WASHINGTON—Prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Bulls, Wizards point guard John Wall and assistant coach Sam Cassell—a former NBA floor general himself—engaged in a shooting competition that also doubled as a pregame warmup drill.
While Cassell is a retired player, he was known as one of the NBA’s masters of the mid-range, meaning that Wall keeping up with him in the casual, yet competitive duel was no small feat.
In fact, simply to see Wall exhibit such confidence as a shooter is somewhat of a big deal, as the former No. 1 overall pick quickly earned a reputation for being one of the league’s worst-shooting perimeter players, something that, despite his dynamic ability in transition and with the ball in his hands, was harped upon, partially due o the Wizards’ horrific record in his first two NBA seasons.
This campaign initially seemed like it would be more of the same, as a left-knee injury suffered in training camp sidelined him for the early portion of the season, dooming Washington to a 5-28 start.
Since his return, however, the Wizards have gone 23-18-projected over the course of the entire season, that above-.500 mark would make them an Eastern-Conference playoff team--and Wall (27 points, eight rebounds and nine assists in Tuesday's victory over the Bulls) has defined himself as a pass-first playmaker with the ability to uplift his teammates, as well as score when necessary, as evidenced by last week’s career-high 47-point outing against a strong defensive team in Memphis.
“I think just the work I put in this summer is finally paying off for me. Having an opportunity to come out and play with my teammates, I think they were doing a great job before, but we just didn’t have guys to close it or a lot of guys had to stuff they’re not used to doing, so I just tried to make the job easier for them. As a point guard, you want to get them easier shots and get into the paint, and I think I’m capable of doing that,” Wall said before the Wizards’ morning shootaround at the Verizon Center. “I’ve learned a lot, especially having veteran guys like ‘Mek [veteran center Emeka Okafor] and Trevor and Martell and Nene around. They’ve really helped make it easier for me. But I think I’ve just developed a maturity of knowing what pace is, when to use my speed, how teams are guarding me, if I need to score tonight or if I need assists. Just watching a lot of film and stuff makes it easy.”
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this writer has seen Wall play since his sophomore year of high school and chronicled his rise as one of the nation’s top prospects, in addition to being a native Washingtonian and a Bullets fan throughout childhood.
But personal allegiances aside, others are also taking notice of the third-year point guard’s improvement.
Kirk Hinrich, who briefly played with Wall during his rookie year—after being traded by the Bulls to Washington in the summer of 2010; he was later dealt to Atlanta during the 2010-11 season—has observed the youngster’s development from both up close and afar.
“He’s played at that level, I think, since he’s got here, really. More now, from what I’ve seen, he’s just really in a good place, a confident place. He knows when he’s going to get his shots, get to his spots. He’s such a good athlete and I think he’s just very comfortable with the way things are going right now,” Hinrich said. “He’s healthy now and he’s got good pieces around him, got a good foundation to be a good team in this league now.”
Indeed, Wall suffered from the perception of not being a winner—pundits, including a prominent NBA agent, have ripped him, on and off the record, as not being a franchise player—and while it remains to be seen whether he’ll evolve into an elite player, the team’s improvement under his watch is starting to make a case for him.
As a shooter, he may never be lights-out from beyond the three-point arc, but Wall is beginning to formulate a strong pull-up jumper to go along with his playmaking skills, open-court presence and because of his size and length, ability to disrupt the opposition on defense.
“With the Wizards, in their case, it’s sort of unfolded as it’s went along, but as Wall’s come back, [Bradley] Beal’s really played at a high level. I think the thing that set them back were the injuries at the start of the season,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “[Wall is] playing with a lot of confidence right now. His speed is special, but he’s shooting the ball better and his ability to break a defense down—he’s so fast with the ball, you can’t give him any seams—but he’s got their team playing well, which is the most important thing, so it’s not only his individual play, but what he’s doing for his team.”
Beal, the Wizards’ first-round pick in last year’s draft, has dramatically improved since Wall returned to the lineup; as a shooter, Beal’s game is largely predicated on his backcourt mate creating for him, as Washington envisions being the duo growing into being one of the league’s better backcourt over time.
Clearly Wall’s progress is also aided by the Wizards ridding the locker room of malcontents and adding some veterans (the aforementioned Okafor, Ariza, Webster and Nene, all known as high-character players), resulting in the team finally gaining a semblance of a home-court advantage—they had won six consecutive games at the Verizon Center heading into Tuesday—but the former Kentucky standout and North Carolina native’s embrace of the team’s leadership role is also evident
“You never see me talk bad about anybody here or put anybody down. I always put it on myself to get better. It’s great to see us going in the right direction, the organization getting the right pieces and changes,” said Wall, who noted that he believes the Wizards “can beat anybody at home,” now that they’re starting to garner the support of their home fans, who haven’t been truly engaged since the Gilbert Arenas era, prior to the gun-in-the-locker-room scandal. “Also, you give credit to the players that’s working hard and trying to get better. We know you’ve got to keep making steps and adding the pieces, but the key is having a good group of guys that trust each other and like playing with each other.”
Unsurprisingly, Wall was also asked to chime in about the status of injured Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, with whom he shares a college coach (John Calipari), an injury (left knee), draft position (both were former No. 1 overall picks), trainer (California-based Rob McClanaghan) and of course, similar speed and explosiveness.
Although both the timing and severity of his own injury was different, Wall empathized with Rose’s plight.
“He should take his time and feel like he’s fully healthy. With him coming back, he’s kind of the same way I am. You want to give 110 percent. You don’t know any other way but to play hard and with that type of injury, you have to take your time and make sure you feel comfortable with it. You don’t want to come back and try to score 30 or 40 and you don’t have that same kind of confidence, and you’re putting more pressure on yourself. I feel like he’s doing the right thing and when the time is right, he’s going to come back,” Wall said. “It took me until March to really find my rhythm of getting into game shape. It took so long because the first month, month-and-a-half, I was playing 20 minutes. You play five minutes a quarter, you can’t really find yourself, so it’s very tough, but when you start and play more minutes, you start to find yourself again. But it was very tough in the beginning.
“I think the organization and the team understand what he does for the city and the team, how hard he works and what he wants to bring back to that city, so I think what he’s already done, they understand if he doesn’t come back. I feel like if I was in his situation, I wouldn’t really, because you don’t have enough time to get into a rhythm and then you get into the playoffs, D-Rose wouldn’t be good for that team just playing 20 minutes a game. They’re already a good team and good defensively; to be even better, he’d have to play more minutes.”