John Wall likes to refer to himself as “the head of the snake” for the Washington Wizards, with the 23-year-old former No. 1 overall pick assuming responsibility for the success or failure of the team. The Wizards gave Wall an $80 million extension last summer that kicks in next season with the expectation he would lift the moribund franchise.
But the team has sputtered to a 2-7 start in a season the Wizards still hope will end a six-year playoff drought, and Wall is in the midst of miserable slump that has contributed to the sluggish play. Wall denied he or his teammates are succumbing to the pressure to deliver on the promise of a postseason appearance.
“It’s no pressure at all,” Wall said as the Wizards prepare to host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday at Verizon Center. “I feel like that’s a great goal to have as a team. It’s great that everybody feels the same way, but it’s no pressure. You’ve got to go out there and play basketball. We know we’re a great team, and we know what we can be, and we’ve got to go out there and prove it on the floor instead of just talking about it.”
The Wizards lost three of their first four games, but Wall had appeared to pick up where he left off last season as he posted all-star caliber numbers of 20.3 points and 8.8 assists and shot 44.1 percent from the field. In leading the Wizards to their first victory of the season in Philadelphia, Wall also scored 24 points and made a career-high five three-pointers.
But he has hit a rough patch in his past five games, averaging just 12.8 points and 9.4 assists while shooting just 29 percent from the floor. He has also shot just 4 of 19 (21.1 percent) from three-point range over that span. His woes were magnified during a 103-96 overtime loss at Verizon Center on Saturday, when he shot just 3 of 13, got outscored 41-9 by fellow former No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving and was unable to lead his team to the finish after it was seemingly in control with a few minutes remaining.
“He can’t let that affect his energy level,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “Guys are going to go through it. John can affect the game so much more than making and missing jump shots and he’s got to remember that and he’s got to continually think that. Sometimes, he thinks, ‘I’ve got to play great every night.’ And I don’t know if pressure is the right word, but he puts that onus on him and then when it doesn’t happen early, he gets a little frustrated.
“He’s just got to play good for us,” Wittman continued. “Your great games come when you’re consistently playing good. All of sudden, boom, you have a great game and then another great game. We don’t need great performances from everybody to win games. We don’t. We’ve got to be solid and good and the great games happen when you get that consistency.”
Ever since he started experiencing lower back pain in the second game of the season, Wall has felt the discomfort come and go. Sharp pain sometimes wakes him up in the middle of the night and the fear of more flare-ups forces him to rest on a heating pad when he’s not in the game.
Wall is used to the routine by now, which includes more stretching exercises at halftime, but he refuses to use the back spasms as an excuse for his early struggles. “It’s something I can deal with. It’s nothing that’s affecting my game,” Wall said of his back. “It’s just I’m not playing the way I’m capable of playing. Just not being the same player I have been in the past. That’s something I looked at while watching film these last couple of nights, something I have to get back to for this team to be good and for us to take the next step.”
Wall has had three of his four double-digit assists games during his recent shooting slump and attributes his problems to not playing aggressively and not taking enough quality shots within the flow of the game. With the ball in his hands for most of his time on the floor, Wall rarely is relieved of the playmaking responsibilities and has had difficulty finding the balance for when to go after his own scoring opportunities.
“I’m always looking to pass to my teammates and get those guys involved, but I think at certain times, I have shots that I’m giving up and making it tough on my teammates to take a tougher shot,” Wall said. “I got to get back to attacking the basket and just being more confident with my overall game. I never lost that, I just think I was being too passive at times.”
The most frustrating aspect of the slow start, Wall said, is that the Wizards aren’t far off from winning. They have lost two games in overtime and squandered a double-digit lead in the second half against Philadelphia. Wall believes that the Wizards just need to display a greater sense of urgency in the final minutes of close games and added that Wittman is not to blame.
“Everybody believes in Coach Witt,” Wall said. “We understand what he did last year and what he was capable of when everybody is healthy. So we know what he tells us as coach, what is schemes is and what he tells us players works. But us players have to go out there and execute what he’s given us as our game plan. We haven’t been doing that so far. We’ve only proved it in two” games.
“We’ll be all right,” Wall said. “Just got to play better basketball.”