Top prospect Wall denies he's going pro as recruitment intensifies
John Wall, a 6-foot-3 point guard, is the top ranked player in the class of 2009
Wall's college recruitment is open, but his AAU coach is advising against UNC
Scouts believe he could be an instant-impact player of Derrick Rose's caliber
NEW YORK -- As 18-year-old John Wall sat in a lounge at the Westin Times Square on Wednesday -- coincidentally, just six floors above where the NBA draft's media day is held every June -- the first thing he did was address an NBA draft rumor that had gone viral in the past 24 hours. Word was that Wall, the top-rated point guard in the class of 2009, might try to bypass college altogether, because he's in his fifth year of high school (at Word of God Academy in Raleigh, N.C.) and will turn 19 in September, thus potentially making him an eligible draftee under the NBA's age-limit rule. But Wall said there's no chance this will happen.
"I already promised my mom and my dad, before he died" -- he passed away from cancer when Wall was 9 -- "that I was going to college, so I'm not even thinking about the NBA this year," he told SI.com. Because he's not in a postgraduate year of high school, Wall said, "I don't think I'd even be eligible anyway, and even if I was, I wouldn't go in the draft."
So there it is: Wall won't be in the draft until, at the earliest, 2010, at which point he could go No. 1 overall, if DraftExpress' projection is correct. The pack of underclassman point guards who might've been bumped down a rung had Wall gone pro in June -- Jonny Flynn, Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson and Jrue Holiday -- can all exhale.
That doesn't mean the drama surrounding John Wall is over, though. In the college world, it's only getting started. Because as Wall gets ready to play in the Jordan Brand Classic at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, he still has eight schools on his list and three others who are known to have inquired about his services. The biggest question in college basketball this spring is WWWG -- Where Will Wall Go -- because the 6-foot-3 kid whom talent evaluator Tom Konchalski says has extraterrestrial athleticism has a chance to make a Derrick Rose-like impact on his eventual team. Many of Wall's suitors have talent-rich rosters that lack an elite point guard, and, as 34-year-old Brian Clifton, Wall's former AAU coach and point man in his recruiting process, sees it, "Even the teams that don't need a point guard, need John. He's that good."
This is why Wall received a call from new Kentucky coach John Calipari the night before he officially chose to leave Memphis, just to tell Wall -- who had been one of the Tigers' prime recruiting targets -- what was on the verge of happening. It's also why Calipari and UK assistants Orlando Antigua and Rod Strickland flew to Portland, Ore., over the weekend and briefly met with Wall and Clifton at the Embassy Suites hotel where they were staying for the Nike Hoop Summit.
But Kentucky is hardly the only school in the hunt: Florida coach Billy Donovan and assistant Rob Lanier also flew to Portland, to have a meeting with Wall and Clifton in the same hotel Sunday. North Carolina coach Roy Williams called Wall from Detroit two days before the Tar Heels played Villanova in the Final Four, even though UNC isn't officially recruiting him yet. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had meetings with Clifton, Wall and Wall's mom, Frances Pulley, in the days after the Blue Devils lost in the NCAA tournament. Baylor gave Clifton's brother, Dwon, another former AAU coach of Wall's, a three-year contract to be its director of player development last summer, partially in hopes of getting involved in Wall's recruitment. NC State, Kansas, and Memphis are still pursuing Wall hard enough to remain on his list, and among those still trying to get in it are Arizona, which had assistant Emmanuel Richardson call Brian Clifton shortly after Sean Miller got the job in Tucson; and UCLA, which had assistant Scott Duncan call Clifton after freshman point guard Jrue Holiday opted to put his name in the NBA draft.
Wall is such hot commodity everyone's looking for a sign as to the direction he might be leaning, no matter how trivial it may be. Here's one: Michael Jordan, whose brand sponsors Saturday's game, is a UNC alum, and when Wall arrived in New York he was assigned to room with John Henson, a 6-10 power forward from Texas who's the top signee at ... UNC. Wall laughed at the suggestion that this was more than a coincidence, and countered with the fact that at the Hoop Summit in Portland, his roommate had been Mason Plumlee, a 6-10 forward who's bound for Duke. "Whoever I get paired up with," said Wall, "people try to take hints from it, and say that [the roommate] is trying to convince me to come to their school."
For the record, both Henson and Plumlee have lobbied for Wall to join them in college, but they aren't the only ones doing it. DeMarcus Cousins, the top-rated center in the class of 2010, came into the Westin lounge on Wednesday just minutes after signing his National Letter of Intent to play for Kentucky -- he had been standing at the hotel's front desk waiting for the faxed LOI, signed it, then faxed it back -- and said that he was also wooing Wall.
Cousins had originally pledged to play for Calipari when he was coaching the Tigers, and said, "I've been on [Wall] about playing with me for a while -- since right after I committed to Memphis." And Cousins said he plans to keep applying the pressure.
The overzealous fans aren't likely to let up, either -- or at least everyone other than the NC State freshman who received a cease-and-desist letter from the school's compliance director after starting a Facebook group entitled "John Wall PLEASE come to NC STATE!!!!" A fan in the crowd in Portland held up a sign that read (according to Wall), "John, Come To UNC." There were 44 different Twitter messages that mentioned Wall's name in just the 24 hours before this column was posted, including one that said, "John wall, pah-lease come to kentucky [sic]".
"The decision John's going to make is a business decision," said Clifton, "not one off of emotion. He's smarter than that. So these people waving signs and setting up blogs and Facebook pages to encourage him, he knows that those people don't know his situation, what he needs, or what he wants. They've heard he's a good player, that he could help the team they cheer for, and that's the extent of what they know about the situation."
