NBA Saturday: Wall Thrilled to Be in Playoff Hunt

Wall Thrilled to Be in Playoff Hunt

John Wall doesn’t try to hide his excitement about the 2013-14 NBA season. As the Washington Wizards find themselves on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time in Wall’s four-year NBA career, the 23-year-old is all smiles.

While the Wizards haven’t officially secured a playoff berth, they are currently in the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed at 34-31. They’re five and a half games up on the challengers for the eighth seed, and Hollinger’s NBA Playoff Odds give Washington a 100 percent chance of making the playoffs based on their simulations.

Wall realizes how close the Wizards are to achieving the goal he has set out to accomplish for the last few years, and he seems to be enjoying himself.

Shortly after the Wizards defeated the Orlando Magic in overtime on Friday night, Wall buzzes around the locker room like a hyper child. He jokes with nearby veteran Al Harrington about how much longer he’ll be in the NBA (Wall pleads for the 34-year-old to play several more years; Harrington laughs and says only if he gets to skip training camp every year). He talks trash about the upcoming NCAA Tournament, and reminisces on his dance moves that took the nation by storm while he was at Kentucky.

After winning 23 games as a rookie, 20 games as a sophomore and 29 games last year, Wall is ecstatic that the team is now competing every night and celebrating rather than sulking in the postgame locker room. When asked how much fun he is having this season, Wall lights up.

“We’re finally over 29 wins! It’s been fun,” Wall said with a smile. “But like I’ve been saying for awhile, we’re far from finalizing our playoff spot. We still have a long way to go. We still have 17 games left, I think, and if you lose 10 in a row or something like that, you could be out of the playoffs. So we’re trying to stay level-headed, we haven’t gotten locked in to a spot right now so we need to keep competing and fighting because there are a lot of great teams that are right behind us.”

Fans don’t realize how much of a toll losing takes on players, and Wall was clearly fed up with the team’s struggles in recent years. Wall, like most NBA players, grew up winning at every level. His teams were always on top or, at the very least, in contention and he was usually the best player on the floor. Going from being a perennial winner to losing 158 of 230 games over a three-year span is hard for an extremely competitive athlete.

It also leads to criticism and doubt. In recent years, Wall’s talent and leadership were questioned. Some wondered if he was a franchise player. When the Wizards decided to give Wall a maximum contract extension last summer, some critics felt that he wasn’t worth such a lucrative deal.

However, Wall responded by delivering his best season as a pro and his production has translated into success for the Wizards. He is averaging 19.6 points, 8.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals. When he runs the Wizards’ offense, he seems much more comfortable and he elevates the play of those around him. While he is still capable of outrunning everyone down the court for easy points in transition, the game has also slowed down for him, which has helped his decision-making and control. Wall leads the league in assists and ranks third in steals.

There’s no question that he’s one of the best up-and-coming point guards in the NBA, and he was named to his first All-Star team this season. Wall takes that honor very seriously, and has embraced everything that comes with that title.

“When you’re an All-Star, you have to step up and take on a bigger role,” Wall said. “That’s the situation I’m willing to accept and do and something I’ve been doing all year in being a leader. The one thing I think I proved and learned is that you don’t have to do it all by just scoring. You do it by doing different things, in playing better defense, getting your teammates involved and just having that energy that I have when I play well against those other point guards who do it on a consistent basis.”

Wall sensed that this could be a huge year for the Wizards after watching how well the team fared when he returned from injury toward the end of last season. Washington finished last year’s campaign on a strong note, beating a number of playoff squads and making people wonder how good they could’ve been had injuries not held them back.

“At the end of last year, we were fighting and we were in every game,” Wall said. “We had one of the best records in the NBA at the end of the year when everybody got healthy. So we knew what kind of team we could have this year, how good we could be. But the biggest thing for us now is just trying to get everyone healthy down the stretch to try to fight for a better playoff spot and then make a run there.”

Maturity is another area where Wall has made significant strides in recent years. Not only is he more of a vocal leader, he’s understanding what it takes for a team to be successful. Take the game against Orlando, for example. Wall struggled with his shot for much of the first half, at one point missing seven of his first eight attempts. However, he continued to impact the game, setting up plays for others, playing stifling defense, hustling up and down the court and then, late in the game, finally hitting a number of key buckets to lift the Wizards in overtime. He admits that he’s gotten much better about keeping his composure and continuing to affect a game even when things aren’t going smoothly for him.

“In the past, I probably wouldn’t have been hustling back. I would’ve been pouting and keeping my head down,” Wall admitted. “The one thing that we understand is that we have to play defense for 48 full minutes, because when we’re not hitting shots, that’s how we’re going to win games.”

Wall’s evolution into an elite point guard has certainly been the catalyst for Washington’s success, but the fact that the Wizards brought in a number of experienced veterans definitely helped the team on and off the court as well. Players like Nene, Marcin Gortat, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Andre Miller, Al Harrington and Drew Gooden have been in the league for a long time and understand what teams need to do in order to realize their full potential. They have given Wall an arsenal of weapons to work with on the court, but also been invaluable for him off the court.

