Wall finding just the right balance

The difference in John Wall this season isn't visible when he's playing.

Oh, you can see improvements, such as the league-leading 10.3 assists per game, the career-high 46 percent shooting and a career-best two steals per game.

And then there's his team. The Washington Wizards are on pace for 56 wins, which would be the third-best record in franchise history and the first 50-win season since 1978-79, when the then-Bullets lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in the Finals.

As far as a physical difference, that's out of view. It's a tattoo he got on his chest last summer, a reproduction of a picture of Wall and his father taken when Wall was 2 or 3 years old.

The photo is one of the few tangible connections Wall has with his father, whom he saw mostly on weekend prison visits when he was a kid and who died of cancer just before Wall turned 9. The bond is evident. So is the genetic link, which seems stronger than ever these days as the maturing son has grown facial hair that mimics the look of the father in the picture. Before Wall steps on the court, he'll kiss his wrists, tap his jersey on the spot covering the tattoo, then point to the sky. He feels connected, even as he walks alone.

No one is self-made. Behind every success story is a person who provided guidance or support or an opportunity. John Wall will you tell you his tale begins with his mother -- the one who worked multiple jobs to provide for her children, squeezing in parenting when she could. She dropped Wall and his sister off at school an hour before the first bell on her way to work, used her lunch break to pick them up and bring them home or to the Boys & Girls Club, and make a late dinner when she got home at 9 p.m. Sometimes she'd leave again to go to another job.

It didn't leave much time for her to dispense life lessons. That's why when she finally sat him down to straighten him out it caught his attention and set him on the course that took him to an eye-opening single season at the University of Kentucky and his current spot as the leading vote-getter among guards in the Eastern Conference All-Star balloting.

John Wall takes and he shares, and he has it calibrated to just the right balance.

He learned how to follow the advice from those who tried to help him. And he has an ability to draw inspiration from those who aren't there, be it the father who didn't raise him, or a girl he befriended who didn't live to see her seventh birthday.

The story of Wall's success is the story of his overcoming obstacles not once but twice. You've heard the tale of salvation through sports endless times. What makes Wall's different is that it didn't end when he made it to the NBA. It started all over again.

He was drafted first overall in 2010 by a Wizards team whose culture made Wall the pro basketball equivalent of an at-risk youth. It was a franchise still reeling from the Gilbert Arenas gun incident that had yet to rid itself of Arenas and his bloated contract, a roster filled with potential negative influences that included enigmatic Andray Blatche and Jordan Crawford, whose basketball ability couldn't offset his inability to fit in that led to him playing with four teams by age 25.

It all gets back to the choice Wall's mother, Frances Pulley, forced him to make when he was in his midteens.

The backstory, from Wall himself: "A skinny kid from Raleigh, North Carolina. A lot of trouble growing up. Wasn't a great kid. Dad passed away when I was 9. I just lost it. Didn't have a father figure."

He fought other kids and resisted his coaches, to the point he was dropped from the team at Broughton High School, prompting a transfer to Word of God Christian Academy.

That's when his mom said Wall could be like his father and brother (who, as Wall said, "was on the other side") or he could be like his mother.

"That made me change," Wall said. "All the work she's doing for me, I didn't want to let my talent go to waste. ...

"That's what made me click."

He fell in line, picked up his grades, worked on his game. He competed in summer camps against future NBA players such as Xavier Henry and Brandon Jennings, even if he had to make 16-hour drives to get there.

At critical junctions in his life, Wall has made the right choices. When he got to the NBA, he leaned on the advice of Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

"When I talked to those guys, they said, 'I know it's tough right now, but don't get caught up, don't get satisfied with losing," Wall said.

People throughout the organization rave about how Wall has handled himself, how he overcame the environment and has justified that No. 1 pick status. The best compliment is that Wall remained a Jedi Knight, rather than succumb to the Dark Side and become a Sith. While management shed all the bad influences (you wouldn't believe the number of times the word "knuckleheads" was used to describe the Wizards' roster at the start of the decade), Wall embarked on a journey of personal growth.

By December, it created a moment that was the antithesis of the Arenas-Javaris Crittenton gun story, a touching story that reflected the capacity of Wall's heart.

Through Sashia Jones, the Wizards' senior director of community relations, Wall had met a 5-year-old cancer patient named Damiyah Telemaque-Nelson. Wall brought her and her family to a Wizards practice and they shot hoops together, and over the course of a year they developed a friendship.

"She was talking like she was 10 years old, running around like 'I can beat anything,'" Wall said. "That's the kind of courage that makes you want to step up and believe that you've got to appreciate life every day, that we don't have to go through these tough times."

Damiyah, better known as Miyah, wanted to meet Nicki Minaj and get one of her pink wigs. So Wall posted an Instagram video of Miyah and him, detailing her wish, and it gained enough social media momentum that the singer caught wind of it and complied. Miyah and her mother took a train ride to New York, and her dream came true.

Only cancer has a way of getting the final say. On Dec. 8, Wall learned through a late-morning text message that Miyah had passed away.

"It was very tough for me," Wall said. "The whole day I just kind of kept it to myself. I didn't say much."

He couldn't just stay home and wallow. There was a game against the Boston Celtics to play.

