Big debut for Wall, exit talk from Arenas
DALLAS -- He repeatedly zoomed from rim to rim. He tossed up an impossibly high feed to JaVale McGee on a long-range lob play that had better hang time than some punts. He even knocked in a couple of deep jumpers.
John Wall was deliciously versatile in the first preseason game of his pro career. Early as it is on the NBA calendar to launch into hyperbole, resistance was futile on this night.
Go ahead and call it an exhibition.
Washington Wizards coach Flip Saunders clearly didn't want it to end, either. Not after the season that the Wizards endured to get into draft position to land Wall. So Saunders kept his 20-year-old on the floor for a whopping 38 minutes, deep into the fourth quarter of an eventual 97-94 triumph over the Dallas Mavericks, insisting that it wasn't a risk because he hasn't "seen him tired" yet and because he's convinced that "you facilitate their progress" by giving youngsters like Wall so much PT so soon.
"You don't know how fast he is until you see him in person," Saunders gushed afterward. "I don't think TV can do it justice."
On an unexpectedly revealing Tuesday in the first week of October, Wall finished with 21 points, nine assists and four steals while logging nearly 10 more minutes of court time than anyone else who played. The former Kentucky star wasn't flawless -- Wall's first pro shot was a badly airballed 3-pointer -- but he's already playing with a smoothness that he didn't quite have during summer-league play in July.
The Wizards, though, are bound to come away from the successful introduction of their three-guard starting lineup -- Wall flanked by Kirk Hinrich and Gilbert Arenas -- thinking that the evening was too revealing. That's because Arenas, after playing for the Wiz for the first time since January after his 50-game suspension for bringing guns in Washington's locker room, capped it with one of his trademark soul-baring interview sessions in which he once referred to the Wizards as "they" and spoke at length in a somber tone about his inevitable exile from the organization now that Wall has arrived as its savior.
In his first extended session with the media since training camp began, Arenas claimed that there were no standout emotions to report from his return to the league because "I lost all feeling a long time ago."
Wearing that bushier-than-ever beard, Arenas explained that he feels the need to supress smiles and generally "be serious" because he has reached "that point where people are going to nit pick at everything I do just because I got in trouble."
Arenas noted that "you always start a franchise with a point guard and a big [man]" and reeled off four Wizards names without mentioning his own (Wall, McGee, Andray Blatche and Yi Jianlian) when he declared that "right now they have special players."
And Arenas spoke of a new role that, in his view, demands him to "hit open shots, teach John the ins and outs of the game and then eventually go on and move on and I'm on my way."
"Right now the city is John's," Arenas said. "I'm not here to fight anybody. I'm here to just play alongside him. He's Batman and I'm Robin. When I came in, Larry [Hughes] moved aside for me to become a star and I'm moving aside so [Wall] can become a star. Let him fly and I'll just fill in the gaps. When I came to Washington, that's what Larry did for me and that's what I'm doing for him."
If that's all this was -- Arenas dramatically stating the obvious about the Wizards officially becoming Wall's team now ... albeit in a headline-snatching, attention-grabbing, ill-advised way -- maybe his latest bizarre soliloquy won't have any lasting impact on the Wizards. This is an organization, after all, conditioned to trying to downplay or downright ignore much of what the former Agent Zero has to say.
Arenas' candor, however, did highlight the biggest challenges confronting the Wizards, even with Wall dazzling folks already. Whether Wall and Arenas can play together in the same backcourt, with or without Hinrich, is merely Unknown No. 1 for this team. How long will Arenas stay plugged into this new Robin role? Can Arenas play well enough in the Robin role to start rebuilding his trade value? Will this franchise really be able to move on if Gil stays put? Those questions are clearly just as pressing.
With sources close to the situation insisting that the Wiz have nothing percolating in terms of Arenas trade possibilities, this is the reality for everyone involved: Arenas, no matter what he says, is going to have stay healthy (after appearing in just 47 games over the past three seasons) and find a way to contribute consistently to generate any trade interest with three years and some $60 million left on his contract after this season.
The good news? Fortunately for Arenas, who banged in a couple 3s and finished with 12 points in 26 minutes against the Mavs, Wall sounds as though he wants to make this work.
In his pregame visit with the press, Wall defended Arenas stoutly, saying: "You never can judge nobody off something that happened. Everybody makes mistakes. ... He's a great guy to me. I can't control what happened last year."
Wall then proceeded to a one-on-one point guard tutorial before tipoff from Wizards assistant Sam Cassell, after which he uncorked repeated bursts to the bucket -- with that instinctively opportunistic feel he possesses when it comes to turning it on and blowing past someone -- once Wall shook the nerves that steered that first 3-pointer wide left.
"I had a couple [spectacular plays]," Wall said, after Saunders had promised three or four contenders for the SportsCenter highlight reels beforehand. "But the most important thing was to get the jitters out of the way.''
Said Cassell: "He's going to get to the line 10 times a game. And he might lead us in block shots.
"I don't want to make it sound like he's going to be Magic Johnson [right away], but he's going to be something. He's not afraid to work. And because he's so hard on himself. If anything he's too hard on himself."
It's true that Wall's best work came in the third quarter, when Mavs sage Jason Kidd was resting his 37-year-old bones, but it sounds like even the sullen Arenas came away impressed.
"If you watch him every day in practice," Arenas said, "that's who he is and that's what he does.
You came to the American Airlines Center to watch Wall make his NBA debut. You wound up, at night's end, hanging on every Arenas word. You suspect it won't be the last time it works out this way.