John Wall stood square to the camera during a photo shoot at Washington Wizards Media Day on Friday. To his left was rookie Otto Porter, and to his right, second-year backcourt mate Bradley Beal. They rested their elbows directly on Wall’s shoulders and stared at him expectantly in one of those contrived poses designed for the cover of a game program.
Wall was stoic at first, but soon the corners of his mouth began to curl up, and eventually he broke down in laughter under the gaze of his teammates.
If Wall is feeling similarly light-hearted about bearing the burden of the Wizards’ greatest expectations since the point guard’s arrival in Washington three years ago, he’s playing it close to the vest. However, the five-year, $80-million contract extension he signed during the off-season as well as his purchase of a $4.9 million home in Potomac, Md., firmly establishes him as the focus of a franchise that is entertaining legitimate chatter of the Wizards making the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“I’ve got a lot of (individual) expectations, but I’d rather just keep them to myself,” Wall said. “The biggest one for me is playoffs. I want to see how the city’s going to react and just see everybody with a smile on our face, and our team will get this city back to the promised land.”
The expectations have been with Wall since the Wizards made him the first overall pick of the 2010 draft after one All-American season at Kentucky. The results have been dismal. Washington has a .313 winning percentage in Wall’s first three seasons.
Wall’s career to this point has been marked by turmoil. The Wizards traded away mainstay Gilbert Arenas early in his first season and fired coach Flip Saunders early in a strike-shortened second season. Wall was injured and on the bench to start last season and didn’t return to the lineup until January. The Wizards began dismally but picked up the pace upon Wall’s return and he produced like never before, dishing out a career-high 16 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers and scoring a career-high 47 points against the Memphis Grizzlies as Washington finished 24-25 with him in the lineup.
There was little doubt the Wizards were going to sign Wall to a max contract, and whatever veil of suspense existed was lifted July 31. Now it is his team, and with a core of legitimate NBA players returning as well as the addition of some quality free-agent signings and draft picks, the list of excuses for not contending for the playoffs has dwindled to something negligible.
“Anything less than (reaching the playoffs) is going to be a failure of a season for us,” said veteran forward Al Harrington, who was brought in along with guard Eric Maynor in the off-season.
Wall is generally regarded as more of a passer and floor general than a shooter, unlike Beal. But Beal said he has improved his ball-handling, and Maynor is expected to get plenty of time at the point, so Wall will have the opportunity to create for himself more than he has in the past. With that in mind, he was worked on a floater to compliment his jump shot, which Wall greatly improved in his third season.
“We’re not looking at (Wall) any different,” forward Martell Webster said. “We’re looking for him to pick up where he left off. That kid’s a talent in himself. He’s a one-man fast break. He’s a pass-first point guard, which is big, but he also has the ability to take over games. He opens the floor up so much.”
Washington will have to deal with some injuries to start the season. Center Emeka Okafor’s back is acting up, and there is no firm timetable for his return. Coach Randy Wittman will have plenty of lineups to experiment with which will include some combination of Harrington, the injury-prone Nene Hilario, and returning frontcourt players Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, and Trevor Booker, none of whom distinguished himself last season.
Still, the spotlight will be outside of the paint. Wall, healthy and experiencing the rare luxury of continuity, is the reason the Wizards will rise or remain mired in an era of mediocrity.
“Talent-wise, I think my first year or two we had talent but we just didn’t mesh together and play too much as a team,” Wall said. “We didn’t have concepts of want to do defensively. I think we were all one-on-one players, to be honest.
“Last year and this year the team’s kind of the same. We’ve just added a couple of more pieces that can help us. We’re very talented, it just depends what you do when you step between those lines.”