Flip Saunders noticed his former prized pupil wandering over to center court about an hour prior to tip-off at Verizon Center on Tuesday night and tried to get his attention over the din of shoes squeaking and basketballs bouncing.
“Superstar!” Saunders exclaimed. No response. “Superstar!” Nothing. “Superstar!”
John Wall finally realized the moniker was directed at him and looked up. “Oh, no,” Wall said with a smile. “Not me.”
“I’m so proud of you,” Saunders, now the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, told Wall as the two embraced minutes before Saunders coached against the Washington Wizards for the first time since the team fired him in January 2012.
Back then, Wall was far from a superstar in the NBA. He was unsuccessfully dealing with the outsized expectations that accompany No. 1 overall draft picks. He was supposed to salvage a ruffled franchise. Constant injuries and a shuddersome roster rendered the task nearly impossible.
But whether he is willing to admit it or not, Wall, now in his fifth year, is approaching superstardom and his performance in the Wizards’ 109-95 rout Tuesday provided another shred of evidence.
Wall stuffed another box score, finishing with 21 points, 17 assists and four rebounds in 38 minutes. The 17 assists tied a career high and matched the Timberwolves’ total as a team. The double-double was his 15th of the season. He assisted on six of the Wizards’ first seven field goals as the Wizards (18-6) jumped out to an 18-5 lead and it took all of 6 minutes 42 seconds for Wall to hear chants of “M-V-P!” The three letters echoed again twice in the fourth quarter.
“He was a kid when I had him, a baby,” Saunders said. “He’s turned into a man now. When I had him earlier he thought he had to prove he can shoot. He thought he had to prove those things. Now he doesn’t have to prove those things. He’s got a contract. It’s his team. And what he does is he makes everybody better.”
Washington won its fifth straight game and improved its franchise-best start at home to 13-2 without Paul Pierce, who was a late scratch due to a sore right big toe. Otto Porter Jr. started in his place at small forward Washington didn’t skip a beat. Porter scored 10 points and Rasual Butler, another small forward, tied a season high with 23 points as seven Wizards reached double figures, with Wall continuing his torrid stretch as the squad’s catalyst.
“It’s probably the best I’ve played since I’ve been in the NBA,” Wall said.
The balanced formula is what Coach Randy Wittman has endlessly preached this season. It is part of the culture he has attempted to establish since reluctantly taking over for Saunders, whom has been a close friend since Wittman first served on Saunders’s coaching staff in Minnesota for four seasons beginning in 1995.
“That’s who we are,” said Wittman, whose team compiled 29 assists to just 10 turnovers. “When we spread the ball like that and with the pace we play, we’re going to have a stat sheet like this sometimes.”
Saunders returned to the District as head coach, general manager, and part-owner of an organization trudging through a reconstruction similar to the Wizards’ restoration he briefly managed. Like Washington at the time of his dismissal, Saunders oversees a group of talented and intriguing, but green, individuals in his second stint at Minnesota’s head coach.
Instead of one No. 1 selection, Saunders boasts the last two top picks on his roster — Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. Wiggins, a rookie, is in a position equivalent to Wall’s in 2010. He is the franchise cornerstone, a freakish athlete who can dominant player with some development. Wiggins has flashed some potential, but scored just nine points on 3-of-9 shooting and Bennett was held scoreless in six minutes. Thaddeus Young, one of the few veterans on the Timberwolves’ roster, led Minnesota with 29 points.
After spotting Washington a 14-point advantage at the start of the second quarter, the Timberwolves (5-19) slowly shrank the gap to three points with 4:04 remaining in the third period behind Young, who poured in 19 points in the period.
But the Wizards calmly responded, extending their lead to 17 points in the fourth quarter. Butler, who shot 4 of 5 from three-point range, headed the charge with 18 points in the 12 minutes to help send Minnesota to its 12th loss in 14 games. The results are not surprising for a team that was forced to trade Kevin Love, a perennial all-star, over the summer. To remind his team of the organization’s goals and ensure them the excruciating rebuilding process is worthwhile, Saunders points to Wall and the Wizards.
“Sometimes it’s the same things that we go through with these guys,” Saunders said. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”