Why John Wall's bond with Wizards is special in era when staying put is harder than ever

Michael Lee
The Vertical

WASHINGTON – In this era of unprecedented superstar movement, when pledges of commitment can be quickly flipped into trade demands or free-agent departures, John Wall had the easy part down when presented with the chance to commit his prime to the team that drafted him: He wanted to be in Washington.

When he hops on a scorer’s table and shouts, “This my city!” – as he did after his game-winning 3-pointer in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston – Wall truly means it. Wall might rep Raleigh, North Carolina, and one season in Lexington, Kentucky, established the deepest of bonds, but Washington is home. He also has one of the more unique connections to the NBA community that he represents because he plays basketball in the hometown of his late father. So, unlike other stars who have been in similar positions, Wall wasn’t approaching with wandering eyes the expiration date on his tenure.

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“I think a lot of players want to be in a certain place. Who wouldn’t want to be in L.A.? Who wouldn’t want to be in Miami? Those are amazing cities. Well, I’m in one of the best cities you want to be, in D.C. So I’m fine,” Wall told The Vertical, explaining why he agreed to a four-year extension worth $170 million that starts in 2019 and should keep him with the Wizards through 2023.

Despite speculation that Wall was delaying his decision with plans of pressuring the team for roster changes or plotting his eventual escape, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said he knew Wall would sign the deal because of his “loyalty.” But the L-word Kendrick Lamar and Rihanna like to sing about gets thrown around so much that people tend to forget that it requires reciprocity from both ends to truly work. And the reason Wall and the Wizards have latched themselves to one another for the foreseeable future is because they haven’t been eagerly seeking alternatives.

From the time he first arrived at Verizon Center – with a police escort from Dulles International Airport, an over-the-top greeting with red carpet, balloons and hundreds of fans applauding from behind velvet ropes – the morning after going No. 1 overall in 2010, Wall has always felt the love from the Wizards. They handed him the franchise before he knew what to do with it, handed him his first maximum extension before he had made an All-Star team or a playoff appearance. And, they have consistently made him the foundation of their plans – even if that meant giving bigger contracts to his less-established teammates to maintain continuity in an exceedingly pricy economic environment.

Leonsis has invested more than $400 million over the past two summers to keep Bradley Beal and Otto Porter and to reward Wall with the third-richest contract in NBA history. Beal and Porter benefited from the salary-cap spike that turned the $86 million extension Wall received in 2013 – when Wall was coming off a serious knee injury – into one of the league’s best bargains. Wall just had to wait his turn for the generational, nine-figure hook-up.

“My kids’ kids’ kids should be fine,” Wall told The Vertical about the $207 million headed his way over the next six years.

John Wall smiles at his news conference to announce his contract extension, with Wizards owner Ted Leonsis in the background. (Getty Images)

Entering his eighth season, Wall will have the league’s seventh-longest tenure with the same organization. During this calendar year, fellow 2010 draft mates DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, Gordon Hayward and Avery Bradley have all changed teams, leaving Wall as the last player from his draft class who remains with his original team.

“That’s crazy, it’s shocking to me,” Wall told The Vertical. “You never know where you can be, anything can happen. I’m just glad I can be one of those guys that can say, ‘I’m still here.’ My ultimate goal is to try to be one of those guys that play my whole career with one team.”

Of the six active players who spent at least a decade with the same team, Dirk Nowitzki is the only one who spent most of his time with his organization as its best player. Stars and their teams have repeatedly fallen out of love, making it harder for fans to maintain that lasting connection. Dwyane Wade was a Heat lifer until he wasn’t. Kevin Garnett gave Minnesota his all until he realized the Timberwolves would never provide a team worthy of his talents. Paul Pierce won big, lost big, and everything in-between for 15 years with Boston but couldn’t accept a rebuild in his twilight. The Wizards-Wall relationship could eventually meet a similar fate. But for now, they give each other the best chance to achieve what they want.

Sticking it out is becoming more difficult than ever for players without rings. In response to Kevin Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City, NBA owners sought a system in the current collective-bargaining agreement that would make the financial incentives to stay so staggering that leaving would be painful. Had George and Hayward met the same super-max criteria as Wall after last season, they likely would’ve remained with Indiana and Utah, respectively. But in some situations that plan has backfired, with sticker shock forcing teams to cut short what could have been longer-term unions. Sacramento was unwilling to make such a large commitment to Cousins and traded him to New Orleans, and Chicago felt a similar panic in moving Jimmy Butler.

Last month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke of the “unintended consequences” of calibrating a system “that so loaded it to an incumbent team that it becomes a weight too much to bear.” But the Wizards didn’t hesitate to extend a good-faith offer to Wall, undeterred by the increased expense for All-Star players at a time when the value of having one star has never been lower.

By waiting another year to sign, Wall could’ve gambled on tacking on an extra $50 million to the back end of the deal but didn’t find the wisdom in that route, given the risk of injury and the league’s depth in backcourt talent. “I only made All-NBA this year. All-NBA is not guaranteed,” Wall told The Vertical. “You’ve got six, seven guys that’s guaranteed All-NBA every year because of how dominant they are. Other guys, it’s like there are a couple of spots that’s open and you never know what can happen. I never wanted to chance it, so I was like, why?”

Wall has certainly flirted with the idea of teaming up with his buddies from Kentucky, Eric Bledsoe and Cousins. But the complexities of building All-Star alliances and the Wizards’ commitment to drafting and developing their own have forced Wall to ignore the fantasy and focus on improving his situation. He’s never been ashamed of publicly lobbying for help, as Durant and George have heard pitches. He could’ve waited two more years to chase rings, pursue a slightly bigger media market, or form the kind of super team that has been the norm for his entire career, but said, “Sometimes the grass is not always greener on the other side.”

Wall has never forgotten how the Wizards’ organization never let him test the open market as a free agent, never let his name leak out in trade rumors and has always stepped up to take care of him at the first opportunity. “I know where I want to be. I know who I’m committed to,” Wall told The Vertical. “I could see if they did something disloyal to me, where I could be, ‘I got something on them, I’m going to pay them back.’ They have done nothing to me but been loyal to me. They stuck with me. They could’ve been, ‘Oh, he’s injury-prone, he’s not doing this, we’ve got to get rid of this guy.’ They’ve stuck with me through those tough times. And the player and the person that I’ve become now, is the same reason why I stuck with those guys.”

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