A few hours before the Washington Wizards arrived at Time Warner Cable Arena to face the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday evening, a group text chat with the team’s 15 players was buzzing. They were encouraging one another, telling each other to stick together after surrendering 123 points in a loss to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday.
As various players chimed in, including Alan Anderson, who wasn’t with the team in Charlotte as he recovers from ankle surgery, the team’s all-star point guardgot something off his chest.
“I have to be a leader no matter if I’m playing good or bad,” John Wall recalled texting his teammates before the Wizards fell to the Hornets, 101-87, for their second straight loss. “There’s going to be games over an 82-game season when you’re not playing well, but I’m a better player than that and a better person.”
This is a season of high expectations for Wall. The former No. 1 overall pick out of the University of Kentucky gradually ascended into the NBA’s hierarchy over his first five campaigns, overcoming injuries early in his career to become an all-star and then all-star starter with two straight postseason appearances. He set his goals even higher this season. He wants to join the MVP conversation and lead the Wizards to their first 50-win season in 37 years.
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Furthermore, the Wizards are counting on Wall to emerge as the undisputed leader after being groomed by various veterans — namely Al Harrington, Trevor Ariza, and Paul Pierce — in recent years. This is his sixth NBA campaign. He is 25 years old. As Coach Randy Wittman asked before the season started: “At what point is he a veteran?”
Washington’s new offense was supposed to unleash a better Wall. The pace-and-space system was implemented, in part, to take advantage of his elite speed and passing ability. But Wall’s performance has dipped as Washington is off to a 6-6 start. He is averaging 16.5 points, 7.9 assists, 3.5 rebounds — all lower than his averages the last two seasons. His 4.5 turnovers per game would be a career high, and he’s shooting 41.5 percent from the field after shooting a career-best 44.5 percent last season.
“I just got to play better in my opinion,” Wall said. “The team is not going to do well if I’m not leading this team on both ends of the floor. So my main focus is just playing better, being able to get out of shooting slumps and knock down shots and still playing in a team offense and team concepts so not forcing the issue.”
Earlier in the week, Wall received a text from Kendrick Williams, his high school and AAU basketball coach. Williams, who now coaches the Wall’s AAU team in his native North Carolina, could tell his former star pupil was off just from watching him on television. Wall then posted a photo of himself on Instagram with the caption: “Time to get back to this Guy and Havin Fun …”
“I haven’t been having fun really since I’ve been playing (this year),” Wall said. “I think the first couple games when we were into games and we had to win but then I don’t think I have been myself. … I haven’t been having fun, laughing, joking, (with) a smile on my face when I’m playing basketball. Really haven’t seen that to be honest with you. I haven’t.”
After Tuesday’s defeat to Indiana, Wall lamented eight careless turnovers and added that he was frustrated with shooting just nine times in 30 minutes.
“It’s been up and down,” Wall said of his season performance after Tuesday’s defeat. “Frustrating for me.”
Frustration set in again Wednesday when the Wizards blew a nine-point fourth-quarter lead in catastrophic fashion with a six-point fourth quarter. And after the game, Wall said he disagreed with Wittman’s rotation in fourth quarter — specifically not having Wall or Bradley Beal on the floor to start the period.
“If I sit until the seven-minute mark, cool, at least I feel like Brad should’ve been in because now at least one of us is creating shots for somebody and we also can take over a game at the same time,” said Wall, who checked in with Beal with 7 minutes 18 seconds remaining and Charlotte leading, 85-80. “I feel like when we got in we were just stagnant.”
But Wall and Beal didn’t make a difference: The Hornets went on to score 25 straight points and the Wizards were held scoreless until Gary Neal made two free throws with 23.1 seconds remaining. Wall went 0 for 3 with a turnover upon returning. After the game, Wittman criticized the team’s body language and mental toughness. Wall concurred with his coach.
“Yeah, it was,” Wall said. “But, (shoot), it’s frustrating, you got a nine-point lead and then you lose it and then we turn around are down, what, 10? And then every shot we took, it’s like, [shoot], is it going to go in? It rims in and out, you miss, and you’re like, ‘Damn.’ That wears on a team.
“But we kept telling guys take open shots, take open shots. That’s what we were doing. They made the shots, we didn’t. But I still feel like we blew a nine-point lead at the start of the quarter. You got to try to step on them.”