John Wall had just delivered another empty double-double as the Washington Wizards suffered another double-digit loss, but a double dose of encouragement was in store for him. As Wall sullenly walked toward mid-court after the Wizards’ 106-89 loss to the Miami Heat last month, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade made a beeline for Wall to console him.
Wade draped his left arm around Wall’s shoulders and James, noticing the cameras, lifted his shirt above his mouth to hide what he had to say. Wall nodded as both perennial all-stars reminded him of the struggles they once faced in their careers; with James, a former No. 1 overall pick, being on lottery teams his first two seasons and Wade once playing on a team that won a mere 15 games.
“They said, ‘It’s tough times. You’re rebuilding. Just stay strong and always compete. Don’t ever give up and just play hard and things will get better,’ ” Wall recalled.
Through his first two seasons in the NBA, Wall has had to constantly remind himself that the situation for the franchise will improve eventually; that he won’t always be on the receiving end of so many lopsided defeats and have to rely on the advice of sage veterans to find comfort. But Wall admits that it’s hard at times to see those good days ahead with so many losses getting in the way.
On Monday, the Wizards (9-30) will embark upon a lengthy road trip through San Antonio, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta and Memphis, and the team that returns to Washington next week may not be the same as Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld explores several ways to upgrade the roster by Thursday’s trade deadline.
Multiple sources around the league contend that Wall is the Wizards’ only untouchable in trade discussions, but the 2010 No. 1 overall pick won’t offer any suggestions about what owner Ted Leonsis and Grunfeld should do to tinker with the team.
“If any moves need to be made, I leave that up to the general manager and the owner. But I like the team I have. When we play as a team and if we play great defensively, move the ball, we’re a great team,” Wall said recently. “We have a lot of talent around here, it’s just how can you put it all together? That’s what some cases be, when you play on certain teams: Can you put talent together? And if not, you might have to separate.”
Wall wasn’t speaking specifically about himself but rather the whole team, because even though the rebuilding situation has been challenging, he said he has no desire to leave Washington. “I think about being nowhere else. I love D.C.,” Wall said. “This is where my dad is from. It’s fun being here. I like my coaches, I like everything around here. It’s a tough time for us right now, but a lot of things can change. I think you can be a winner with the team that we have, it just depends on if we play a full 48 minutes, play hard. Down the road, if we get some picks, some people get moved, maybe that will work too. You got to see what works with the guys you have first.”
Little has worked for the Wizards this season, as they need to win six of their final 27 games to avoid finishing with the worst winning percentage in franchise history. Heading to the lottery for the fourth consecutive season, the Wizards have already lost 20 games by at least 10 points, including their 110-99 defeat on Saturday to Portland, in which Wall scored a game-high 25 points.
Wall has yet to match his win total in one season at Kentucky (35) and has had to deal with his first coach, Flip Saunders, being fired and questions about his ability to effectively run a team and lead it to victories. Wall has tried to shrug off most of the criticism by claiming that he will use it as “motivation.”
“He’s a good enough player to be able to handle it. He’s a good kid as well,” Wade said last month. “So, I think he’ll be fine. Long as he keep that mentality like listen, ‘This is my franchise and I got to make sure I’m better, get better and better, and everyone else around will continue to get better.’ ”
Wall expressed all-star aspirations before training camp but recently said he could recognize early on that this season would be difficult, with the lockout prohibiting players from working out with coaches and players unable to establish much chemistry during the extended offseason.
“You can kind of figure it was going to be a tough year,” Wall said. “First couple of games, first game, we let go and that gets frustrating, gets to you, when you see games that you should be in and seeing everybody is not giving 110 percent. Not just one certain guy, but a lot of guys out there and some nights it might be other guys and that hurts you. It hurts your organization that you’re not giving full effort.”
Wall didn’t do much to help the situation early on, as he had difficulty adjusting to how teams defended him and finding a way to play aggressively without being out of control. He couldn’t hide his frustration as he often pouted, grimaced and flailed his arms helplessly, which he said was the result of several factors — including the pressures of living up to the hype surrounding him, the responsibilities of being the face of the franchise and trying to lead as he still tries to discover where he’s headed.
“I knew I could play better,” Wall said. “I know a lot of people expect me to be some . . . one of the best guards in the league. I can do that. But at times, it’s just tough fighting through what I have to go through.”
Wall has had noticeable progress in his production in recent weeks, averaging 18.6 points, 8.2 assists and 5.1 rebounds in his last 26 games, and Coach Randy Wittman recently praised his second-year point guard for gaining such a grasp of the new up-tempo offense that he doesn’t require assistance from the sideline to call plays.
Despite his growth, the Wizards still have the league’s second-worst record, signaling the need for more talent and development on a mostly unseasoned roster — and for Wall to elevate the players around him.
“I think it’s tough on anybody that’s in this position, especially somebody like me that came from a winning program, a winning mind-set,” Wall said. “But just listening to the advice I get from guys, I just take those things on and try to get better as a player. That’s all I can do is try my best to lead my team and put us in situations to win games. If I fall short, I put the pressure on myself.”