Sometimes I think the worst thing to happen to John Wall was to be a No. 1 pick. Because the moment that happens in instant-referendum world you get compared before you get time to compete. That No. 1 is quickly pitted against this No. 1, and immediately one point guard plucked first in the NBA draft is newly crowned the second coming of Isiah Thomas while the other has Stephon Marbury-signing-in-China written all over him.
Being sandwiched between Derrick Rose in 2008 and Kyrie Irving in 2011, Wall couldn’t just grow into a floor leader and develop his game; he had to fly downcourt in a blur, turn around a moribund franchise faster than other No. 1 picks at the point.
When that didn’t happen in a heartbeat, the reviews leveled last year at a then-21-year-old were harsh:
The Wizards picked a bad year to have the No. 1 pick. . . . He’s only got one speed, and it’s five times too fast for his team. . . . Can’t shoot, can’t execute in the final minutes, can’t believe we thought he might be a 10-time all-star.
There was a reason he walked around Verizon Center grimacing for much of the past year. It wasn’t just the stress injury in his left patella that made him miss the season’s first 33 games. Wall admits the losing and the outsize expectations got to him.
“I wasn’t having fun even a little bit,” he said, standing in front of his cubicle in the Wizards’ nearly empty locker room after another win this past week.
“I never really got injured until I got here. I got injured a couple times and you’re not playing and you want to get back to playing. It’s frustrating because I felt like the whole team didn’t really want to win when I first got here. It was very tough at a young age. But you just got to get better and keep developing. Now I feel like this team — everybody wants to win. And they’re having fun.”
A prominent NBA agent, whom I’ll save from embarrassment here, told me a year ago the Wizards needed to unload Wall before the rest of the league found out he didn’t have trade value.
Sixteen games after Wall’s return the furthest thing from Ernie Grunfeld’s mind is moving his game-changing point guard. He is eligible to sign a contract extension this offseason and already it’s become apparent how indispensable he is to the Wizards’ future.
Without him this season, Washington was 5-28. With Wall, the Wizards are 9-7, playing a passionate, stop-and-pop game, knocking off projected postseason teams like the Clippers, Knicks and Nets just in the past week at home, where they’ve lost but one game since Wall’s return. They move, shoot and defend better when he is on the court. They care more. That’s not a subjective take; you can actually see it.
Only Boston has done what the Wizards have: beat the Thunder, Heat, Clippers and Knicks. It’s a feather-in-the-cap stat, but more telling are some of the losses. Two weeks ago the Wizards were at the end of a five-game Western swing in Utah, where they annually get buried.
They had no legs and less desire for 30-plus minutes, falling behind by 21 points before the end of the third quarter in one of the toughest NBA arenas for visitors to play in. About to turn the channel, I watched as Wall re-entered the game. And he became flammable, finding his teammates on the break, weaving his sinewy, 6-foot-4 frame through mounds of muscle inside for impossible layups. Suddenly, it was a game.
The Wizards eventually lost by four, but the pack-it-in mentality of too many NBA teams during a blowout in the last game of a long trip was gone. The same goes for the expectations of a No. 1 pick coming to a losing franchise.
“I’m still a young player just developing,” Wall said. “But as long as my teammates are getting wins, I’m pretty excited.”
When you hear “I’m still a young player just developing,” that translates to Wall adjusting to his reality instead of having outsiders distort it for him.
On Wednesday night while going through, around and over the Knicks, he looked completely comfortable and played within himself, which might have been difficult considering two of the greatest point guards ever — an injured Jason Kidd on the Knicks’ bench and Magic Johnson, in town for a speaking engagement — were watching. Oh, and his college coach, John Calipari, who generously sends the NBA point guards now like the New York public-school system used to.
“Every guy, if they work, they’ll come a point where that light goes on,” Calipari said after the Knicks game. “Some of them it happens quicker some of them it happens a little later. Look at [the Clippers’] Eric Bledsoe. To play with veterans who can teach him and let him come at his pace. . . . Now all of sudden they’re saying Eric Bledsoe is the greatest thing.”
Wall didn’t have the luxury of learning the position over time. “John had a lot coming at him,” Calipari said. “To come to this franchise, to say, ‘We need you to carry it on your back,’ and the reason he wasn’t ready is because he was an average shooter, well, now it starts coming at you and you’re taking all the heat. You’re the No. 1 pick. You’re with a franchise building a step at a time. And people wanted it to be faster. He wanted it to be faster and he lost joy in the game.
“Today he had joy. You gotta play with joy and you control your joy. You control it. And you can’t let another player or coach, me, anybody else. You control it.”
Mostly, though, he looks as content playing here as the Wizards are to have him. The only good thing about instant referendums on careers is they become outdated just as quickly.
He still needs a more reliable jump shot. But people are changing their minds again on Wall’s ability to be an elite NBA point guard when they probably should have just waited and let him grow into the position.
“He comes with me, he’s on a meteor and he goes here and he’s the No. 1 pick,” Calipari said of Wall’s single season at Kentucky. “Don’t you think he needed to get dinged up a little bit? It’s a humbling experience.
“Now, you’re hardened. You’re steel now. Now, okay, build on that. Now you got a base, you’re not sand anymore where the first thing that comes at you you’re not ready for, you cave. This kid will be fine.”
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.