OKLAHOMA CITY — There’s nothing about John Wall that can be described as soft or reserved. Bradley Beal, for his part, should never be labeled as the boisterous type.
“We should be one of the [best] teams with chemistry,” Wall said. “We’ve been together so long. We just were a team that was 12 minutes from the Eastern Conference [finals]. What changed so much in a short period of time? And that’s what we were trying to figure it out.”
Such is the burden of being a leader, tasked with answering the unexplainable and taking the criticism when lofty expectations melt into a 26-21 record. As the team’s two best players, and newly minted all-star backcourt, Beal and Wall share the largest stake in the franchise’s on-court success. And during this inconsistent season, their leadership has come under fire.
Following a 98-75 loss in Dallas this week, sub-6-foot Mavericks guard J.J. Barea responded to being called a “little midget” by Wall by telling reporters, “I don’t like [Wall] at all now. But I don’t think his teammates like him, either.”
“I’ve never had a teammate say he didn’t like me. If it’s true, nobody would be man enough to say it to me so I don’t believe it,” Wall responded Wednesday. “I think I’m a great teammate. I don’t let that affect me. I probably could’ve used a better word than ‘little midget.’ I could’ve called him a ‘little guy.’ ”
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith piled on, publicly proclaiming this week that teammates have allegedly taken issue with both Wall and Beal, saying, “The word out about these two is they’re all about self, they’re not about the team, they want to be leaders, but at the end of the day they don’t want to lead. They want to point the fingers at everybody but themselves.”
Despite the noise outside the Wizards locker room, several teammates described Wall and Beal’s leadership in glowing terms.
“When things start to fold,” Otto Porter Jr. said, “they’re always the ones pretty much getting everybody together. They stay together after wins and losses.”
While both try to lead by example — such as getting up extra shots after practice — Wall and Beal bring contrasting styles.
“They’re still fairly young guys … a lot of times those guys lead by example,” Morris said. “Even myself, I’m a leader by example more than actually having to say it. But John, he’s our leader. Our overall leader. His voice is heard the most. When [Beal] says stuff, you listen because B don’t say much. That’s how it goes for us.”
Though he admitted that “John’s probably a little more forceful with his than I am,” Beal has tried to perfect handling diverse personalities since signing a max contract in 2016.
“You have to understand who you’re talking to. It’s kind of trial-and-error type thing, you see how some guys react,” Beal said. “Like I can get on Kelly [Oubre Jr.] tough as nails and he’ll give me a response. Sometimes he’ll blast back and sometimes he’ll take it with a grain of salt and take it on the chin and keep it moving. Some guys — sometimes like [Marcin] Gortat, you can’t chew Gortat out all the time because sometimes it’s like we pick on him. So we have to tread it carefully. You have to understand who you’re talking to and just understand what type of reaction you’ll get. How you approach them, where you approach them. I feel like all of that plays a factor into it.”
Wall, too, understands the challenge in managing different personalities, but advocates for unbridled honesty. When the Wizards had an impromptu player’s only meeting, which according to Wall’s recollection took place around Thanksgiving or early December, he wanted teammates to openly address issues with one another.
“If you feel like you can do more for the team, or you feel like you can help the team more — speak your mind. Like, if you have problems, speak your mind,” Wall said. “If I don’t like Keef, I’ve got to let Keef know. We’re men right here.”
By all accounts, however, the meeting did not solve the Wizards’ issues.
“I mean, really, what was said is going to be between us so it’s not really a big deal,” Morris said. “My personal opinion is that guys didn’t take it well right then and there but it gradually grows being around these guys every day. Guys might have sat back and been quiet for a week or so but that’s just how it goes. Guys take criticism different.
“It’s not to point out who’s the problem or who’s doing this. It’s to better the team. That’s the biggest thing.”
In the aftermath, Wall — who said the team communicates constantly and doesn’t need to schedule another special meeting — has tried to focus his energy on keeping players together. Whether that’s asking guys if they need more shots or showing his appreciation for them, as he did before Christmas when he bought Rolex watches for his teammates.
“I think all those guys appreciated it but I didn’t get them Rolexes to make these guys want to like me. It’s just more of what I wanted to do as a teammate and as a leader,” said Wall, who then shifted to address criticism of his leadership.
“I don’t let that bother me or let that affect me, anything that somebody from the outside said. That’s nothing that’s going to affect me or affect any relationship I have with my teammates,” Wall continued. “Yeah, we might dislike each other at times but everybody has that when you’re playing basketball. You always want to be great, you always want to do well. There’s going to be times when we have arguments and bumps and bruises but that’s what makes you strong as a brother, makes you strong as a team.”
As for Wall being liked, several teammates spoke up on his behalf.
Beal rolled his eyes and waved his hand dismissively when reminded of Barea’s comments.
“He’s just talking. He’s not in our locker room. He’s not around us,” he said. “I understand you mad because of what John said, what he called you, but don’t speak on something you don’t know about.”
Morris was even more colorful while sticking up for Wall.
“[Expletive] J.J. Barea,” Morris said. “He ain’t a part of this team. He don’t know the teammates. He don’t even know us. Like, how do you know if we like him or not? What is he talking about? [Expletive] J.J. I heard he was a good dude but you know, you come at my teammate — [expletive] him. Straight like that.”
Besides, the Wizards have deeper issues to rally around. Despite returning the same core from last season, Washington has floundered to the fifth seed in the East. Both Wall and Beal understand that they are looked upon to lead the team higher.
“I feel like the dynamic of the team is still the same and it’s just a matter of us winning games because if we were winning games, we wouldn’t have that conversation. At the same time, I understand it and how it could be perceived,” Beal said. “The majority, if not all, of the responsibility lies on our shoulders. Us two. We’ve got to make sure we have everybody locked in and ready to go.”
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