John Wall begins to fulfill promise for Wizards
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The fellowship of exciting young point guards was established by Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Tony Parker, grew with Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, expanded to include Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, made room for Ricky Rubio, Ty Lawson and Jrue Holiday, and even granted temporary access to Brandon Jennings, Mike Conley and Jeremy Lin. John Wall never seemed to be part of the club.
The modern NBA is paradise for a point guard, as long as he contributes quickly. Big men are afforded time to develop. Ball handlers are expected to arrive fully formed. Paul, Rose and Irving were Rookies of the Year. Parker and Rondo won championships in their second seasons. Lin and Rubio became international phenomena. Lillard made a game-winning shot less than seven weeks into his career. Jennings posted a 55-point game less than three weeks into his. Wall was no slouch -- the 16 points and eight assists he averaged in his first two seasons are more than Williams and Parker at the same stage -- but standards for floor generals have grown.
Washington played Oklahoma City on Wednesday night, a matchup between two of the league's fastest point guards, one who was fortunate and one who was forgotten. The Thunder drafted Westbrook fourth in 2008 and paired him with Kevin Durant; the Wizards took Wall first in 2010 and partnered him with Andray Blatche, Nick Young and JaVale McGee. Westbrook entered the equivalent of basketball grad school. Wall went to the circus. As is often the case, the higher draft slot was not necessarily the better one. It is a marvel that Wall dished out eight assists per game, given the motley crew on the other end of his passes.
In the NBA, point guards are like quarterbacks, and they, too, can receive a disproportionate amount of credit and blame. The Wizards went 43-96 the past two seasons, and Wall was lumped together with his talented but aimless teammates. In last year's Rising Stars Challenge at the All-Star Game, Wall was picked 12th among first- and second-year players, behind MarShon Brooks and Kemba Walker. This year, ESPN didn't even list him in its top 25 players under 25. Former Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said, "I don't think John Wall's good enough to be the guy that you build around." Longtime agent David Falk said, "He doesn't have a feel for the game." Wall became an easy target, the rare point who didn't immediately meet the hype. Even in his own town, he was overshadowed by fresh-faced stars like Robert Griffin III, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
That has started to change.
"I see you @John_Wall," Griffin III tweeted Monday night, and he might as well have been speaking for the entire sports world, which hasn't paid Wall much thought since he left Kentucky. Wall had just scored 47 points to beat the defensive-minded Grizzlies. Three days earlier, he had racked up 16 assists in a win over the Lakers, and made or assisted on eight of the Wizards' 10 fourth-quarter field goals. With Wall, the Wizards are a respectable 21-17. Without him, they are a woeful 5-28. Wall's emergence is both a testament to the club's front office, which has finally surrounded him with some thoughtful veterans, and his own initiative.
"My first summer I was just trying to prepare for the NBA," Wall said. "My second summer was the lockout and I didn't know when it would end. This summer, I knew what it would take to get better. I knew I needed to work on my jump shot."
Wall moved to Los Angeles and trained at St. Monica High School with Rob McClanaghan, who has also tutored Rose and Westbrook. Two summers ago, McClanaghan refined Rose's jumper, and he won the MVP award. Wall was eager to display what he learned from McClanaghan, but an injured left knee sidelined him for the first 33 games.
Wall is shooting 44.5 percent, more than two points higher than last year, and 30 percent (9-for-30) from behind the arc. That may not sound like much until you consider he made just 3-of-42 three-pointers last season. Wall is never going to be a marksman, but like Rose and Westbrook, he needs to shoot accurately enough that defenders can't go under the screen on pick-and-rolls. When defenders go over on Wall, he is able to show off his speed, the reason scouts were so drawn to him in the first place.
"He can change the game by his energy and ability to get to the paint, get to the basket," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
Two hours before tip-off Wednesday, Wall was alone on the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena with Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, launching threes and talking junk. "I got range!" he shouted with a smile. Then he went out and shot 3-of-18 in the game, finishing with 18 points and 12 assists in a 103-80 loss.
If nothing else, Wall has regained the strut that he lost in his first two professional seasons. On Saturday night at Golden State, Wall reportedly told Warriors guard Klay Thompson, "Go to the basket. I'll knock you're a-- out." Officials did Wall a favor by ejecting him. Otherwise, he might have done something to earn a suspension for the Memphis game, which will be remembered as his breakthrough.
Wall is eligible for a contract extension this summer, and although he is lobbying for a maximum deal, the Wizards probably need to see more than one stellar month. It's too soon to call Wall a max player, but about time he be allowed into the fellowship of promising point guards.