By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 12:09 AM
This season won't be accurately or fully measured by the number of packed houses or winning streaks, by all-star appearances or playoff home dates. Progress for the Washington Wizards is going to come, almost certainly, in small doses, in subtle ways. Primarily, the success of the Wizards' season depends on the evolution of John Wall.
By the time the Wizards become a threat to make or advance in the playoffs, most of the players who were Wall's teammates Tuesday night, in his home regular season debut for the team that made him the overall No. 1 pick in the draft, will be long gone. That's the necessary reality of the NBA. Check the difference in the Cleveland Cavaliers' team photo from LeBron's rookie season to his sixth, or the Bulls' team photo from Michael Jordan's first year to when the Bulls became a contender.
Oh, there are some nice subplots to this season for the Wizards, including whether Ernie Grunfeld can move Gilbert Arenas, whether Andray Blatche will start acting like a professional athlete and get into decent shape, whether any of the three 7-footers is a big man of impact.
But what matters, at least to those of us looking in from the outside, is the care and feeding of John Wall. . . whether he knows how to practice, when to take a nap, how quickly he learns how to say no to all the glad handers, when he gets to the point of being able to bark instructions to a teammate, when he figures out, "These older guys are no better than I am."
"Did the Wizards win tonight?" should at least for now be replaced by another question: "How did John Wall do tonight?"
Occasionally, as in Tuesday night's home opener, Wall will be able to do what great players do in the NBA, which is to say, disproportionately influence the game and win it for his team.
The kid couldn't have been much more impressive. He scored (29 points), he set up his teammates (13 assists) and he worked his butt off on defense (nine steals) even if he got beat on a play. Wall came ever-so-close to a triple-double in his first home game and his third NBA game. He's reason enough to watch the Wizards this year, to see if he cuts his turnovers and improves his jump shot, to see how much better he gets at probing defenses, to see whether three months from now he'll get Nick Young the ball even more often in his favorite spots, or learns that Yi Jianlian can finish pretty good around the basket, even with his left hand.
The primary reason to watch Wizards-Sixers on Tuesday night was No. 1 vs. No. 2, Wall vs. Philly's Evan Turner.
It wasn't close really. Turner did score nine points in the final few minutes of regulation. But Wall is definitively the better player at this point; Turner hasn't even cracked the starting lineup, although that might have more to do with the presence of Andre Iguodala and Coach Doug Collins's inclination to bring rookies along more deliberately. Anyway, Wall has already demonstrated that he's particularly unselfish and adept at finding open teammates; his nine assists or more in each of his first three games makes him only the second player in NBA history to do that.
When the kid picked up his ninth steal just two minutes into overtime he tied the franchise record for thefts in a game.
It's a particularly impressive crop of point guards playing in the NBA these days. There's Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings in the Eastern Conference. Chris Paul, Jason Kidd, Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Tyreke Evans, Steph Curry and Steve Nash in the West. That's a dozen all-star caliber guards, and that doesn't even count LeBron James who must be the point guard in his new assignment in Miami.
What Wall has, as good as any of them, is quicks. His quickness is the kind that embarrasses defenders and that allows him to cover ground like few players in the league. Iguodala is sure enough one of the game's highest flyers and took off for a dunk in overtime that would have given the Sixers a two-point lead. But Wall ran him down and contested Iguodala's dunk. Okay, the kid committed a foul while blocking the dunk. But it saved the Wizards one critical point, in a one-point game, because Iguodala missed the first of two free throws.
The thing that might have impressed me most about Wall came in the seconds immediately after the game, on the court, while everybody in the building was celebrating a rather exhilarating victory. Asked about his performance, the very first thing Wall said was, "Too many turnovers. I can't turn the ball over that many times in a game." He had eight of them, to be exact, which indeed is too many. But he was acutely aware of his mistakes and was more conscious of them than his points or assists or steals.
After the game, Collins said of Wall, "He's terrific ... he's so explosive with the ball ... When you have a player like him you can almost guarantee you can get a shot every time down ... He's very unselfish. He's a powerful finisher around the basket."
Collins pointed out that Wall has so much a coach can't teach, like the instinct and the desire to run down Iguodala on that dunk attempt, like wanting to take the shot with the game on the line, like hitting free throws in the fourth quarter and overtime, like trying like hell on defense even though he doesn't yet know how to defend explosive NBA guards.
Flip Saunders, asked about his new phenom, said Wall's will, his sense of urgency when it comes to winning a play is even more impressive than his quickness or physicality. Wall, it seems, has the stuff that we rarely see around here. As one NBA scout said, "He's got 'it.' And whatever 'it' is, he's swimming in it." The Wizards, it seems finally have some good fortune, and someone worth the price of admission and worth considering the future.