NBA.com: What is different about this vibe of this group as opposed to last year or the year before?
JOHN WALL: I think how we came back as a group when I returned from my injury and just playing with the guys, we all liked each other as a team, even though we weren’t winning as much, and enjoyed playing with each other. It’s a trust thing. It’s the first time I can honestly say in my three years playing here that we all enjoyed one another. Nobody cared who scared who scored. We were all committed to what coach wanted us to do defensively and that’s how we came into this season and knew how good we could be.
NBA.com: What about the consistency factor, you guys had so many names and faces come in and out of the lineup? There’s been a lot of movement, personnel wise, since you were drafted.
JW: Basically, the biggest thing was staying consistent in everything we do. Me, trying to get healthy and doing the same things to get better. Staying consistent and knowing what guys you would have on the team in a given year and that guys weren’t going to get traded. We’ve got a good core of guys that we know will be there and what we want to do with those guys. It helps when you are planning long term because a plan is in place and you know exactly what your roles are and what you need to do.
NBA.com: Guys always talk about that turning point or that moment when the light goes on for them. For you, was that moment sitting out the start of the 2012-13 season, learning, watching, processing what goes on from a different perspective other than being on the court?
JW: I think that was the biggest turning point for me, sitting out that long, even though I didn’t want to sit out. Just getting the chance to study the game better helped me. Watching my teammates and seeing what they were great at and then knowing how I could come back and make the situation better, is what helped me. I think those guys made it a lot easier for me. Having Nene and Emeka Okafor knock down shots and finish. Having Brad [Beal] and Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza playing as well as they played. It was the first time I had guys do that and trust in me to lead the team and be their point guard. It makes a difference.
NBA.com: When you came into the league the East was loaded with top teams from Boston, Miami and Chicago to Atlanta and even Orlando. Things have changed dramatically since then. The Eastern Conference is wide open. Is there a now or never feel to this season for you guys, sort of like the door is open and you better get through it now or else …?
JW: It’s a great opportunity. And if you fall short right now, you are basically not committed to getting to where you want to be in this league, whether it’s the playoffs or whatever. My first three years, everybody was loaded. Now there is like four or five teams rebuilding at the same time. And that’s rare in this league. You have to make sure you have a good understanding of where you are as a team and be ready to jump in there if it’s your time. And I think it’s our time right now.
NBA.com: You had an owner (Ted Leonsis) who wasn’t shy about putting the pressure on his shoulders and also yours in terms of bringing the franchise back to a playoff level. He’s banked on you being an elite player and a franchise player. Does that add any extra pressure when you are already the No. 1 pick in your Draft and get the huge contract extension?
JW: I could tell the difference last season when I came back from my injury, just by the type of conversations I was having with my coach (Randy Wittman) and the things we were talking about and my owner and the meetings we were having. It wasn’t just about me improving and getting better, it was about a vision we all had for me and what that means for this team and this franchise. Being in on the planning process and being there from the start makes it different. The general manager coming to me throughout the summer and letting me know this is my team and making sure I understand that I have to lead, that’s all a part of the plan now. And I think I’ve put in the work to do it.
NBA.com: People always talk about putting in the work, but how has your work ethic changed since you’ve been in the league?
JW: My rookie season I didn’t know what to expect coming in. My second year was kind of tough because it was the lockout year. I was working my tail off but I really didn’t know what to do, because there was so much uncertainty. Last year was my first year to really understand the NBA game and comprehend what it was I needed to do and what I needed to work on. Then I get diagnosed with the knee injury and everything went sideways. So this summer I came in early and made sure everything was right, made sure I was healthy. And learning how to change the pace of a game, working on my body and improving my jump shot, those were the things I worked hardest on. I’m constantly getting better in all facets of my game and I think I can keep getting better and better.
NBA.com: Has the leadership component, particularly the vocal part, been tough for you? You’re not an older guy and you certainly don’t strike me as a very talkative guy. How hard do you have to work to remind yourself to be a leader in that respect?
JW: Coach Cal [Kentucky coach John Calipari] helped me work on that. I’ve always been a guy that led by example. The vocal part I worked really hard on at Kentucky. He basically said you have to learn how to talk to certain guys. And you can’t go out and try to fuss and cuss guys out. You have to respect each and every guy in your locker room as a man. So I think that’s something I improved in. It helped that when I came back last year my teammates trusted me to be that guy, both with the ball in my hands on the court and without the ball in my hands off the court. Talking to them helped me improve in that area.
NBA.com: You’re also a part of USA Basketball’s Men’s Senior National Team group. When you’re out there with all of the other best young players, all of the other top young point guards, what changes in terms of how you handle yourself and compete in that environment as opposed to being the face of the franchise in Washington?
JW: The toughest thing with that is you get to thinking like high school, especially when all the top point guards are out there. You want to battle it out with those other guys. But you are ultimately out there for USA Basketball, and that’s bigger than your name or the franchise you represent. So you try and just go out there and just play the game and get better, but also show the people in charge at USA Basketball that you can do whatever is asked of you if you are lucky enough to get the call and get asked to play in one of the international competitions. So it’s not an ego thing when you are in that environment.
NBA.com: You seem so much more measured and relaxed about things these days. Is this the most comfortable you’ve been on and off the court since you’ve been in the league?
JW: Yeah, 100 percent. I’d say 120 percent, the most comfortable I’ve been just talking to anybody and going into games, being on the court, and just feeling confident knowing this is the old me. My first three years, I was always kind of searching, how do I present myself and how do I do this or that the right way? The uncertainty is gone. This is the hardest position in the league to me. Every night somebody is coming at you. Seriously. You get no breaks. People can look at the schedule and you see Kyle Lowry or Jose Calderon and those guys aren’t always talked about, but some of the toughest challenges I have is against guys like that. Because you have to show them the same respect you do a Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook.
NBA.com: You have a unique dynamic in D.C. right now, being the young face of a franchise in a city where another player in similar position (the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III) is going through a similar stage of his career at the same time. How strange is it to watch that roller coaster from so close and comparing it your own evolution?
JW: I feel for him right now, I really do. There are some parallels, but then again it’s totally different. He started off hot, Rookie of the Year and all of that stuff. My first couple of years there was a learning curve, some stumbles and a lot of learning to do. Now I feel like I’m finally getting there now, hitting my stride and now he’s struggling. It’s tough and it’s also a reminder of why you have to stay humble and hungry no matter what’s going on around you. Take nothing away from him, he’s still that same guy and still humble and hungry. But you have to be mindful of the fan base and what type of support they’re going to show you. When you’re struggling it gets frustrating for the fans and even more frustrating for us, because you know what you want to do for your city, the things you want them to experience with you playing your heart out day after day. It’s the same for him and the Redskins as is it for us, we’ve got a lot of young talent and people want that to turn into winning. The fans do and so do we.