The Washington Wizards have gone 11-6 in the 17 games since John Wall has been sidelined with a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery in late January. Say what you want about what that says about Wall’s role with the team, there is plenty everyone can learn from what the team has been able to do well in his absence.
To understand what can be done better, it’s important to reflect on how the team has evolved since his arrival. The Wizards’ roster has been constructed around Wall for his entire career, and that’s worked out for Washington as the league has changed to better suit his strengths as Matt Moore recently noted:
Wall is a model that the league has adjusted to. Give him a screener and shooters around him, and he’ll go to work. That formula is tested, tried, and true in the NBA.
All of Washington’s moves, from acquiring Nene and Marcin Gortat, to drafting Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, and signing Martell Webster and Jodie Meeks, have been with the idea of surrounding him with screeners and shooters.
Wall has grown accustomed to being the focal point of the team and having the team depend on his ability to create. That’s not to say he selfishly prefers things to be that way, but it’s been the norm for the majority of his time in Washington.
The early years of his career were defined by poor talent. In the final game of his rookie season, he started alongside Andray Blatche (your captain), JaVale McGee, Maurice Evans, and Jordan Crawford. The bench consisted of household names like Othyus Jeffers, Mustafa Shakur, and Yi Jianlian.
Wall missed the first 33 games of his third season and the Wizards started 5-28. After working his way into shape and getting his game legs under him, he broke out on the scene, averaging 23 points per game with a .548 true shooting percentage. He carried the team, especially as Bradley Beal and Nene battled through their own injuries, posting a 30.4 usage percentage and guiding the team to a 24-25 record when he was on the floor.
However, as Wall has evolved so have the teammates around him. The Wizards are more than just a collection of standstill shooters and traditional big men. Last season we saw how the starting unit was able to mesh and form a five-man unit that could go toe-to-toe with anyone in the NBA. Now, they’ve grown to the point where they can still perform at a high level without him.
Beal has developed into an off-the-dribble threat, displaying some deadly one-on-one moves which were nowhere to be found early in his career. Tomas Satoransky has been a revelation. His shooting, ability to push the pace, and play mistake-free basketball has allowed a team which is undermanned to maximize their opportunities. Kelly Oubre has blossomed into the team’s X-Factor. In the 26 games in which he has made at least half of his threes, the team is 18-8.
Lastly, there’s Otto Porter. I’ve been critical of Porter’s tendency to be too deferential, but he’s been a difference-maker in Wall’s absence. He is averaging 19.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game. He has a blistering .601 true shooting percentage in 33 minutes per game during this stretch. He’s initiating his own offense while continuing to score at an efficient rate. You can certainly make the argument he’s playing like the third star Wall has been advocating for in recent years.
Even though the team is playing better, more fluid basketball, there are still flaws only Wall can address. Kevin Durant made a strong point about what Wall brings to the table prior to the Warriors’ game against Washington last week:
“First off, you need John Wall if you’re going to get where you want to get to. But in the regular season it’s a different dynamic. In the playoffs, you’re going to need your superstars. But in the regular season, game to game, it’s harder for teams to scout you.”
Then, he and the Warriors went out and proved that point in their 109-101 victory. Even though it wasn’t a playoff game, the Warriors executed a game plan very similar to what a team would try in April against a Wall-less squad. They smothered Beal, keeping him scoreless well into the third quarter and limited their pass-happy offense to just 25 assists. When the Wizards needed someone to create something out of nothing or beat pressure, Wall wasn’t there to bail the team out and it cost them in the end.
The Wizards are no longer a one or two-man team; they have talent throughout the roster. It’s going to be imperative for the coaching staff and players to get Wall back up to speed while maintaining the good habits we’ve seen the past 17 games.
The good news is the team has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt there’s no need to for Wall to rush back and risk further injury by playing before his body is ready. The team doesn’t need Wall trying to carry the team at 80 percent just to stay competitive. Now, they have the luxury of being able to bring him back on a proper schedule so he can be at his best when he returns.
The Wizards need stars in order to go toe-to-toe with the top contenders in the league. When a star joins a talented team in free agency, people don’t question the fit, and they shouldn’t here with John Wall returning to the Wizards. Adding him narrows the gap between Washington and the rest of the league’s elite; it doesn’t widen it.