“They’re great and having them around makes my life so much easier,” Wall said of Washington’s veterans. “I’m always talking to those guys. To have those guys trusting in me and believing me as a young point guard in this league, it means a lot. Without those guys, I don’t think I’d be who I am today. They’re the ones who have given me this confidence and trusted me with the basketball. They’ve helped me become who I am today.”

The veterans have been just as impressed by Wall this season. Ariza and Webster, who joined the Wizards last season, rave about their floor general.

“He makes this team go,” Ariza said. “We’re going to go as far as he takes us. He makes all of the plays and he’s becoming a really good leader here. He’s been unbelievable for this team.”

“He’s grown a lot,” Webster said. “He has a competitive nature, that’s just the way that he is. When you have that competitive nature, it’s easy to get things going. It takes very little to motivate him. He accepts the challenge each and every game. He knows all of the opponent’s plays in advance, he’s calling them out. He’s a general out there. He knows things that are going to happen before they even happen and that’s big. He’s talking to us as they’re bringing the ball up the court and letting us know what they’re going to be doing. That’s big. And offensively, he’s taken his game to another level. I love his confidence, and we’re going to need that in the postseason.”

In recent years, Wall would tell anyone who would listen that his primary goal was to lead Washington to the postseason. Now, it appears he’ll be able to cross that off of his to-do list and start focusing on making noise in the playoffs and turning the Wizards into a legitimate contender in the East. If Wall’s tremendous leap forward this season is an indication of what’s to come in the next few years, it’s certainly a realistic goal.

O’Quinn Dominating on Defense | by Mary Stevens (@marypazstevens)

Orlando Magic big man Kyle O’Quinn is developing into a solid NBA player who can provide depth to a roster and impact games as a consistent defensive presence.

The 6’10 forward has turned into a shot blocking machine for the Magic in the past couple of months. He spent the first part of the season mostly on the bench, but lately he’s found himself playing a lot more minutes. Since the All-Star break, O’Quinn is averaging 20.8 minutes per game as opposed to 13.5 minutes per game before the break.

The Queens native is taking advantage of the opportunity given to him by head coach Jacque Vaughn. He set a career-high of six blocks against the Detroit Pistons in early February. A few days after that, he dished out a career-high of seven assists. He then went on to set a new career-high in rebounds against the Miami HEAT with 15 boards in early March. He is becoming a well-rounded player who can contribute to his team in a variety ways.

Offensively, O’Quinn has been working on his jump-shot throughout the season. He knows that he has to work on his strengths to get to the next level. Coach Vaughn has noticed his hard work and, as a result, O’Quinn has been in the Magic’s starting lineup for three consecutive games.

With 15 games to go in the 2013-14 season, O’Quinn has recorded 60 blocks. During his rookie year, O’Quinn tallied 26 blocks over the 56 games. He leads the Magic in rejections with 1.1 blocks per game and is tied for 30th in the NBA for most blocks this season.

“I think I’m getting pretty comfortable with the defense,” O’Quinn said of his growth. “Guys like Jameer [Nelson] and Arron [Afflalo] are constantly reminding you of the right things to do.”

When the Magic hosted the Houston Rockets recently, O’Quinn blocked Dwight Howard late in the game, which resulted in the loudest cheers of the night. That will probably be one of the most memorable moments of the season for Magic fans.

From talking to his teammates, O’Quinn has changed the way he approaches the game and it’s had a direct effect on court. He has not only become more vocal but he has also become the aggressor and a stronger defensive player.

Nelson is one of many people who has helped O’Quinn develop in the past two seasons. The veteran point guard has tried to guide O’Quinn and take him under his wing.

“He’s definitely grown in different areas,” Nelson said of O’Quinn. “I think it’s mainly his preparation before the game. He’s developing more of a professional approach. He’s starting to know gameplan situations and personnel. He wasn’t getting a lot of minutes its hard and it’s human nature not to be focused at times. He’s been more of a professional.”

O’Quinn is not a player who will take 20 shots a game, but he is a player that will make hustle plays to help his team. Numerous times he has blocked someone at one end and then outrun players on the other end.

“Now that he is playing a lot more, he is playing with a lot more confidence,” Victor Oladipo said of O’Quinn. “We have confidence in him and trust him out there. When he plays hard and he’s active he’s definitely a huge spark for us.”

Overall, O’Quinn has grown a lot since his rookie year but one thing hasn’t changed – he’s still a supportive teammate. O’Quinn is a great locker room guy and very vocal on the bench. He is arguably the funniest guy on the team and he’s always in good spirits. He’s usually the first guy off the bench and the first guy to congratulate his teammates when they do something good.

O’Quinn, like most of his teammates, is young and looking to improve. Orlando’s young core continues to progress, but they’re still trying to find their way in the NBA. The Magic are a very young team; 10 of their 14 players are between 20-24 years old. Most of the guys are constantly hanging out, which has resulted in great chemistry on-and-off the court.

At 24 years old, O’Quinn has come a long way since high school. He didn’t start playing basketball until later in his high school days. Upon graduation, Norfolk State was the only school to give him a free ride.  He made the best of that situation and was drafted in the second round by the Magic in 2012.

O’Quinn and his beard will remain in Orlando for the 2014-15 unless the Magic waive him before July 15, 2014.

Mary Stevens is a guest contributor for Basketball Insiders. You can follow Stevens on Twitter here and read more of her work on sportstalkflorida.com.


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