Once unheralded, Wall breaks out as the nation's top recruit
UNION, N.J. -- This time last summer, John Wall was a relative unknown.
He wasn't invited to the summer's showcase camps -- Rbk U in Philadelphia and the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron Ohio -- so the 6-foot-4, 184-pound Raleigh, N.C., native took his game to Chicago. "If I had to prove myself, then fine," Wall says. "I'd go prove myself."
Wall's talent shined as he was the top prospect in the 120-player field at Reebok's Breakout Underclass Camp. With his performance there, he played his way to Philadelphia as one of the five Breakout camp participants who would then contend with the country's top talents, including Brandon Jennings and Renardo Sidney. "I tried telling them beforehand that he was the real deal," says Brian Clifton, a 33-year-old from Greensboro, N.C., who played at The Citadel and currently runs the D-One travel team program. "Camp organizers are wary of new names because everyone is telling them they have the next LeBron James."
Playing in the same Philadelphia University gym as the established recruits headlining Rivals.com's rankings and captivating the attention of recruiters, Wall staged his coming-out party. "I go to the mall and airport now, and people will stop and ask me for an autograph," says Wall, who will be a fifth-year senior at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh.
The son of Frances Pulley, a bus driver, Wall struggled as an early teen. At the hardscrabble Raleigh playgrounds near Davie Street, youths would challenge him to fights. To avoid that scene, he frequented the local YMCA. Originally enrolled in Garner (N.C.) High, he played junior varsity basketball as a freshman. After his mother moved, he was redistricted to Raleigh's Broughton High, a perennial power. Sporting poor body language and unwilling to temper his emotions on the court, he was cut from the varsity. "To be fair to Broughton," Clifton says. "John had some issues. He had potential but was unproven."
Soon after, Wall, known for what talent evaluator Tom Konchalski calls his "extraterrestrial athleticism", transferred to Word of God, a 15-year-old small Christian school of 300 students from kindergarten to 12th grade. By all accounts, Wall has matured since matriculating there and the school has benefited from his talents as it gained wins over national challengers like DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, Md.) last winter. "John still needs to work on his shot and finish better," says Word of God coach Levi Beckwith.
As much attention as Wall's successes have brought, the school is still rehabilitating its image from what it calls a "clerical error" three years ago. In 2006, the NCAA questioned the eligibility of several of the school's players. Upon being red-flagged as a potential diploma mill on the NCAA's watch list, Pastor Frank Summerfield threatened legal action until the NCAA relented and removed the school from the list in December 2006. Athletic director Kevin Washington maintains that the school was above board in its practices. "We opened up our doors [for the NCAA] to come in and now that is all taken care of," Washington says. "We were cleared of everything."
The two common denominators in Wall's moves have been the Clifton brothers. Brian's younger brother, Dwon, 27, who played at Clemson, assists with D-One while working full-time for a wireless telephone company. Last week the brothers attended the Steve Nash Skills Academy with Wall, watching from the stands as Wall went through drills. "If his mother cannot get him on the phone, she can call one of us and we can reach out and put our hands on him," says Brian Clifton, who introduced discipline to Wall when he joined the program, forced him to shave his braids and made him agree to not get tattoos. "I think that's a tremendous asset."
The Cliftons are the chief counselors in Wall's recruitment. Noting that Wall's mother is not a basketball person and a woman of few words, the brothers have fielded the majority of inquiries from Wall's suitors. "Before John was introduced to the rest of the world, there were few people actively participating in his life in a constructive way," says Brian Clifton, who lists Wall's mother, sisters Sierra and Tanya, as well as Beckwith, his high school coach, in the recruit's inner circle. "Now the phone rings off the hook, and they have to be selective of who they talk with."
Last Friday, the final day of the Steve Nash camp, Wall stood out in the crowd of 24 point guards, along with top recruit Lance Stephenson. Bigger and stronger at 6-5, 195 pounds, the well-built Stephenson matched wits with the stringy Wall and was able to bull his way into the lane. Still learning to control his speed and employ it in measured bursts, Wall showed what he could do in the open floor.
Having already made stops at the Baylor and Oklahoma State Elite camps, the Five Star camp in Hampden-Sydney, Va., and the Pangos All-American camp in Los Angeles, Wall faces a packed July. There are trips to the Peach Jam in North Augusta, S.C., and Las Vegas to end the summer, and he plans to cut his colleges list to eight by mid-month.
On Saturday, Wall will ride into his next stage along the summer circuit wearing the yellow jersey of the nation's top recruit, according to Rivals.com, at the LeBron James Academy. "Nobody made John Wall," the older Clifton says. "He was what he was and we made efforts to clean him up and guide him toward positive things. This kid has been a ballplayer for sometime."