His nightly walk toward the tunnel is slow. His head is down, his body language unmistakable. This was supposed to be his year to break through, to lead his team out of mediocrity and into the playoffs. His chance to have his name spoken alongside the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo, the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, the Clippers’ Chris Paul.
Instead, he sits on the bench in street clothes, unable to play because of a stress injury to his left knee. He watches helplessly as the Washington Wizards endures their worst start in franchise history. He hears his team become the punchline of bad jokes, fodder for NBA analysts and a source of frustration for Verizon Center fans that is so intense, the booing sometimes starts in the first quarter.
For John Wall, this wasn’t how his third year in the league was supposed to begin.
Leading the culture change
Wall expected the pressure. He was prepared for it.
After arriving in Washington as the first pick in the draft two seasons ago, it took almost no time for the organization to try and wipe away the gun-toting sins of Gilbert Arenas by promising that the 19-year-old Wall would lead the team into a new era.
“I been dealing with pressure my whole life, so it’s not no big deal to me,” Wall said shortly before the season began. “When I came here I had to I was the main piece.”
Wall’s mentality is that of a pass-first point guard, but the makeup of the Wizards makes it necessary for him to score. He has career averages of 16.3 points and 8.2 assists. Despite initial estimates that his injury would sideline him for the first month of the season, that month has come and gone. Wall still has no timetable for his return.
For now, he can only watch as a miserable season unfolds.
But Wall was not supposed to do it alone. At last season’s trading deadline, team president Ernie Grunfeld pulled off what he thought was a major coup — acquiring 6-foot-11 center Nene and unloading two talented but undisciplined players in JaVale McGee and Nick Young.
“[God] put me here, and I know when he traded me to somewhere, it’s for better things,” the deeply spiritual center said at the time of his trade from Denver to Washington.
Nene’s presence had an immediate impact. His veteran savvy and high basketball IQ gave the Wizards exactly what Grunfeld wanted when he made the deal — an anchor at what he called the two most important spots on the floor, center and point guard.
But Nene has been slowed by a recurring case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot. The Brazilian big man missed 10 games last season and all of training camp this season.
He was hoping to wait until he was 100 percent healthy before playing, but the Wizards‘ struggles have made that a luxury neither he nor the team can afford.
He missed the first eight games and sat out against San Antonio on Nov. 26, but one look at the grimace on his face in the Wizards‘ locker room after games, his left foot soaking in an ice tub, and it’s clear he’s far from 100 percent. As for the rest of the Wizards‘ rebuild, it’s falling like a house of cards.