Washington Wizards hope to build on all-around gains once John Wall returns

Team not merely staying afloat as All-Star guard heals up from knee surgery

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

* Tonight on ESPN: Raptors vs. Wizards (8 ET)

If John Wall were a stock, brokers would be on their phones right now urging clients to “Sell, sell, sell!” based on the Washington Wizards’ success without their All-Star point guard in the aftermath of his left knee surgery in January.

And yet in perfect market symmetry, an equal number of money men would be pushing investors to “Buy, buy, buy!” Wall stock because Washington’s recent run has driven down the franchise guy’s reputation and perceived value.

Realistically, Wall’s four-year, $170 million extension that kicks in with the 2019-20 season at $37.8 million, escalating to $46.8 million by 2022-23, means that his price-to-winning ratio always is going to be steep. But his stock has been battered during the Wizards’ 9-4 mark during Wall’s rehab, which continues as the team hosts the Toronto Raptors tonight.

This season, Washington is 21-16 (.568) with Wall and 15-10 (.600) without him.

That includes this post-surgery stretch that still has an estimated 2-to-4 weeks left. But the Wizards made it through February, and if they must make it through March, they seem prepared.

We had to change the way we play. You can’t expect [backup] Tomas [Satoransky] to play like John, so we had to move things around. I think our guys have really bought into that.”

Wizards coach Scott Brooks

It’s generally a given in the NBA that teams are supposed to sag when their best players are sidelined. In fact, it’s often used in making MVP cases, as in “How much worse was his team when he didn’t play?”

And then there’s Wall. With his ball dominance as triggerman of Washington’s system, with his perennially high usage rate (27.3), Wall by all measures should be missed as much as any player just shy of the elite tier.

Coach Scott Brooks believes that some games early in the season that Wall missed with first a shoulder injury, then soreness in that left knee, forced the Wizards onto a learning curve in playing without him. Realizing with the surgery that he would be out so long dialed up the urgency and took away any wiggle room on the court.

“We had to change the way we play,” Brooks said earlier this week, before a victory in Milwaukee. “You can’t expect [backup] Tomas [Satoransky] to play like John, so we had to move things around. I think our guys have really bought into that.”

It wasn’t without hiccups. The Wizards reeled off five consecutive victories after Wall’s surgery, sparking some “they’re better without him” chatter. In trying to explain the difference, Wall vs. no Wall, backcourt mate Bradley Beal offered an “everybody eats” comment that flared into perceived criticism of Wall’s style and tested the team’s chemistry.

Since then, with a few losses mixed in, things have simmered down. And Beal has gotten more political in his responses.

“The biggest thing is just, everybody has to step up,” Beal said. “That’s just plain and simple, because those are big shoes to fill. John is as important to the team as … it’s not even comparable to anything we’ve experienced before. So when he goes down, that’s a major blow to our team.

“What John does and what he brings on both ends of the floor is not replaceable by one person.”

For the record, Wall’s 2017-18 numbers when he went out were in relative sync with his career averages: 19.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game with an effective field-goal percentage of 46.1 percent. They were down from last season (23.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 10.7 apg) but Wall was hurting.

He played well enough to earn his fifth All-Star selection and remains a pillar of the Washington franchise (only Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Gus Johnson have logged more minutes than Wall).

We’re not going to sit here and say the ball doesn’t move when John is here. The ball does move. It’s just a matter of making the right reads and getting off early. When he gets back, everything’s going to be the same. Nothing’s gonna change.”

Wizards guard Bradley Beal

Beal, though, earned his first All-Star appearance in part for how he grew his game in Wall’s absences. He has added initiator to his familiar scoring duties, hitting career bests in assists (4.5 per game) and usage percentage (28.1).

And whereas the Wizards were 7-8 when Wall dished 10 or more assists, they are 19-9 when Beal passes for five or more. Washington has been among the NBA’s top 10 in assists the past five seasons, but the ball is moving more and earlier in the shot clock as Satoransky passes and cuts (compared to Wall’s dribble orchestration).

Over its past 14 games, Washington has assisted on 71.1 percent of its field goals and, since Wall’s surgery, has averaged 29.1 apg.

Said teammate Markieff Morris of Beal: “I’ve already known, being in the league with him these past years, he’s an outstanding scorer. But he’s definitely facilitating a lot better, or a lot more, with the ball being in his hands without Wall. We need that and to be the leader he’s been to carry us.”

Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre Jr. have accelerated in their development as their opportunities have increased with Wall out. Porter, 24, has averaged 19.1 ppg over his last 12 games, shooting 52.3 percent. Oubre, 22, has keyed a bench that has upped its production from 27 ppg last season to 35 in ‘17-18. Specifically, the reserves have chipped in an extra 4.5 points on nights when Wall hasn’t played.

“Just the flow of the game,” Oubre said. “John has the talent to pretty much take over a game by himself, and in his absence, we’re making sure everybody steps up.”

The challenge is to sustain it. The schedule has turned nasty on the Wizards, as rough as any team’s in the East. This is the fourth game against Toronto Wall will miss. Then 13 of the final 19 games after that will be against teams currently in playoff position.

Washington faces three sets of back-to-backs in its final seven games, wrapping the schedule with five in seven nights. Working Wall back into the lineup while also retaining some of the characteristics that have buoyed them through his layoff is what Brooks and his players need to do.

“We’re not going to sit here and say the ball doesn’t move when John is here,” Beal said. “The ball does move. It’s just a matter of making the right reads and getting off early. When he gets back, everything’s going to be the same. Nothing’s gonna change.”

Said Morris: “It shouldn’t be [a big adjustment]. Should be the same exact team we had last year. But we can’t wait till he gets back, we added another dimension to us. The bench will get Tomas back and pick up even more for us.”

Satoransky, the 6-foot-7 second-year guard, has hit 15 of his last 25 3-point attempts and scored in double digits 13 times. His play has some Wizards insiders hoping to see a swift, small specialty lineup of three guards with Porter and Oubre. Brooks isn’t necessarily opposed to adding that wrinkle, now that Satoransky has sufficient reps and confidence.

“I’ve thought his best assets to this team are being able to be a multi-, like a utility-type player,” Brooks said. “He can play 3, 2 and 1. I think he understands that he can be effective at playing off the ball. If he does play with John, we’ve got two really good pick-and-roll players. We’ve got two good decision-makers. We definitely can go that route if needed.”

It would be the Wizards’ second major positive out of Wall’s absence. The first, to a surprising degree, has been staying afloat.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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