After a humdrum season that ended at exactly .500 (41-41) and saw them miss the playoffs last year, John Wall and the Washington Wizards clinched a playoff spot early and look forward to getting further in this year’s playoffs than they have in the past three seasons.
Only three players in the NBA are averaging more than 20 points and 10 assists over the season and that very short list includes John Wall. The other two are MVP front runners, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Wall isn’t exactly in the MVP race, but ask the 7th year point guard if he think he’s just as good as the other two and his response would be simple – he’s certain he is – yet most NBA fans are yet to recognize that.
“I feel like we can go out there and compete against anybody,” Wall said when he sat down with Andrew Sharp of Sports Illustrated at the start of this season. “No game’s gonna be easy. There’s gonna be nights when they’re hot, there’s gonna be nights when we’re hot. But no point guard is ever gonna say they overwhelmed me, or they dominated me. I have too much heart for that.” he said.
It’s that chip on his shoulder that almost downed the defending champions, Cleveland Cavaliers in what many have tagged the game of the season – Wall finished with 22 points and 12 assists. It’s why he chooses to play through pain consistently even in the age of ‘rest’ days and decreased mileage. He’s always got something to prove.
“They still don’t respect me,” Wall said when asked about his reputation nationally. “But I mean, that’s something that comes with the games. All I can do is control what John Wall does. Going out there and leading my team. You’re not getting any recognition as a point guard if you ain’t winning.”
It’s hard to argue with winning as the most important criteria in basketball and this is exactly what the team in the country’s capital were lacking at the beginning of the season. After undergoing double knee surgery in the off season and with a new coach at the helm in Scott Brooks, the Wizards were expected to kick off the season strongly but after 20 games, they were a dreadful 7-13 and closer to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings than the top. It was a step in the wrong direction and the kind of opening to the season that had tongues wagging about the team.
His issues with backcourt mate, Bradley Beal were once again the topic of discussion and people questioned his ability to lead. There were even suggestion about Washington trading him and cashing in on him before they lost him for nothing in free agency as it was clearly not working. It was all premature though and John & crew have gone on to right the ship and firmly establish themselves as one of the top contenders out East who could possibly topple Lebron James and his reign of terror. The key to getting back on track wasn’t a very elaborate plan; they simply had to come out every night and want it more than their opponents epitomized none more so than their fiery leader and point guard. It’s his unbridled competitiveness and unlimited drive that has his team still on pace of 50+ wins for the first time in his basketball career, one of the goals he set for himself at the start of the season.
“Success for us is getting over 50 wins. The Finals, that’s our ultimate goal. And we gotta take the next step, make it to the Eastern Conference finals. Because you never know what could happen in those situations. You could be one injury away. I mean you don’t wish anybody gets injured, but it can happen,” he said.
John definitely knows the feeling of coming close but not quite making it over the hump all too well. His no. 1 seeded Kentucky team made up of prospective NBA stars like Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson were tripped up in the Elite Eight by a less favored West Virginia team and despite not making the Playoffs last year, the Wizards have made it to the Eastern Conference semis twice in three years. Both times they have lost the series 4-2 and Wall has had his dream of an NBA finals crushed brusquely by the top seed in the East. This year, they’re better placed and should avoid the top seed until the Conference finals. One of the top three teams in The Conference, they’re the big boys the lower seeds want to avoid rather the other way round.
Washington has played impeccably well since that blip in their start and at some point had a 17-game win streak at home. Their strong showing at home has been the bedrock of their wonderful and that home advantage will at least be available for the first round of the Playoffs. The Verizon Centre has been a fortress this season and when playing in front of their own crowd have looked as good as anybody in the league this season – only the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers have better home records. It’s at home that they’ve looked more human, just outside the top ten in road records across the entire NBA.
It all begins with John Wall though who’s averaging 0.6 less points and 0.2 less assists at home than on the road. He’s also shooting worse on the road (.456 to .447) especially from the perimeter (.389, .217) which is such a huge difference maker in today’s game. As teams get smaller and quicker and chuck more shots from the 3-point line, an off night shooting from the perimeter is more telling now than ever. His defence also takes a dip as he’s averaging less steals and blocks on the road.
His overall play over the course of the season has been solid though and he’s notching career highs in points, assists, and steals this season. His line of 23.3 points, 10.7 assists, 2.0 steals should be more than enough to net him an All-NBA selection this year, something he feels he’s been snubbed for previously. He may have played in the last 3 All-Star Games but John Wall is more concerned with that All-NBA selection that’s conspicuously missing from his resume after all his years in the league.
“I’m gonna let people know this season.” Wall said “And I don’t know,” he adds. “You know what I mean? You have career years, when you’re winning games, you start an All-Star Game, and you’re still not put on the top three All-NBA teams. That lets you know.”
It’s definitely gonna be much harder to snub him this year and with just 6 games left in the regular season, it seems like he’s done enough to get on one of the three teams. It’s about being recognized as a legitimate superstar, one of the NBA top 3-5 players at his position. He’ll have more pressing matters on his mind for the time being though. The Wizards have slipped into the 4th seed despite sharing identical records with Toronto – Toronto hold the tie breaker after winning the season series 2-1, and can still get into the 2nd seed. They’re only 2 games behind the slipping Cavaliers and if that slide continues, a strong push in the run-in could ensure they get to keep home advantage until the Conference finals. It’s an appealing proposition for a team that has looked formidable at home.
The Playoffs are the real test though and if things stay as they are, they could face a surging Milwaukee Bucks. It serves up an interesting point guard matchup with the 6’4” Wall giving up 7 inches to his counterpart, the 6’11” Giannis Antetokounmpo. Wall is not one afraid of length or size though. His supreme confidence in his skills is rightfully so. He’s one of the fastest players in the league running the floor and has eyes in the back of his head. His jumper can often let him down but his ability to finish at the rim more than makes up for what he lacks in perimeter shooting. The Bucks are not the main course however. They’re simply an entrée as the Wizards gun for the big kill in a rematch of the ‘game of the season’. They lost the season series 2-1 but one of those games was in the early parts of the season when they were yet to find their rhythm. In the two other games, they’ve won one and have pushed the Cavaliers to overtime in another.
Of course, there’s talk of Lebron James flipping the switch in the Playoffs but John and this team truly believe they can beat anybody. The Playoffs will soon begin in earnest and Wall will finally have the opportunity he sought all summer long. No matter what happens in the Playoffs though, Wall has established himself as one of the premier point guards in NBA – he’s averaged 10 assists the past 3 seasons – and a true basketball superstar. Maybe it’s time we finally gave him the respect he deserves.
Photo Credit: HoopsHype