- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2012

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.

Draft hits and misses

The rest of the three-year plan as echoed by Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis calls for rebuilding through the draft and developing the right mix of young players and veterans. Last year’s picks — No. 6 overall selection Jan Vesely, No. 18 Chris Singleton and No. 34 Shelvin Mack — have failed to make an impact.

Mack was waived at the start of the season, Singleton struggled last year after being forced into a starter’s role too quickly and Vesely has been an all-out disappointment.

This season, Singleton is starting to show signs of growth and consistency, but Vesely is rapidly regressing. He has more fouls (34) than points (29) or rebounds (30). His playing time is decreasing, and the criticism of the 7-footer from the Czech Republic has become so intense that Leonsis felt the need to take to his blog, “Ted’s Take” to defend him.

“This is his second year in the NBA, and he is playing without a starting point guard who can push the pace of play,” Leonsis wrote. “We shouldn’t be so fast to write him off as a player. This is easy to do in media but not something that is smart to do for our franchise.”

But it was Wizards coach Randy Wittman who issued the following critique of Vesely’s play.

“He’s got to become more of a basketball player on the floor and not a one-dimensional player,” Wittman said. “He needs to play better. He’s nonaggressive, and he can’t play that way. You can’t let people not have to guard you.”

As for this season’s draft pick, shooting guard Bradley Beal, 14 games is far too small a sample size to make an evaluation, especially with Wall out of the lineup.

Thrust right into a starting role, the 19-year-old is showing the expected signs of inconsistency and growing pains.

Flashes of potential are visible, and with the right development, he could flourish. With the wrong development, he could flounder.

Rounding out the roster

The rest of the Wizards‘ roster is a haphazard mix of effort, energy and hustle players, but not much else.

In what appears at first glance to be a bizarre stat line, it accurately sums up the Wizards — all role players and no star power.

Washington is the NBA’s worst team at 1-13, yet has the best-scoring bench in the league, averaging 44.9 points. It’s an odd stat since it includes Nene, who isn’t healthy enough to resume his starter’s role. What makes it even more confounding is that the bench players change since Wittman already has used four different starting lineups. Even the coach found humor in the situation.

“I’m going to tell them before the game that it’s halftime or the middle of the first quarter when we go out there,” Wittman joked. “You guys that are starting are really bench players. I put the guys that are on the bench doing all the scoring in the starting lineup, and then they can’t score.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one league scout assessed the Wizards the following way: “They have a great bench because all their players are bench players. Their starters, except John [Wall] and Nene, would make great backups for just about any team in the league.”

Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Miami Heat, the Wizards were on pace to finish 6-76 — the worst record in NBA history for an 82-game season. As Nene plays through the pain in his foot, and Wall watches in stunned silence, the team’s two key players seems to be sharing a single thought — it wasn’t supposed to be this way.