Running with the Bulls: The development of Wall

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Running with the Bulls: The development of Wall

Tuesday, June 15, 2010
7:28 PM

By Aggrey Sam
CSNChicago.com

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.

Making adjustments nothing new for new Bulls star Dwyane Wade

Making adjustments nothing new for new Bulls star Dwyane Wade

Dwyane Wade has always had eclectic tastes in threads, but considering the career adjustments he’s had to make, the 34-year old might decide to be a tailor when he hangs up his Way of Wade kicks.

Going from point guard to shooting guard after his rookie year? No problem.

Assuaging the sensitive ego of Shaquille O’Neal after O’Neal’s rocky breakup with Kobe Bryant? Child’s play.

Allowing LeBron James to take over his team and his city after two seasons where he averaged 28 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals? Sure, since it meant more rings.

Adjusting to his knees robbing him of his transcendent explosiveness? Excuse him while he walks to meet the media with both knees wrapped in ice — while wearing a smile.

Being introduced first, second or last? Doesn’t matter, as long as Tommy Edwards says “from Chicago” as a nod to Wade’s hometown roots.

So in making the biggest geographical change to date, moving back to Chicago after 13 years in Miami, Wade is prepared to shift again — even if it means being a 3-point shooter, even if it means playing different roles to suit the changing needs of this roster.

“My game translates anywhere,” Wade said after Wednesday’s morning practice, “I’ve played with so many different players before. I’m not worried about that. It’s me trying to understand offense, understand what we’re trying to do. Get to know my teammates. But I know where my sweet spot is, when to get aggressive, etc. One thing I’m trying to get used to is that 3-point shot is going to be open a little bit more for me, and coach is telling me to shoot it. That’s a little new era for me.”

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Bulls fans probably remember Wade hitting his share of devastating 3-pointers against them over the years, even though his 386 career makes only account for .05 percent of his made field goals.

There was the four-point play in Game 5 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals at the United Center when Wade’s Heat stormed back late to clinch a trip to The Finals. Very few can forget the heartbreaking, buzzer-beating running triple after a blindside steal from John Salmons in the 2008-09 season, so it’s not that he lacks the ability.

The Charlotte Hornets and Toronto Raptors found that out last spring when he hit 12 in 14 playoff games for the Heat.

“In the playoffs they take things away, right,” Wade said. “In the regular season, you play so many games teams sometimes don’t get a long time to prepare for you, so they may try and take one thing away.”

The logic was followed by a little hubris, earned considering he’s risen to such heights without having to rely on it.

“For me a lot of people have talked about me not shooting threes, but no one has been able to take away what I wanted to do. So why would I do something else?” Wade queried. “But then when you take it away I have the ability to knock it down. I’m not Doug McDermott. I’m not Niko (Mirotic). But I’m comfortable with the shot, and I’m going to shoot it. I know it’s going to be there, so I have a better chance of knocking it down. Coach has been on me about it.”

Wade will have to take the shot to keep defenses from sagging too far down on Jimmy Butler drives, and the hope is Butler goes back to shooting 38 percent from the long line as he did in 2014-15 as opposed to the 31 percent he shot last season.

For things to work in a potentially awkward situation, Wade has to be willing to step a little outside himself and seems prepared to.

“Normally I had to be the guy that would put it on the floor, but more so than that just pick my spots,” Wade said. “Understand when to be aggressive, but I’m a play-maker as well. I’m always looking to make plays for my guys.’’

Wade understands Fred Hoiberg’s offense is more equal opportunity than isolation-based but knows the instances will come when he must be the primary scorer — particularly late when he’s one of the league’s premier fourth-quarter scorers.

“Last year I averaged 19, the other 21.5. I can score, that's fine with me,” Wade said. “I'm willing to do whatever it takes. Scoring is one of those things that comes natural. It just depends on how high field-goal percentage I shoot. I'm not concerned about that. If coach wants me to score, then thank you.”

New tone set in Bulls training camp marked by role adjustments

New tone set in Bulls training camp marked by role adjustments

With eight new players and likely three new starters for the Bulls, an adjustment period of roles has started to take place in the opening days of camp.

Shot creators turn into shot makers.

Full-time ball handlers revert back to being part-time dominators.

First-time leaders are supplemented by experienced leaders who bring an instant credibility and speak with a bluntness that wasn’t as present last year—even from the coach.

A new tone of sorts was set when Dwyane Wade didn’t give the stock “nobody cares what happened last year” spiel after being asked if he wondered about what went wrong on the floor and off with the Bulls.

“You ask the guys that were here last year, how rotten it was,” Wade said. “You want to hear from their perspective, whatever it was last year from the standpoint of losing. You don't do that. I come from a different place and a different culture. Things are done differently different places. So I sat down and listened to guys.

“But the thing is, some of the things they talked about I know are not going to take place. Not while I'm here, not while (Rajon) Rondo's here, not while Jimmy (Butler) continues to grow as a leader.”

It adds light to some of the thoughts that Butler expressed after Tuesday’s first practice, and what anyone with a set of eyes could see last season when the Bulls looked like a fractured group that didn’t enjoy playing with each other anymore.

There wasn’t outright disdain, but some of the damaged relationships were never repaired as the season went on. Putting that into an alphabet soup with losing, bad habits and injuries and it spelled out “something’s gotta give.”

“You definitely gotta like each other. If you don’t, and you can say this doesn’t happen, but I feel like if you don’t like a guy you’re not going to pass him the ball,” said Butler, who had some rocky moments last season as a leader. “I think there’s a lot of liking on this team. Like I said, everybody wants everybody to be successful. Do we like each other too much? I hope so.”

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Refreshing honesty is a change at the Advocate Center, with Wade and Rondo being the adults in the room. The two have the latitude from Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to stop practice to get on guys, and they did so Tuesday.

“You just want to cut down all the chatter; it’s early,” Rondo said. “Only a couple of guys should be talking in practice. As far as disrupting when they do stop practice, coach has the voice then assistant coach has the voice and then the other players.”

It’s not a surprise given Hoiberg won’t be one change his ways overnight, and having a player-run team are often the most successful, assuming everyone is on the same page.

It sort of speaks to Bulls vice president John Paxson’s statement on media day about the Bulls’ rebuilding their culture from the ground level.

“You talk about last year, but at the same time, last year doesn't matter,” Wade said. “We have a different core, and I think our culture is fairly different. We have guys now, Rondo's won a championship, I've won championships, we demand respect on the court. But we've got a lot of young guys as well, so they'll listen.”

Wade and Rondo have both said the Bulls are Butler’s team, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be wallflowers if they see things they don’t like. Wade has been a vocal leader in some form for the last decade and Rondo has rarely, if ever, held his tongue.

Rondo, along with being a primary facilitator for Butler to make scoring easier, imparted some wisdom to help Butler in his ever-evolving role as a leader.

“Not doing it with my mouth but with my actions, being consistent; I told Jimmy a leader can’t pick and choose when he wants to lead,” Rondo said. “He has to come out every day, every practice; we’re having two a days. If you are down, need something to get your head right, you have to bring it every day, every day.”

Hoiberg said there has to be a mutual respect amongst the team, which can lead to chemistry and camaraderie.

“It takes a lot of those moments when we all make mistakes and the coach is on us, that's when we come together,” Wade said. “In the locker room, when we're in there talking about anything, talking about whatever. it takes a lot of being on the road, traveling together. You're on a road trip, you go out dinner together. It's going to take a lot of moments to get the chemistry that we need.”