NEW YORK — Washington Wizards guard John Wall is trying to remember the last time he played significant minutes off the ball, but his memory is failing him.
He shakes his head when asked if it happened during his one season at Kentucky while playing beside fellow future NBA guard Eric Bledsoe. He goes back further, to his fresh-faced days at the Word Of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, N.C.
“I never played off the ball really,” Wall said about his time in youth basketball.
Wait. Now, it’s coming to him. When he was 11, the coach inserted his son as the point guard, making Wall basically the shooting guard. But that arrangement only lasted for a few dribbles.
“I always had the ball once it got past half court,” he added.
Wall has been the unquestioned playmaker for all of his teams, from the amateur ranks to the pros, controlling possessions to zip passes to teammates or create scoring opportunities for himself. But as Wall enters his ninth NBA season, he’s being asked to run and cut and move without the ball. At 28, he’s being challenged to change.
“I’m fine with it because I worked on my game a lot, coming off pin downs, shooting threes,” Wall said. “It’s going to give me more opportunities to be more aggressive and score where I don’t have to be trying to score off the same plays.”
This doesn’t mean Wall’s ballhandling role will greatly diminish. He remains the leader of Washington’s offense — Coach Scott Brooks just wants the ball to move in a way that creates more than one predominant passer.
In a 110-98 win over the New York Knicks on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Wall found plenty of chances to facilitate Brooks’s offense, finishing with 14 points and nine assists, one of which was a full-court transition pass to Bradley Beal. Wall also regularly ceded control to others.
In the opening four minutes, Beal got into a rhythm by bringing the ball up the floor and acting decisively to score at the rim or pull up for a three-pointer. Beal enjoyed his most efficient game of the preseason with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting and the increased touches had to have helped.
“He makes so many good plays for us,” Brooks said of Wall, “but if we want to continue to evolve as a team and get everybody to touch the ball, he’s going to have to learn a few new tricks.
“Obviously, his I.Q. level is very high and even last game [against Miami], I thought he did a fairly good job of doing that of getting off the ball in that third quarter,” Brooks said, “but we still want to take advantage of his speed and his decision-making.”
Wall is accustomed to having the ball in his hands — a lot. Although Wall appeared in a career-low 41 games last season, he still finished second overall in average seconds per touch (6.3), only slightly behind ball-dominant guard James Harden, according to NBA.com advanced statistics.
This year, as the Wizards' style of play trends faster, that number should decline. Besides utilizing Wall’s speed with the ball, Brooks wants to unleash Wall on the fast break with Beal or Otto Porter Jr. leading the charge.
The adjustment has been equal parts captivating and challenging for the five-time all-star.
“We want the game [to be] fun for him and the guys,” Brooks said. “There’s going to be some growing pains, that’s why you have preseason. Hopefully, we can pick things up and move along right before the first game.”
Wall has worked extensively on his shooting and welcomes the growth in adding more dimensions to his offensive toolbox. He looks forward to perplexing defenses with threats that were once too crazy to speak aloud.
“Back in the day you would never think, three or four years ago, running a pin down for John Wall,” he said. “I feel comfortable that I can come off pin downs and make shots.”
Wall’s instincts, developed over a lifetime of playing the point guard position, still scream at him to go get that ball. When a teammate secures a rebound, Wall’s muscle memory kicks in: palms open for the outlet pass, eyes up and surveying the floor, attack the defense and find his shooters.
“Yeah, it’s still something you’re not sure of because you’re like, ‘Why all of sudden I got to play different?’ " Wall said. “But when you’re expanding your game, that’s what happens.”
On Monday, there were times when Wall performed as the spot-up shooter behind the left corner, receiving a pass from Jeff Green, or walked away while the Knicks shot free throws so he could get a head start down court. The night might have given Wall flashbacks to his playing days as an 11-year-old and a preview of what’s to come.
“I ain’t did that in a long time,” Wall said Monday morning about playing off the ball, “but it’s okay. I’m catching the ball and doing something in a different way, instead of like just coming down and making plays. It’s harder to guard, in my opinion.”