Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; D03
Perhaps Washington Wizards rookie point guard John Wall will fondly remember this season for his perseverance, for prospering in an environment of longtime failure as a roster overhaul began around him.
That's what the Wizards hope. They're counting on Wall emerging from this with his psyche unscathed, which is asking a lot.
But I'm not worried about Wall. After watching him compete - play with passion throughout many games whose outcomes were apparent during warmup drills - I'm convinced the Wizards got it right. They chose wisely in selecting Wall with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, and another wasted Wizards season could potentially mean something if their sound decision-making continues.
Wall plans on holding up his end. He has done and said the right things all season, and seems intent on maintaining a positive example as the Wizards stumble to the finish and prepare for their third consecutive trip to the NBA draft lottery.
He has inspired optimism with his play and personality, which the Wizards needed after injuries and a locker room gun scandal derailed the franchise the past two seasons. He has achieved statistically, ranking among the league leaders in assists and could become only the fourth rookie in league history to average at least nine per game. On the NBA's All-Star Weekend stage, Wall had a record 22 assists and was named the most valuable player of the Rookie Challenge.
He has financial security, having signed a five-year contract that guarantees him almost $10.7 million in his first two seasons. At only 20, Wall has done about as well as could be expected while shouldering the weight of a franchise eager to create a new, successful image.
That still doesn't make the losing any easier. It doesn't temper Wall's frustration when he returns home after games and replays all the miscues for hours while watching DVDs. Wall knows where he wants to lead the Wizards - and they're nowhere close yet.
"I knew it was gonna be a rebuilding year," Wall said late Wednesday night while we spoke privately after a four-point loss to Golden State at Verizon Center. "I understood that. I did. But it's still kind of tough. Yeah, it's tough."
The Wizards lost their first 25 road games this season and their only victory away from Verizon came against Cleveland, which has the league's worst record. Washington has had one of its worst stretches since returning from the all-star break.
Those close to Wall tell him to be patient. They remind him none of this is surprising; he just has to get through it and management is trying.
Owner Ted Leonsis wants both of his franchises to succeed, and the Wizards can't even see the NHL's Capitals from their position.
Although Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld has been a target of media and fan criticism during the team's three-year slide, he managed to trade Gilbert Arenas, which many (including me) thought to be impossible.
The Wizards could have about $20 million in cap room next season - assuming the cap remains at a little more than $58 million after the seemingly inevitable lockout coming this summer - and two draft picks. Grunfeld's critics would counter that serendipity has played a part in creating the team's recent roster flexibility, such as guard Mike Bibby, shortly after being traded from Atlanta, giving up his entire $6.2 million salary next season as part of a buyout to leave the Wizards and sign with Miami.
However it occurred, Wall doesn't care. He just knows anything that may result in improving the Wizards is a good thing.
Wall has quickly learned how this league works. You need multiple stars to win big in the NBA. The Wizards are woefully short on star power.
"I'm motivated just to play. That's just my nature," Wall said. "But, yeah, I know they're trying to work their way outta this and get players around me that can help me."
Wall briefly paused and considered what he said. He did not intend to appear critical of his teammates, many of whom "are doing pretty good job, but it's just . . . we all gotta play hard. You know? It can't be [only] four people.
"We all gotta bring it every night. We all gotta have that focus every night. If you're tired and can't do it, you gotta step up and tell the Coach [Flip Saunders], 'It's not my night.' "
Again, Wall said his words were not directed at anyone in particular. Later in the interview, he included himself in stressing the need for focus. It certainly seemed, though, the Wizards' most talented player and captain was sending a message to everyone in the organization about the type of people needed here if Leonsis truly wants the Wizards to join the NBA's elite.
The franchise owns an NBA championship trophy and made four Finals appearances, but its greatest success occurred in the 1970s. Just two players on the current roster were alive in the 1970s.
For a span of 16 years (from the 1988-89 season through the 2003-04 season), the Wizards had only one playoff appearance with no victories. They qualified for the playoffs in four consecutive seasons starting in 2004-05, but won only one series and never had more than 45 victories during the regular season.
Wall is interested in higher marks. He's committed to being as good as he can be and bringing the Wizards along with him. Now, all he needs is the right kind of help.