The Washington Wizards were two wins away from making the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, but finished last season with a 41-41 record and failed to make the playoffs. The Wizards were one of the most disappointing teams last season as they struggled to adapt to a faster style of play, suffered several injuries and failed to find any sustained rhythm or success.
The Wizards made some drastic changes after the season, including the firing of Randy Wittman and hiring of former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks. They also added other players like Ian Mahinmi, Tomáš Satoranský, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith and Trey Burke, though they did lose solid veterans in Jared Dudley, Nene and Ramon Sessions. While the coaching change and shuffling of players is certainly significant, no one is more important in determining how far the Wizards can go this season than star point guard John Wall.
Early in the offseason, Wall underwent an operation to excise calcific deposits in his left patella tendon and an arthroscopic lavage on his right knee to remove loose bodies. The Wizards and Wall have been reserved in discussing the operations, and there was some concern that he may not be ready for the regular season opener later this month. However, Wall made his preseason debut on Monday night and looked as though he has recovered well from his offseason operations.
In roughly 16 minutes of action against the New York Knicks, Wall contributed eight points, four assists, three rebounds, and one steal. That’s a pretty solid night for someone who underwent an operation on each leg this offseason and has only participated in limited workouts recently. Wall was aggressive in the open court, tried executing some difficult passes and operated frequently in the pick-and-roll.
Wall certainly isn’t 100 percent yet, but the hope is that his conditioning will improve and he will get closer to full strength through the early stages of the season.
“It ain’t going to be my knees, my knees, my knees,” Wall said. “Nah, I’m past that stage. All the hard work I put in to get to where I want to be and all the hard work I’m still going to put in to make sure I don’t have the same injury recurring again — I’m fine [and] past that point. It’s just about taking care of my body and making sure I do everything the right way every day consistently.”
One player who is especially happy to have Wall back on the court is center Marcin Gortat.
“Offensively you can always catch the rhythm. You might need a game [or] two or three to get your rhythm and find those sweet spots, to get the chemistry going,” Gortat said before the Wizards’ game against the New York Knicks. “Obviously me and John, this is our fourth year together. I can read him like an open book. He knows what I’m going to do. We don’t have to worry about that.”
Having a healthy Wall is obviously important considering he is a top-level point guard, but it’s especially important for this year’s squad since they only have Trey Burke, Tomáš Satoranský and Casper Ware at backup point guard.
Burke, who was drafted ninth in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves and then traded to the Utah Jazz for the 14th and 21st picks, is entering his fourth season in the NBA was highly regarded entering the league out of the University of Michigan. However, Burke has yet to live up to early expectations and hasn’t proven that he can be an adequate replacement for Wall if he suffers another injury. Additionally, while Satoranský has high level experience playing in the Spanish ACB League and has shown some nice potential in the preseason, it’s unlikely that he could keep the Wizards afloat as a replacement starter if Wall’s injuries become a recurring issue at any point this season. Though Ware faces an uphill battle in terms of making the Wizards’ roster, he has had his moments in preseason (including his confrontation with Brandon Jennings) and has earned the respect of Brooks.
“I always focus on playing the game the right way and one thing about Casper, he’s trying to make the team,” Brooks said. “Whatever the other guy wants to talk about and do, [Ware’s] trying to make the team. You’ve got to respect guys like Casper. It’s not easy making this league and he’s putting himself in position to make it in the league. Whatever the other guy was saying — that’s not how we do things. We want to focus on what we need to do and play good basketball and respectful basketball.”
While the Wizards have options at point guard, no one comes close to producing at the level Wall does.
In 77 regular season games played last season, Wall averaged 19.9 points, 10.2 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 1.2 steals, while shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from beyond the arc. Wall was third in assists per game (10.2), third in total assists (789), eighth in steals per game (1.9), 19th in usage percentage (28.6), 6th in minutes per game (36.2) and 16th in Value Over Replacement Player (3.7). In other words, Wall is a very productive player and is the driving force behind Washington’s offensive system. Having him healthy entering the season gives the Wizards a chance to do some damage in the wide open Eastern Conference.
As good as Wall is, he can’t lead the Wizards to anything significant without the help of his backcourt mate, Bradley Beal. Beal has struggled with injuries throughout his young career, but he will be counted on for increased production and leadership this season after signing a five-year, $128 million deal.
One of the biggest things to keep an eye on is the working relationship between Wall and Beal. Wall made headlines in late August when he made some pretty candid statements about his relationship with Beal.
“I think a lot of times we have a tendency to dislike each other on the court,” Wall told CSN’s Chris Miller. “We got to be able to put that to the side. If you miss somebody on one play or don’t have something go right … as long as you come to each other and talk. If I start arguing with somebody I’m cool. I’m just playing basketball.
“Now that you have your money, you got to go out there and improve your game. I want you to be an All-Star just as much as I’m an All-Star. If we were playing well as a tandem like the other two superstars that play together as a backcourt, play as a tandem, one night it’s going to be his night, one night it’s going to be mine, some nights it might be both of us. Those are nights it’s going to be tough to beat us.”
Since these quotes came out, it seems that Wall and Beal have made positive progress in their relationship with one another. Additionally, Coach Brooks has a strong track record for building a strong culture and relationship between his players in Oklahoma City. If Brooks could make Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook play together in an effective, though at times frustrating, manner, then he should be able to meet this challenge as well.
The Wizards are one of the harder teams to predict entering this season, but they’ve past the first obstacle – getting Wall back healthy in time for opening night.
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