Although they failed to show it Wednesday night, point guard John Wall and the Washington Wizards have made major strides. The former No. 1 overall pick finally is playing like one while leading the Wizards to their best performance in years, and Wall deserves to become the team’s first representative in the all-star game since 2008.
Even my friend and colleague Mike Wise realizes Wall is playing at an all-star level. And if Wise understands something, you know it’s crystal clear.
In his fourth season, Wall — who had his second career triple-double in a 113-111 loss in overtime to the Boston Celtics — is proving he is a special player.
For Wall, the next step is to help the Wizards attain something that has eluded them for much of their history: sustained success.
Based on Wednesday’s clunker against lowly Boston at Verizon Center, Wall must stay on the grind.
Facing a team that had lost 10 straight on the road and is 14 games under .500, Washington appeared lost on offense in the first half and dug itself a 19-point deficit.
The Wizards (20-21) fell short in their fifth attempt to move a game above .500. Wall did his part statistically: 28 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals. Still, he shouldered blame for the loss, displaying as much growth off the court as on it.
Wall took too many shots before halftime and finished with only nine field goals in 29 attempts.
With Wall struggling early, the Wizards looked like a team that has missed the playoffs the past five seasons.
“It starts with me,” Wall said. “Took too many shots. I didn’t move the ball like we’re supposed to . . . and only had five assists at halftime and nine turnovers. That’s not the way to lead your team.”
For the most part, though, Wall has been video-game good. He’s averaging career highs in points, assists, steals and three-point shooting. The biggest improvement in Wall’s game, however, has occurred between his ears.
Wall, whose jumper is much improved, has learned that playing fast doesn’t necessarily mean playing well. By changing gears at the appropriate times, Wall is making more of the right moves. It is obvious Wall “is a little smoother in everything he does,” Detroit Pistons Coach Maurice Cheeks said recently after Wall scored 34 points in a loss to the Pistons.
“You can see the time that he has put in his game. He runs his team well. I said to some people, ‘This guy is good now.’ ”
During his first three seasons, Wall’s detractors (I’ve been among them) often pointed to his poor decision-making. Too often, Wall sped up when he should have slowed down. He shot when he should have passed. Wall rarely displayed the necessary court awareness.
Wall only played one season in college. When he joined the Wizards, they had a roster full of knuckleheads. For a young player facing huge expectations, Wall couldn’t have entered a worse environment. Wall, though, didn’t do enough to instill confidence about where he was headed. With his big move this season, Wall has erased plenty of doubts.
“Since I’ve been here and taken over, John has improved immensely” in directing the team, Wizards Coach Randy Wittman said. Wall, Wittman continued, now knows when he “can be aggressive. . . . It’s about knowing when [he] needs to get Bradley Beal off, knowing when Nene needs a touch inside, how to get that touch, [and] what play do we run.
“Those are all factors that are going on in only his mind. It takes time when you’ve never done it before. . . . It’s something he’s worked hard at and we’ve worked together.”
Wall’s work has resulted in him developing into a player who is worthy of the maximum contract extension he received before the season. Next month’s All-Star Game in New Orleans figures to be Wall’s first, but one of the game’s greatest point guards said it probably won’t be his last.
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas played the position as well as anyone who has ever bounced a basketball. Thomas never mentioned Wall in the same category with other young stars such as Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ty Lawson of the Denver Nuggets and Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies — until this season. Now that Wall has started to climb the ladder, he must keep going, Thomas said.
“If he makes the all-star team, he’ll notice that when he gets in the all-star room, there is another level, and that is a championship level,” Thomas told me recently. “You have grown men in [an NBA] locker room. . . . Can you lead those kind of men?
“Can those kind of men trust you, on and off the floor . . . to become a championship player for a championship team? Because it’s not about how many points you score or how many assists you have. It really is about you as a leader, you as a man.”
Wall is becoming the man the Wizards have needed him to be since the day they drafted him. It took a while for him to get here – but it looks like he’ll be worth the wait.