According to Wall it took years for him to channel his anger productively after his father, also named John, died of liver cancer when the younger Wall was nine. "It was tough because I didn't have a father figure," Wall says. "If anybody made jokes in middle school, you wanted to fight, so that's what I did. When I played basketball, it was hard for me to trust people. I didn't trust my coaches, didn't trust my teammates with passes. I was trying to do my own thing."
Over time, Wall's friends and family say, the game helped turn him around. "Picking up that basketball was his way of grieving after his father passed," says his older half sister Tanya Pulley. For his part Wall credits three coaches with helping him mature: Brian and Dwon Clifton, the brothers who ran the North Carolina--based D-One Sports summer-league team, and Levi Beckwith, Wall's coach at Raleigh's Word of God Christian Academy. In one of his first games there, Wall recalls, he snapped at Beckwith about his substitution patterns, only for the coach to bench his star for two games. "It showed me I had to change my attitude if I wanted to play," says Wall.
After an epic recruiting battle among a half-dozen colleges, Wall finally chose Kentucky last spring, casting his lot with new coach John Calipari in his attempt to resurrect the nation's winningest program after it failed to reach last year's NCAA tournament. So far, so good. Wall missed the season's first game—part of an NCAA suspension for accepting recruiting-visit expenses from Brian Clifton when Clifton was still a registered agent—but his legend was born when he hit a game-winning buzzer beater in his debut against Miami (Ohio) and grew when he scored 25 points (and 12 of UK's last 15) in a 64--61 win over Connecticut on Dec. 9 in Madison Square Garden. "As soon as the ball goes up, John's a different person," Strickland says. "He's a killer out there."
Calipari knew he had the nation's top recruit, but there were some things about Wall that he couldn't learn until the season started. "I did not know his will to win was this strong. I had no idea," says Calipari. "I did not know his work ethic. And I've been surprised." Wall goes through a daily practice routine that includes drills that will help him even more at the next level: 10 post-up moves on each side of the basket, pick-and-rolls and a reverse layup that Calipari calls "the Ginóbili" after the Spurs guard. What's more, the coach says Wall picked up his Dribble-Drive Motion offense even faster than Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, Calipari's most recent one-and-done point guards who've gone on to star in the NBA.
Predictably, Lexington is more atwitter than Twitter itself. Whenever Wall joins freshman teammates Cousins and Eric Bledsoe for some late-night grub at the campus dive Tolly-Ho, camera-phone-clicking admirers pounce on the self-proclaimed Three Amigos. "We can go buy deodorant," Wall says, "and suddenly there's like 30 people behind you in the store." Why, the popular Two Keys Tavern on Limestone Street has even started serving a bar shot called a John Wall, made with blue raspberry vodka, Sprite and sour mix.
And Wall says he's genuinely enjoying his college classes, especially his freshman English course (favorite assignment: a paper on President Obama and Martin Luther King Jr.) and a public-speaking class called Communication in Small Groups. "It's a lot of group projects," Wall says. "We did one where all of us went bowling and to some German restaurant that we'd never eaten at. Then we talked about the experience in front of the class." Granted, it's not exactly like studying atomic supercolliders, but he feels it's important to show he can also succeed as a student. On Saturday, Wall flashed his widest smile of the day when he revealed that his grade-point average during the first semester was a 3.2, the highest among the starters.
As Wall departed into the cold Kentucky air after beating Louisville, you half-expected him to leave a jet contrail in his wake. After all, it may be fun to dance the Shizz, but life's even better when you are the Shizz.
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See how Wall and Kentucky fare in Luke Winn's Power Rankings at SI.com/cbb