Sixty seconds into the first answer to the first question of this Wizards season, Scott Brooks managed to place his point guard in the MVP discussion. Don’t worry: The Finals MVP talk won’t come until day two.
“John Wall is one of the best players in basketball,” Brooks said, while answering a generic question about the dawn of a new season. “Last year I thought he made a big step, not only on the court but [with] leadership. That’s not always easy to do. But I think now you can really talk about him being in the MVP conversation.”
Wall probably won’t be the MVP; he finished tied for seventh in last season’s voting, with seven points, 881 fewer than Russell Westbrook. He is, though, staring at a crack in the NBA’s inner sanctum, with an outside chance to wriggle his way through. Wall often has lamented the way injuries hindered his rise; now he’s coming off a surgery-free offseason during which he worked out like a demon. Wall also has wondered why his Wizards teams were virtually banished from the national television rotation; now they’ve been given 18 of those dates, nearly double the previous two seasons combined.
Wall has long identified a 50-win season and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals as Washington’s next steps, and both were within reach last season. But the Wizards, resting starters, lost two of their final three regular-season games to finish with 49 wins, and then fumbled a luscious playoff opportunity, losing that second-round series to Boston in seven games, with Wall missing his final 11 shots in the deciding game.
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Now he’s back, with the same core group of teammates, a coach he likes, a four-year supermax extension and an Eastern Conference that keeps leaking stars. He’s square in his prime. He has begged for an opportunity to bring his game to the country. This feels like his chance.
“It’s all there,” Wall said Monday, after all the photo shoots and video sessions and radio interviews and forced smiles. “It’s all up to me.”
At a minimum, there’s an opening he has never had before. His longtime antagonist, Kyrie Irving, is starting over with a new set of teammates in Boston, without the conference’s most dominant player by his side. The conference’s other marquee point guard, Isaiah Thomas, will miss a couple months because of a hip injury. The Wizards enjoy a continuity that’s almost extinct in the NBA: This will be the sixth straight year of the Wall-Beal backcourt pairing, and once Markieff Morris is back, the team’s starting lineup will be unchanged.
Wall said his team goals are unchanged — 50 wins and the Eastern Conference finals — but this time not reaching them will feel like a step backward, and a whole lot more people will be paying attention.
“I just want to see what the Eastern Conference finals is like,” Wall said. “Not saying that’s where our last stop is. But put your foot in that door to see how it is to be on that type of pedestal, to be on that level.”
Then there’s the pedestal offered by ESPN and TNT. This might seem trivial — okay, it’s probably trivial — but it has been a near-obsession of Wall’s while he led the Wizards from misery to respectability to whatever stage they’re at now. His family and friends have joked about how “you’ve got to buy League Pass to see me,” Wall said, and Washington’s two previous trips to the second round didn’t seem to make a difference. You can’t really be a part of the league’s inner circle until you’re a regular on national TV, and through his first seven seasons, he has lagged well behind Shaq and Charles Barkley in screen time.
“I don’t think I get the recognition need. I mean, we got more TV games this year, but look how long it took,” Wall said Monday. “The only way you could really catch on to me is if you see the highlights. If you never see highlights on SportsCenter or NBA TV or watch a video, you don’t really get to see John Wall, because he’s not on TV. You look at the numbers I put up, and it goes unnoticed, because I’m not on TV and you don’t get to see it. … To me it’s all about who the NBA wants to put in that position, who they want to be in that spotlight.”
Again, it might sound petty, except it’s the sort of thing that nags at Wall during those offseason workouts. Like the player ranking lists he tweets about. (“I always laugh at them,” he said. “They don’t they think I can get to this point.”) Or the preseason predictions. (He’s convinced that experts are ranking the Wizards in an also-ran group after Cleveland, Boston and Toronto; “I’m like, we was just one game away from the Eastern Conference finals,” he said.) These mild, and perhaps imagined, slights are “fun to me,” he said. “Now I’ve got to work harder.”
And it seems to be working. Last season, he became the first player in franchise history to average at least 20 points and 10 assists, and the first player in league history to add four rebounds, two steals and 0.5 blocks to that ledger. He’s already the franchise leader in career assists and steals, and should become the second- or third-highest scorer in franchise history by the end of this season.
“There’s no secret he had a great year. I mean, there’s no secret about that — the best year of his career,” Marcin Gortat said Monday. “He’s entering his prime right now. That’s what happening. He’s entering his prime. … There’s a lot of pressure on his shoulders now, and he’s got to perform.”
Pressure, and opportunity, too. I’ve written far too many words defending Wall over the years, and most of them were an easy sort of defense against national talking heads who used him as a strange punching bag. But the question is no longer whether Wall was a worthy top pick, or a worthy franchise player, or a worthy All-Star. He’s trying to finally advance into a different sphere — and to bring this long-suffering franchise with him.
That might not win him an MVP award. Then again, this was only the first day of training camp.