He suffered the worst debut loss for any No. 1 pick in NBA history, lost his first 25 road games, and his team has experienced six losing streaks of at least four games this season. John Wall understood that the task of joining a lottery team after experiencing success at Kentucky was going to be difficult, that he would have to take some lumps with the Washington Wizards.
But he wasn’t prepared to lose this much, to need to win at least one of his final two games to avoid becoming the fourth top overall pick in the lottery era to lose 60 games in his first season (Danny Manning, Elton Brand and Allen Iverson are the others). Wall hasn’t always handled it the best — he has rolled his eyes, raised his arms in frustration, pouted and shouted — because he can’t tolerate losing.
“That’s the toughest part for me,” Wall said of his rookie season. “I’m not getting that stuck in my head or want that to be something I do for the rest of my career. But for one year that I have this year, it’s pretty tough, but next year, we’re going to have it all changed.”
Wall will also join Patrick Ewing, Pervis Ellison, Kenyon Martin, Michael Olowokandi as the only No. 1 picks that failed to lead their teams to a better winning percentage than the previous season. But Wall is starting to feel more optimistic about the Wizards improving by the way the team is closing out the season.
The Wizards (22-58) have won four of their past six games overall — and three straight at home — as they prepare to host the Boston Celtics on Monday in their home finale at Verizon Center. With no pressure to win, the Wizards are playing their best basketball of the season.
Andray Blatche is offering a reminder of why the team awarded him a lucrative contract extension last September, Jordan Crawford has brought a fearless attitude after being unleashed following a trade from Atlanta, and players from the NBA Development League such as Othyus Jeffers have brought a hunger that has been contagious.
“My teammates are giving it all they can for these last couple of games,” Wall said. “With the players we got right now, and how we’re playing, it gives me excitement that we can do a lot of good things next year. I hope we all work this summer and come back and have a better season.”
Over his past six games, Blatche has scored 153 points and grabbed 73 rebounds, something only two Washington players have done over the same span in the past 15 seasons. Chris Webber had identical production in the 1997-98 season, and Antawn Jamison had 164 points with 75 rebounds over a six-game stretch last season. Excluding a loss to Milwaukee in which he sprained his right shoulder in just three minutes, Blatche has scored at least 20 points in nine of his past 10 games, averaging 22.8 points on 49.2 percent (90 for 183) shooting.
“We’re just playing every game like it’s our last because basically our last is coming up. We’re just going out there, putting everything on the table, and trying to have fun while it lasts,” Blatche said. “Even though we’ve had a bad season we are starting to grow into a great team and letting [the fans] know next year should be different for them. We’re going to have a lot more heart, lot more effort, play the same way we did at the end of the season.”
Coach Flip Saunders believes the Wizards’ improved play is the result of persistence and not some late-season run through meaningless games.
“My staff, coaches, there was never any wavering as far as our demands on the players and what we expected of them,” Saunders said. “Earlier this season, I started talking about pounding that rock. You keep on pounding it, you don't know when you're going to break it, you've got to keep on pounding it because you don’t know when you’re going to get through to it. Our guys have gotten through to it. . . . I think overall, we are playing our best basketball. Over the last three weeks, we’ve competed well against everyone we've competed with.”
Wall is ending the season feeling better than when he started, or even in the middle, which he credits to other star players reminding him that most players have to overcome some difficult times before experiencing success.
“Guys already told me, it takes time, it’s a rebuilding process and me, I’m somebody who is going to work hard and get better,” Wall said. “I have to just stay motivated. I look at Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They was [3-29] at one point a few years ago and look at them now: top four, top five team in the Western Conference. This year was a good learning experience for me.”