A 3-7 start has raised questions about where the Washington Wizards are headed during a season in which owner Ted Leonsis expects the team to reach the playoffs. But it’s already clear that point guard John Wall must display more maturity to help the Wizards achieve their goals.
After receiving a maximum five-year, $80-million extension in July, the fourth-year player has failed to emerge as the consistent leader the Wizards need him to be. As much as Wall’s poor approach at times has hurt the team — he was the weak link in several late-game collapses — the Wizards’ biggest problem is that Wall rarely has demonstrated he understands what it takes to succeed in his top-of-the-roster role.
Fortunately for the Wizards, Wall overcame another bad shooting performance Tuesday night to help end a losing streak at four games with a 104-100 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Wall made only 5 of 17 field goal attempts, but he got the ball to his teammates in good scoring position (that hasn’t happened enough), ran the offense as Coach Randy Wittman designed it and finished with a game-high 16 assists.
Now, Wall has to keep it going. Having solid outings sporadically isn’t good enough from a player whom the Wizards are counting on for so much.
For franchise players, wins and losses are the only numbers that should matter. Although the highest-paid guys on the roster must shine individually, their primary responsibility is to help their teammates thrive collectively. In the process, great players usually produce impressive statistics while guiding teams to the best part of the standings. Too often, it seems Wall only has figured out the first half of the equation. Nene noticed, too.
Frustrated about another clueless Wizards performance in last week’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, the veteran Brazilian big man nailed it, fuming, “Our young guys must take their heads out their butts and play the right way.”
Although Nene didn’t single out anyone — second-year guard Bradley Beal is the only other young player in a prominent role — he might as well have stood in the middle of the locker room holding a picture of Wall. To Wall’s credit, his whole vibe was much better against Minnesota.
In some games, Wall’s body language has been downright awful. Just by watching Wall’s facial expressions, you could tell when things were going poorly for the Wizards. Tuesday’s crowd at Verizon Center saw Wall’s poker face.
Even when the Wizards fell behind by 16 points in the second quarter, Wall maintained a let’s-just-get-it-done outlook. That’s what Wall’s teammates and Wizards coaches want to see. And the Wizards should have been most encouraged about the Wall-Nene connection. Wall made sure Nene got the ball often and Nene did his part, scoring 20 points. There’s nothing like effective teamwork to squash a “beef” between teammates.
Wittman enjoyed watching a confident, sharp point guard at work.
“That’s what he can do,” Wittman said of Wall. “It’s not based on points. He cannot think that way [that he has to score]. I don’t want him thinking that way. I want him to be a solid point guard. That’s a solid point guard right there.”
Apparently, Tuesday’s players-only meeting at Verizon was exactly what Wall needed. Veteran forwards Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington arranged the gathering in an effort to bring the Wizards back together, The Post’s Michael Lee learned.
During the 30-minute session, players focused on the importance of moving on after last week’s turmoil. Ariza and Harrington turned to Wall to take the lead, and Wall told everyone what “their role [is] on the team,” Beal told Lee. “As a leader, that’s what we need him to do.”
The best point guards in NBA history — Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas — were masterful at keeping their teammates involved early in games and then taking over during what Johnson called “Winnin’ Time.” That’s the point in every game in which one team makes the plays that result in victories.
Do the Wizards expect Wall to be Hall-of-Fame great? No. But Wall said he deserved a maximum contract. It’s fair to evaluate him on that basis.
The likelihood is Wall may never be a strong closer because of his poor shooting. And when you’re shooting 35.7 percent from the field, it’s probably best to let others take shots late in games. But if Wall gets his head in the right place and keeps it there, he still has a chance to be a big-time player for a successful team. Wittman has no doubts.
“Sometimes you put your head down [and] feel sorry that you’re not playing the way you’re capable of playing,” he said. “But you’ve got to do the exact opposite: Turn it up another notch to fight through it. One day, it could change on a dime.”
The Wizards can only hope it happened Tuesday for Wall.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.