John Wall is sporting a shiner underneath his right eye after taking a shot in the face from San Antonio reserve center Jeff Ayres on Wednesday, and is leading a Washington Wizards team that has lost three straight games for the second time this season.
Kyrie Irving is wearing a face mask to protect a broken nose after taking an elbow to the face from Minnesota reserve Corey Brewer, and is leading a Cleveland Cavaliers team that has lost three in a row and five of six overall.
The Wizards (2-6) and the Cavaliers (3-7) were among the most active teams last offseason and were expected to be playoff contenders, but now Wall and Irving, the No. 1 overall picks in 2010 and 2011, respectfully, are the bruised faces of franchises that have stumbled to slow starts. As they get ready for their first matchup in two seasons on Saturday night, Wall and Irving see – despite their blurred vision – an opportunity to get back on track. Wall, though, swears that he won’t make this into an individual duel.
“I don’t take into one-on-one matchup as most people do,” Wall said. “I’m kind of going out there to see who wins the game.”
Wall is unbeaten against Irving in two previous head-to-head meetings, but they never met last season, when Wall missed the first two Wizards-Cavaliers games with a stress injury in his left knee and Irving missed the third game with a sprained left shoulder.
With Wall missing the first three months last season, Irving was able to reach all-star status and enter the conversation amongst the league’s elite point guards. They competed against each other at Team USA mini-camp in Las Vegas, where Irving separated himself from the other contenders for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Wall and Irving are experiencing some growing pains as leaders of their franchises, posting decent numbers but shooting poorly in the stages. Irving, an all-star last season, is averaging 19.3 points, 7.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds but is also shooting a career-low 38 percent. Wall is averaging 17 points, 8.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds, but he shooting a career-low 37.9 percent.
“I think I’m playing okay. I think I can make better shots and better decisions in leading my team and closing out close games and just not having stagnant offensive plays and the defense starts with me,” Wall said. “That’s something I’m really focused on, is being a better defender.”
Wall had some success recently defending Brooklyn’s Deron Williams and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in consecutive games, holding the all-stars to a combined 9 of 30 from the floor. Though he hasn’t faced Irving since Irving’s rookie season, he knows he will have to be ready for tough challenge.
“He’s a talented young player, somebody you’ve got to respect and you respect everybody at the point guard position,” Wall said. “Some guys, you want to make shoot. Some guys, you got to make attack the basket. With Kyrie, he’s capable of finishing at the rim and he can shoot. He has a great in between game and make my length bother him and have guys help me.”
With Coach Mike Brown, Irving is playing off the ball more to focus on scoring at times but he is improving as a playmaker. “I know he’s definitely a scoring point guard, kind of like some of the guys I went against and definitely can shoot the ball and come off screens,” Wall said. “There’s different ways they use him this year, definitely they got Jarrett Jack as a backup, they play those guys together, so you got to be ready to chase off screens and go off a lot of ball screens and” isolation plays.
Wall said he shouldn’t have any problem finding Irving, despite a swollen right eye. “It’s still a little sore but I’m all right. If it ain’t broke or I can see, I’ll play basketball. I just couldn’t go back in the other night because everything was still blurry.”
Wall has been more visible this season, with a spread in ESPN The Magazine and a Best Buy commercial that’s in heavy rotation. He isn’t concerned about how his black eye will affect his future off-court endeavors. “It’s cool,” Wall said with a laugh. “I ain’t got no modeling career until after basketball, hopefully. It’s just black right now, so it looks like somebody beat me up in the neighborhood.”