John Wall’s slump was understandable, since every NBA player goes through a stretch of the season when they don’t have nearly as much bounce and their shots appear allergic to the net.
The length and timing of Wall’s late-season doldrums, however, were much more perplexing because he had been playing some of the best basketball of his career before falling into a 10-game period that was his least productive.
Coach Randy Wittman advised Wall to take a step back. His teammates told him to fight through it. But before he had 28 points and 10 assists on Thursday in the Wizards’ 99-94 loss to the Detroit Pistons, Wall had to watch game footage to realize the problem.
“The last couple of games, I’ve been watching film,” he said. “If I have a good stretch, I watch it. But if I have a bad stretch, I try to watch and see what I can do to get back to a good stretch.”
Wall had enough material to digest, since he had averaged just 12.4 points and shot 32.8 percent during his funk. And he was coming off a loss to Indiana in which he missed 11 of 15 shots and scored just 13 points. He tried to make spectacular plays to get loose and instead made the situation worse.
He discovered that his intensity level wasn’t where it needed to be defensively and that he was trying to do too much on the offensive end.
Before the Wizards took on the Pistons, Wall went through his usual pre-game drill of shooting free throws and taking dribble pull-ups with assistant Sam Cassell. He then gave the Wizards the controlled aggressiveness they have needed from him during a recent skid in which they have lost nine of 11 games.
He didn’t play a perfect game. He missed 10 of 18 shots, including an ill-advised air ball three-pointer in the first quarter that dropped his season average from long distance down to 8.3 percent (3 for 36).
But he made better decisions out the pick-and-roll, taking advantage of the open lanes for layups or drawing enough attempt to set up his teammates with open layups or jumpers. Wall also affected the game defensively, as he recorded two steals and limited fellow Kentucky alum Brandon Knight to just six points on 2 of 8 shooting. Knight’s backup, Will Bynum, had just one point.
“John is a competitor and he comes to play every night,” Wittman said. “That’s one thing you can’t say about him, and [Thursday] he was better than he has been.”
Wall finished with his first game with at least 20 points since he had 25 in a loss against Memphis, in the last game before Nene made his debut against New Jersey. His shooting woes could’ve been attributed to adjusting to a new low post presence in Nene, but when they continued even as Nene sat, they became more pronounced — especially as he also struggled to make plays in the final minute of four close losses to Indiana (twice), Atlanta and Detroit.
He might not have eliminated all of his problems with one game, but Wall was encouraged by the start.
“I just finally got out of my slump,” Wall said. “My teammates was telling me to keep playing. It was good to get out of the slump. You go through different slumps throughout the season. And I just got easy shots, got into the lane and got the free throw line a lot and so that kind of helped me get my rhythm. Just being patient and being more aggressive.”
Wall was 12 of 15 from the foul line, as he drove inside with a purpose and forced the Pistons to make a decision to hack him or let him score, rather than wait for the referees to bail him out.
And with 11 games remaining, veteran Roger Mason Jr. is hopeful that his teammates decide to follow Wall’s lead and not focus too much on the vacations that await them once this lockout-shortened season is completed in three weeks.
“For us, it’s a real challenge for our team, with only 11 game left, for us to continue to show improvement,” Mason said. “This is the time of the year, it’s close to the end, it’s very easy for people to get comfortable and start thinking about next year. The challenge for our guys is to finish this thing out strong and build some momentum for next year.”
The Wizards are headed to lottery and they will be without Nene and Trevor Booker on Friday against the Nets, but Wall said they still need to come to play.
“We don’t make any excuses being shorthanded. Anybody can have different injuries at any time, so you got to go out there and play hard and that’s what we’re trying to do, step up,” Wall said. “I’ve been in a slump lately and I’m happy to have a good game.”