For John Wall and the Wizards, what is there to smile about?
By Jason Reid,
The Washington Wizards’ biggest problem was revealed publicly this week. It’s no longer simply a private matter. Point guard John Wall, the face of the franchise, is wearing a sad one, and that’s more bad news for a team still awaiting the other kind.
Washington’s awful start this season quickly worsened when Wall, who has the smarts to recognize dysfunction when it’s all around him, revealed he was “not enjoying myself playing basketball.” The Wizards — the NBA’s only winless team after their loss to Orlando on Wednesday night made them 0-6 for the first time in franchise history — are truly horrendous, but it seems there’s more to Wall’s discontent than their ineptitude on the court.
Wall’s body language last season told the story that he’s now also choosing to express with his words. Any gifted player could become frustrated working with this bunch, and the Wizards need Wall’s outlook to brighten substantially, and soon.
It’s really that simple. The status quo cannot continue. The development of Wall is the Wizards’ best (only?) hope to at least become competitive again. It may not happen if Wall’s psyche is damaged beyond repair so early in his career.
Coach Flip Saunders understands the situation. He has seen this coming since early in Wall’s rookie season. With everything out in the open now, Saunders also recently sent a message to Wall, telling him, “If he doesn’t play hard and he doesn’t have a smile on his face, I’m going to take him out.”
Wall thought Washington would be significantly better than last season, when it had the NBA’s fourth-worst record and a league-low three road victories.
Then the Wizards squandered a 21-point lead in an opening night loss to the lowly New Jersey Nets, who have lost to every other opponent. At this rate, the Wizards will have to morph into the Miami Heat to make good on team president Ernie Grunfeld’s comment that the team is “gonna win more games than we did last year.”
Losing is hard on the competitive Wall, people who know him well say. At times during his rookie season, Wall displayed anguish after losses in which he shined.
He wants to become a great player and reach the league’s highest heights, which won’t happen unless the Wizards become an elite team. They currently don’t have anyone who can help Wall get them there – and too many people who may not even be interested in trying.
Wall intimated as much when we spoke at Verizon Center before the season. As always, he said the right things about his teammates and the process of building a winner, but “we just have to keep focused on winning . . . because nothing else matters. I think we’ll do a better job [this season], going out and doing things the right way, just as long as we keep understanding what’s really important.”
Andray Blatche didn’t get the memo. After his weak showing in the embarrassing loss to the Nets, Blatche criticized Saunders for failing to utilize him correctly. Prior to the game, Blatche took a microphone and announced he was the team captain that night, providing the cherry atop the absurdity.
Or so I thought. The Wizards, though, sunk to a new low in their next game against the Atlanta Hawks, running the first play for Blatche in the low post.
Blatche provided little energy while the Nets dominated the Wizards in rebounding, threw Saunders under the bus after one game and also made a fiasco of his captaincy . . . and then he’s rewarded with the first play in Washington’s next game? I mean, seriously?
Wall’s less-than-sharp entry pass to Blatche resulted in a turnover and a layup for the Hawks in their 18-point rout. Wall would seem to be too skilled a passer to have made such a half-hearted pass accidentally. Could Wall have been sending a message?
Blatche delivered another black eye to the organization and was rewarded at the start of the next game. What is Wall supposed to think about accountability and professionalism in this organization when ridiculousness such as that is sanctioned?
Then there’s center JaVale McGee. At first glance, the athletic 7-footer is off to a great start, averaging team-highs with 11 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots while also scoring 13.8 points, tied for the lead with Wall. The organization revels in celebrating McGee’s highlight-tape dunks, of which there are many.
Problem is, in his fourth season, McGee still doesn’t know how to play. He still gets destroyed in pick-and-roll situations. He still exhibits poor fundamentals too often.
There are few talented 7-footers in the league, so McGee figures to get a big payday in his next contract. He still hasn’t proven, however, that he aspires to help Washington attain the team goals that drive Wall.
Wall has not played well. He has let his emotions get the best of him. And some would argue that if Wall wanted to play for a team with unlimited resources to acquire the best players, he should have stayed at Kentucky.
Other Wizards players through the years, however, have been stunned by what management permitted some to do. If the Wizards truly want Wall to help them change, they must first show him they can.