John Wall has spent the first seven seasons of his career building respect as one of the game's top point guards. In 2016-17, his best campaign to date, Wall's pass-first disposition ignited a Washington Wizards offense on one of the top scoring teams in the NBA. But as the curtains opened Wednesday night for Year 8, Wall displayed a new personality.
Wall was on the floor for more minutes than any other player and played with a clear intention: to score. The result was a 120-115 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the Wizards' nationally televised season opener.
"It's just wolf season," Wall explained. "I put a lot of hard work and dedication into this summer. Just being healthy and able to work but without my teammates, those guys making shots and playing defense and setting screens for me, I wouldn't be able to be the player I am."
A television reporter asked Wall to shed a little more light on "wolf season." Wall replied: "Just keep watching."
On Wednesday, Wall howled for 28 shots, three away from his career high, and scored 28 points to go along with eight assists and five rebounds. His not-so-efficient shooting night (10 for 28) didn't seem to bother the sellout crowd at Capital One Arena, announced at 20,356, as Wall's aggression created the first GIF-worthy clip of the season.
In the first quarter, as Wall pushed past 76ers point guard T.J. McConnell, he watched his opponent fall to the floor then ferociously attacked the rim with a left-handed dunk from just outside the restricted circle. The play even wowed Coach Scott Brooks.
"I was telling my coaches," Brooks said, "I can't believe he does that."
Wall's scoring intensity might have dulled the brightness of others. Otto Porter Jr. opened the game by scoring the Wizards' first eight points. He hit midrange jumpers, drove to the rim and hustled for a second scoring opportunity with a heads-up play — appearing to mature from the player who mostly feasted from spot-up shooting a year ago. Then after his early burst, he scored just two more points and finished with 10.
Bradley Beal found his spots on 6-for-17 shooting for 25 points and six rebounds, and Marcin Gortat, playing as the single big for most of the game, collected 16 points and 17 rebounds. As a team, Washington outworked Philadelphia for a 52-48 rebounding edge despite starting power forward Jason Smith collecting just one rebound on an abbreviated night.
Through 10 years and 101 career starts, Smith had never strolled out with the starting five for a season opener. So when the moment came Wednesday night, Smith soaked up the spotlight, jogging out of the tunnel and pointing at the team's cameraman as his image flashed on the overhead scoreboard. However, seven minutes into the game, Smith jogged off the floor, holding his right shoulder as team medical staffers followed. A sprained right shoulder was the diagnosis, and Smith did not return.
Smith's injury is the latest blow to the team's power forward depth. Projected starter Markieff Morris remains at least two weeks away from rejoining the lineup after sports hernia surgery. This forced the Wizards to commit to Plan B: playing small with Kelly Oubre Jr. (14 points, eight rebounds and 3 of 6 from the three-point arc) and Porter in the frontcourt.
"The confidence I have in [Oubre] started from last season," Brooks said. "He's staying within the team concept. He was a big part of our win tonight."
The Wizards love this small lineup for its athleticism on the wings — early into the second half, Oubre's disruption on the perimeter in chasing down a loose ball for a steal led to Beal's equalizing three-pointer. However, small ball can also pose mismatch problems and at times, even Wall had to defend Philadelphia's 6-foot-9 power forward Robert Covington. On one play, Wall stopped Covington on the perimeter but could not keep him off the glass for a tip-in bucket. Covington also drummed the Wizards from the outside, making 7 of 11 three-pointers and scoring a game-high 29 points.
Washington tempered this defensive disadvantage by doing a better job to ensure one-shot possessions then quickly transitioning to the other end. Throughout, Wall continuously looked to score, especially in the third quarter when Washington opened a 12-point lead.
Wall scored 14 points in the quarter, adding another highlight dunk moments after home fans serenaded him with the first M-V-P chant of the season.
By the fourth quarter, teammates joined Wall in the dunking fun. With 6:49 remaining, Wall zipped a pass to a cutting Gortat for the slam and hammer celebration. Also, Oubre threw down a vicious putback dunk before Beal tossed an alley-oop for Wall.
The Wizards led 113-106 in the final three minutes, but they committed three turnovers and missed several shots as Philadelphia forged a tie. However, Washington survived with a 5-0 run to secure the opening-night victory.
Box score: Wizards 120, 76ers 115
Fancy Stats: The Wizards are the fourth-best team in the East