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.