Within a team meeting pushing hours, John Wall sat and listened to veterans lash out and grumble about misplaced shooting tendencies of younger players. Nene had pressed the issues of selfish play days earlier and Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington hatched a team sitdown nine games into the season, a cleansing of beliefs about distributing offensive touches and roles, about minutes and schemes.
Everyone spoke, everyone provided opinions on why another season had started like so many others for the Washington Wizards: unorganized and mismanaged. Final say? The exchanges stopped upon John Wall’s words.
Essentially, teammates gave Wall the room, centered him in a classroom setting and asked: What should our roles be? You’re the heralded franchise star, the organization’s maximum salary designation. How about you tell us?
“From that day forward, I knew I was the guy, the leader, and I knew that they trusted me,” Wall told RealGM. “I let everybody know what I thought about our state. I think we were passing the ball, but when you’re not playing good for a stretch, frustration sets in. So guys find a way to blame it on somebody else or something else. Nene told me to stand up in front of the whole team and told me, ‘You’re our leader, you’re our franchise guy, so tell us what you think everybody’s roles are.’
“My first few years, I didn’t have really great veteran leaders. It was tough on me trying to learn and trying to stay healthy at the same time to improve my game for the NBA. Trevor won a championship – [Marcin] Gortat, Nene, guys who have been to the playoffs – I’m trying to learn from them and be in their shoes.
“These past two years, I’ve had great veterans – guys who see how hard I work and trust my talent. They want to see me progress.”
Ernie Grunfield stockpiled talented assets after Gilbert Arenas’ disruptive exit, drafting Nick Young, JaVale McGee and Wall over the course of four NBA Drafts. Misfit parts surrounded them, decaying veterans built around a cast of brash, unseasoned twentysomethings, and Wall rapidly learned the fine line between toxic youth and refined experience.
Finally, Wall believes the Wizards surrounded him with qualified vets and stability in the coaching staff. A 2-7 start, correctable misunderstandings among younger and older players, and the team sensed people in the city wonder – here we go again. Only Wall delivered on his summer declarations and became a first-time All-Star, a locker room galvanized and turned disagreements into cooperation, roles solidified, and now Washington is in legitimate contention for homecourt advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“We might have our bumps and moments where we argue and not agree on a lot of things,” Wall said, “but we’re professional, we’re all grown men, and we all know how to talk to each other. We didn’t start the way we were capable of, but we all respect each other and we want each other to do good.”
When opposing scouts discuss a heightened level of playmaking, of the game slowing down for someone, look no further than Wall. Even on his worst shooting nights, the Wizards notice an engaged point guard, a reflection of maturity, ease and a fulfilled contract extension.
Wall secured his long-term deal in late July, and he recognizes the looming free agencies of Ariza and Gortat. Now, Wall, 23, has assumed the responsibility to let pending both pending free agents know about his desire for them to stay with the Wizards. Ariza is an indispensible defender and shooter this season, a former NBA champion whom teammates trust. Despite talk the Wizards explored negotiating an extension during the season, Gortat had made clear before the season that he would solely focus on playing out his contract prior to becoming a free agent, sources told RealGM.
“Trevor and Gortat already know how I feel about them,” Wall told RealGM. “I talked to Trevor about when he could have opted out this past season and I wanted him to come back. I know it’s a tough situation for him because you never know when your career is over. You want to get closer to winning championships, but I feel like if we stick together, anything can happen.
“I signed five years for a reason: Yeah, I want to keep this core going. I want to keep winning and bring some excitement back to D.C.”
This is what he had been telling everyone in Summer League and Team USA minicamps, a typical moment for excessive confidence out of the league’s every sector. Yet he’s spent the season supporting those promises, individual- and team-related. In truth, Nene’s return from a sprained knee ligament could be wishful thinking for Wall and these Wizards, but Randy Wittman’s got them believing their existing talent compensates.
Wall had grown so accustom to the scene: a lackluster start to the season and segments of the Washington locker room slowly griping. This team meeting, teammates had settled upon the chair of the franchise’s max player. This time, John Wall received the final say.