Posted Apr 17 2012 11:59AM
CHICAGO -- Coming back from 11 points down. In the fourth quarter. On the road. Against the team with the best record in basketball. Sealing the deal with clutch free throws and stingy defense.
More nights like this, please, John Wall seemed to be saying, his eyes bright, his expression and tone light after the Washington Wizards' victory over the Chicago Bulls on Monday night at United Center.
And fewer nights like ... well, pretty much all the others.
Good as it was, beating Chicago the way the Wizards did (so what if Derrick Rose and Luol Deng missed with injuries?) was something to savor because it was so rare. Washington improved to just 7-24 on the road and 15-46 overall, and when you add that to his rookie season, Wall's team has lost 105 times in 143 tries in his brief time in the NBA.
If not for the Charlotte Bobcats, the Wizards would be the team bumping along the bottom of the NBA. Last season, Washington ranked 28th offensively and 24th defensively; this time, it is 29th and 25th. And while Team Knucklehead finally got much-needed trades of JaVale McGee and Nick Young to help the club's maturity quotient, that almost has been too easy of an out in explaining Wall's lack of development as a second-year player.
"You want to have success early in your NBA career but you just take your time," Wall said. "You go through the bumps and the bruises and know that, some day down the road, it's going to come, something special to you. And you hope you make the playoffs year after year after year, All-Star, those are my goals."
If a No. 1 Draft pick's first responsibility -- he was the first No. 1 in University of Kentucky's vaunted history, after just one collegiate season -- is to rise above the mess into which he gets drafted, his second is to elevate the team around him. Wall still is struggling to handle the former, with too many around him cutting him slack that isn't speeding the process.
It's kind of how the NBA works nowadays. When Randy Wittman critiques Wall's game, he isn't just offering insights and constructive thoughts -- he's framing his words so as not to "lose" the Wizards' most important player. A coach, especially an interim coach with the clock ticking down, needs to win as many games now as he can, so keeping Wall -- or any young player who has miles to go -- upbeat and on board takes precedence.
"He can only play one way," Wittman said. "He's got to be an aggressive player. When he tries to play any way other than, he's apt to turn the ball over. You have to keep him pushing the envelope."
Others don't have to tread as lightly in identifying the gaps in Wall's game.
"The biggest things for him will be learning how to become an above-average-to-good shooter and his ability to cut down on turnovers," said Flip Saunders, Wall's coach as a rookie who was fired 17 games into this season. "He has great speed but sometimes his speed puts him in dangerous situations.
"What we're going to find out over the next two years is, does he have the ability to develop a jump shot and not be strictly a full-court player, a transition player? Can he be a halfcourt point guard who can run a team? Ultimately, if you're going to have success, it's because you have success in the playoffs."
There are others, scouts and even teammates, who wonder if Wall hasn't already been dinged and dented by the grind of Wizards basketball, the heavy dosage of losing unlike anything he'd experienced before. His confidence and attitude sometimes flag, he will shrink from rather than push back against criticism occasionally and his work ethic -- in terms of gym rat levels -- has been questioned.
There is no doubt that Wall was better as an NBA rookie than he has been this season. He battled through injuries but got promising results; he was named the Eastern Conference's top rookie in four consecutive months, as well as MVP of the Rookie Challenge game at All-Star Weekend. And if Clippers strongman Blake Griffin hadn't been shelved the year before, Wall would have been the easy choice for 2011 Rookie of the Year.
This year, the 6-foot-4 point guard has been healthier and more athletic. But he came in raw again, locked out and cut off from the team and his coaches. He and the rest of the Wizards were rushed through training camp, then plunged into the deep end of a frenzied schedule -- with a coaching change mixed in. As a playmaker, he understands better what needs to be run, but that's still not the same thing as getting it done.
"That's the thing about getting chemistry and just trusting each other," Wall said after the Bulls game, in which he often would deliver the ball, then wave his arms and point like a traffic cop to keep the play going. "Without training camp, it was tough. But we've done a lot more this year as far as team on the road, playing cards, watching games together, going to dinner. That helps you get your chemistry down pat."
Individually, it's hard to see improvement. Wall is averaging 16.5 points, 7.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 3.9 turnovers and 36.5 minutes, while shooting 42.0 percent overall and (cough) 7.5 percent from 3-point range. As a newbie, his numbers were 16.4, 8.3, 1.8, 3.8 and 37.8, with 40.9 percent overall but 29.6 percent from the arc.
One of Washington's many deficits in mentoring Wall has been the lack of a solid veteran at his position. Kirk Hinrich was helpful but got moved along halfway through Wall's first season. Sam Cassell is a Wizards assistant but the one-time All-Star was a completely different point guard: Not quick, terrific mid-range shooter, reliant more on his guile than on any explosiveness.
It would help, too, if Washington had some marksmen to open up lanes for Wall's penetration. But he's going to need to work on his own shot, too. He's going to need to work on lots of things -- and no time like the present, however little remains.
"One of the biggest challenges for him now is continuing to work on his game and not just playing," veteran forward Maurice Evans said. "We're in a situation where we're not a playoff team, but he needs to still play as if we're going. Still take every game as if it's the most important game in his career ... He's a winner and hopefully he continues to do the things."
Wall did a bunch of good things down the stretch against the Bulls, protecting the ball, hitting clutch free throws, even shifting over to guard Richard Hamilton for a spell. But the NBA education of John Wall continues, maybe for four years of schooling or longer. It's certainly no one-and-done thing.
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