John Wall goes through the same pregame routine of heading to the court, in a T-shirt and cut-off sweatpants, Washington Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell at his side. For about 15 to 20 minutes, Cassell runs Wall through dribbling and shooting drills with an emphasis on midrange jump shots, an area in which Cassell excelled through a 15-season NBA career.
Wall is usually accurate during the exercise. Cassell encourages him to step into his shot with authority, keep the same form and shoot it with confidence. Afterward, Wall heads to the locker room — and seemingly leaves behind the assurance he had just showed in his jumper.
All season, most teams have played Wall the same way: give him the jumper and take away his driving lanes. More often than not, Wall uses his considerable speed to blow by defenders and still get to the basket for layups. But when teams dare Wall to shoot, he treats it as some form of punishment and settles for the jumper as a last resort.
“I’ll be hesitating if I want to shoot it or pass it,” Wall admitted.
That reluctant, unsure Wall was nowhere to be found on Sunday against the New Jersey Nets, as the rookie point guard developed a comfort zone from the spots where he spends so much time before games. Wall made six of his 11 field goals from beyond 15 feet, including the two decisive jumpers in the final 82 seconds, to lead the Wizards to a much-needed 98-92 victory.
“I felt more confident than I did the whole season,” said Wall, who is averaging 15.9 points on just 40.7 percent shooting this season.
With the Wizards short-handed and missing many of their top offensive options, they are looking for Wall to be more assertive as a scorer, a position that the pass-first Wall would rather avoid but has grown to accept. In nine games this month, Wall is averaging 18.8 points and has already recorded four of his 14 20-point games.
The scoring surge has come at the expense of his assist numbers — he hasn’t had a game with at least 10 assists since Feb. 28 — but Wall said he hasn’t lost his desire to set up his teammates. “I still try to look for people,” he said. “Most of the time, you see, I’m still trying to find somebody. I don’t really like to shoot it too much unless I got it really going.
“Sometimes it’s tough, without having Nick [Young] and [Andray Blatche], two options that can really help us score. Other guys are stepping up. But also at the same time, I have to be more aggressive on the offensive end.”
The Wizards (17-51) will open a five-game road trip on Tuesday in Portland and the team will likely need the more offensive-minded Wall. Rashard Lewis is likely done for the season, and the Wizards have not set a timetable for the returns of Young, Blatche or Josh Howard.
The comeback win over New Jersey, in which the Wizards rallied from a 17-point deficit, was arguably the closest Wall has come to resembling the player he was before injuries knocked his season off course. Coach Flip Saunders routinely praised Wall’s will to win in November, when the rookie led his team to two overtime wins over Philadelphia and recorded a triple-double against Houston. Wall may have conceded rookie of the year to Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin, whom the Wizards will face on Wednesday. But he has not lost focus on the importance of the final 14 games and the need for him to keep improving.
“You get tired playing so many games now, because you don’t have a lot of people, playing a lot of minutes,” Wall said. “I’ve been doing it all year. But I don’t think I hit the wall. I just think the injuries slowed me down a little bit. I’m just trying to finish the year strong. All this is really telling me what I need to do next year.”
And from his shooting display against the Nets, Wall is showing that he’s finally starting to reap the benefits of the workouts with Cassell, as well as assistants Ryan Saunders and Wes Unseld Jr.
“They give it to you, he gotta take it. He was taking it with confidence, and I didn’t think he was going to miss none of them,” fellow rookie Jordan Crawford said. “Hopefully, he can keep that up.”