John Wall is locked in, and the Wizards are winning

The Post Sports Live crew look at whether the Wizards can make a playoff run without Nene in the lineup for the next six weeks. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist February 28

John Wall has presented compelling evidence for most of the season, and he finally proved his case in front of a silenced crowd Thursday night at the Toronto Raptors’ arena: He has become a true NBA star.

That was the only judgment any astute hoops observer could have reached after watching Wall will the Wizards to a thrilling 134-129 road victory in triple overtime over the Atlantic Division leaders. It was as clear as the confidence Wall displays on the court.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Wall dazzled by producing 31 points, nine assists and three steals. He delivered in the clutch. And by guiding the Wizards to their first win over the Raptors after three consecutive losses, Wall continued to deliver on his vow to “step up and take on a bigger role” after it was learned earlier this week that Nene could be sidelined up to six weeks because of a knee injury. Wall’s showstopper in Canada was exactly the type of get-on-my-back performance he said to expect.

Wall’s journey from gifted-but-unpolished prospect to franchise-leading star is complete. He was selected a first-time all-star this season, which some fans would view as a career rite of passage. It’s not. In professional sports, the ability to fuel a team’s rise is what defines a star. Wall is now demonstrating that he is one of those rare guys. He has developed into a performer who backs up big talk with impressive play, which results in team success.

Wall made the leap, many Wizards fans would argue, because of his improved jumper. It definitely has made Wall harder to guard. Even Wall would acknowledge, however, the improvement between his ears has helped him most.

Since Nene unleashed a tough-love tongue lashing in Wall’s direction back in November, the former No. 1 overall pick has demonstrated a newfound understanding of what it takes to play winning basketball. Decision-making, defense, getting his teammates involved in the offense — Wall is better at all of it. That’s what Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas explained to me recently when we discussed Wall’s growth.

Few point guards in NBA history have played the position as well as Thomas, who noticed a major change in Wall’s play before I did. Wall turned a corner by doing whatever it took to win, Thomas said, which is great for the Wizards, “because it’s not about how many points you score or how many assists you have. It really is about you as a leader, you as a man.”

Wall’s role was among many topics discussed in a clear-the-air session organized by veterans Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington shortly after Nene called out Wall, who earlier in the season racked up great numbers except in the only areas that matter: wins and losses. Players reaffirmed their belief in Wall, who hadn’t received the acclaim of other young point guards such as Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ty Lawson of the Denver Nuggets and Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Wall’s teammates told him he’s their leader. Invigorated by the show of unconditional support, Wall set out to prove he was worthy of it.

Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld has been Wall’s biggest cheerleader since the franchise rolled out the red carpet — literally — to welcome Wall to the District. In the past, Grunfeld was too effusive in praising Wall. These days, everything Grunfeld says about Wall fits.

“John has just been terrific,” Grunfeld told me recently. “You can see it in how he’s playing the game . . . and making his teammates better. . . . It’s never only about one player, we have to play as a team, but John is a big part of what we do.”

Actually, he’s the biggest, and figures to be for some time. Nene’s absence means Wall must continue to floor the accelerator to help the Wizards (30-28) at least maintain their standing in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They’re currently fifth among teams vying for eight postseason berths.

Before Nene suffered his latest injury, the Wizards went 8-34 without the brittle Brazilian, including 1-6 this season. During the Wizards’ last two victories without Nene, Wall has led the way, averaging 29 points and eight assists while shooting 59 percent from the field. That’s someone who is locked in.

The Wizards still have 24 games remaining. Wall will need a lot of help, such as the strong support center Marcin Gortat gave him by scoring 31 points and grabbing 12 rebounds against Toronto. No one knows how far Wall will lead the Wizards this season, but watching them get there together is becoming a whole lot of fun.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

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