WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Let's not sugarcoat this: the Washington Wizards have many, many problems. That much can't be ignored after they fell to 2-14 with a 100-94 loss to an aging, undermanned Boston Celtics team at the Verizon Center on Sunday.
But here's the reality that has become clear over the past couple weeks: John Wall is not one of those problems.
The Wizards keep losing, but the team's franchise player has begun to start playing like it. After a malaise to start the year that had many (including his coach) questioning his maturity, his skills, his competitive spirit and his dedication to improving his game during the lockout, Wall has come on in the last five games, averaging 24.4 points and 8.5 assists while allowing the Wizards to at least look more like an NBA team in defeat.
I think I’m just relaxing, playing basketball, not thinking too much," Wall said earlier last week.
The Wizards would tell you that the seeds for Wall's resurgence actually grew in another embarrassing loss. On January 13 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Wall submitted arguably the worst half of his career, turning the ball over seven times and missing tons of layups. But with the game mostly out of reach, Wall played much better in the second half, gaining praise from head coach Flip Saunders for playing more under control. In his next game against the Houston Rockets, Wall scored 38 points.
The early-season Wall was plagued by two issues: a shocking inability to finish around the rim and playing too fast for his own good. In both respects, things have improved tremendously. According to Hoop Data, Wall has converted 25 of his last 36 shots at the basket in his last five games, compared to 33 of 64 in his first 11.
As for playing too fast, that still happens, but far less than it did early on. The most subtle change Wall has made has been looking for his teammates more on fast breaks. Before, he was taking it to the basket himself, even against three defenders, and that wasn't working. Now, he's making a concerted effort to draw defenders and find his teammates, whether it's JaVale McGee for an alley-oop, Nick Young spotting up for three or anything else. He's still forcing fast breaks, but now, he's forcing them to get his teammates shots. And really, considering how fast Wall is, he should be forcing fast break opportunities for his teammates.
Most importantly, Wall's competitive spirit remains as strong as ever. After concerns early in the year that he had mentally checked out, it had to make Wizards fans happy to see him demand to check Paul Pierce late in the game on Sunday when the Celtics' forward was on fire. It didn't work -- Wall said he felt the Wizards sent double-teams too early and didn't give him a chance to carry out his assignment -- but you have to love that Wall was willing to give up so much size to help his team win. He's also sacrificed his body countless times over the past few games, so much so that the number of basketballs next to his name on the Wizards' charge board in their locker room has to be three times as many as his nearest teammate.
Wall's not perfect, of course. His jump shot is still poor, and the same competitive spirit that causes him to guard Pierce also causes him to force some horrible shots late to try to get his team back into games. But those are problems experience can fix, unlike the negative traits he was flashing in the season's first 11 games.
At 2-13, the Wizards obviously are a far way from respectability, but fans can at least comfort themselves knowing that the centerpiece of the team's rebuilding effort is starting to play like it. If only the Wizards had 12 other players who could play with him.
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