By Gene Wang
Washington Post Sports Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 12:11 AM
The buildup to the Washington Wizards' first home preseason game was all about No. 1 overall pick John Wall making his Verizon Center debut and the enigmatic Gilbert Arenas coming back there to play for the first time since a league-imposed suspension cost him the final 50 games of last season.
While Arenas's anticipated return will have to wait at least several more nights because of what he later revealed as an apparently phantom ailment, Wall certainly did his part to delight the announced crowd of 9,230 in a 107-92 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. The rookie point guard had 19 points and seven assists, including a handful to Nick Young, whose 24 points on 10-for-14 shooting were a team high.
Washington also got 16 points and a team-high 11 rebounds from reserve center JaVale McGee and nine points, six rebounds and four assists from forward Andray Blatche, who played sparingly in the second half. Cartier Martin added 11 points, newcomers Kirk Hinrich and Yi Jianlian chipped in with eight points each, and the Wizards had no trouble without Arenas, who was a late scratch from the lineup because he initially claimed soreness in his left knee.
Following the game, Arenas told reporters it was all a ruse in order to give Young the opportunity for more playing time.
"I know he's kind of frustrated he's not getting a chance to crack the three position, especially since we're going three guards, so I told him I'd go ahead and fake an injury or say something's wrong with me so you can start," a smiling Arenas said in the locker room.
When asked about the health of his knee, Arenas said, "I'm fine," and indicated he would play on Thursday in the Wizards' final home preseason game against Milwaukee.
With Arenas relegated to spectator status, Wizards Coach Flip Saunders indeed went with Young in the starting lineup, along with Wall and Hinrich in the three-guard rotation. It didn't take long for Wall to distinguish himself.
In the second quarter, Wall went by three defenders for a basket, was fouled and completed the three-point play, then twice dribbled deep into the interior and passed out to Adam Morrison for consecutive three-pointers. McGee also contributed during the run with a steal and behind-the-back dribble at half court and finished with a dunk.
That sequence pushed Washington's lead to 48-35 and underscored the club's optimism heading into the regular season with Wall directing the offense, and it's not only because he's a gifted distributor whose inclination is to pass first and shoot later. The former University of Kentucky star also has been at the center of the Wizards' plans off the court.
"It's a big role as rookie, only being 20 years old, but I feel like I can reach the expectations everybody has for me," Wall said when asked if he was comfortable being marketed as the new face of the franchise.
Even though new majority owner Ted Leonsis and team President Ernie Grunfeld did not officially name Wall as their choice after securing the first pick, it was abundantly clear they were going to add the dynamic playmaker to a roster sorely lacking in direction and leadership last season. Those failings, along with a series of maladies that included the suspension of Arenas for bringing guns into the Verizon Center locker room, contributed to a lost season.
Once the pick became official, the team handed out T-shirts at a draft party on the Verizon Center practice court that read: "John Wall Game Changer." On Tuesday night, Wall showed he can be just that.
Wall's two most memorable baskets came late in the second half when the game was well in hand. First with 53 seconds left in the third quarter, he went by Evan Brock and, as he was falling, contorted for a twisting layup while being fouled. Wall made the free throw to complete the three-point play, and soon after, he stole the ball near half court and elevated for a one-handed dunk with his left hand that triggered a rousing ovation.
"I thought overall I liked what he did," Saunders said. "I like the way he competes. That's the main thing. When you get your guards that compete like that, that's the first line of defense, and what that does, that carries things through to your baseline people."
Staff writer Michael Lee contributed to this report.