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 latest installment, focusing on the team’s first weekend of play.
DUNCANVILLE, Texas — They sat motionless near the wide stairwell and listened with rapt attention. All eyes focused on their coach in front of them, Kendrick Williams, who told the players everything they could accomplish if they played as a team during their AAU team’s inaugural season.
After winning three of four games in the competitive Adidas Uprising Dallas Gauntlet, spirits were high among players and coaches inside this fieldhouse. And all the players on the North Carolina-based Team Wall took particular interest in one point their coach made after the event’s conclusion Sunday.
“We can have this moment every time …,” Williams told players. “We are the same family. Everyone can have this opportunity. We (coaches) are not Gladys Knight. And you are not The Pips. We are a unit. We are one family.”
Players looked at Williams, the program’s director and coach, confused and slack-jawed. There was a moment of awkward silence. Then some burst out laughing. Someone whispered to Williams, “Uh, they don’t know who Gladys Knight & The Pips are.”
“They don’t know who Gladys Knight & The Pips are?!?!?,” Williams said, exasperated.
Dating himself a bit with players born in 1997, this was Williams’ only message that missed its mark over the weekend.
The team that bears John Wall’s name lost just one game and essentially played just one bad half of basketball. The team exceeded even their own coaches’ expectations considering that many of the teams competing here – before hundreds of Division I coaches, including Baylor’s Scott Drew, Texas’ Shaka Smart and Memphis’ Josh Pastner – have been playing together for years.
Before playing four games in 28 hours, the 17-U Team Wall squad had not taken part in an actual scrimmage, much less a game. Williams and his assistants spanned the state the last couple months in search of talent. They staged three weekends of open tryouts starting March 8, inviting more than 60 players to the workouts. They only held practices on weekends because some players were traveling to the Raleigh area from a few hours away.
Wall has taken such an interest in his new AAU team that he chartered a bus on March 9 to bring roughly 25 players and 10 adults from the Raleigh area almost three hours away to Charlotte, where Wall’s Washington’s Wizards played the Hornets that night. Everyone received vouchers for food and watched the game. Afterward, they met and shook hands with Wall, who offered words of encouragement for the teenagers hoping to gain exposure by playing on his new summer-league team.
Jalen Harris, a 6-foot-1 point guard, was among those players. He and his dad, MJ Harris, had been following Wall since his sophomore year in high school. Meeting and hearing from Wall himself served as an inspiring moment for both father and son.
The younger Harris is an emerging pass-first point guard prospect in the high school class of 2016. He has been courted by North Carolina-Charlotte, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Liberty and DePaul, but his dad his hopeful that the exposure garnered this summer on Team Wall will lead to high-major offers by the fall.
“We expect more interest after the summer,” MJ Harris said. “Jalen fell in love with John Wall when John was a sophomore. He wasn’t a big star then …It was great to see him in Charlotte. I love that man. He is a people person, so I love him.”
Inspired by John Wall
He has also followed a path that the players on Team Wall can relate to. Unlike some NBA players, Wall was not anointed the next superstar when he was a pre-teen. He followed quite a different path.
By the time he was 10, he had seen his father pass away, losing the man who provided him so much advice and inspiration. He played basketball but his game and overall behavior on and off the court were marred by significant anger issues. He regularly fought kids and challenged authority. He was perpetually confrontational.
“He came from absolutely nothing,” said Williams, who coached Wall since he was 12 in the Garner Road youth program and who was an assistant coach on Wall’s Word of God Christian Academy team in Raleigh.
With the help of Williams and many other positive influences in his life, Wall channeled his emotions and, in turn, his game began to blossom. In high school, once he famously excelled at a rising-star Reebok camp near Philadelphia, his name quickly circulated in basketball circles. His stock soared. And in 2010, Wall became the first player selected in the NBA draft.
This March, when Wall met with the future Team Wall players in Charlotte, he didn’t need to rehash his story. Players knew it. They had followed his every move for years.
“John doesn’t have to say it – they know he went through hard times,” said Team Wall assistant Khris Williams, who also was an assistant on Wall’s Word of God team. “He had attitude issues and had to change all that. We didn’t take anything from him and we have let some of these guys know that. We didn’t take it from Wall, we are not going to take it from you. He is an NBA all-star and first pick in the draft. You have to pay respect to the game, the coaches, your peers and yourself. John is a good role model.”
Challenges of summer league basketball
Summer-league basketball has long been a lightning rod for criticism. At times there is more of an emphasis on games than skill development, almost a roll-out-the-ball mentality. Showcasing one’s talents can take priority over winning. And some coaches have ulterior motives during the recruiting process.
