The debate over whether or not John Wall deserves a maximum contract hijacked the final weeks of his third season and overshadowed the more compelling aspect of his campaign: Wall made two incredible comebacks.
In the first, Wall recovered from a potentially season-threatening injury; the second featured the former No. 1 overall pick resurrecting a career that many felt was stuck in neutral. Both are significant. And without either, arguments over his worth and a potential extension wouldn’t even be necessary.
Wall probably thought that making it back from a stress injury in his left knee would be the toughest challenge he would be forced to overcome this season – until he hit a wall after the all-star break that shook his confidence, raised doubts about his ability to lead and gave his detractors more ammunition.
“He was frustrated. You were frustrated. I was frustrated,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Wall’s February slump. “There were a lot of questions asked, a lot of people saying a lot of different things about the kid. All of us don’t like to hear things from that standpoint if it’s said about us.”
After a confrontation with teammate Emeka Okafor helped set him straight, Wall finished the season with a 26-game performance that offered hope for what he could eventually become. During that stretch, Wall averaged 22.7 points, 7.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from three-point range. He flaunted his athleticism and showcased an improved skill set that could eventually elevate him to all-star status.
“That’s what I envision myself to be but I knew that it would take time. It takes a lot of hard work and kind of really knowing what it takes to work out … throughout a full summer to know what it takes to get better. That’s what I pride myself to be for the rest of my career.”
Wall needed the final six weeks of the season to affirm the time he spent last offseason trying to get better. Those early morning workouts with trainer Rob McClanaghan resulted in a player who could play with better pace. His jumper also improved once he gained the confidence to take it in games.
“Everything I worked on this summer really helped me,” Wall said. “I finally got there when I got in shape. Missing three and a half months you’re not going to come back in shape right away because you couldn’t run or anything. So it took me a while. It was good to see what I worked on paid off. Just got to keep doing it again this summer.”
McClanaghan, who gained recognition for training Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, came to Washington for the final week of the regular season to work out with Wall. Wall said he plans to pick up with the same routine with McClanaghan this summer, though he likely won’t have the same one-on-one attention as last summer, when Westbrook was in the Olympics and Rose was recovering from a left knee injury.
Wall wants to stay healthy this offseason and doesn’t believe he did anything abnormal to contribute to his knee problem. “Stress injury is just something that just happened from working out,” he said. “I think if I was there the same thing could’ve kind of happened. It’s just like cartilage built up under my kneecap. Can’t really say it was because of the guys I worked with or what I was doing. I felt like I was doing the same as the other summers. … It was just my time and it came.”
If a third Synvisc shot hadn’t taken in his left knee, Wall would’ve needed to have a surgical procedure that would’ve cost him the entire year. He couldn’t hide his frustrations while sitting out the season’s first 33 games, but Wittman made sure that he stayed around the team and sat next to the coaching staff to offer encouragement and advice to his teammates.
“This had to be a difficult year for him, knowing, if John can play 82 games, he’s going to play 82 games,” Wittman said. “He loves to play and that was the hardest thing to see him after what he did last summer and the effort he put in last summer and to all of sudden hear on Sept. 27, you can’t play for three months. And then all of a sudden three months later, to be thrown in and he’s nowhere near in shape to be playing and we didn’t have any choice in the matter of getting him in shape through playing. And it showed in his play early on.
“I give him credit for sticking with it,” he continued. “Can you continue to come down each day and get better and better? And it paid off for him. So, that’s a credit to him and how he handled that situation.”
Only four point guards are signed to maximum contracts and Wall’s numbers after March 1 matched up favorably with the production in recent seasons of all-stars Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Westbrook and Rose, who won the MVP award two seasons ago.
Paul averaged 16.9 points, 9.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds this season; Williams averaged 18.9 points, 7.7 assists and 3.0 rebounds; Westbrook averaged 23.2 points, 7.4 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Rose sat out the entire regular season, but averaged 21.8 points, 7.9 assists, 3.4 rebounds on 43.8 percent shooting last season.
Wall finished the season with career highs in scoring (18.5) and field goal percentage (44.1) and added 7.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.3 steals.
“The kid has elevated his game,” Webster said. “Speed kills. You can’t teach that, and he’ll always have that. He’ll always have his speed and his quickness, but that jump shot, if he can develop that jump shot and can keep it consistent, this team’s going to be dangerous.”
Aside from those gaudy numbers and all-star credentials, Paul, Williams, Westbrook and Rose are on playoff teams. Before this season, Wall was never surrounded by enough talent to make a legitimate postseason run. By the time he made his season debut on Jan. 12, the Wizards were all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention at 5-28.
The Wizards went 24-19 with Wall before injuries contributed to a season-ending six-game losing streak. When asked if he was surprised to see the impact that he was able to have on the team, Wall shrugged.
“Not at all,” Wall said. “They call me the Game Changer.”
The difference with Wall in the lineup was decided, as the Wizards shot 45.4 percent from the floor (which would’ve tied them with Utah for 12th in the NBA) and 39.7 percent from beyond the three-point line (which would’ve been second in the NBA). They also outscored opponents 95.6 to 94.5 in the final 49 games after getting outscored by an average of 97.2 to 89.2 in the first 33. Bradley Beal and Martell Webster also both shot better than 45 percent from long distance, while Trevor Ariza shot 39.3 percent.
“I just want to come in and help my teammates, make the job easier for those guys as much as possible,” Wall said. “My teammates fought. It’s just we didn’t have enough to get over the hump throughout a couple of those tough games.”
The Wizards will need to add more depth and talent this offseason and Wall said he would put his trust in the front office to acquire the help he needs. Wall has already offered suggestions and told owner Ted Leonsis to bring back Webster, just don’t expect him to be involved in the process.
“I’m not a recruiter,” Wall said. “I don’t like to go get anybody. I feel if they want to play with me and stuff like that they’ll come out. I’m not going to go beg anybody. I feel like they see how I play and how my team plays and if they feel like they can fit in and add to our team then they’ll make it a consideration but I’m not going to go out and beg anybody to play for us.”
Wall still realizes that he has much more to prove and will attract an even larger target if he receives the five-year, $79 million extension that he desires. “Critics are going to be there regardless so it doesn’t really bother me,” Wall said. “I’ve been dealing with critics throughout my whole career. You hear people say good things and some people say bad things. The bad things you use as motivation. The good things you just use to keep doing it. You want to prove people wrong but you don’t do too much talking. Let your game do the talking.”
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said he plans to meet with Wall’s agent, Dan Fegan, to discuss an extension on July 1. They will have until the start of next season to reach an agreement before Wall becomes a restricted free agent in 2014. Wall said he doesn’t want his negotiations to serve as a distraction.
“I love basketball too much,” Wall said. “That’s all I’m considering. When that deal comes and whatever they want to do with it, the time will come and so be it. I’m just going to enjoy some time off with my family and focus on basketball.”
“I’ll get what I deserve and those guys in the organization give me what they think I deserve,” Wall said. “The main thing with me is it’s not all about me. I’m not a selfish type of person, type of player. All I want to do is win. If we’re winning, I’m cool with anything. That’s all that matters to me.”