The most disheartening aspect of the left knee stress injury that will keep John Wall sidelined for the next eight weeks is that he had worked so hard this offseason to take his game to another level.
Unsatisfied with what he has accomplished in his first two seasons in the NBA, Wall hired trainer Rob McClanaghan, the man who has helped Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook — the two, super-athletic all-star point guards Wall is most often compared with — get better each season.
Wall focused on staying on balance with his jumper, taking pull-ups in transition and making cuts on a dime — skills that have made Rose and Westbrook two of the most fearsome matchups each night. He also worked with a new strength and conditioning coach, which allowed him to add 10 pounds of muscle.
“It’s all up to me to see what I do this season to see if it will all pay off,” Wall said of his offseason workouts.
And now Wall will have to wait to show how much he has learned. The knee injury was an obvious setback for Wall and the Wizards, since so much of this season is centered around his ability to ascend the status often reserved for the top pick. In his first two seasons, Wall posted respectable numbers, especially when considering that he was asked to carry a supporting cast with questionable talent and professionalism.
But Wall won’t place the blame elsewhere, since the expectations for him far exceed those for his teammates — and he will receive the bulk of the criticism if the Wizards fail.
“When you get drafted number one,” Wall said, “it’s on you change the program around, change the organization around, be in the playoffs and contend for a championship. That’s something I want to do.”
Kwame Brown was the last No. 1 pick who needed more than three years in the NBA to reach playoffs. Yao Ming made it in his second season. LeBron James and Dwight Howard made it in their third seasons. Andrew Bogut, Andrea Bargnani, Greg Oden and Derrick Rose all made it as rookies (Oden sat out the season he was drafted with a knee injury). And, Blake Griffin needed two seasons (though Griffin also lost the season he was drafted with a knee injury). In the draft lottery era, the longest time a former No. 1 pick needed to reach the postseason was six seasons — and by then, Pervis Ellison, Michael Olowokandi and Elton Brand were on different teams than the ones that selected them.
The Wizards were going to have a difficult path to the playoffs even if Wall played all 82 games, but now that he will miss the first month, this season may have to be more about him showing indications that there is more upside to him. Wall struggled mightily last season when teams forced him to take jumpers and his three-point shot was basically non-existent. And while Wall posted eight assists, the Wizards offense can’t continue to be as stagnant and inefficient with him at the helm.
With the Wizards cleaning house in the past nine months, Wall is now the longest-tenured player on the roster and he will be looked upon for more than just numbers. Wall appears willing to take on responsibility that comes with his status on team. He wants to win and has said that he would like to be the “savior” for a Wizards franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs since President Obama was first elected.
“I’m the leader of this team and I’m the guy that leads, but I’m not saying I got to do everything every night,” Wall said. “I’ve got other pieces out there to help me out but I want to be the leader and let guys know I’m willing to do whatever it takes to take the step in my game and for the team to keep going.”
Wall has declared that this is an important year for him, and he will have to deliver whenever he is able to return. The playoffs are unlikely, but he will certainly have the chance to post all-star caliber numbers: the ball will be in his hands; he has better players surrounding him; and he will already know what to expect from opposing defenses that offered him the same challenge since he entered the league.
After spending an entire summer addressing the flaws in his game, Wall will now have to take time to rest the flaws in his body. He will be eligible for an extension after this season, so he has even more to contemplate whenever he returns.
“I don’t feel any extra pressure,” Wall said. “I like pressure. That’s the best thing possible. I’ve been dealing with it so long, so it doesn’t really bother me.”