The news that John Wall returned to limited-contact drills for the first time since September is undoubtedly good news for the beleaguered Washington Wizards, but can we realistically expect him to lead any sort of a comeback in 2013?
Wall suffered a stress injury in his left patella in September, so his return is greatly anticipated by Wizards fans who started the season with so much hope.
This season was supposed to be the year the team started to compete. The addition of Nene galvanized the team toward the end of last year, and drafting Bradley Beal gave Wall a player capable of stretching the floor, as well as a shooting option on pick-and-roll variants.
With Wall out, the point guard position has been in flux. In turn, Beal has had to make a lot of adjustments on the fly, something which he hasn’t always found easy.
He has responded well recently, and being named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for December sealed his maturity as a player. During December, Beal averaged 13.4 points per game, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 steals. His 41 assists led all Eastern Conference rookies.
Even on a team like the Wizards, that gets you noticed.
However, the team is still 4-26, and the worst in the NBA. Injuries have played their part, yes, but does the return of Wall automatically make them dangerous again?
The first thing Wall provides is a spark. He hasn’t played this season, so he is yet to become burdened and disillusioned by all the losses. He has watched his teammates suffer, which couldn't have been easy; but as far as he is concerned, his return marks the start of the season.
A Wall-led Wizards team sits at 0-0 for the year, which has to have an invigorating effect on the rest of the roster.
Point guard A.J. Price—also out with a fractured hand—spoke of the enthusiasm that Wall creates when he is on the court, via CSNWashington.com:
He was extremely active. You could see that he really wanted it. And that’s always good to see, especially from your franchise player, coming back off injury, to show how enthused he was to be back out there and how aggressive he approached the situation.
That’s exactly what the Wizards need on the court right now. Losing all the time dulls the pain of defeat, so when it happens again, it doesn’t ignite the desire to be better next time. A losing routine creates a losing team, which is exactly what the Wizards are right now, and have been for some time.
Stan Van Gundy’s comments to The Washington Post suggested that this is unlikely to change, and that Wall isn’t the player that the Wizards need him to be:
You know, I don’t see it, to be honest. I’d love to tell you you’re two years away; I really don’t [see it]. That roster doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
I know they’ll be better when John Wall comes back. He’s certainly got talent, but I don’t know that even John Wall is a great player to build your franchise around. I don’t know WHO you’re building around, so it’s tough to even think about what the construction of your team is. That’s just a bad basketball team.
As well as effectively ruling himself out of the Wizards coaching job, Van Gundy spoke the words that Wizards fans had been trying to avoid thinking since Wall was drafted:
What if he’s not the guy to turn this thing around?
However, Van Gundy’s comments were a little sensationalist, and his statement that he hadn’t “seen any indication that John Wall is a great decision-maker” rings hollow to those who have watched Wall closely since his introduction to the NBA.
His decision-making improved from his rookie year, and last year he did a good job of finding the open man and making the right pass at the right time. These are key attributes for a point guard, and the improvement—along with the additions of Nene and Beal—got a lot of people excited about this season.
The pace that Van Gundy enthused about has actually been Wall’s enemy at times, which has an effect on the turnovers that SVG pointed to as a minus point.
At the start of last year, Wall looked a little desperate to blind people with speed, which caused him to lose control. He would drive toward the basket with no thought to what he would do when he got there, he just wanted to get there as quickly as possible.
Pace is nothing without control, and Wall’s ball-handling isn’t as developed as his speed, which led to turnovers.
He rectified this more in the second half of last year, and Nene’s influence also seemed to calm him down the stretch. Again, this led to the belief that Beal would provide that extra option Wall has always needed to take teams apart.
Wall has yet to play with Beal and Nene, so it’s unrealistic to expect instant chemistry and blowout victories. He has also yet to prove his fitness, with coach Randy Wittman noting to The Washington Post that he looked “a little rusty, breathing hard.”
If Wall is pushed too far, too soon, he’ll injure himself again. From a cynical point of view, this season is meaningless and all Wall’s return will do is get a few more people into Verizon Center. His recovery needs to be treated with caution and expectations should match that.
However, the thought of Wall linking with Nene and Beal remains as exciting as when Beal came to Washington, and the rookie’s development over the last few weeks has only increased that.
The one thing that is never in short supply in Washington is hope.
Whether it’s the Redskins, Nationals, Capitals or Wizards, next year has always been the year things turn around. Wizards fans are already looking at next year in terms of any meaningful success, but the return of Wall gives D.C. basketball something to cheer for this year.
For a 4-26 team, that might just be enough to keep them coming back.