Team Wall is one of the programs focusing on a larger vision. Watch one of their games and you’ll see coaches make sure that players stand while teammates exit the games for substitutions. After a player takes a charge – a rarity in an AAU game – teammates must rush over to help him up. Teammates and coaches are treated with respect. And time spent together on the plane, in restaurants and in airports offer critical bonding time for players.
They are always looking for lessons to pass along. During the 16-U game, Team Wall assistants sat in the stands and talked about a tweet by recruiting analyst Alex Kline that said there are two ways to ensure no improvement as a player this summer: To only play basketball games and to play no basketball games. Moderation is the way to go, in life and basketball.
“We are coaching more than basketball,” Khris Williams said. “Some of these kids don’t come from the best environments or parental situations … Give them some boundaries. They pretend they don’t want them. But they need them and want them too.”
Some of the strategic on-court moves also serve as life lessons. After winning their first game, Team Wall ran into a Texas-based team, Urban DFW, which was more cohesive and talented. Team Wall trailed, 47-15, at halftime.
Kendrick Williams intentionally did not call a timeout during the first half because he wanted to see how his players reacted to adversity – significant adversity. The players kept looking at the scoreboard and couldn’t believe how the margin ballooned. They knew they had slept-walked into the game and the score reflected it. They kept looking to the bench for a timeout. But there was no break, no let-up.
“It was pretty tough,” said Kyran Bowman, who is committed to play football at North Carolina. “But we just had to build up our team chemistry and learn how to play together. Coach always gets on us and makes us better players.”
Team Wall responded in the second half, finishing with 53 total points in a 17-point loss. Afterwards, Kendrick Williams told the team, “It’s all about the process. At least I know I have guys who don’t give up. We had 15 points at halftime! Look what we did in the second half!”
Players were also encouraged.
“We came out really flat and were down 30,” said Jalen Johnson, a 6-7 shooting guard from Wesleyan Christian. “In the second half, we came back. I few could have played that way, we would have won.”
Johnson, the son of two former track standouts, has freakish athletic ability. He can also shoot, as evidenced by him making more than one three-point shot in most games here. He said he’s being recruited by Old Dominion, East Carolina, Tulsa and Wake Forest. But his coaches expect high-major offers to trickle in very soon.
“He will blow up this summer,” Khris Williams said.
Despite Johnson’s potential, Kendrick Williams did not hesitate in admonishing him during the team’s final game, even with the 56-47 victory over TX Elite Basketball in hand in the second half. A teammate struggled to pass the ball while being trapped and double-teamed. Johnson called a timeout. Williams wanted him to play through the adversity. Johnson remembered the lesson.
“He is a tough coach,” Johnson said. “Lots of energy. High intensity.”
Wall is watching
John Wall wouldn’t want it any other way. Even with a Wizards game looming Sunday evening, Wall sent Williams a text late Saturday night and two more Sunday morning.
“How are the guys doing?” Wall texted.
“Tell the younger guys to pick their heads up!”
“Tell them it’s all about the process!”
Some of the players are in awe of Wall. They smile when asked if they know him personally, as if it’s an absurd question. They relish the opportunity to play on any summer-league team that crisscrosses the nation and competes before scores of Division I college coaches. But playing on this one is particularly special because of Wall’s affiliation.
“It means everything,” Khris Williams said. “You have the local ties. You have guys all over North Carolina knowing who John is and where he came from. To be a part of that, it’s great for him to give back in that manner. It’s huge. He’s got a great brand name. You can’t go anywhere in North Carolina and not know who John Wall is.”
And more and more, college coaches will learn who the emerging prospects are on Team Wall. Players such as Osinachi Smart, a heady 6-foot-8 forward who can run the floor extremely well. And on the 16-U team there are brothers Malik Johnson and Telligence Johnson, both of whom are distinguished by their blond Mohawks as well as their precocious play.
Malik Johnson, a strong point guard who is just finishing his freshman year of high school, may have the most long-term potential of anyone in the new AAU program. And his brother wowed the crowd in one game Sunday when he soared over everyone for a resounding follow-up dunk.
Much like Wall was at one point in his development, this is a program chock full of under-the-radar prospects. Kendrick Williams smiles at that notion. That’s exactly how he wants it. That formula worked just fine for Wall.
At the end of what he called a “fulfilling” weekend, players left the Dallas area with more experience and exposure. Williams’ messages to players were on point.
They still don’t know Gladys Knight & The Pips from Scottie Pippen. But they’ll carry the lessons throughout the upcoming summer-league basketball tour. Next top: Indianapolis in two weeks.
“This program is built to last,” Johnson said. “It’s good to be part of something new. And we will be known as the first group that started it.”
As Bowman said, “You have to start at the beginning.”
They know a Wizards point guard once did just that.