Prior to the 2007 NBA draft, aside from Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, one of the most intriguing players available was Yi Jianlian. He was 7′0″, 250lbs, with a deft shooting touch, he had averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds in the Chinese basketball league and the general feeling was that he was the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki.
Yi and his handlers organized an individual workout in Los Angeles, so that coaches and scouts who may have been skeptical about this talent, could see him up close and do their own evaluation. Yi went through a series of shooting, dribbling and agility drills against nothing more than a chair, but still seemingly did enough to wow the scouts into saying he was a top 10 draft pick.
Sure enough, just a few weeks later, Jianlian ws the sixth pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Bucks.
I remember hearing about that workout, and wondering how so many respected NBA scouts, front office folks and coaches could be convinced of a player’s greatness on the strength of an individual workout with a chair. Although Yi had been dominant in China, the level of competition and the quality of players is much higher in the NBA. I also remember thinking if I was a GM, and I only saw this guy against a chair, and not NBA-ready players, I’d be inclined to take him lower in the first round–not in the lottery. To me, basketball is a team game and is best evaluated as such, not with an individual workout.
So all these thoughts were in my head when the Washington Wizards PR staff announced that former University of Kentucky All-American, John Wall would be worked out individually. Unlike Yi, Wall played with and against NBA-ready talent during his one year of college, and he thrived by averaging 16 points and six assists. The sense from NBA people in the know, was that Wall had merely scratched the surface of how good of a point guard he could be. Still, I was highly skeptical of what, if anything, could be gleaned from an individual workout.
After a brief 30 minutes, I realized that my Yi Jianlian-influenced skepticism about individual workouts was justified.
In front of audience that included Wizards forward Andray Blatche, Team President Ernie Grunfeld, Owner Ted Leonsis, bloggers, beat writers and Wizards coaches, Wall did his best to dazzle in an individual workout.
The first drill I saw Wall performing was a pick and roll drill where he would come off a pick and then pull up for a jumpshot, but the shots were not falling consistently. He then moved on to a drill where Coach Flip Saunders would throw the ball, and Wall had to let it bounce twice, before he picked it up and shot it. Wall shot the ball a little better, but he still appeared to be fighting with his shot–much like Ray Allen did throughout the NBA Finals.
When head coach Flip Saunders asked Wall to dunk the ball from each side of the floor, he seemed to come alive a bit. Initially he just did two, one-handed Jordan style baseline dunks a la Michael Jordan, but towards the end he got fancy and did a Dominique Wilkins style windmill. The thing that struck me the most was how easy it all seemed to look and how little he seemed to phased by all the eyes that were on him, and only him.
The workout was ended prematurely, and Wall later admitted that his back had stiffened a bit.
Still, this was still an individiual workout, and even though former NBA player and current Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell was in attendance playing “defense”, it was hardly enough to glean any additional information about Wall’s game or abilities.
Less than 30 minutes after it all began, the workout was over and Wall was whisked away to an undisclosed location. The Yi rule was still in effect as far as I was concerned.
But after about a 12 minute wait, Wall re-emerged in the media room to answer questions, and this is where I got an education about his game and where he wants be. He answered questions about playing with Gilbert Arenas, how it feels to be the center of attention, how it feels to be the number pick in the draft, and his assessment of the workout. But there were two basketball-related answers of his that stuck out.
The first answer was in response to a question I asked him about watching Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers were taking on the Suns, and Wall was lucky enough to be sitting courtside. I asked him what he learned from Kobe Bryant and/or Steve Nash.
“I was a fan, but I was also a student of the game trying to learn a lot,” Wall explained to me. “Kobe has great footwork and every chances he gets the ball he knows the spot he wants to get to and that’s the key in the NBA, you have to know the spots and certain angles to beat guys. He’s [Kobe] not as explosive as he was when he first got to the league, but now his footwork is so good, he knows how to get certain angles and get people off their feet. That’s what I’m looking to do and try to get better at”.
The second response that impressed me came from a question courtesy of Mike Prada from Bullets Forever. Prada asked Wall how comfortable he felt running the pick and roll, when that style of offense was not often run in the college game.
“The key in the pick and roll is you have to be able to knock down shots, if not, you have to set the pick and roll a little lower, so you can get into the paint easier,” Wall told Prada. “You see how guys are guarding [Rajon] Rondo off the pick and roll, and I want to be the type of player who can knock that [shot] down.”
Wall’s answer about Kobe Bryant’s footwork and angles demonstrated to me that he’s seemingly dedicated to making the game easier for him in preparation for the next level. His observations on the pick and roll, and the way Rondo is handling it, tells me that he is interested in improving not just as a player, but as a point guard. Amid the cliched questions and answers, it was quite refreshing to hear a top draft prospect actually break down the game of basketball.
18 minutes after he first sat down in the media room to answer questions, and after erroneously picking the Celtics to win Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Wall was ushered out by the PR staff. The first 30 minutes had been relatively uneventful, but the last 30 had me even more intrigued about his capabilities in a Washington Wizards uniform.
Luckily for me, I only have less than a week to wait.