Technically, the Wizards opened their current campaign Oct. 31. with a road game at Cleveland. But for all intents and purposes, they really didn’t begin until Saturday, when Atlanta visited Verizon Center.
They had limped to a 5-28 record, including three losses against the Hawks. Atlanta needed overtime in two of the prior contests, but Washington had an advantage entering Saturday. Not only were the Hawks on the second night of back-to-back games, they were in town for the season debut of point guard John Wall, the Wizards’ most dynamic player.
Sidelined with a left knee injury, he had to wait 33 miserable games before beginning his third year in the NBA. But he wasted no time in making his presence felt, especially when he put the Hawks away in the fourth quarter. Wall scored three of the Wizards’ final five field goals (and assisted on one of them) in a 93-83 victory.
Washington, which miraculously beat Oklahoma City on Monday, became the NBA’s final team to win two consecutive games this season.
“He’s been looking forward to this day since the end of last year,” coach Randy Wittman said in a postgame news conference. “No one expected it was going to be Jan. 12.”
Wall’s lengthy absence was felt up and down the roster and throughout the organization. If you don’t appreciate what you have until it’s gone, then Wall earned newfound levels of respect in just 21 minutes of action off the bench. He finished with 14 points and a team-high four assists, providing a glimpse of what’s been missed and what’s yet to come.
“It completely changes the dynamics of this team,” forward Martell Webster told reporters. “He opens the court up. He’s able to get in and penetrate and find guys on opposite sides — either side of the ball — and guys are knocking down jump shots. Once we get more into the rhythm with having John out there, I think that we’ll start to complement his game very well.”
As per their custom, Wizards fans are left to imagine the possibilities.
Imagine if Wall and rookie Bradley Beal form an All-Star-caliber backcourt. Imagine if Nene stays healthy and anchors the front court. Imagine if Jan Vesely develops into a serviceable NBA player.
For all the well-earned criticism heaped upon general manager Ernie Grunfeld, the team he envisioned hasn’t taken the floor yet. In addition to Wall being unavailable, Nene missed training camp and the first nine games with a foot injury. Trevor Ariza missed half of the season with a calf injury. Five different point guards have started in Wall’s place, none able to consistently run the offense in a smooth and effective manner.
Entering the season, the Wizards were considered playoff contenders by some with a healthy Wall and Nene. Battling for the eighth spot isn’t saying much, but it would’ve been a major improvement after four seasons in the wilderness. Wall could take a step toward becoming truly elite and the Wizards could move toward becoming respectable.
So much for that vision, another grand plan that worked as well as Denver’s secondary with 30 seconds left against Baltimore. You wonder how many blueprints the Wizards have left before they run out of paper and the ink dries up.
But Wall’s return offers renewed hope for a lost-cause season. The Wizards are 1-0 with him, 5-28 without. Playing around .500 the rest of the way would be a huge accomplishment, indicating what might have happened with a full season of Wall at the point. If he elevates his game as expected — after averaging 16.3 points, 8.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds in his first two seasons — he’ll elevate the players brought in to surround him.
“I’m just trying to get back in shape and get back healthy as much as possible,” he said. “You don’t want to have a setback and have your career cut short.”
Let’s have none of that old Wizards’ mindset creep into the conversation. Although whatever could go wrong often comes to pass for this franchise, let’s consider this a(nother) new start. Wall can work himself back into shape while everyone else settles into place.
“We’ve got to continue to monitor him and take it easy,” Wittman said. “We have to be slow in the process and make sure we’re giving John every opportunity to get back to the level we think he’s capable of getting to.”
For Wall and the Wizards, Saturday marked the first step.