For now, the team’s top player is coming off the bench. The Wizards have limited Wall to about 20 minutes per game while he gets into basketball shape. Despite his temporarily reduced role, Wall has made the Wizards better with his passing, his scoring – heck, just his competitiveness.
With Wall out front again, we’ll finally be able to determine — eventually, anyway — just how good these guys could be as a group. With the hole the Wizards have dug (it doesn’t getting any deeper than having an NBA-worst .200 winning percentage), their season is already lost before the all-star break. There’s no sense in pushing Wall, who at 21 is striving to become an elite player in his third season, to play too much before his body is ready. After Wall reaches full speed, however, the Wizards should have a clear picture of where they stand in the NBA. They’d like to think they’re at least slowly moving closer to the middle.
Way back in the offseason, before Wall hurt his knee and center Nene was hobbling around because of a foot injury, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld envisioned the team having a look-at-us season. Leonsis even dared to utter the “P” word — playoffs — in explaining how much progress he believed the Wizards had made after Grunfeld finally took a sledgehammer to a roster long overdue for remodeling.
I never bought the playoff stuff. There just weren’t enough proven scorers on the team to realistically expect this bunch to qualify for the franchise’s first postseason appearance since the 2007-08 season. If everything broke right for the Wizards, though, I figured they could at least show some progress.
To this point, it hasn’t happened. Without their two most important players — Nene has played in only 21 games and his playing time has been restricted — the Wizards lost their first 12 games and sunk to their familiar position at the bottom of the Southeast Division. The early results from the Wall-led Wizards have us wanting to see more.
Last Monday, in one of those anything-can-happen-in-82-game-schedule outcomes, the Wizards defeated Oklahoma City, which has the league’s best record. Then on Saturday in Wall’s season debut, the Wizards clearly outplayed Atlanta, which is five games above .500 and second in the Southeast.
Against Atlanta, Wall punctuated a strong fourth-quarter performance — he took over as Washington’s lead swelled to 13 points — by feeding forward Trevor Ariza for a dunk with a behind-the-back pass that brought the crowd to its feet.
And Wall was better in Monday’s 29-point rout of Orlando. Wall often displayed electrifying ballhandling and passing as the Wizards produced their highest point total and largest margin of victory of the season. The best part for the Wizards was apparent to anyone at Verizon Center or watching on television at home: Wall’s quickness and speed is coming back.
Okay, I know what you’re probably thinking: Any team could make the Magic disappear. What’s most important is how Washington’s blowout occurred: Wall and the Wizards’ other most promising young players — forward Kevin Seraphin and guard Bradley Beal — had something good working.
On a fast break late in the third quarter, Wall delivered a perfect lob pass to Beal, who elevated and dunked to complete a crowd-pleasing play that indicated Wall and Beal were on the same page. To me, a less exciting, but no less significant, sign of the developing Wall-Beal relationship occurred in the second quarter.
Wall knows how important Beal, who was named the NBA’s rookie of the month for December, is to the franchise’s future. In an effort to get Beal going in the game, Wall decided to forgo a makable shot and instead passed to Beal, who connected on an open jumper. Likewise, Wall passed up scoring opportunities and repeatedly fed Seraphin (he really has a nice shooting touch) in the post. “He’s a pass-first point guard,” Grunfeld said, “who wants to make the people around him better.”
Forward Jan Vesely could actually benefit the most from Wall’s return. Vesely, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, shoots poorly. It’s hard to be a productive NBA player when you can’t shoot. But Vesely is athletic and likes to run, which also makes him a good fit with Wall.
“He’ll really help” the young players, Grunfeld said. “John has all the tools to be a star-quality player.”
Some NBA decision-makers believe Wall will never develop into a superstar. He’ll merely be a good player, they say. Perhaps they’re right. But the Wizards are definitely more interesting with Wall – and it’s good to see them together again.
For previous columns by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.