You can talk about a lineup change that has worked well for the Washington Wizards, or mention the development of a productive rookie. But any discussion about the team’s improvement starts with one person: point guard John Wall.
The Wizards actually have a winning record (for an 11-32 team, a 6-4 stretch is something worth celebrating) since Wall returned to the lineup after missing their first 33 games because of a knee injury. Washington has been sharper on offense and tougher on defense. And although some NBA decision-makers say Wall isn’t talented enough to carry a team, he clearly has been a game-changer for the Wizards. If Wall can keep it up, he just may be the right guy to lead the team after all.
In an 82-game schedule, 10 games is a small sample size. It’s also big enough to inspire some optimism — finally — about the franchise’s direction with Wall playing at the highest level of his career. There have been other encouraging developments, too.
Center Emeka Okafor woke up once forward-center Nene joined him in the starting lineup, a move that occurred before Wall came back, and rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal is proving those favorable pre-draft comparisons to Ray Allen were on point. Wall’s big step, however, has pulled everything together. The difference is most evident in the weakest part of Wall’s game: shooting.
The scouting report on Wall hasn’t changed since his days as a prep standout. He has always been considered exceptionally fast with the basketball, highly athletic, intensely competitive — and a below-average shooter.
There are only so many fast-break opportunities. In the NBA, it’s nearly impossible to become a star point guard unless you can score consistently in the half-court game. That means making mid-range jumpers.
Wall’s doing it better than ever. He’s shooting a personal-best 45.3 percent from the field. That’s after Wall made only 40.9 percent of his shots as a rookie and 42.3 percent last season. Beyond the statistical proof, Wall’s jumper passes the eye test.
In Wall’s first two seasons, it was clear he had about as much confidence in his jumper as he did in the ability of some of his teammates to remember Washington’s plays. Wall often appeared reluctant to shoot when the Wizards were struggling to score and needed someone to take charge. Not anymore.
Before the knee injury cut short his offseason workout program, Wall focused on improving his touch. He shot and shot and shot, “and I’m making it more because I just really worked at it,” Wall said, explaining his roll-up-your-sleeves approach. “I didn’t do anything crazy or different. I just put in the time . . . and they’re going in. It’s a good feeling when you see the results. It makes you better.”
Especially because of how fast he is. Opponents used to back off Wall, essentially daring him to shoot, which put them in better position to guard against him driving. Now, they’re playing him tighter.
“When guys come up on you, that’s when you go” toward the basket, he said. “It opens up the offense. It makes it better for my team.”
Wall’s strong comeback definitely has helped Beal. Every pass-first point guard wants to partner with a shooting guard who possesses big-time scoring potential. That’s Beal. Wall enjoys setting up Beal for shots. “He’s already really good,” Wall said of Beal, who has been playing through a painful wrist injury and might need to take a few games off.
Okafor and Nene are the next biggest beneficiaries on the list.
There’s no nice way to say this: Okafor was awful early in the season, so ineffective that Coach Randy Wittman kept him on the bench during fourth quarters.
Wittman searched for answers while Wall was out and the team was reeling. He tried different lineup combinations. The decision to put Okafor and Nene in the starting lineup was one of Wittman’s best.
In 21 games together, the team’s big men have formed a productive tandem. Okafor’s stats have steadily improved as Nene, still on a minutes restriction as he recovers from a foot problem, has shared in the burden of scoring and rebounding on the first unit.
Okafor and Nene have gotten a lot of easy inside shots because of Wall’s ability to break down defenses, get into the lane and pass. Throughout the time he was sidelined, Wall stayed motivated by looking forward to working with Nene, Beal and Okafor.
“When you have guys who all want to win, who all work hard, yeah, it motivates you even more,” Wall said. “Everybody is just working to build something and keep it going. It’s good. It’s what you want.”
Wall never wanted sympathy. When you’re a No. 1 overall pick in the NBA, you either turn around a losing team quickly or get labeled as a disappointment — if not worse. All Wall wanted was a fighting chance, which he didn’t have his first two seasons.
“No disrespect to anyone, but it’s a more serious locker room now,” he said. “Guys understand the game of basketball and they want to play. It’s a big difference.”
There’s a feeling among some Wizards fans that the franchise suffered from having the top pick during a draft in which the best available player wasn’t great. Truth is, Wall had the misfortune of joining a dysfunctional team. With his improvement and some better parts around him now, Wall is beginning to look just fine.
For more columns by Jason Reid, visit www.washingtonpost.com/reid.