WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards have won six of their last nine games since franchise point guard John Wallreturned to the lineup. In that short span of time the team has gone from being a laughingstock with the NBA's worst record to an up-tempo, defense-first unit that is beginning to draw respect around the league.
There are a number of players, most notably Bradley Beal and Nene, who deserve credit for the team's recent turnaround. However, the returning Wall has been the driving force behind the team's surge. And the rest of the league is starting to talk.
Minnesota Timberwolves point guard Luke Ridnour played against Wall for much of Washington's blowout victory. Wall had a transformative effect on Washington's offense on the way to 14 points and five assists in only 21 minutes of playing time. Asked to describe the changes in Wall's game, "He's gotten better this year at getting in (the paint) and finding people." Wall did this time and time again as he led the NBA's worst offense on a per possession basis to 114 points in the team's win over Minnesota.
This ability to make the game easier for his teammates has been shown time and time again to be far more valuable than mere points or assists. According to NBA.com/stats, Washington has scored 102.6 points per 100 possessions and posted a 54 percent true shooting percentage in the nine games since Wall returned. For the team's previous 33 games? They scored 93.1 points per 100 possessions and posted a team-wide true shooting percentage of only 48.4 percent.
Speaking after Washington's 86-73 victory over the Chicago Bulls, Wall gave credit for Washington's improved performance to his teammates. "It's not just me. Never just me. It's my team. I just wanted to come in and be a spark for my team." He would go on to add, "I think I'm just doing a great job of getting easy shots for my teammates and making the game easy. My team is doing a great job of building their confidence and playing the same way."
While Wall's humility is admirable, his teammates, no matter how hard they try, are physically incapable of some of the things Wall can do on the court. His speed, when combined with his court vision, pass-first tendencies and requisite size to see over the top of defenses, allows Wall to push the pace and get a relatively unskilled offense desperately-needed easy shots. Washington is averaging 98.8 possessions per 48 minutes with Wall on the court this season while averaging 93.6 when he sits, as per NBA.com/stats.
Chicago held Washington to 36 percent shooting in their previous match up, an 87-77 Bulls win at the United Center. Washington coach Randy Wittman gave credit for his team's improved offensive performance to the Wizards' ability to control the pace.
"I thought A.J. (Price) kept pace in the game, which is important against this team you've got to have pace. And having John and A.J., which we didn't in the first game against them. They want you to walk it up and down and play a slugfest."
Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich, who played with Wall during his rookie season, feels that Wall has improved as a playmaker and matured as a leader. Speaking after the game, he said that, while he's been focused on his current team, he's kept track of Wall's improvements as a leader, adding, "I think he's grown up. Maturity-wise, definitely."
The maturity and leadership Hinrich spoke of are excellent signs that Wall is on the right track, not only as a player but as a locker room presence. Washington as an organization doesn't have the resources and mystique of a New York or Los Angeles. The best way for the franchise to compete with these basketball juggernauts and their numerous superstars is to be more than the sum of its parts.
Intangibles in basketball are hard to measure or define, but they tend to all come back to a players' ability to make their teammates better. Wall's scoring and raw assist totals sure look nice, but his ability to take an offense that had been awful and make it exciting, coherent and effective is what will make or break him as a franchise player. So far, so good.