The Washington Wizards were one of the worst teams in the NBA when they selected John Wall first overall in 2010. For three seasons, the improvement was marginal, testing the patience of both Wall and a frustrated fan base.
Wall never lost confidence, however, and never allowed failure to be part of his identity.
"You can't get used to losing. Some people start losing, and that's all they focus their mind on is, 'I'm a loser now. My team's losing. I'm going to be a loser,' " Wall said Thursday, still nursing a swollen right eye after absorbing an elbow from the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki the previous night. "But that's not me. I always find a way and try to keep fighting and having the determination and will to want to win. From Day One, I never got caught into losing games and showed how much passion I have for the game of basketball. To be on the right track, that we want to be this season is pretty good."
Wall's belief in himself is reaping dividends for this franchise and for the point guard. The Wizards are 14-15, their best record at this point in six years, and in fifth place in a weakened Eastern Conference.
And Wall is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging career highs with 20.2 points and 8.9 assists, which should help him accomplish his personal goal of making the all-star team for the first time - despite the fact his team gets little national television exposure.
He has virtually no chance of being elected by fans to the all-star game - he's a distant fourth, trailing Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers by more than 300,000 votes for second among guards - but he should make the coaches' list of reserves later this month.
Wall leads all Eastern Conference point guards in assists and ranks second among point guards in the conference in scoring behind only Irving. But he also is shooting a slightly better percentage from the field than Irving and has the edge in team victories.
"It's a great opportunity for me. It's kind of a big open field," Wall said. "Basically, everybody say it's between me and Kyrie really right now that's playing for the East. But I don't want to get into a battle to look into what he's doing and what I'm doing, just try to keep focused on what's going on in Washington, focused on what your team goals is."
In addition to his solid season, Wall has benefited from injuries to Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo, a subpar season by Deron Williams because of nagging ankle problems and the June trade out of the conference of Jrue Holiday, an all-star last season with the Philadelphia 76ers.
But Wall has made a compelling case just the same, scoring at least 20 points in eight straight games, the longest stretch of his career and the most for any Wizard since Antawn Jamison in the 2008-09 season. Scoring generates most of the intention for the NBA's star-making machine, but Wall has avoided letting his offensive production distract him from continuing to set up his teammates. He leads the NBA in touches per game (99.7) but trails only Chris Paul in average passes that lead to a shot (18.3) and points generated by an assist (21.4).
"The biggest thing for me is, I know with my team, I have to be aggressive and I have to score sometimes because of how teams guard me. When I do that, that opens up the floor for everybody else and gets them easy shots," Wall said. "But I'm always a pass-first point guard. I like to keep people involved and I like to see those guys score because that excites me more a lot of the times."
Part of Wall is frustrated he has had to wait so long for it all to start coming together. This time last year, he was still more than a week away from making his season debut after missing nearly three months with a stress injury in his left knee. He came back to provide some hope for the trajectory of his career, playing well enough for the franchise to reward him with a five-year, $80 million extension in July. If given the chance, Wall believes the Wizards could have been in a similar position a year ago.
"It's something that you can't control - injuries," he said. "I feel like last year could've been the year where I improved and excelled, with all the hard work I put into it, but I got delayed, basically had to regroup and start over with a knee injury. This season, I take full advantage of trying to keep my body healthy and prove and show what I've been working on to try to help my game and help my teammates have a better season."
Wall maintains an extensive maintenance routine after practices and games to stay ready, which includes acupuncture and soaking in a cold tub. The regimen has allowed him to lead the Wizards in minutes.
He can see clearly enough out of his right eye to suit up Friday against the Toronto Raptors. And he is grateful for what he has already overcome.
"It helps you humble yourself - which I've been and I will always be - but I think it lets you know how the professional game is, that this is a business and how anything can happen. Your team can be bad and you can make one trade or two trades and it can improve," Wall said. "I'm a lot smarter basketball player, developing better and trying to get better each season and just having a supporting cast around me, a great group of guys that trust me to be the leader and be the point guard of this team. It helps me in building a lot of confidence in my game."