In a Cleveland hospital last May, Scott Brooks issued his first challenge to John Wall. Brooks, the new Washington Wizards coach, spent two days with his star player, juggling casual conversation, sympathy over the point guard’s double knee surgery and a frank evaluation that Wall, for all his accolades, needed to grow as a player.
Eleven months later, as the Wizards enter the playoffs after their best regular season in 38 years, Brooks jokes that he was glad Wall was confined to a bed during the toughest parts of their talks.
“There was a chance that he might have put me in the hospital,” Brooks said, laughing. “But he accepted it. He accepted the challenge to be a better basketball player. And at this stage, for him already to be a four-time all-star and still motivated to improve, it’s pretty remarkable.”
In the NBA, the coach-star relationship can be difficult. It’s more of a partnership. Before the coach can lead, the star — the face of the franchise and, in Wall’s case, the reason the Wizards weren’t losing 50 games a season anymore — has to want to be led. The harsh truth is that Wall, who had made three all-star appearances before Brooks arrived, could have resisted, and Brooks would have had to coach around a player set in his ways. But in that hospital room, Wall wasn’t just hoping his knees would heal. After missing the playoffs last season, his ego was bruised, and he was already thinking about embracing improvement and adding more responsibility.
At the time, the 2015-16 season was Wall’s best year. He averaged career-highs in points (19.9 per game), assists (10.2), rebounds (4.9) and steals (1.9). He played the first 77 games while managing knee pain that would force him onto the operating table. But at the end of last season, he was the only elite point guard who didn’t make the playoffs, and it stung.
“If you’re not winning and averaging 20 and 10, it doesn’t really mean nothing,” Wall said. “Your ultimate goal as a point guard and floor general and a leader is to get guys into the playoffs and go as far as you can go. I didn’t do that. It was a failure. It was tough to take, but it was a failure. Forget about the numbers. I had to do more.”
And then came this season, his best yet, the latest installment of “You Don’t Know How Good John Wall Really Is.” If you’ve relegated Wall to being good but not great, flashy but flawed, a star but not a superstar, it’s time to reevaluate him. With Brooks coaching him, with a better team around him, with Bradley Beal developing into a true co-star, Wall has been able to influence winning more than he has during his seven NBA seasons. He has put up numbers that give a claim to the NBA’s 2016-17 statistical fame. And when the playoffs begin for them Sunday, Wall’s fourth-seeded Wizards have a legitimate chance to advance, at least, to the Eastern Conference finals.
Wall has made solid progress on a mission that began in the hospital. Now he has to finish. This playoff run is the most important of his career. It could shatter the false perception that he’s a player who is not quite elite. It could elevate the 26-year-old Wall to a level of respect that he’ll boldly tell you is overdue.
But in the purest sense, you can forget about status. This is about a gifted basketball player reaching his potential. That’s what Brooks wants for Wall. And despite moments of bravado, it’s also Wall’s greatest motivation.
This season, Wall averaged 23.1 points, 10.7 assists and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game. He shot a career-high 45.1 percent. He enjoyed his most efficient season while taking more shots (18.4 per game) than ever. It’s a testament to the work he put in, even while rehabbing his knees, as well as Brooks’s understanding of how to get the most out of great point guards. Wall also says he’s healthier than he has been in years. And through experience, he has learned how best to use his talents to attack the game.
“Could I have done this three, four years ago? No, not then,” Wall said. “For one thing, I wasn’t healthy. I was playing through all these nagging problems with my knees and other things. It was limiting me. I wasn’t as confident in my shot as I am now. Plus, I know so much more about the game, and my teammates — how good all those guys are, how they’ve elevated their games, the roster we have now — have helped me elevate my game, too.”
How good has Wall been this season? He became the first player in NBA history to finish with at least 1,800 points, 800 assists, 150 steals and 50 blocks in a season, numbers that make him sort of like the 6-foot-4 version of Milwaukee’s do-it-all prodigy, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Although Wall is in the statistical shadows of MVP front-runners Russell Westbrook and James Harden this season, he has accomplished plenty if you look beyond triple-doubles.
Wall is just the third player in league history to average at least 23 points, 10 assists and two steals in a season, joining Michael Adams (in 1990-91) and Russell Westbrook (2015-16). Take away the steals, and Wall’s season represents just the 12th in league history in which a player averaged at least 23 points and 10 assists.
Only seven players have accomplished 23 and 10: Oscar Robertson (five times), Westbrook (twice), Magic Johnson, Tiny Archibald, Adams, Harden and Wall. When it comes to scoring and distributing, Wall has had one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. It’s just unfortunate for him that he did it while Westbrook and Harden went bananas.
But when you consider every skill asked of a point guard in this era — offense, defense, leadership, energy — Wall doesn’t have to bow to Westbrook, Steph Curry or any of his elite brethren. For what the Wizards needed, for what Brooks needed, he has been an ideal fit.
“I feel like, if I average 18 [points] and 12 [assists], that’s not good enough,” Wall said. “The game is different, and if you have the skills to attack and play downhill, you have to do more. Coach Brooks really understands that. They’re looking at so many point guards to average over 22, 25, 26 points. My job is to get everybody involved, but also to be aggressive and be a scorer at the same time. I understand everything involved so much better now.”
This season may stand up as Wall’s best statistical year. It’s hard to imagine him doing much more, especially scoring, if the Wizards can maintain a quality roster. But in terms of efficiency, impact and winning, this should be only the start of the next phase of Wall’s career.
As the playoffs begin, it’s prove-it time for this season. But the demand for excellence — from Brooks and from Wall — will last much longer.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.