. 1 in the nation), as his scintillating performances at camps and tournaments had the grassroots ilk abuzz.
We again crossed paths that winter, in Florida, as I was assigned a cover story about him and another high school senior (a rarity, even for a basketball magazine) and future NBA draftee, Lance Stephenson. The irony of it was that Stephenson, who had been a marquee name in basketball circles since before he entered high school, was actually the more prominent player, counter to their current status now--Wall will likely be the first pick in the NBA Draft on June 24th, while Stephenson is expected to be a late first-round selection, at best.
Still, although a lot had changed with Wall since I first encountered him over a year prior, he still had the same easygoing nature when I interviewed both him and Stephenson during an off day at the holiday tournament both of their high school teams were playing in. But even with his newfound notoriety, his level of competitiveness on the court is in sharp contrast to his laid-back demeanor away from the hardwood, as evidenced by his spectacular and more importantly, tenacious play when he was already the center of attention.
"I have a different drive, everybody has a different drive, that's never a bad comparison to get compared to an all-star a top-3 PG in the league but you want to build your own name, you don't wanna be compared to everybody...it's not bad to be compared to great players though
"It's pretty tough because at certain times you can get cocky, like, 'I don't have to play serious. I already have the name,' but coming from where I came from you have to stay humble and hungry," Wall, whose father died at age nine, leading to subsequent anger-management issues as a youth, reflected to CSNChicago.com. "I always want that chip on my shoulder. I always feel like somebody's attacking me."
"It's just like you have some dog food and the dog's not going to let anybody else eat it," continued Wall, whose mother worked multiple jobs to support the family. "I'm not going to let anybody else get to it, so I'm going to make it a competitive battle."
Fast forward to a year and some change later, to Chicago again. Wall is surrounded by a horde of media at the media availability session for the pre-draft combine. He's a still a kid, but one a lot more comfortable with his newfound celebrity and one who develops an easy rapport with reporters. For an example of the latter, take Wall's willingness to sit in the media room long after his second-day session was over, simply watching the combine on television and conducting interviews with anybody that approached him.
"I thought it was going to be a tough process, like it is. You've got a lot of interviews. Basically you've got to meet with the media and teams and they know you can play basketball. They want to know what kind of guy you are, what kind of character and your background," said the former University of Kentucky star to CSNChicago.com. "I've learned how to do better interviews. You've got to learn how to talk to guys, how to answer questions and that's the key."
As refreshing as that seems, history looks to be repeating itself in a roundabout way--again with Chicago (or its northern suburbs) as the genesis.
Quincy Miller is one of the top rising high school seniors in the country, some would say the best in the class. A 6-foot-9 forward with an uncanny shooting touch out to beyond three-point range, excellent ballhandling ability for his size, tremendous athleticism and rebounding and interior skills that belie his slender frame, he's garnered comparisons to reigning NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant for good reason.
Like Wall, Miller spends his summers playing for D-One Sports. And like Wall, Miller was viewed as a semi-star until the summer leading up to his junior year; certainly a player who would be recruited by high-major college hoops programs, but not quite an elite prospect.
Unlike Wall, however, Miller is an import to North Carolina. Originally hailing from North Chicago--a gritty outskirt of the Windy City--Miller wasn't even considered a marginal prospect overlooked because he was in the shadows of the big city. Miller wasn't even on the radar.
"When I first started playing in events, nobody knew who I was," said Miller to CSNChicago.com recently. "But after a while, people started to find out."
As a high school freshman, Miller didn't even play for his school's basketball team and while he isn't the player he is now, this isn't the story of another, much more famous player with Chicago and Tar Heel state ties (Wall, on the other hand, did undergo the Michael Jordan experience of being cut from his high school team in North Carolina as a freshman). Miller admittedly wasn't as focused on academics at the time, but he also had to wade through a sea of distractions in his local community, such as gang and drug activity.
An uncle shepherded his departure from Illinois to North Carolina, where he eventually landed at Quality Education Academy. Although he enjoyed a stellar sophomore season, it wasn't until last summer when he was truly considered a phenom.
"Where I'm from--you know--it's the hood," Miller, who will spend his senior year at Westchester Country Day School (also in North Carolina), told CSNChicago.com. "I wasn't really focused, so I had to get out of there."
"At first, when I got to North Carolina, I hated it. It was just too slow for me, but eventually, I adjusted. Now, I see how much it's helped me. I've really become a better person," he continued. "Playing with D-One Sports, I've learned a lot--on and off the court--watching guys like John Wall."
His first breakout outing on "the circuit," as insiders call the increasingly important spring-to-summer odyssey of grassroots hoops events, was a little over a year ago, at the Pangos All-American Camp in California. As coincidence would have it, this writer was in attendance.
Pangos is one of the few viable, non-sneaker company-affiliated events on the circuit that attracts top prospects from across the nation. Because of proximity reasons, about half of the participants are from the West Coast (specifically the talent-laden L.A. area), with the other half coming from all over the country. While Miller was more heralded than most of the prospects at the camp, he was probably more of an afterthought than a headliner, in terms of the elite players there.
By the end of that weekend, his versatility and scintillating scoring ability set the stage for a summer in which he elevated his status to be one of the nation's 10 best junior prospects. After a high school season in which he continued to raise the bar, Miller is now thought of as either the best player in the prep ranks right now or the prospect with the most long-term upside.
"I want to be one of the best forwards to ever play," said Miller to CSNChicago.com at this summer's edition of Pangos. "And if I keep working hard, I think it's possible."
It isn't hard to wonder why Miller thinks that, with a role model like Wall to provide an example. At the same time, the likely top pick in next week's draft knows it won't be an easy road to meet the expectations already being placed on him.
"Basically making the organization better, winning games. I know it's not going to be an easy transition to win a lot of games. The best thing you can do is get the process started early, get your guys together before training camp and communicate. It's going to take a while to get to the playoffs, but that's the goal," said Wall to CSNChicago.com about his immediate goals if selected, as predicted, by the Washington Wizards. "Just changing the community, really. Making it a better place, making everybody in D.C. want to see their team play. It's the capital city, where the President can be at your games, so you've got to enjoy that."
"'Coach Cal' Kentucky coach John Calipari helped me this year, but I've got to admit: I led by example. At first, I was scared to talk to the guys because I felt like they'd think, 'he's all this' and the veteran guys would get on me, but they let me step in," continued Wall, who said he's known as a "picky eater" ("I don't eat cheese, ketchup, tomatoes, mustard--nothing. I eat plain burgers, meat and bread") by his friends and teammates. "If you're a talented guy, they let you get away with saying certain things and that's what I'm going to have to do when I go to Washington. I'm going to have to step up and say certain things, but also listen to the advice the veteran Wizards are giving me because they know so much more than I do."
When asked about a familiar comparison to another explosive Calipari protege, Bulls All-Star point guard Derrick Rose, Wall took it with a grain of salt.
"I have a different drive--everybody has a different drive," Wall told CSNChicago.com. "That's never a bad comparison to get compared to an All-Star, a top-three point guard in the league, but you want to build your own name. You don't want to be compared to everybody...it's not bad to be compared to great players, though."
Whether he equals or surpasses Rose remains to be seen, but Wall is already eager to get his career started.
"You watch the NBA on TV and I've seen it in person, but just to see all those fans--it's like your first game in college. You're anticipating it so much and waiting for it, but you've got to see how the NBA really is," said Wall to CSNChicago.com. "It's 82 games. That's a long season. You've got to stay in shape and not wear yourself out."
Something tells me he'll be up for the challenge.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.coms Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.