WASHINGTON — John Wall is sending messages to himself, mapping out an agenda in scribbles and snapshots: reminders of goals not yet achieved and slights both real and imagined.
There are rankings to set straight, doubts to squelch, expectations to manage. So Wall is utilizing every available tool—a cell-phone camera to capture the insults, a Sharpie to spell out his mission.
When the Washington Wizards open the season Oct. 30 in Detroit, Wall will take the court with the word “playoffs” scribbled on his shoes. He will repeat the exercise every day, through 82 games, lest he or anyone else lose sight of the goal.
“You will see it on all my shoes,” Wall said last week. “Every game pair is going to have `playoffs’ on it. That’s my main determination.”
This will be, Wall quickly noted, his fourth NBA season, and it is time to deliver on the promise of being the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft. He has a new, $80 million contract extension in hand, healthy knees, a sturdy surrounding cast and the full support of the franchise.
“I should be in the playoffs,” Wall said.
This is not an uncommon opinion. Many analysts and team executives believe Washington is primed to end its five-year postseason drought, based on the Wizards’ strong showing last season after Wall returned from a knee injury.
The Wizards went 24-25 with Wall in the lineup. They were even better when Wall and Bradley Beal, their sweet-shooting rookie guard, shared the court. From Jan. 12 (the night Wall returned) through April 2 (the night Beal was lost to a leg injury), the Wizards went 23-18.
Even a .500 record should be sufficient to make the postseason in the top-heavy, bottom-poor Eastern Conference. (Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks earned a playoff spot with a .463 winning percentage.)
The question is whether Wall, the Wizards’ blazing-fast, turnover-prone, jump shot-challenged point guard, is ready to lead them there.
There are doubts. Wall knows this. He has seen the critiques and the positional rankings. He carries them on his phone, as photographic motivation.
“I got snappings of all type of rankings,” Wall said. “I like it.”
Wall looks in the mirror and sees a top 10 point guard—and potentially “the best point guard in the league.” He said he has seen himself ranked as low as 19th. (Most outlets rank Wall between eighth and 10th, and in good company, just behind Rajon Rondo and Deron Williams.)
Wall is just 23, but some impressions have already been set: He can’t shoot. He makes poor decisions. He can’t win.
The last critique is the most stinging. No. 1 picks and players with “max” contracts are expected to change their teams’ fortunes, and quickly. The Wizards were not so easily fixed, however.
Wall’s first two seasons overlapped with what could best be described as the Wizards’ Knucklehead Era, when Gilbert Arenas, JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Andray Blatche ruled the locker room, making a mess of things on and off the court. Wall was drafted just six months after the infamous gun-play incident involving Arenas and Javaris Crittenton.
By last fall, the Wizards had cleared out the flotsam and refocused their identity around Wall and Beal, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, along with a cast of steady veterans, including Emeka Okafor, Martell Webster and Nene.
Any chance for a quick revival ended when Wall was diagnosed with a stress injury in his left patella on the eve of training camp. The Wizards went 5-28 in his absence, their worst start ever through 33 games.
“I felt bad…that I couldn’t help them,” Wall said.
It could have been worse. Wall later said that the injury had become a stress fracture (although the team said it was a stress reaction). “I was on the verge of breaking my knee cap,” he said last week. “Scary.”
Wall had spent the entire 2012 offseason working on his game, his jump shot in particular. Suddenly, he was facing the possibility of losing an entire season.
“I was really losing it,” Wall said. “I keep hearing: I don’t know if I can be back.”
There was one final test to pass in early January before getting cleared. If he failed, Wall said, he would have been forced to have surgery.
“It would have been a wasted year,” he said.
Wall did pass the test and made his celebrated return on Jan. 12, in a victory over the Atlanta Hawks. The Wizards won six of their first nine games with Wall on the court, including victories over the Denver Nuggets and the Chicago Bulls. Then came a four-game winning streak, with victories over the Los Angeles Clippers, the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks, all top-tier playoff teams.
“He was extremely poised for the situation, I’ll tell you that,” Webster said. “For him missing that many games, and then coming back and almost picking up like he hadn’t lost a step? That was pretty amazing to see.”
Any doubts about Wall’s ability to lift up his teammates should have faded over that 49-game stretch. With Wall on the court, the Wizards produced 102.1 points per 100 possessions, near the league average; when Wall was out (or on the bench), the Wizards produced 93.1 points per 100 possessions, which would have ranked last.
With Wall on the court and orchestrating, the Wizards’ three-point accuracy rose from .341 to .406. Trevor Ariza shot 42.2 percent from the arc with Wall on the court, and 29 percent without him. Beal’s three-point rate increased from 34.1 percent to 50 percent. Webster went from 41.1 percent to 43.3 percent (all stats per NBA.com).
“When you have your superstar point guard and the maestro of the team out there leading the way, I mean, there’s no words for that,” Webster said.
Because of injuries and the 2011 lockout, Wall has played 184 games in his young career—62 fewer than he would have in three full seasons, robbing him of precious development time.
Wall still turns over the ball too often, averaging 3.7 turnovers per game for his career. His jump shot, however, remains the biggest blemish in his arsenal.
Wall’s three-point shooting is so poor—24.3 percent for his career—that defenses hardly need to guard him at the arc. But he struggles from nearly every zone inside the line as well. According to one team’s accounting, Wall last season shot 38 percent between 18 feet and the arc, 37 percent in the 14-18 foot range and just 42.5 percent between 2 and 14 feet. He is at or below average in each of those areas, which hardly suggests stardom.
“My first two years, I wasn’t really confident,” Wall said, “because I didn’t believe in myself and some other people didn’t believe in me. But that was just me not being confident in my own ability.”
With another offseason of training and shooting drills behind him, Wall said, “My confidence level is at an all-time high.” He added, “This is the most comfortable I’ve felt with shooting the ball. So I don’t care if I miss 12 straight. I still will shoot an open shot without no hesitation.”
Despite everything, Wall averaged 18.5 points and 7.6 assists last season and is the sixth-fastest player in NBA history to reach 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in a career, hitting those marks in just 124 games.
With a better jumper and a little more judicious passing, Wall might yet threaten to break the top tier of point guards. Early reports from training camp were positive.
“I think he’s taken a step,” coach Randy Wittman said. “Direction and being a leader, and vocal, and being the guy that kind of gets everybody where they need to be.”
Wall is asserting his leadership in smaller ways, as well. Before the Wizards took a preseason trip to Brazil last week, Wall gave each of his teammates customized headphones, in the colors of the Brazilian flag.
“Just thought I’d do something for my teammates,” he said with a smile.
Wall said he wants to be known as “a respectable person and a respectable player.”
But the scrutiny will persist until Wall leads the Wizards into the postseason, at a minimum. The Wizards were widely criticized this summer for handing him a fat contract extension so soon.
One scout who has watched Wall extensively questioned Wall’s playmaking instincts and defensive effectiveness, as well as his shooting form. And although Wall is great in transition, where his speed is an asset, he has been shaky in the halfcourt, where his lateral movement is not nearly as swift.
“Where is the case for him?” the scout said. “Make the case for him.”
Asked where Wall ranks among point guards, the scout called him “middle of the pack.”
That clicking sound you hear is Wall’s cell phone, capturing another snapshot for the portfolio.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.