“I think I’m kind of the same,” Wall said recently, when asked if he got better in his second season. “A little better, but not too much.”
Wall entered his sophomore campaign aspiring to ascend into the discussion of elite point guards, and possibly make the all-star team. He had finished as rookie-of-the-year runner-up despite dealing with injuries to his knees and feet, but in many ways he fell significantly from the spotlight as the Wizards endured yet another season of dysfunction and instability.
The team lost its first eight games, Flip Saunders was fired as coach a few weeks later, players had different agendas aside from winning, and it took a toll on Wall, who couldn’t hide his disenchantment early in the season.
“That was tough to see some guys accept losing,” said Wall, who has won 43 games in two seasons in the NBA after winning 35 games in his one season at Kentucky. “I’ve never accepted losing in my life.”
A toxic environment
Many league observers believe that the environment in Washington — before the Wizards traded away the mercurial JaVale McGee and Nick Young to get veteran big man Nene, and sent home Andray Blatche — wasn’t conducive to allowing Wall to fulfill his potential.
“He’s a had a tough cast down there. I don’t want to put anybody down but he’s not playing with the smartest guys in the world,” New Jersey Nets all-star guard Deron Williams said about Wall. “That’s tough, man. That’s tough. They’re not smart. I’ve been watching. JaVale McGee was on the Not So Top 10, like, 50 times this year.”
David Thorpe, executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., and an NBA analyst for ESPN.com, compared the situation for Wall to rowing a kayak in a stream, but going against the current. “It’s very hard to see any real improvement in players, when almost from the get-go, there is no real opportunity to win. That team was so fatally flawed at the outset of the year and so bad to start that I think you can only go so far on your own,” Thorpe said. “He might’ve gained from being more or less the same player as last year, despite really being caught in a whirlpool that was going straight down. It’s almost like he stabilized himself.”
Wall made comments in the last week of the season that revealed his frustrations with playing with McGee and Young, but one Eastern Conference assistant general manager wasn’t willing to absolve Wall. “It’s not about them,” the executive said. “What are you going to do? They picked you number one to make everybody else better.”
Coach Randy Wittman said Wall “made great strides” in game-management the final two months of the season and no longer had to look over to the bench to call the right plays to exploit the defense. “That’s huge in being a top-caliber point guard,” Wittman said, adding that Wall improved in controlling tempo as well. “How many times did we see him crash and burn going too far when there was nowhere to go? We hardly saw that at all, coming down the stretch. He’s got a ways to go to become the player I think he’s going to be capable of being. If he’s going to be an elite player in this league, he’s going to have to put in a hard summer.”
No proper preparation
Wall recently said that he didn’t prepare properly for his second season, participating in too many charity exhibition games because of uncertainty with the lockout. He said he is “cool on that” this summer and will instead work on improving his shooting as he trains in Los Angeles and Washington.
Teams managed to neutralize his speed in the half court by staying back and daring him to beat them with his jumper, which he had little confidence in and took reluctantly. Wall made 61.9 percent of his shots inside three feet (237 for 383), but he struggled to connect from everywhere else. He shot just 27.6 percent (141 for 511) from three feet and beyond and Thorpe said his three-point shot “fell off the face of the earth.” He missed 39 of his 42 attempts from long distance; his 7.1 percent accuracy ranks as worst among any player to make a three-pointer this season.
“For two years, he’s regarded league-wide as a talented player with a couple of exceptional physical attributes, his speed in particular. But he seems to be a little stubborn in adjusting to the NBA game,” said an Eastern Conference advance scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not at liberty to make comments on behalf of his team. “You get the sense on the whole, he’s not doing a lot of thinking the game yet. He’s kind of run into a little bit of roadblock as far as understanding why what he’s doing isn’t good enough yet. I do feel there is a lot more that’s still there.”
Wall has already shown plenty. Only Oscar Robertson, Damon Stoudamire, Tim Hardaway, Phil Ford and Chris Paul needed fewer games to score at least 2,000 points and hand out 1,000 assists, which Wall accomplished in 124 games. Since steals became a stat in 1970, Wall became the fastest player in NBA history to have 2,200 points, 1,000 assists, 600 rebounds, 200 steals and 90 blocks (134 games).
Wall was also incredibly durable this season, playing all 66 games and finishing fifth in the league in minutes played. Golden State Warriors Coach Mark Jackson, who ranks third all-time in assists, believes Wall is on the right track.
“Truthfully, he’s far ahead from these other guards, because you can see the point guard in him. He knows how to run a team. I think he’s a heck of a player and [is] going to be special.”
Worthiness as a No. 1 pick?
But the standard for Wall is somewhat higher since he was expected to be a difference maker. “He is already at the point where his worthiness as the number one pick is being questioned. What kind of point guard is he going to be? How good of an NBA player is he going to be? Because he’s not in the top half of NBA point guards. In year two, he should be,” the advance scout said. “The problem is, he’s rightly or wrongly become the centerpiece of a franchise when frankly, I don’t think he was ready to be that. Him being able to live up those expectations as the first overall pick; you’re either going to meet the expectations that come with that, or you’re going to be judged severely.”
Wall said he understands that his draft position comes with great scrutiny and expects to hear criticism. “That’s what happens when you’re supposed to be the franchise guy and star player of the team. If it’s not going right it comes to you. But when things are going good, they put it on your shoulders.”
Thorpe believes that it is still far too early to judge Wall, especially since the Wizards finally appear to be getting serious about being a more competent team with the acquisition of Nene. The team will likely expunge Blatche and Rashard Lewis, add a top five pick in a talent-rich draft and sign free agents — and possibly hire a new coach — in the offseason.
“If I’m looking at most improved players for next year . . . he’d be in my top five,” Thorpe said. The Wizards “will be more relevant and competitive next year and I think John is going to be one of those guys, because he’ll be in more of those moments where he has a chance to shine. . . . If we’re having this conversation a year from now, about is he the same player, even if he’s improved incrementally, then this is kind of who he is. He may still really improve, but the odds go down. . . . I feel like next year is when he will really explode.”