LOS ANGELES — A bit of glitz has returned to the Washington Wizards: John Wall whirling the ball around his waist and flipping an underhand pass to Nene for a layup in Sacramento; saving a victory in Denver by rejecting a Ty Lawson layup and wildly swinging his fist in celebration; and soaring high to catch an alley-oop lob from Jordan Crawford and swinging on the rim after throwing down the two-handed jam in Los Angeles.
The glitches in the Wall reboot have also been evident: The former No. 1 overall pick getting rudely rejected by the rim on a dunk attempt against Orlando; missing two critical free throws in a loss to the Kings; and getting called for a palming violation in the final minute of Saturday night’s loss against the Clippers.
Wall hasn’t been perfect in his first five games of the season, but the small sample size has been enough to show that an offseason spent reshaping his game and a three-month, injury-forced studying session from the sideline has resulted in an improved player leading and instilling confidence in the Wizards.
“Just the way he plays, he’s so aggressive. We have to be behind him,” rookie Bradley Beal said. “He’s always fired up. Sometimes, you have to tell him to relax a little bit.”
But with nearly half of the season lost to a stress injury in his left kneecap before he made his debut, Wall doesn’t believe he has time to relax. His playing time has gradually increased from a limit of 20 minutes per game to a season-high 31 in Los Angeles — in the second of games on consecutive nights, no less — where he scored a season-high 24 points in a duel with Clippers all-star point guard Chris Paul.
Paul came out ahead, forcing Wall to stumble before making a pull-up jumper with 32.4 seconds remaining to secure a 94-87 win that dropped the Wizards to 1-2 on their West Coast trip. But after the game, Nene credited Wall’s determination for putting the Wizards in position to be within one point of the team with the NBA’s second-best record with 93 seconds remaining.
“John Wall, he stepped up with his tough personality. He take over the game,” Nene said. “That’s a good thing. That’s a gift. I like that. That’s what makes him special.”
Wall is contributing 15.6 points and 7.6 assists — statistics that are basically identical to his career averages of 16.3 points and 8.2 assists, despite playing 12 fewer minutes per game.
His player efficiency rating is 25.3, which would rank as sixth in the league — below only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Brook Lopez and Carmelo Anthony. His career player efficiency rating is 16.9, about two points above the league average.
And his numbers per 36 minutes have been at an elite, all-star point guard level — 22.8 points, 11.1 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks. Aside from the statistics, Wall is finishing better inside the paint and has also showed less apprehension to take jump shots, though he is only connecting at a slightly better rate than last season.
“I feel like I’m getting better day by day,” Wall said Sunday as the Wizards prepared to take on Portland on Monday at the Rose Garden. “I’m feeling healthy and doing a great job of getting my team involved and taking the shots my teammates are giving me. I wish I was healthy in November, but things happen for a reason. You have to do with what you have left.”
The Wizards (8-30) are 3-2 with Wall and appear to be a more credible team than the one that repeatedly misfired and stumbled through its first 33 games. Before Wall arrived, the Wizards ranked last in scoring (89.2), field goal percentage (40.8), three-point shooting percentage (32.3), hardly ever got to the free throw line and had the league’s worst point differential.
But with Wall in uniform, even in a reserve role, the Wizards are averaging 101.2 points (which would rank ninth in the league), shooting 48 percent from the field (which would rank third) and 43.9 percent from beyond the three-point line (which would rank first), attempting 23.6 free throws (which would rank 10th) and outscoring opponents by seven points (which would rank fourth).
Wall’s influence has perhaps been the greatest on Beal, the rookie who is expected to be his back-court mate for years to come.
Beal was coming into his own before Wall made his debut, as evidenced by his game-winning jumper over Oklahoma City, and he is averaging 18.6 points in 10 games this month. In five games with Wall, Beal is averaging 19 points, including season highs with 26 points and six three-pointers against Sacramento, and is shooting 54.7 percent from the field (35 of 64) and a remarkable 65.2 percent (15 of 23) from beyond the three-point line.
“His IQ is so high. He knows where guys are all of the time,” Beal said of Wall. “I’m grateful to have a point guard like John.”
Wall won’t have the chance to get complacent, believing that he has so much to prove to an increasing list of doubters. ESPN.com recently posted an article quoting anonymous scouts and league officials questioning whether he could be a franchise building block and had already reached his ceiling.
“I think until I make the all-star or my team make the playoffs, nobody is going to stop talking,” Wall said. “I’m just going to keep improving my game and help my team out as much as possible and try to get wins for this organization. I feel like we’re going to break through. We keep playing like we’re doing and we keep trusting each other, we’ll be all right.”