USA TODAY High School Sports has been given exclusive access inside the making of the new AAU program started by Washington Wizards star John Wall. Here is the next installment.
SUWANEE, Ga. – John Wall sits with a group of friends on the wooden bleachers inside a muggy gym at Tucker High School on Wednesday night watching intently as his AAU team struggles in its opener against DFW Elite (Texas) at the adidas Finals.
His body language reads indifferent. He occasionally claps and nods, but mostly surveys.
Wall was a schoolboy legend during his playing days at Word of God Christian Academy (Raleigh, N.C.) and in AAU mostly because of his ferocious competitive edge coupled with the type of speed and athleticism you’d swear was attained by some sort of ethereal implantation.
A scholarship to Kentucky, a max contract with the Washington Wizards, an NBA All-Star starting spot and consecutive trips to the NBA playoffs.
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Still, Wall is an avid believer in the notion that “everything has its process.” That is why, when he asks Team Wall point guard Jalen Harris why he was so tired after a 55-48 loss, Wall smiles and keeps it light.
“Come on man, what in the world are you tired for?” Wall says. “Tell ’em K (coach/director Kendrick Williams), I never got tired and sometimes I’d play seven games a day!”
Harris smiles and shrugs his shoulders; Wall relents.
It’s clear that Wall isn’t worried about either of the team’s first two losses. He’s fully aware that his program is still fighting to find a consistent positive identity in its inaugural season.
What he would like the players to tweak is their body language.
“After we lost our second game John told a couple of us that our body language wasn’t good,” says Jalen Johnson, Team Wall’s leading scorer. “It’s definitely something that I took to heart. How can you not? It’s John Wall. I definitely agreed with what he said. It’s something the coaches have told me.”
Harris got the same message from Wall, an echo of what Williams has preached all summer.
After Team Wall fell to Garner Road (Raleigh, N.C.) Thursday, Williams urged his team to hold a players-only meeting where they could hash out their issues.
“I told them whatever happens in the meeting would be no one else’s business,” Williams says. “That’s for them to work out.”
Once the meeting concluded, Williams pulled Harris into a gold Chevy Suburban and had a heart-to-heart with his floor general about leadership. Williams talked to Harris about the philosophy of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart.
Walton believed leaders should focus more on what people are doing right and be less concerned about what they’re doing wrong because they already know that.
“I just noticed that he’d ride the guys sometimes when they messed up and that can’t be the only communication you have on the court,” Williams says. “So what I told him was not to get on them at all and, instead, like Sam Walton said, only tell them what they’re doing right. The good thing about Jalen is he listens. He wants to learn stuff like this because he’s driven by his desire to be the best.”
Harris had never heard Walton’s wisdom, but agreed that “the whole week” was his biggest wake-up call of the summer.
“It definitely hit home for me,” Harris says. “When you keep hearing the same thing you have to really look at yourself and change how you move. That’s something that I want to get better at.”
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That much was evident in Friday’s matchup against Hoop Dreams (Ky.); Harris was doling out so many compliments he was downright charming, Johnson was more engaged on both ends of the floor and Kyran Bowman was yapping away and directing traffic more precise than a season crossing guard.
The shift became infectious; their body language was positive.
An 80-74 win.
“We were back to having fun and going hard out there,” says Johnson, who scored 22 points and threw down the dunk of the summer when he posterized a Hoop Dreams defender in the second half. “I want to have the right body language when things aren’t clicking too though; that’s what the next step is for all of us I think.”
Team Wall finished 4-7 in adidas Gauntlet play this summer, but, despite the record, Williams says the program “is overachieving big time.”
“And that’s something I was saying after we went 3-1 in Dallas,” Williams says. “I’ve been doing this a long time and this first season is more about establishing core values, fundamentals and making guys better. We got to the championship at Hoop Group and our 16’s won that tournament. Of course, we want guys to be able to showcase their skills while buying into the team concept because the primary goal is for these guys not to have student loans after college.”
Mission accomplished on that front.
After their stellar showings in the third game, Johnson picked up offers from Alabama, South Carolina, Miami, South Florida and Buffalo; Harris also picked up and offer from Buffalo, Scott Spencer picked up an offer from Alabama and Osinachi Smart picked up an offer from Miami.
Today Team Wall will head to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the Big Shots Tournament before coming back to Georgia for the Peach State Tournament next week.
“This was the best scenario for us headed into our next tournament,” Bowman says. “We’re growing up a lot and learning from what the coaches are telling us. That’s all you can really ask for. We’re on the right page and I think we’re gonna build on this and take it up from here.”
“It was a successful week,” Williams says. “John came in and told them the same thing that me and my staff have been telling them all summer and when he said it it registered a little more. I think that’s great. I’m not mad at that. We’re all family and, as they say, it takes a village.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY