John Wall has always been a target of criticism, it’s part of the price that comes with being a top overall pick, but the latest round he endured earlier this season while he was injured was different. He was being treated as if he were the sole reason behind the Wizards’ disappointing start. It was his fault that Otto Porter wasn’t getting enough shots, it was his fault that Bradley Beal didn’t receive more late game opportunities, it was his fault that Marcin Gortat was getting the ball less, and it was his fault that the Wizards’ defense was struggling.
What we came to learn was that John Wall had been injured since November 7th and played most of the season at less than full strength before finally opting to undergo a knee procedure. At a time when the conversation should have been centered on why he didn’t get the procedure done earlier or admiring what he was doing to help his team through pain, everyone was focused on “team basketball”, whether or not he was a ball stopper, and speculation his teammates didn’t like to play with him. Just a few short months after it looked like Wall had finally silenced all his doubters, critics were roasting him once again.
This is not to say he was blameless. He wasn’t playing up to the standards he set for himself last as he established himself as an All-NBA caliber player last season. It made it easy for people to question his place on the team when Washington went on a run without him, winning 10 of their first 13 and posting a +5.2 net rating.
However, something predictable has happened recently: The Wizards have fallen back to earth. Over their past 14 games they are 5-9 with a -2.3 net rating. Their turnover rate is up, their shooting percentages are down, and their pace has slowed to a crawl. Washington has played at the slowest pace in the league since the All-Star break. They’ve had some bad losses along the way, including a defeat at the hands of the lowly New York Knicks and Thursday night’s loss to the Detroit Pistons, a sub-.500 team who themselves were without a star, Blake Griffin.
The Wizards are struggling right at the time they need to be hitting their stride. Whatever momentum they established when Wall first went down has vanished. Forget talk about the Eastern Conference Finals, just getting out of the first round is shaping up to be a serious challenge.
Washington’s struggles put an even bigger spotlight on Wall as he prepares to make his return, possibly as soon as Saturday’s game against the Hornets. After months of people questioning his talent, his ability to lead, and how much he helps teams win, the Wizards now need Wall to save their season.
Is it fair to ask that much so quickly? No, but he’s grown accustomed to having to do more than he should during his time in Washington. Ever since he’s arrived he’s been tasked with creating offense for himself, creating shots for others, and creating pressure on the defensive end to force turnovers and create more offense. That’s been the norm for him in the NBA, even though he’s being tasked with three very demanding responsibilities.
Thankfully, the players around him are better now, and he needs to adapt accordingly to take advantage of it. He has to be better about putting pressure on the defense when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. He also has to be more careful with the basketball and trust his teammates who have proven over these 27 games that they are capable of handling a larger burden.
His teammates need to adapt as well. Otto Porter, Tomas Satoransky, and Bradley Beal now have a taste of what Wall has dealt with for the last seven seasons. The pressure to create offense and bail out possessions has gone up as opposing teams have learned how to slow each of them down.
Beal has struggled to close games as teams have thrown more attention his way in Wall’s absence. After averaging over 14 shots per game during the Wizards’ first 14 games after Wall’s surgery, Porter is only averaging 10.6 shots per game in the last 13. And while Satoransky has filled in admirably and kept his individual turnover rate down, the team’s turnover rate has gone up as everyone else has been forced to create more and thus take more risks.
All in all, the Wizards are 15-12 over the 27 games since Wall underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in late January. It’s a respectable mark for any team missing their leading player in the midst of the most difficult stretch of their schedule. We got a good look at what the Wizards can do when they’re asked to take on larger roles, but we’ve also seen the deficiencies that can only be filled with a star like Wall.
In this analytical era where mistake-free, efficient basketball is at a premium, Wall’s flaws are hard to ignore. He slows things down too much late in games, he settles for mid-range jumpers too often, and he still makes too many careless passes. But for every wart, there are numerous moments of brilliance only a handful of players are capable of making on a nightly basis. His speed allows him to collapse entire defenses and make life easier for everyone else in a Wizards uniform.
With the playoffs just around the corner, Wall has to find that special ability and find it fast. Once again, the Wizards have put him in a difficult position, but he’s never shied away from something because it’s hard. It’s not how he’s built; he’s D.C.’s Wall.