Wall had taken to writing "Pray for Miyah" on his shoes before games. The finality of her loss hit him that day when he had to change it to "RIP Miyah."

"When I was writing, I was trying not to get emotional," Wall said. "She was there. She was there with me that night, in the overtime, when I played big and made big shots."

Wall had 26 points and 17 assists, and the Wizards beat the Celtics in double overtime. His mind kept drifting to thoughts of Miyah whenever the game came to a halt, in the timeouts or during free throws. He ran out of emotional reserves during the postgame interview with Chris Miller on Comcast SportsNet. He managed to answer one question through the tears, then he succumbed, and doubled over. He then somberly left the court.

"When I got to the postgame interview and Chris Miller said her name, it was like, 'All right, now I can let it go,'" Wall said. "That game was for her. I think she was my angel that guided my through those last few minutes."

He still writes his tribute on the top of his shoes, "RIP" on the right, "Miyah" on the left, with hearts beneath each word. Across the toes of the left shoe, it says "Love Ya VP," for his mother. Across the toes of the right shoe, it says "RIP JCW," for John Carroll Wall, his father.

All of the words face outward, more easily read by someone facing Wall than by Wall himself if he looks down while wearing them. Maybe that's a meaningless detail. Maybe it's another little example of Wall sharing.

He has a tendency to share things, the smallest details and the biggest moments.

Just look at the immediate aftermath of his winning dunk in the dunk contest last year, when he soared over G-Man, the Wizards' mascot, grabbed the ball out of G-Man's hands and threw down a reverse slam. As soon as Wall landed, he hit the Nae Nae with Indiana's Paul George, then danced with G-Man, jumped for flying high-fives with Terrence Ross and George, then high-fived Drake.

"I don't think you can be in these situations by yourself," Wall said.

He draws the line from his mother sacrificing for her children to his teammates setting screens for him on the court.

"You can't do it by yourself," Wall said.

This season he shares the leadership responsibilities with Paul Pierce, who has represented the final stage of the turnaround from the toxic environment Wall entered as a rookie. The Wizards had progressed to the point that a veteran with championship experience wanted to play there, and Wall had earned enough credit in this league that Pierce can, at times, defer to him.

"John is still the leader of this team," Pierce said. "I'm an added voice, a respected voice on this team. He's growing, mature. Everybody respects him. He's an All-Star on this team. That's not going to change."

It's interesting to watch the flow between Pierce and Wall. Even though Pierce is the elder, he has the quicker first step off the bench during timeouts, racing out to midcourt to be the first to greet the players returning to the bench. Wall lags behind, offering fives as his teammates draw closer to the bench.

Wall might take the initiative on the court. Against the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 5, Wall decided it was time to get Nene involved. He fed Nene a pass on a screen-and-roll, and Nene made a jumper.

"Yeah, boy!" Wall shouted at him. "Shoot that m-----f-----, boy!"

Pierce picked up from there, getting the ball to Nene on the next possession and offering encouragement even after Nene missed.

"Good shot," Pierce said.

The Wizards held the lead throughout the game but were unable to put the Pelicans away. When they went ahead, 62-52, Pierce was the one who sensed the opportunity for the finishing blow.

"Come on, 'D,'" Pierce said. "Come on, 'D.' Right now!"

The Wizards never delivered the knockout. They let the Pelicans make it closer than it should have been. It reflected their shortcomings down the stretch in back-to-back losses in Oklahoma City and San Antonio, losses the Wizards attributed to more experienced teams showing them how it's done.

Pierce is the one who instituted a policy of paying off bets with pushups. After the Pelicans game, Pierce decided to settle a debt by doing pushups on the floor in the showers. Wall found that hilarious and loudly reported it back to the locker room.

Earlier, Wall had a quieter locker room moment with coach Randy Wittman, another step in a growing relationship that has proved mutually beneficial. Wittman has helped drive Wall to an All-Star level. Wall's development and the team's success have helped Wittman go from the hot seat to signing a three-year contract extension this past summer.

"It's grown," Wittman said of their relationship. "For me, he's got to be an extension of me. I'm harder on my point guards than I am on anybody else. That takes a certain person to be able to understand it and to accept it. John has grown there. I think more so this year than he ever has in his first five years.

"He used to have a hard time with it. There's no question, he and I, we pulled each other's hair out. He's come to understand, what I want, what it needs to be done."

The other critical relationship is with Bradley Beal. They have a chance to make a run at Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for the unofficial title of NBA's Best Backcourt.

"In my opinion, we are," Beal said, "and he feels the same way.

"He has that mindset that he wants to be the best that he can possibly be, which gives me that mindset and that confidence to believe that he is. And at the same time it gives me that confidence to do the same thing at my position."

From a personal standpoint, I've always appreciated the way Wall gave his best effort to answer questions from the very first time I interviewed him. For this story, he agreed to meet at the team hotel in San Antonio after the game -- an arrangement I'd never even requested in 20 years of covering the NBA. Although the Wizards lost the game, he still kept to the interview and didn't shy away from any questions.

A short while after we were done, he sent a copy of the picture with his father to my phone. The next time I talked to him I wanted to make sure it was OK to use the photo with the story. He approved.

Further proof John Wall is always willing to share.