As Bradley Beal writhed on the hardwood in agony, burying his face to conceal his tears after spraining his left ankle Sunday, John Wall stood several feet away near the Washington Wizards’ bench, calmly wiping off sweat from his brow and his arms. Wall didn’t have time to be emotional or overly concerned, even as Beal was assisted off the court and into the locker room by Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton.
The Wizards still had a game to win, and with his fallen back-court mate done for the evening, Wall had to focus on finishing out the final two minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers. Wall got off to a shaky start after a timeout, when he immediately made a poor dribble and lost the ball into the hands of 76ers forward Thaddeus Young.
In past games, a late-game error might have sunk Wall into a funk. But he recovered with a performance that offered a reminder of the clutch player he was on the verge of becoming before he missed more than three months with a stress injury in his left knee and spent the subsequent weeks trying to regain his legs and rhythm. Wall scored the final six points and blocked a potential go-ahead jumper by 76ers swingman Evan Turner to lead the Wizards to a 90-87 win at Verizon Center.
“It’s big for me,” Wall said after scoring a team-high 16 points and putting away the game with a rare pull-up jumper. “I’ve been struggling.”
Beal’s injury proved not to be too serious: The Wizards announced Monday that the promising rookie shooting guard would be day-to-day. But Wall’s desire and ability to make plays with his team in desperate need might prove to be the most important development from the game.
“It boosts my confidence even more,” Wall said. “Gives me confidence to just take those and don’t hesitate on those shots and trust that I can make them in the fourth quarter. I just want the ball down the stretch, and luckily I made a shot.”
Wall actually made two shots in the final 93 seconds, neither touching the rim.
“He been working the whole season,” Nene said. “That’s the answer for the critical guys who been talking bad about him.”
Wall has heard a chorus of negative comments despite leading the Wizards to a 14-11 record since making his season debut Jan. 12. The former No. 1 overall pick would love for the game to come more easily, for the lane to open wide whenever he decides to attack the basket and for his teammates to catch his passes and connect on shots every time he swings the ball their direction. But he gets down on himself when things don’t go his way and often cannot hide his frustrations — whether it’s with a pouty face or a shouting outburst.
After the win over Philadelphia, Coach Randy Wittman acknowledged that the root of Wall’s recent slump might have been more than simply missing shots or committing turnovers. Wall had so much success after making his debut that it was easy to forget he is still recovering from a serious knee injury.
“I don’t know how to tell you how hard it is for him to do what he had to do this year, in terms of sitting out three and a half months, where he didn’t have any activity of any kind on his feet. Then, for me to thrust him in as soon as he’s able to do something,” Wittman said. “When he’s not playing the way he’s capable, he gets frustrated a bit. But I thought the last couple of games, he’s calmed down a bit. He fought through it. He’s got to stay patient still. All that stability stuff that he doesn’t have will eventually come back.”
When asked if he felt fans understood the challenges he faced in coming back, Wall said: “I don’t think so. I think they see me as the number one pick, and I’m supposed to just come out here and be spectacular every night.”
In many ways, Wall felt the same about his game, believing that he had to live up to another standard despite playing on a team and under a scheme that doesn’t require him to carry a heavy scoring burden.
“I’m not a wannabe scoring point guard all the time. I like to get my teammates involved first and try to score when I have to,” Wall said. “It’s kind of crazy, because the way the league is going, every point guard is a scorer. You’ve got Kyrie [Irving]. You’ve got Damian Lillard. Those young guys coming up, scoring right out the bat. You got guys like Russell [Westbrook] who’s been doing it a while, and Derrick [Rose], but all I want to do is keep getting better. My game is still developing on the offensive end, but I can do more things to help my team win.”
Wall admitted he had been pressing when he hit a rough patch around the all-star break and forced the action offensively, which led to more mistakes and more stress. Before he cracked completely, his mother, Frances Pulley, came up from Raleigh, N.C., for the first time in nearly two months. She made her patented sweet tea, gave him a much-needed home-cooked meal of shrimp, fish and cabbage, and provided the same feedback as his teammates and coaches.
“Keep playing, fight through it, you know. It’s a tough time that you’re going through. And every game is not going to be perfect,” Wall said she told him. “It’s kind of like hitting the rookie wall. I felt kind of so frustrated because the games we lost was games that I had the opportunity to step up and do something big. I just had to take the blame on myself and move forward, come out and keep playing aggressive.”
Beal has been on a surge since the beginning of the calendar year but landed awkwardly after jumping to contest an expected shot by 76ers all-star guard Jrue Holiday. With a fourth-quarter go-to option no longer around, one who already has a game-winning jumper under his belt, Wall was forced to be more assertive. But that also required him to show some faith in his unpolished jumper.
“He has great confidence,” Wittman said, “and that’s what you have to have obviously, at this level and it came through. It was a stepping stone. He’s making the strides now.”
Tomorrow, 8 p.m.,
on Comcast SportsNet