Towel draped over his head and shoulders, staring at the ground as he mouthed lyrics to the music blaring from his headphones, John Wall appeared flustered, angry and distant as he sat in the visiting locker room at Bradley Center.
Wall had his worst game of the season — and arguably one of the worst of his young career — as the Washington Wizards lost to the Milwaukee Bucks, 102-81, on Friday and dropped to 0-3. The statistics told one side of the story — six points on 1-of-9 shooting, with seven assists and four turnovers — and Wall’s body language told another, as he was unusually disengaged and disconnected, even as his teammates attempted a fourth-quarter rally to cut a 26-point deficit down to single digits.
Afterward, Coach Flip Saunders expressed disappointment in the best player on his roster for failing to fight through a challenging night.
“No matter how bad you’re playing, you don’t want someone to look at you and say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ” Saunders said. “The only thing you can be consistent about is how hard you play, and with passion and energy. John has a tendency to get down on himself when he’s not making plays. We got down big. He got down. We’ve got to work as a team. He’s got to work on it too. As a leader, everyone is looking for him.”
Wall often had trouble containing his emotions through adversity as a rookie, but his frustration with a ragged start to this season was encapsulated by a sequence with about five minutes left in the fourth quarter against the Bucks.
Milwaukee called a timeout after reserve Beno Udrih made a layup and Wall glared at the hardwood, ignoring and leaving Ronny Turiaf, Hamady Ndiaye, trainer Koichi Sato, JaVale McGee and Kevin Seraphin stunned as they attempted to give him high-fives.
Wall was hoping that this would be a breakout season for him, but he has gotten off to a thorny start, struggling to find a way to balance being a facilitator and a scorer and not doing particularly well at either one. He’s averaging just 13 points, six assists and 4.7 turnovers but also is shooting just 27 percent from the field.
“I’m not really worried about myself getting going, I’m just trying to run the team as much as everybody wants me to do. That’s all I’m trying to do,” Wall said. “Everybody trying to say I’m trying to look for scoring, but I’m just trying to take open shots that I got. I know teams know what I want to do, they making it tough for me. I just got to make shots and trust that my teammates will make shots when they get open and when I find them.”
The Wizards haven’t been able to support that trust, as they rank 29th in the league in field goal shooting (38.6 percent), making it hard for a player to get assists. Andray Blatche is admittedly “in a funk,” averaging just eight points on 11-of-41 shooting (26.8 percent) this season. In the past two games, Washington’s starting shooting guards — Jordan Crawford in Atlanta and Nick Young in Milwaukee — shot a combined 1 for 16.
Wall begged Saunders to take out one of the starters as the Wizards got off to a slow start in Atlanta, then grew tired of playing setup man and scored eight consecutive points for the team. He has been a team captain since his first NBA practice and the Wizards respond to his demeanor, whether good or bad.
But he is already growing impatient with the losses, especially with the team blowing a 21-point lead in an opening loss to New Jersey, getting routed in a wire-to-wire loss in Atlanta and failing to file the correct roster in another blowout loss in Milwaukee. In their past 127 minutes, the Wizards have been outscored by 66 points, and the schedule doesn’t get any lighter with a home-and-home, back-to-back set against Boston starting on Sunday at 6 p.m. at Verizon Center, followed by Orlando on the road and New York at home.
“It’s getting tough,” Wall said. “We’ve just got to find a way to win. You don’t want to start the season 0-10 or 0-6 or nothing like that, so you got to find a way to win one of these games.”
Saunders and assistant Randy Wittman spoke to the players after the loss in Milwaukee and veterans Maurice Evans and Rashard Lewis continued the conversation in a mini-players-only meeting afterward.
“We got on each other,” Young said. “You don’t want to get used to losing, but we’ve got to stick together. You can’t have somebody mad every night. That don’t help the team. We’ve got to come together as a family. This is really all we’ve got in here.”
Saunders said the team has to figure out something soon. “We don’t have a lot of time. We’re not going to say, ‘We’re going to get this figured out in practice.’ We can’t,” Saunders said. “Bottom line is, we’ve got to put people on the floor that are going to compete and play hard. If that happens to be that some of our most talented guys, they’re not the ones to do it, then they are not going to be able to play.”