If John Wall is able to take a big step forward in his career this season, the turning point won’t be hard to find. Mired in a season-long funk, unable to disguise his misery, Wall was foundering through the first half of a 103-90 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, taking questionable shots and making careless passes to the wrong team.
After his seventh turnover led to an Andre Iguodala breakaway dunk, Coach Flip Saunders had no choice but to sit Wall for the final three minutes of the second quarter so that his sophomore point guard could sit and think. In that moment, Wall had to decide whether he was going to allow the distractions of a difficult, losing situation continue to affect him or he was going to change what he could control.
Wall has been a different player — or at least the one many thought he would be — since he emerged from the locker room last Saturday. And if it wasn’t obvious as he scored a career-high 38 points in a 114-106 loss to Houston two days later, it was impossible to ignore on Wednesday, when he methodically engineered the Wizards’ stunning 105-102 victory over Oklahoma City.
“I’m just feeling better, running, making the right plays and not trying to force the issue,” Wall said after finishing with 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds against the Thunder. “I think I’m doing better. I’m feeling more confident, and it’s making it easy for my teammates.”
Wall’s disenchantment as the Wizards got out to the worst start in franchise history contributed to his sluggish, often ragged play early on. The Wizards were a double whammy of terror — a team that couldn’t shoot, with players selfishly unwilling to pass to get better shots. He admitted the combination led him to “force the issue too much” and lose patience with the process.
Frustrated, Wall would play with a confounding mix of aggression and apathy that led to him being labeled a disappointment and brought a considerable amount of criticism his way — something he rarely had to deal with in his first season after being drafted first overall out of Kentucky.
“I just take it as motivation. Same thing happened to me when I was in college,” Wall said of the negative publicity. “If we lost one or two games, they put it all on me. That’s what happens when you’re supposed to be the franchise guy or the leader of the team. I just take it as motivation to get better, watch more film, work on my game more. Just go out there and try to play my game. Even if we win or lose a tough game, just let everybody know I’m playing hard and trying to lead my team.”
Wall said he wouldn’t shy away from the responsibilities that have come with being asked to lead, despite still being the youngest player on the team at 21. “I’m comfortable with it. It’s not too bad. It’s just tough when you’re not winning games and the pressure is all on you. But that’s the point of dealing with it. Sometimes you’re going to be the hero and sometimes you’re not.”
Wall certainly was not heroic in the first half against Philadelphia. But since returning from his benching, he has totaled 76 points, 22 assists and 21 rebounds in the past 10 quarters. He also has had only six turnovers.
“What it did for him and for everybody is they understood that if you don’t play the right way, you’re not going to play. It doesn’t matter who it is,” Saunders said of benching Wall. “I think he took that to heart. I think also, for him, it was just a little waking up, understanding, don’t feel sorry for myself, just go out and play, and that’s kind of what he’s done.”
Nick Young said Wall is “playing with that confidence. All it takes is one play or one game to get back on track. He’s back to being the John we all know.”
The difference in Wall has been most evident in the fourth quarter, when he has found a way to bring his team back or hold it together down the stretch. He had 18 fourth-quarter points in the loss to Houston and was responsible for 16 of the Wizards’ 33 fourth-quarter points against the Thunder. He scored nine, making seven free throws and throwing down an electrifying alley-oop dunk, and handed out three assists during a stretch that helped the Wizards go from trailing by three to leading for good.
“We’ve got to feed off him,” veteran Rashard Lewis said. “He’s the guy that leads us, this team, almost like the captain of the boat. He has to get everybody involved in the game as well as getting himself involved in the game. He’s still a young player, learning how to play the game, but at the same time, he’s the floor general.”
Wall grappled with his duties as a playmaker and scorer and appeared confused finding the appropriate balance. “I think it was funny, at the same time you’d hear people saying I was shooting too much, and then you hear people say I’m not running the team.”
He is starting to get more comfortable but is far from satisfied with one victory over the team with the league’s best record.
“We know we’re better than what our record is,” Wall said as the Wizards prepared to host the Denver Nuggets on Friday at Verizon Center. “I’m still worried about losing, and I want to win games. I’m just going out there and playing basketball. It’s still on my mind that we’re losing tough games and losing games we could’ve won and some of them we just got blown out by not playing hard. But I’ve just got to go out there and play basketball and try to produce to the best of my ability.”