There were times during his rookie year that John Wall wished he were back in college.
The losing, it just hurt so much. He lost 59 games — more than he lost in all of his other seasons of organized basketball combined.
“Let me get paid and go play in college,” Wall would think, a feeling he shared only with close friends.
He thought about it Tuesday inside a gym at UCLA, now seven years older and on a team that contends for Eastern Conference championships.
On Wednesday night, Wall will start opposite a point guard who faces the same kind of pressure as a rookie — to save a franchise from the dysfunction that preceded him, saddled with the expectations that come with being a high draft pick. He knows a lot about what Lonzo Ball will go through, and he knows how Ball can get through it.
“He’s a humble kid,” Wall said. “Doesn’t say too much. Just plays the game. Plays with a low demeanor. That’s something you can respect about him. He lets his game do the talking.
“I think he’ll be fine. People gotta be patient, let him deal with it how he deals with it. Everybody wants him to be an angry, aggressive type of guy. That’s not his demeanor. His demeanor is laid back, quiet and don’t say much.”
Wall and Ball shared headlines this week after Ball’s famously verbose father said in an interview that there was no way his son would lose twice in one week. Wall’s Washington Wizards teammate, Marcin Gortat, replied to the proclamation on Twitter, saying that Wall would “torture” Ball for 48 minutes.
“The competitor in Lonzo, of course he didn’t take it so well,” Lakers forward Brandon Ingram told reporters after practice. “And with his teammates behind him, we didn’t take it so well.”
Wall doesn’t plan to torture Ball any more than he tortures other rookies.
“You want to show rookies what this league is about, point blank, period,” said Wall, the first pick in the 2010 draft. “That’s what I’m all about. That happened to me coming in. Every point guard I played. Even the guys that weren’t a top 10-point guard, top-15 point guard, those guys are going to target you.”
He remembered one particularly tough stretch when he played against Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo at home, then traveled right away to face Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.
He also remembers having to adjust his game after years of relying on his athleticism to carry him against lesser opponents. And he remembers needing to learn to become a shooting threat. He shot 40% overall and 29.6% from three-point range as a rookie. Opponents backed off when he had the ball, happy to let him shoot rather than make plays, as they are likely to do against Ball this year.
“In this league you gotta prove you can do it,” Wall said. “They still do it to me at times.”
Ball was a better shooter in college than Wall was, making 55% of his field goals and 41% of his three-pointers. Through three games in the NBA he’s shooting 35% overall and 29% on threes, percentages that have some wondering if his unorthodox shooting motion can work in the NBA.
“I’d tell them to go study Reggie Miller’s career,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “It doesn’t look great. It can be an issue, yes. But … [Ball] has a track record of being a really good shooter. So for us to try to mess with it would be silly. I’m obviously not calling him Reggie Miller, but his shot probably could have been fixed by a thousand people who wanted to fix it, and he is one of the greatest shooters our league has ever seen.”
The Lakers have no plans on “fixing” Ball’s shooting motion, comfortable it will improve on its own.
Wall’s shooting didn’t improve on its own. As he sat out the first few games of his third season, he watched more film to see how defenders exploited his poor shooting.
“First year you might be able to get by with getting to the basket not being able to make jump shots,” Wall said. “But if you want to be somebody in this league and be something special you’ve gotta learn how to knock down a couple shots.”
Now Wall is one of the league’s best point guards, a player Walton called an “elite, elite point guard” and one who has the same advice for Ball that LeBron James once had for him as he slogged through losing like he’d never experienced before.
Just keep working and eventually you and your team will ascend.
“Once we got better, our team got better, we added pieces, then people wanted to come play for DC,” Wall said. “A lot of people are gonna want to come play for the Lakers. So they won’t go through that for long. They have a foundation, they have a point guard where they can believe in him. They can put their team behind [him], and then you’ll have guys that are willing to come play with him.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli