WASHINGTON – John Wall didn’t know what he didn’t need until he didn’t get it. The Washington Wizards never hid their intentions to use their available salary-cap space last summer to acquire a marquee free agent (preferably a slender, 7-foot, former MVP swingman who grew up a subway train ride from the arena). Wall was among those within the organization who wasn’t under any restrictions to publicly lobby for Kevin Durant to make some kind of LeBron James-type homecoming to rescue a wobbly franchise.
Despite the Wizards’ not-so-subtle hirings and personnel decisions, and Wall’s stated dreams of a new Big Three in Washington, Durant didn’t reciprocate that interest. He refused to even grant them a meeting. The move worked out well for Durant, putting him on a team favored to capture the NBA title. But the Wizards’ massive free-agent whiff – which also included Al Horford’s close-call decision to join the Boston Celtics – may have also been a blessing in disguise for Wall.
With no “super vet” – as Wall’s backcourt mate, Bradley Beal, referred to the players at the top of the Wizards’ free-agent wish list – around to lean on, Wall had to assume more personal responsibility for the direction of the franchise.
“It put more pressure on me to be the main guy, to be the guy. I think it made it a role of, ‘OK, you’re the franchise guy,'” Wall told The Vertical. “I went back this year with a mind-set of, ‘This is definitely my team. We have to get it going.’ If I don’t lead these guys, on the court, in practice, show leadership off the court, talking to guys, talking in the locker room, we’re never going to get to where we want to go, never going to get to the promised land. We have an opportunity to do something special.”
While Boston is the No. 1 seed and Cleveland remains the favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, the Wizards (49-33) have concluded their greatest regular season in a generation, complete with a division title and home-court advantage in the first round for the first time since 1979. Wall and Beal are temporarily painted on the wall of the local landmark eatery, Ben’s Chili Bowl. Wizards fans are adjusting to the unusual position of rooting for a team expected to win, instead of one that might win with some favorable bounces. And Wall’s confidence is higher than his vertical when it comes to where his team can – and should – go this season.
“I’ve got to get past the second round,” Wall told The Vertical. “I feel like I already should’ve been in the Eastern Conference finals. Not saying it’s easy, and it’s not going to be easy. Cleveland is still the team to beat, got the best player in the world, LeBron, can turn it on any minute and dominate. But for us to get that type of respect and knowing we went to war with those guys, in the past, we didn’t have it. Everybody was like, Cleveland is that favored team, Miami Heat were that favored team, you get there, just be happy because it’s going to be tough to get by them. I think this year, all teams in the East feel they can really give Cleveland that chance to knock them off their throne.”
Cleveland’s bizarre slide to the second seed in the East means the Wizards wouldn’t meet the defending champion until the conference finals. They’d have to first get past the Atlanta Hawks and possibly the Celtics. Wall has some postseason history with Atlanta, breaking a hand in the second round two seasons ago and being denied a chance to upset the then-60-win Hawks and face the Cavaliers. (“We could’ve had it,” Wall said of those Hawks. “It was like, ‘They can’t beat us.’ “) And Washington developed a mutual disdain for Boston over the years that led to some fingers-to-the-face exchanges and Wizards players adorning funeral attire for a Celtics game this season.
Before the impetus to lead was placed upon him, Wall had been reluctant, or passive, in that regard. He took his cues from Trevor Ariza, Al Harrington and especially Paul Pierce, channeling most of his energy toward elevating his performance on the court. In Pierce’s lone season in Washington in 2014-15, the future Hall of Famer was also a Bundini Brown-level hype man, constantly telling Wall that he was the best player on the hardwood. After Pierce left for his hometown Los Angeles Clippers, Wall no longer had that encouraging, prodding voice to push him, and the Wizards sputtered through a disappointing campaign.
In response to that lottery season, the Wizards hired coach Scott Brooks, who brought an impressive résumé from Oklahoma City and told Wall upon their first encounter that the point guard had the potential to be a top-five player every year. Whether or not the statement was accurate, the purpose was to alter his mentality, to let a Persian cat see a lion in its reflection. And it worked. Wall won’t make first-team All-NBA – not with the seasons James Harden and Russell Westbrook put together – but he never entered a game believing he didn’t belong with the best.
“That’s how I’ve been thinking this season,” Wall told The Vertical. “And that’s why I think I’ve been playing a lot better and not just going at guys, but having that mindset when I step on the court. If I’m going against a LeBron or Kevin Durant, I might not be the best player overall than them, but in my mind, I’m the best player on that court. For me to know that I can take my game to another level and a lot of my peers appreciating what I’m doing this season, saying it’s a heck of a season you’re having, all I can do is use that as motivation because it’s a lot of guys I looked up to.”
As one of the game’s best table-setters, Wall is having the kind of season that all but a few would envy. Wall is the first player in NBA history to record at least 1,800 points, 800 assists, 150 steals, and 50 blocks in a season and joined Westbrook and Harden as the only players in the league to average at least 20 points and 10 assists. He has flaunted that success with flair by splitting double-teams with that whirling, around-the-waist dribble, pirouetting before firing assists and employing old, And1 mixtape moves on unsuspecting defenders.
Coming off two offseason knee surgeries, Wall became the first player in franchise history to make four consecutive All-Star appearances and discovered, as Brooks also told him, that there is another level to where he could take his game. Along the way, Wall has gained some of the recognition that he’s long sought. “To be honest, I feel I get more talked about now because we’re winning. First time we’ll have a top-four seed. First time we’ll have home-court advantage,” Wall told The Vertical. “I appreciate it, but without my teammates, without those guys playing well and making my job a lot easier, for me to knock down shots, to open up the lane for me to penetrate, my coaching staff putting me in situations to excel and pushing me every day. When you’re not winning, you don’t get those accolades. Whenever I talk about them, I never put myself first, like All-Star [honors] or things like that, if my team’s not winning. I can average 19, 20 points and 10 assists every year, but if you don’t have a winning record, you shouldn’t get noticed. That’s what I’ve said in the past.”
Of course, having Durant would’ve better positioned Wall and the Wizards for a championship. But this season has also helped Wall and Beal expand their games and understand their limitations without looking up in the pecking order. Wall became a fringe MVP candidate. Beal became a borderline All-Star. And, in leading the Wizards to the best turnaround in NBA history after a 2-8 start, Wall has changed some perceptions and silenced many of his doubters, leaving behind his most ardent nitpickers.
“I still get it sometimes when people say, ‘He may be a top-seven point guard.’ I hear that sometimes, too,” Wall told The Vertical with a laugh. “That’s more motivation. Or they say, ‘He shouldn’t make All-NBA this year, or All-NBA defensive team.’ OK, if I don’t, all I can do is use it as more motivation because I feel like I could’ve made it before and didn’t get the nod. … At the end of the day, everybody has their own opinion about you. They can write whatever they want. I’m not the person to bash anybody or hold any grudges because you can say what you want, but just know, I’m going to always use what you say as motivation and have no disrespect towards you.”
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