With four minutes and 10 seconds to go in the fourth quarter of a thriller against the reigning NBA champions, John Wall uses the screen distraction from teammate Bradley Beal to blow past his defender Kyrie Irving, only to be greeted at the rim by two more defenders, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love.
Everyone senses the play is done. Not John Wall. He splits the two defenders with a slick euro-step, gets them both in the air, and lobs a pretty looking layup off the glass between them, making it seem as though it were part of the plan. The play makes John Wall look like a star. The kind of star that ought to lead his team to the playoffs every year. The kind of star that ought to be playing point guard in the NBA Finals. The kind of star that ought to be the best player on a Championship team.
John Wall ought to be that star. He is not. Yet.
Over the past four seasons, the Washington Wizards have settled into a routine of mediocrity. Keep one of the NBA’s three best backcourts (Beal and Wall) intact, and barely make or miss the playoffs. In NBA speak, this is called “no man’s land”, i.e, not good enough to compete for a championship, and not terrible enough to land a top draft pick.
No man’s land
Coming into the 2016-‘17 season, then, the Wizards were hoping to dramatically alter that routine by snaring superstar free agent Kevin Durant who grew up in Maryland, a state that shares a border with Washington. The preparations began the previous season, when they did not extend Beal’s deal, did not add any talent or contracts of significance to their roster, and even signed on former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Scott Brooks as their Head Coach, believing that they had a real shot at landing Durant.
Unfortunately for the Wizards, Durant did not even give them a meeting, let alone consider coming back home, putting a huge dent in not only the team’s Championship hopes, but also the probability at landing a superstar in the future. Sensing a semblance of doom to the season if they did not take immediate action, they hastily signed Beal to a monstrous deal for five years at $130 million (approx), and fortified their depth at centre by signing Ian Mahinmi for 4 years at $64 million (approx).
In all this commotion, everyone, including yours truly, wondered if this was fair to John Wall, the Wizards’ only star.
That the Wizards are Wall’s team is beyond any doubt. He has been the team’s most consistent player in the last six seasons, steadily getting better every season. In fact, Wall is the only Wizards player still on the roster from his rookie season 2010-‘11, when he caught the tail end of the tumultuous Gilbert Arenas era. Two of his running mates this season, Marcin Gortat and Otto Porter Jr, have been with him for just three seasons, with Kelly Oubre Jr and Morris joining the roster just last season. Even Beal, one of the NBA’s top five shooting guards when healthy, has struggled to stay on the floor, playing just over 294 out of a possible 410 games in his five seasons with the Wizards.
Washington’s one true wizard: John Wall
With all the instability on the organisational front and on the floor, was it fair to blame Wall for the Wizards’ mediocrity? Irrespective of how easy the East is, it was unfair to burden Wall with the expectations of carrying a team that cannot hold on to talent, whose second best player sits out 30% of the season with injuries, or an organization that does not surround it’s star with the right talent to compete.
Things are looking up since last season. Beal is having his healthiest season (playing in 49 out of 53 games) since 2013-‘14 and showing signs of reaching his potential of becoming the best shooting guard in the NBA. Gortat is a still a pick and roll threat, despite not having added range to his shot over the summer. Add to that the development of Porter (quietly the NBA’s number best three-point shooter at 46%) and Oubre into legit threats on both sides of the ball (offensively & defensively), and Wizards’ fans can be assured that, subject to this core staying healthy and together they have a legitimate chance at going deep into the Playoffs.
Wall has had a ton of reasons to complain. He has not this far. It is not his style. However, with this core in place, he has no more reasons. More importantly, he recognises the moment. Stepping up to the challenge he is dishing out the ball at a career high 10.5 assists per game, second only to James Harden, while also stepping up his commitment on defence to steal the ball 2.2 times per game, second to league leading Chris Paul. He is also averaging a career highs in 23.0 PPG while shooting a solid 45.4% from the field.
Everything seems to be clicking at the time of this article. Washington are the second best team in 2017 with a 16-5 record (two losses more than the Golden State Warriors who also have 16 wins). They are in the top-10 in nearly every offensive and defensive category, and have quietly climbed into the third spot in the Eastern Conference.
The ball is now in John Wall’s court. Can he disrupt the NBA’s pecking order?
Best of the week:
Performance of the Week: Nikola Jokic, 40 pts, 9 rebs, 5 asts
Jokic’s numbers in 2017: 22.8 ppg / 10.8 rpg / 5.3 apg with shooting splits of 60/40/88. There is not a single centre in the league even close to that bouquet shooting percentages. Watching Jokic play makes it hard to believe he is a rookie. His vision and ability to pass the ball while shooting it with ludicrous efficiency remind us of the great Arvydas Sabonis. Are you on the Nikola Jokic bandwagon yet? If not, what is your excuse?
Game of the Week: Cleveland Cavaliers vs Washington Wizards (140-135 OT)
It is too early to call it a rivalry, but it has the potential to become one. If this game is a sign of things to come in the Playoffs, then my vote goes to a Cleveland-Washington second round matchup. The game was legitimately nuts, and it would be difficult to find a better use of three hours if you decided to watch the replay. Not only did it feature one of the best matchups in the NBA in Irving vs Wall, but also what is arguably the greatest regular season shot in NBA history. I, for one, cannot wait for April.
Player of the Week: Russell Westbrook, 32.7 ppg / 11.3 rpg / 9.3 apg
When in doubt, pick Westbrook. That was the case this week as most standout performers’ teams wither had losing records or wins came against a couple of subpar teams. Westbrook’s numbers, gaudy as they are, included a triple double against reigning NBA Champions, Cleveland Cavaliers. This was extra special as the Cavaliers had previously decided to rest their Big Three (LeBron, Love and Irving), but decided to play them anyway. Nothing changed for Westbrook as he ploughed his way to Oklahoma City Thunder’s 31st win.
Team of the Week: Miami Heat, 4-0
This was a week of teams with winning records playing against mediocre or non playoff-bound opponents. Cleveland (3-1) only faced stiff competition in the aforementioned OT win over the Wizards, Memphis (3-1) only beat San Antonio and both the Wizards and Jazz had wins over par or sub-par teams.
Miami too, did not face stiff competition this week, but due credit must be given to their 13-game win streak which now puts them just one game behind the Detroit Pistons for the eighth spot in the East. They still have three games against Cleveland, two games against Washington and two against Toronto left. Their fight will go down to the last day of the regular season, but if they can take care of business with the weaker teams, they should find themselves pleasantly surprised with a playoff spot come April.