WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- John Wall looks at the roster and the future and, for the first time as an NBA player, has genuine optimism in the Washington Wizards.
Not just obligatory, eye-rolling preseason platitudes one hears from every NBA player, no matter how good or bad his team.
Wall, the Wizards' 23-year-old point guard entering his fourth NBA season, sees center Nene in the post, shooting guard and star-in -the-making Bradley Beal on the wing, depth and a solid mix of youngsters and veterans.
"This is the most exciting team I've played with," Wall said. "They brought back players I enjoy playing with. Al Harrington wanted to join the team. Everybody is professional. Those situations let us know we can be a team that can win."
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After a promising final 49 games (24-25) last season - a winning percentage good enough to qualify for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference - not only is optimism real, expectations are real, too. The playoffs are a must, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said.
Sitting on a dasher board used for hockey at Verizon Center, Wall is comfortable, like he owns the place. Which in a way, he does. Since the Wizards drafted him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, Wall has been the de facto face of the franchise.
But any doubt was removed when Washington gave Wall a five-year, $80 million extension. It's his team now - Washington's decision and Wall's choice. They wanted each other.
"I love this city, and the city loves me back," Wall said. "They appreciate everything I'm doing. My dad's from this area. He passed when I was nine. I'm excited to play in the place where he was born. The organization, ownership and the coaching staff, they believed in me."
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Washington has always felt like home to Wall, and it's clear he appreciates that his mom, Frances Pulley, is less than four hours away in Raleigh, N.C. When Wall signed his extension, family members, including his mom, two aunts and sisters, were in the audience and he broke down in tears recalling all they had done for him.
Leonsis knew it was important to keep Wall in Washington.
"We think we have a great person, a great point guard, a great player who we've drafted, developed, retained and will build a team around," Leonsis said. "You hope that that player wants to be here. ... John has embraced Washington and embraced me as the owner."
They stuck by each other through three consecutive losing seasons, including a 4-28 start last season. Wall knew it would be tough, a process Leonsis explained to him at the start.
"You have to tell a young great player that we're going to be really bad, and it's going to look like madness," Leonsis said. "But there are a lot of methods here and we need you to believe in us."
Wall believed. He looked at Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Kevin Durant's first two seasons (20-62 and and 23-59) and remained patient.
He now relishes the responsibility that comes with being the face of the franchise: leading and winning. After returning from a knee injury, Wall was a major part of Washington's improvement in the second half of last season. Wall and Beal form one of the best young backcourts in the league, and Wall to Beal for a three-pointer will be a common sequence for the Wizards this season.
Wall's play got the attention of Harrington, who signed with the Wizards in the offseason. Wall wanted Harrington to play for the Wizards, and in turn, Harrington has become a mentor for Wall.
"Every day he's in here working. He's communicating more. He's being positive with his teammates," Harrington said. "When you're a leader, it's not about scoring. You have to bring everybody together at all times. I'm talking to him about it, and he's listening.
"A lot of young guys are selfish. He's a team person and a leader. It doesn't matter if he scores 30 points or four points, as long as we get the win, he's going to get the credit."
Wall said, "Everybody knows how I am as a player. I like to get my teammates involved. My teammates enjoy playing with me, and I enjoy playing with them."
In the summer, Wall often worked out three times a day, and in September, he organized an unofficial mini-camp with teammates. He also continued to work on his jump shot, which he needs to start making on a more consistent basis.
Teams know how fast Wall is - his speed is nearly impossible to contain baseline to baseline - and a major part of Wall's game is getting by defenders and getting to the basket. In pick-and-roll situations, teams often go under the pick and leave Wall open for jumpers.
His goal is to prove he make more and force teams to go over the pick, which would allow Wall to take advantage of his speed and get to the rim.
"I feel like it's a disrespectful to give me the jump shot, but that's how the game goes," he said. "If you can't shoot, why would you want to give that person the lane every time when he can finish better that way? Why not improve my game and make it easier for me. Now, you have to choose. That's the only way I knew I was going to get better."
Harrington said Wall has All-Star talent but won't be recognized as an All-Star until he starts winning. So Wall's focus is on making the playoffs.
"This city loves basketball," Wall said, "and I want to see how it feels and looks when we're in the playoffs."