What is there to know about Wall's situation, then? For one, he keeps a small circle -- with the principals being Pulley and Clifton, who's known Wall since he was 12 -- around him at nearly all times (including at the Westin on Wednesday) and would move with him if he chooses an out-of-state school. The fact that Pulley has lingering health concerns -- she was hospitalized with an aneurysm last year -- makes Raleigh-area schools an attractive option, although not the only option. She was an NC State fan growing up, which is one reason the Wolfpack remain in the mix. As for Duke, Wall said his 17-year-old sister, Cierra, might want to attend school there, and Clifton said that he's been in contact with Krzyzewski about Wall's recruitment for "pretty much all of 2009."
Clifton, Wall and Pulley met with Coach K on March 29 on the Duke campus, and one part of the Blue Devils' presentation, Wall said, was film of former point guard Jason Williams, "because they never had a point guard since him that could come off ball screens and get up and down the court." They discussed Wall's future plans (Coach K was said to be accepting of a one-and-done situation), his personality (Clifton explained that Wall has matured of late, but dealt with some "emotional scarring" from the loss of his father at a young age) and how Duke might help his image. "I'm not an easy guy to impress," Clifton said, "but I came away from that impressed."
How much does it matter what Clifton thinks? North Carolina might be the litmus test, if Roy Williams -- who Wall said hasn't called back since the Final Four -- opts to get in the mix when Ty Lawson decides to move on to the NBA. The situation there, basically, is that Williams and Clifton have no relationship -- because Williams doesn't want to deal with figures from the AAU world, and Clifton runs Wall's D-One Sports program in Raleigh. And so Clifton, when asked about the Tar Heels, initially said, "I don't want to talk about Carolina."
Williams could still recruit Wall directly, by calling him, his mother and high-school coach at Word of God. "[Williams] is well within his right to do that," Clifton said. "And John can go to whatever school he decides to. But I honestly feel that to make that decision he's going to have to turn to his mother and turn to me and have both of us say, we support it. And I absolutely would not support him going to UNC."
On the flip-side of North Carolina's no-contact-with-Clifton stance is Baylor, which added Dwon Clifton to its staff. Wall understands the speculation about him playing for the Bears as a result of the hire, but doesn't feel that there's a direct obligation to go there because of Dwon. "If any school got Dwon, the expectation would have been, 'Oh, John's about to commit there right away,'" Wall said. "Even if he went to a place like Central Florida people would have though that. But Dwon said he'd be happy no matter what school I went to."
Asked if he thought Baylor would be upset if he didn't end up committing there, Wall said, "I hope they wouldn't be upset. I hope they gave [Dwon] the job not to just get closer to me."
In the meantime, the rest of Wall's suitors are working their own angles. When Donovan and Lanier met with Wall and Clifton in Portland, the coaches showed video of how Florida used its point guard, Nick Calathes, off of ball-screens, and said that Wall could be used in much the same way. Calathes, a sophomore, put his name in the draft without hiring an agent, but Clifton said the indications he and Wall received from the Gators staff were that Calathes was unlikely to return.
Kansas might have been a more suitable destination for Wall had its point guard, Sherron Collins, not opted to return to school. Wall said that KU coach Bill Self told him that he and Collins could feasibly "switch off" at the point, like Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and Collins did during 2007-08, but, Wall said, "that might be pretty tough to do." New Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who had been recruiting Wall as an assistant, is still pursuing him for the Tigers, where he could take over the team; Wall could step into a similar role at Miami, too, if he likes the school enough on his April 24 visit.
And then there's Kentucky, and Calipari, whom Clifton said has expressed that his team "desperately needs a point guard" to run the Dribble-Drive Motion offense that he employed at Memphis. Wall would be the perfect fit, and if Calipari were to convince swingman Jodie Meeks and power forward Patrick Patterson (they've both put their names in the draft but neither has hired an agent) to return for another season, too, the Wildcats would likely be considered a top 10 team.
Had Calipari never left Memphis, Wall says he was "leaning" toward going there. Wall had made two unofficial visits to Lexington when Billy Gillispie was the coach there, and says the pitch Calipari is making for UK now is, "Different school, different state, but we're going to be doing the same exact stuff we did at Memphis." Wall could be a one-and-done player, and the NBA launching pads the Tigers provided for Rose and Tyreke Evans are major selling points.
Clifton thinks the decision may well come to that -- whether or not Wall is fully committed to being in the draft in 2010, or open to the possibility of staying in college.
"John absolutely wants to be a pro," Clifton said, "and if you want to be a one-and-done, there are situations that are more conducive to that. Maybe you have two really good schools, two really strong traditions, two great coaches, but one of them is going to allow you to more easily continue on your path, if that's what you want to do. ... But if you're going to be on campus for two, three or four years, then maybe that situation isn't as attractive as the other one. When John comes to grips with what's most important for him, then he'll be able to make his decision."
It's a decision that could keep coaches and fans on edge for the rest of the spring and into the summer. The NCAA's spring signing period opened on Wednesday, when Cousins was faxing his signature to Lexington, and ends on May 20. But any school seriously in the hunt for Wall would hold a scholarship open for him, and allow him to enroll without signing a letter of intent. Which means Wall could take the process all the way up until June 15, when he'd know exactly which players were in or out of the NBA draft pool. "I think John will wait until he feels comfortable with everything, because it's a situation that's going to change his life and the lives of people he cares about," Clifton said. "And I absolutely support him waiting."
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