By Paul Elkins
The recent collegehoopsnet.com poll, “Who is the player of the decade?” certainly sparks an interesting debate. As an avid college basketball fan, I have seen all of the great ones of the past ten years – from the four-year legacies of Redick and Hansbrough, to the one-and-done flashes of Anthony and Durant. While a claim could be staked for many of the household names, I believe that the best player to play college basketball in this decade may have just come onto the radar screen.
I am always skeptical when I get word of the “next great player in college basketball.” This year was certainly no exception, as 6’4” freshman point guard John Wall was anointed just that before even setting foot on Kentucky’s campus. I saw Wall play for the first time last week as his Wildcats took on lowly Hartford at Rupp Arena. I wanted to see if reality could even come close to the colossal hype surrounding the player who is the unanimous choice to be the top pick in next year’s NBA draft. While Wall scored a season-low 9 points, he left me with the feeling that he might not just be the next great player in college basketball – he might just end up being the best player to play college basketball in this decade.
Against Hartford, Wall dished out a school-record 16 assists, including 11 in the first half – five of which were alley-oop passes he created seemingly out of nowhere. Wall’s virtuoso performance was punctuated with an alley-oop dunk of his own – using a back screen to perfection and then skying for a two-handed reverse finish that would make Lebron James and Vince Carter jealous. Wall also played hounding defense, harassing ball-handlers with his quickness and athleticism, anticipating passes, and disrupting the Hartford offense with relentless tenaticity. Granted, Wall did not appear a pure shooter, and his assists were received by the likes of All-American candidates Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins, who were better and bigger than their Hartford opponents. But the manner in which Wall carried himself throughout left me in awe of what is and what could become of this precocious freshman.
Wall displays an uncanny poise in the heat of the moment – almost as if the game is in slow motion for him while everyone else is operating at regular speed. Several of his alley-oop passes came late in the shot clock after a play had broken down when he simply improvised and created something out of nothing. It was evident that Wall saw these plays a step ahead in his mind – faster than his opponents, faster than the audience, but just slow enough to catch a teammate with a perfect pass at just the right time in just the right place to finish with ease. Wall displayed the kind of ability that left everyone wondering, “How did he do that?”
Former NBA All-Star and current Kentucky assistant coach Rod Strickland noticed this quality in Wall – stating that he first realized Wall’s immense talent during the Blue/White intersquad scrimmage – the first time Wall played in a game with referees, wearing a Kentucky uniform, in front of a crowd. Strickland stated that Wall just seems to be able to raise his game to a new level in the heat of the battle.
Wall has been quoted as boldly saying he wants to become the best point guard ever to play the game. He says that what drives him is knowing that on any given night, someone might outplay him, or beat him and think that they are better than he is. I dare say we haven’t seen the likes of such self-belief and desire to prove oneself since Michael Jordan.
Also remarkable was the fact that when Wall recorded his record-setting 16th assist, his teammates on the bench stood up and applauded enthusiastically, indicating the respect and admiration they have for their star teammate.
While other first-year coaches struggle at big-name programs – Sean Miller and Johnny Dawkins are 6-6 at Arizona and Stanford, respectively – John Calipari sits a perfect 14-0 in his first year in Lexington, while starting three freshmen. John Wall’s will to win, Calipari freely admits, is a big reason why.
As the decade draws to a close, and the time has come for us to choose the player of the decade in college basketball, John Wall has made a late entrance into the discussion as he played his own final game of the decade with a record-setting performance. Perhaps we will have to reopen the debate in a few months.
Paul Elkins has been an occasional contributor to collegehoops.net since 2004. Email Paul at email@example.com.