WASHINGTON — Do-rag resting over his fresh new ’do, colorful sunglasses perched upon his nose, John Wall eased his way from the Washington Wizards’ locker room to the elevator that would take him to the parking lot at Capital One Arena. Wall had just put his first game in more than two months behind him, with the kind of performance that should silence any debate about what kind of team the Wizards are without him.
Yeah, everybody can eat when Wall is sidelined, but it makes a huge difference when there is a chef in the kitchen who knows how to mix up the ingredients just right, add the proper seasoning and serve it up with some appealing garnish. Wall was handing out open looks on a platter Saturday as he had 14 assists, to go along with 15 points, in leading the Wizards to a 107-93 victory over the Charlotte Hornets in his long-awaited return. His shot was a little shaky but for the most part, Wall was Wall — even with a slightly difference appearance. As he made his way to the elevator, a little girl asked Wall about the twists that now cover his head.
“What have you done to your hair,” the little girl asked as she grabbed her own locks.
Wall smiled and politely responded, “I’m growing my hair out.”
Wall later explained that “boredom” during his most extended time away from the game in five seasons led him to change his appearance, ditching the mostly clean-cut look he’s had since his time at Kentucky. “Just me going back to my ‘Crazy J’ days,” Wall told Yahoo Sports as he took the stairs to his car after growing impatient with the elevator. “They used to call me that in high school. I was like, ‘Forget it, why not do it?’ And I’m going into the summer, so just try the braids again, one more time in my life.”
“Crazy J” is making his return, following a stretch that could’ve driven him insane. Wall had huge plans for this season, moving his offseason training from Los Angeles to Miami and filming his intense workouts on social media to show how determined he was to shatter what had become the Wizards’ second-round ceiling. But after bumping knees in a loss against Dallas on Nov. 7, Wall never quite felt right and labored through a season in which he made his fifth All-Star team but Washington underachieved and he needed surgery to clean up some loose cartilage in his left knee. Then, while he was cheering on his teammates, he heard the chorus shift from if the Wizards could survive without him to if the team was better without him.
“Frustrating for me, because of all the hard work I put in to trying to get healthy and stay healthy and then having to deal with another injury that I can’t really control,” Wall told Yahoo Sports. “Cutting, making a play and somebody kneed me and it knocked some cartilage loose. That was the most frustrating part. And then, hearing what everybody else was saying was kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ ”
Wall relies on his chip for motivation and has never needed much to set him off. The comments about the Wizards’ play without him was easier to dismiss coming from the outside, but he was taken aback when he thought some sly comments were coming from within his own team. He called out Marcin Gortat for a perceived slight on Twitter during a marathon publicity hit for one of Wall’s business partners and later had to smooth over the situation with his center during a sit-down meeting. Though the better-without-Wall argument started to lose some steam as the team began to struggle in recent weeks, Wall was disappointed that the criticism came after all he had done to elevate the franchise and his reputation around the league.
“I’ve been through it before. This was a lot different. To have just gotten paid to be the franchise guy, and then hearing the team is better, the team is this, the team is that. I didn’t believe that,” Wall told Yahoo Sports. “But all I say is give credit to the guys for playing well because if they didn’t play well, we’d be fighting for the eighth seed right now. We’d be hurting right now. I don’t think a lot of people understand and appreciate that part.”
The Wizards clinched their fourth postseason berth in five seasons Saturday, which shows the growth the organization has made during Wall’s eight seasons in Washington. In the past, Wall being gone meant wins went away, too. But this season, the team found the free-flowing ball movement necessary to compensate. Bradley Beal, a first-time All-Star, was able to mature into the calm, steady leader the team needed. Markieff Morris and Otto Porter were able to work themselves out of some early season injuries to find their rhythm. Tomas Satoransky, a seldom-used reserve who replaced Wall, emerged as a revelation with his athleticism and defensive tenacity. And Kelly Oubre became a more reliable reserve.
Washington is still unlikely to rise higher than sixth in the Eastern Conference, which would mean a first-round matchup against LeBron James — who developed his reputation as a first-round postseason assassin against the Wizards over a decade ago — unless Philadelphia can somehow move up without Joel Embiid. Satoransky expressed a sentiment shared by most in Washington that he’d prefer not to get James in the first round. But the Wizards don’t have the luxury of losing as a strategy for better playoff positioning because they don’t have much time to learn how to win with Wall this season. And it would almost be poetic for the Wizards to get Cleveland in the first round after implying that the Cavaliers intentionally tried to avoid them last postseason.
“The crazy thing is, the ceiling is so high for this team,” Wall told Yahoo Sports. “We had an easy schedule early on, but we didn’t take advantage of it. I was somewhat healthy and somewhat not healthy, dealing with that pain and that’s what makes it very tough.
“If we can put all that to the side and go play. It’s there. The field is open, no matter what the record is, no matter what the team is, the field is open. But you know LeBron is going to be LeBron, no matter the day of the week. Everybody say LeBron ain’t LeBron, but at the end of the day, he is who he is. And he’s proving that again. Fifteen years in, still averaging damn near 30.”
Wall is who he is, too, even with the new headband and hairstyle. But the Wizards won’t go anywhere with just any incarnation of Wall. They need the one who can speed up the court to his spots, stop on a dime, deliver no-looks and snarl after dropping a left-hand dunk on someone. They need his emotions, his dog. They are better without an unhealthy Wall, which is unfortunately what they had for a good part of this season. But they have a shot with a healthy Wall, which is what they believe they have now. Wall channeled the negative energy into something productive, losing at least 10 pounds and staying in excellent shape to reduce the challenge of getting reacclimated with his squad. But Wall doesn’t have to adjust his game so much as he needs to feel right again. He’s not crazy for believing that.
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