WASHINGTON — John Wall gets why the Washington Wizards have been overlooked or flat-out ignored by pundits and prognosticators when discussing the elite teams of the Eastern Conference. The Wizards slipped last season — done in by funky chemistry and another knee procedure for the franchise player — and followed up with an offseason that appeared to further test a fragile locker room rather than address any lingering problems.
Wall, however, chooses to look at the potential upside of a new collection of talent to complement an experienced core that remains relatively young. And when he looks around a conference that has been made more wide open by the departure of the best player of this generation, Wall doesn’t believe that any team from the league’s junior varsity can claim enough separation to be considered an overwhelming favorite. Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto are often mentioned as the teams best prepared to get slaughtered by Golden State in the next NBA Finals but — like Washington — they also have questions.
“I feel like we’re all equal,” Wall told Yahoo Sports recently from his annual backpack giveaway at Barry Farm. “None of them won a championship. This is no knock on no other team. Don’t get me wrong. Boston is a hell of a team. Philly has great young talent with those guys [Joel] Embiid, [Ben] Simmons. And Toronto, losing DeMar [DeRozan], they still get Kawhi [Leonard]. Y’all might have been to the Eastern Conference finals, where we haven’t been to, but none of y’all were going to the Finals. It was one guy going to the Finals. Ain’t nobody separated from nothing. I know one guy that separated himself from the Eastern Conference every year and that was LeBron James and the Cavs. Other than that … if you lose in the second round, or the conference finals, you still didn’t get to your ultimate goal.
“On paper, everybody looks great,” Wall continued. “We look great. Boston looks great on paper. But how are all those young guys going to mesh with Kyrie [Irving] being back? Or Gordon Hayward being back? Nobody knows how that’s going to work. Now, they’ve got a hell of a coach in Brad Stevens, and [with GM and president] Danny Ainge, they’re going to figure it out. But you still got to put it all together. You’ve still got to make it work on the court. We don’t know how Kawhi is going to work. We know what Simmons and Embiid are going to give you, but it’s a new year.”
The Wizards experienced a noticeable regression in their second season under coach Scott Brooks that went beyond an early season knee injury to Wall that cost him a career-high 41 games and much of his usual explosiveness. Their record with Wall (23-18) and without was almost identical (21-20), which either suggested how hobbled he was or the depth of the dysfunction. The campaign was encapsulated by an image from their playoff loss to Toronto in which Wall and Marcin Gortat were bickering during a timeout while a disgusted Bradley Beal buried his head in a towel. “It was just guys all for themselves last year,” Wall told Yahoo Sports. “That’s what I felt it was about. It wasn’t the same as the year before when we were all having fun. It was hard to find any fun on the court. You didn’t see any smiling or excitement. I don’t know, that [expletive] was just weird. If you don’t know your roles, everybody wants to be ‘the man’ and when they do that, it hurts.”
Wall implored management to make changes afterward and Gortat — with whom Wall had an icy relationship — was shipped to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Austin Rivers. General manager Ernie Grunfeld later made a move that could finally launch the Wall-Beal pairing into orbit or blow up the situation altogether by signing Dwight Howard, whose reputation as a disruptive force who alienates teammates led to him being dumped by three teams in the past two summers. An Instagram direct message and a phone call from Wall persuaded Howard to join the Wizards as a free agent. Howard has discussed his desire to change the narrative of the post-Orlando stage of his career, and Wall is ready to give him a chance.
“I heard about his reputation. A lot of people had a reputation about me that I just enjoy the lifestyle but don’t love the game of basketball and don’t put the work in. But guys that have become my teammates know it’s totally different,” Wall told Yahoo Sports. “I was just dealing with the injuries. People are always going to have their perceptions of you. It only matters if you care about that person and want to see that perception change or if that’s really them. I understand what Dwight’s perception is. If you say it’s something different, show it.”
Howard hasn’t been an All-Star since 2014, but Wall wants to help him regain that status. “He’s played with some great point guards, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think he’s played with a guy who is capable of what I can do,” Wall told Yahoo Sports. “Just imagine us, you penetrate, having a guy who can catch lobs. A guy that can block shots. A guy you can throw it to in the post and score. Those little things. Those things are big. I’m coming off pick-and-roll, coming downhill, either you’re getting dunked on, you’re catching a lob or a wide-open three. It makes it a little bit easier.”
This is also a critical season for Wall because it will be the last before the supermax extension kicks in that will make him one of the game’s highest-paid players. Wall has spent the offseason in Miami working out with David Alexander, the strength coach for James, Dwyane Wade and Victor Oladipo, and Wall even flew in longtime trainer Rob McClanaghan for some skill development. Dubbing this the “summer of separation,” Wall has declared on his video diary for BallIsLife.com that he wants to be the MVP this season, reasoning that a first-place finish in the East could get him there — if he can avoid any more injury misfortune.
“People are saying it’s not going to work. I’m cool with taking on those burdens and understanding what it takes. That’s my job as a leader of the team, to get everybody to be on one page,” said Wall, who averaged 26 points and 11.5 assists in the playoffs despite returning to play just three of the final five regular-season games. “That was great, but we didn’t win. Now it’s what will John Wall do next? My job is to try to stay healthy. I can’t control that. I do all the stuff I’m supposed to do to. Everybody understands when I’m healthy what I’m really, really capable of doing, and when I’m not, I’m still a hell of a player in this league, but not the player I want to be. And I just want to be in the best shape possible.”
Circumstances change swiftly in the NBA. New powers rise, others fade and some that were expected to climb fizzle out. For Washington to defy being passed by, it will need the continued progression of Beal, healthier versions of Otto Porter and Markieff Morris, more improvement from Kelly Oubre and Tomas Satoransky, and the additions of Howard, Rivers and Jeff Green not to backfire. Wall is determined to not let Game 7 of the 2017 conference semifinals in Boston be where this iteration of the Wizards plateaus, and laughs at the notion that it has already happened.
“That’s funny. How have we peaked? I think this is deepest team we’ve had and I feel very comfortable with this team,” Wall told Yahoo Sports. “Everybody is going to put Boston No. 1, because that’s what you’re supposed to. They had a hell of a season with those guys coming back. You’ve got Philly, they got their pieces. I feel like those top four, those top five — you can’t forget Milwaukee, what they have with Giannis [Antetokounmpo] — I feel like it’s all cluttered. I put us right there.”
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