At the end of his best NBA season, John Wall can think of only one way to react.
With extreme self-loathing.
“It wasn’t good enough,” the Washington Wizards point guard says, shaking his head in disgust. “I wasn’t good enough.”
To comprehend the level of competition among this bumper crop of point guards, examine Wall’s conflict. The 25-year-old 2010 No. 1 pick played like a superstar in his sixth year. Over 77 games, he posted career-high averages in points (19.9), assists (10.2), rebounds (4.9) and steals (1.9). He made more three-pointers than he ever has (115) and shot a respectable 35.1 percent from behind the arc, which tied his best percentage. He made the all-star team for the third straight year. He recovered from a so-so start, and for three-quarters of the season, he played the position as well as it can be played, carrying an injury-plagued team, attacking relentlessly and clenching his fists whenever a new challenge arose.
Still, the Wizards didn’t make the playoffs. And Wall won’t make the all-NBA first, second or third team. And when the 30 finalists for the United States Olympic men’s basketball team go to camp this summer, Wall admits he likely won’t make the 12-man roster.
Wall compares himself to his peers and can’t get past what makes him different this season. If you could choose only seven of the league’s point guards as the current best of the best, the list would look something like this: Wall, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. Of those seven, Wall is the only one whose team didn’t make the postseason.
“I really don’t care about my season,” said Wall, who led the Wizards to the second round of the playoffs in 2014 and 2015. “I feel like it’s a waste. It’s a waste to me because I didn’t take the steps I wanted to take to move my team in the right direction like the past two years. I feel like my game has improved. Yeah, I would say that. But individual accolades don’t mean nothing, not when you’re an all-star, not when you’re competing for your place among this group of point guards. It’s harsh, but that’s how it is. You can’t distinguish yourself in this group if you don’t win.”
That’s a mental and physical grind of playing the deepest and most talented position in the NBA. For elevating his game this season, Wall received a swollen knee as a reward. He missed the final five games, including a loss at Detroit last week that officially eliminated the Wizards from playoff contention.
To be an elite point guard now, the challenge is immense. Before Emmanuel Mudiay was selected No. 7 overall in the 2015 NBA draft, Southern Methodist Coach Larry Brown, a longtime NBA and college coach who won a title in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons and in 1988 with the Kansas Jayhawks, sat down with the recruit who got away.
“I was frustrated when I picked up my fourth foul because I think I could’ve had 50 with him, it was amazing.”
—John Wall, on his shootout with Stephen Curry
Brown told Mudiay, who went to China instead of SMU after high school and entered the draft a year later, about the nightly competition.
“You’re going to go on the road and face Derrick Rose in Chicago, and then go to Washington and have to play John Wall, and then go up against Kyle Lowry in Toronto,” Brown said. “Then you’re going to have to stop in Memphis and play Mike Conley, and then go to San Antonio and play Tony Parker. That’s one road trip. Then you’re going to come home and play Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City. Later you’re going to go back on the road and play Chris Paul in Los Angeles, and who’s waiting for you the next night in Golden State when you’re exhausted? Steph Curry.
Wall and Curry go head-to-head
(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
“You have to be ready for that kind of gauntlet. The point guards are amazing in the NBA now.”
One game into his career, Mudiay faced a stretch similar to what Brown was describing, competing against Ricky Rubio, Westbrook, 2015 No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell, Curry and Lillard all within a six-game stretch. He shot 30.5 percent in those games. His team lost four of the six contests, all by at least 12 points.
“Baptism by fire,” Mudiay said.
Said Thomas: “Man, it’s probably at the highest level it’s ever been. You never have a night off. You’re playing against, arguably, an all-star every night at that position. I mean, it’s tough, but as competitor and someone who wants to play against and compete against the best, it’s the best position to be at because every night you’re looking to outplay the next guy.”
Thomas is still in awe of Paul, who has been the most consistent star point guard of the past decade. But that didn’t stop Thomas for engaging the respected veteran in one of the great point guard duels of the season on Feb. 11. Paul scored 35 points and added 13 assists. Thomas finished with 36 points, 11 assists and a 139-134 overtime victory.
Ask him if it was a significant moment in his career to play so well against a player he admired in high school. Thomas grins and says, “It was. It was.”
Battles like that have become common. There is too much talent and too many chips on shoulders. After being an all-star snub, Lillard averaged 33.3 points over a 13-game period. He dropped 51 against Curry, 50 against Lowry and 41 against Wall, a trio of all-stars.
Wall admits to looking at the schedule and mentally circling marquee matchups. “You better get up for them,” Wall said. “Because I know, if I don’t, they’re going to try to embarrass me.”
He can point to so many daunting stretches this season. In eight games from March 21 to April 3, he played Jeff Teague, who made the all-star team in 2015, in back-to-back games before facing Rubio, Russell, Rajon Rondo and Paul before it was over.
In the season’s defining point guard shootout, Curry scored 51 points (25 in the first quarter), and Wall finished with 41 points and 10 assists at Verizon Center on Feb. 3. It was a showcase of different styles. Curry hypnotized with his shot-making and deceptive athleticism. With his elite speed, Wall was a streak the entire game.
“I was frustrated when I picked up my fourth foul because I think I could’ve had 50 with him,” Wall recalled. “It was amazing.”
But memories of shootouts and great individual performances won’t make Wall’s offseason any easier. For the next two months, he must watch his peers in the postseason. In many ways, Wall had a career year, but he still feels like he lost ground.
“If you want to be remembered as one of the best ones in a group that gets deeper and deeper, you have to win,” Wall said. “You can ask 20 guys who the best point guards in the NBA are, and they might have all kinds of different combinations in their top five. You’re going to have one or two that’s there every time, but other than that, you don’t know. You have to do it all to stand out.”
Wall was deficient in one key area. For the next six months, he’ll be motivated by feelings of inferiority.