John Wall’s sullen expressions and sour mood during his recent slump belie the fact that the Washington Wizards have been a markedly improved team since he made his debut — whether he has played poorly or been electrifying.
Coach Randy Wittman doesn’t want Wall to lose sight of how Bradley Beal, Martell Webster and Trevor Ariza have gotten better looks because of the pressure he applies to opposing defenses, how the Wizards have seen dramatic improvements on both ends of the floor and how the team has nearly tripled its win total from the 33 games without him in the 23 games with him.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence,” Wittman said. “We’re so stat conscious of turnovers, shots, what I shot from the field, how many points I scored, rather than the other effect you have on the game. I don’t think John sometimes takes credit for himself in that. That’s my message . . . to him.”
With Wall’s shots and passes often failing to connect with the intended target in recent weeks, he hasn’t opened himself up to many messages from his coaches or teammates. Wall has put up a wall, of sorts, that has been seemingly impenetrable.
And his problems were never more evident than during the Wizards’ 96-95 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday night, when assistant coaches Don Newman and Jerry Sichting tried to offer encouraging words at halftime and his teammates tried to help him overcome a 3-for-9 shooting performance with seven turnovers — two shy of his career high.
“When he’s in a zone, he’s hard to get to sometimes,” Beal said.
Wall sat the bench for much of the fourth quarter, sulking as his backup A.J. Price helped his team come back from a 16-point second-half deficit. He couldn’t contain his frustration as teammates missed shots or fumbled the “great passes” he delivered. Asked afterward the reasons for the problems with his passing, Wall was short and surly.
“I don’t know,” Wall said. “I think you’re seeing the same thing I’m seeing, so I can’t really call it.”
The Wizards (18-38) will host the New York Knicks at Verizon Center on Friday and Wall had one of the best games of the season the last time the two teams met on Feb. 6. With Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and his college coach, John Calipari, of Kentucky in attendance, Wall had 21 points and nine assists to lead the Wizards to a 106-96 victory. He also had a fascinating block on all-star forward Carmelo Anthony and capped the play with a spinning, circus layup around Jason Kidd.
Wall has had a hard time reeling off the highlight plays of late and has been mired in a major shooting slump since returning from the all-star break.
In his past five games, Wall is averaging just 10.2 points on 29.6 percent shooting with 7.6 assists and 4.6 turnovers and the Wizards have been outscored by 11 points with him on the floor. Wall had a stinker last week against Toronto, matching his career-worst shooting night by going 1 for 12 from the field, and is still waiting for the bounce-back game. He has also had six or more turnovers in three of the past five games.
The Wizards didn’t make Wall available after Thursday’s practice and he was already in the locker room by the time reporters were allowed into the gym. The night before, the former No. 1 overall pick denied that he has experienced any setbacks to the left knee that caused him to miss the first three and a half months of the regular season.
“Just not making shots. That’s all I can say,” Wall said, while explaining his slump. “Just trying to play basketball and do my best to help my team win.”
Wall only had two games in which he shot 45 percent or better in the month of February, but the team went 7-5. Despite a poor shooting night on Monday in Toronto, he still made a critical layup in the final minute of a 90-84 win. And he made two clutch jumpers late in a 119-113 win against Denver, as the Nuggets practically dared him to shoot.
With Wall in uniform, the Wizards are 13-10, including 9-3 at home, shooting 46.4 percent from the field and 40.3 percent from beyond the three-point line, and are outscoring opponents by an average of 96-93.
“It’s human nature. We all want to play our best, and when you don’t, you have a sense of self whatever, self critical, down, whatever it may be,” Wittman said. “That’s the thing you’ve got to watch and try to protect from. That’s why I want him to understand, he can go 3 for 12 and still have a hell of an impact and we win the game. It’s not based on making a jump shot. He can do so many other things, and keep fighting through the other part of it.”
Wall nearly overcame his poor outing against the Pistons, assisting on the Wizards’ final three field goals after entering the game with 3 minutes 38 seconds left in the fourth period. But the rally came up short when Ariza missed a rushed shot as time expired. Pistons point guard Jose Calderon, who had 18 assists and just two turnovers in leading his team to the win, chased down the despondent Wall to remind him that he was a talented player and needed to fight through it.
“There’s a lot of pride in this game, especially with the pressures of a point guard and a high-level point guard like John,” Webster said. “Being young and having that pressure, it can get to you sometimes. You’re going to go through some bad stretches. It’s how you manage those bad stretches and realizing that it’s not about yourself, it’s about the team, you can usually get over the hump. He’s just got to keep chipping away. We all do.”
The rookie Beal has surpassed Wall as the team’s leading scorer during the slide, going ahead 13.9 points to 13.7, but he wasn’t concerned about his backcourt mate’s ability to bounce back.
“John’s fine,” Beal said. “He has his highs and lows, but that’s just his passion and his competitiveness. I mean, I love that kid. He’s a great point guard. I don’t care what anybody says. He’s going to be fine regardless. He’s just got to keep holding his head up high and keep moving forward.”