Starting a season 6-12 might have rattled a young John Wall, the talented but admittedly temperamental No. 1 pick in the 2010 Draft.
But this older and wiser version, the four-time Eastern Conference All-Star and hardened veteran point guard of the Washington Wizards, didn’t flinch. He dug in, cranked up his energy and led the Washington Wizards out of that season-opening sludge and into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff mix.
The Wizards are 19-8 since that rough start and behind the leadership and play of Wall (who moves up this week on the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder) and his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) January 26, 2017
He didn’t make excuses about the arrival of a new coach (Scott Brooks) or the absence of some big free-agent pickup or anything else. Wall took on the burden himself, saying he knew he wasn’t his usual self early on this season after offseason surgery on his left knee.
“I knew for me, as a leader … I had surgery, so it took me some time,” Wall said. “I had to get in better shape. I wasn’t giving the effort I needed to on both ends of the floor to give my team a chance to win. And I think guys also had to look themselves in the mirror, understanding who and what they wanted to be and understanding their roles on our team. I think once they figured that out, we were fine.”
Transitioning from coach Randy Wittman’s heavily structured offense to the more free-flowing style Brooks prefers plays right into Wall’s hands. He can finally use his superior speed, athleticism and understanding of the game to his and the Wizards’ advantage.
He’s averaging career-highs in points (23.1), field goal percentage (.464) and steals (2.2) while also averaging 10 or more assists for a third straight season.
“We had a lot of sets with coach Wittman,” Wall said. “He was an old school guy and he ran so many plays. Now coach wants us to get out and run. And he wants me to attack more and be more aggressive, he lets me be basically like a second coach out there, lets me control the offense and the defense. And he takes a lot of advice from me, and that’s something that helps.
“But the most important thing is right after I had surgery, the next day he was the first person, other than my mom, who was there, talking to me, picking my brain about basketball. I’m like, ‘I just had surgery, I’m on medicine, I might not translate this stuff right.’ But when he did that I fell in love with him.”
The other and perhaps most noticeable difference in Wall this season is his leadership style. The Wizards surrounded Wall with different sets of veterans earlier in his career, hoping to craft the right kind of culture around the future of the franchise.
It’s his show now. And he’s learned some valuable lessons along the way that he’s putting into practice daily.
“It was tough, me being the No. 1 pick,” Wall said. “I never could take days off because everybody would be thinking ‘he’s got it made, he’s that guy.’ I never wanted to be that. I always wanted to be a guy that led by example. And I think just having more and more veterans around me, I learned how to talk to people, not yelling at people all the time but sometimes you might have to corner a guy, just to get your point across. And I also had to learn how to take criticism the same way I gave it out to people. Once I figured that out, everything else has really been smooth sailing.”
Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 2
Westbrook passed Larry Bird on the all-time triple-double list with his 60th in Wednesday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans. It was his third straight and 23rd of this season. The six-time All-Star is on a monster pace this season and shows no signs of slowing down (32.2 points, 10.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 2.2 steals in his last five games).
2. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 1
Harden and his Rockets have stumbled a bit lately, losing three of their last four games. They’ll get a chance to right some wrongs against a resurgent Philadelphia 76ers team led by Joel Embiid. Harden will no doubt be ready for the showcase in Philly (28.0 points, 10.6 assists, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks in his last five games).
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 3
The words Durant and “defensive stopper” were never connected before this season. But he’s shown himself to be exactly that this season for the Warriors. He’s one of the league’s elite two-way players and he’s backed that up with his play all season long (29.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.2 blocks, 1.2 steals in his last five games).
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Last week: No. 8
The only thing capable of slowing Leonard down these days is the hand injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s win over Toronto and might keep him out of tonight’s game against the Pelicans (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS). Leonard has been on an absolute tear otherwise (36.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.3 steals in his last five games).
5. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 4
Turmoil within the ranks has cropped up for its annual visit to the Cavaliers, losers of six of their last eight games. A rotating parade of trade rumors should create even more drama. It’s just the sort of motivation LeBron needs to get back on track and get his team out of their funk (24.0 points, 9.4 assists, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals in his last five games).
6. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Last week: No. 5
His streak of games scoring 20 or more points is at 29. And the Celtics needed every bit of his fourth quarter scoring magic in a bounce back win over the Rockets Wednesday. Thomas earned his second straight Eastern Conference All-Star berth Thursday and will get plenty of love from the hometown fans tonight against Orlando (35.6 points, 6.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds in his last five games).
7. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 6
Charlotte’s favorite son came home this week to a hero’s welcome, both at his old high school (where his No. 20 jersey was retired) and college. He didn’t leave town without putting on his usual show against the hometown Hornets, making six of his 12 shots from deep (24.8 points, 7.0 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.0 steals in his last five games).
8. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Last week: No. 10
Wall earned his well-deserved fourth All-Star honor Thursday and has his Wizards firmly entrenched in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. Wall’s averaging a career-high 23.1 points to go with his 10.1 assists (24.8 points, 10.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals in his last five games).
9. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Last week: Not ranked
Hayward has been a stalwart for a Jazz team that continues to scratch and claw its way into the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture this season. Western Conference coaches rewarded his hard work with the first All-Star spot of his career. (20.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists in his last five games).
10. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last week: No. 7
Antetokounmpo has struggled mightily with his shooting touch from deep (26 percent in his last five games). The Bucks need their All-Star starter to pick it up if they want to take advantage of a struggling Raptors team tonight in Toronto (24.2 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.4 blocks in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, New Orleans Pelicans; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies; Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
An inside look from a Western Conference scout at Eric Bledsoe:
“He’s one of these guys who got caught up in the wash of the point guard renaissance, as I like to call it, around the league. Five or six years ago we were all debating who was the best point guard in the league between Chris Paul and Deron Williams. It was basically a two-man conversation. And then all of a sudden these explosive young guys came on the scene — Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Steph (Curry) and Kyrie (Irving) and that bunch. Bledsoe was actually a guy who looked like he could be in that mix. He was so explosive, had such tremendous bounce and physically he looked like he could be a NFL defensive back, just a special combination of size, speed and athleticism. But the injury cost him at a time that was really critical. The Suns had that glut of point guards — Goran Dragic, Isaiah Thomas and Brandon Knight — all basically in the mix at the same time. They had to make some choices and we know how that turned out. But at the time, on just on pure physical talent alone, combined with the upside, Bledsoe was the most obvious guy. I don’t know if he’ll ever get all the way back to where he was, he’s shown some flashes here recently, but you just never know.”
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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