- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2014

Some Wizards were there from the beginning, seeing the imperceptible daily changes in John Wall the way a parent does with a growing child.

Sometimes it takes people from the outside to note the bigger leaps forward. Four players arrived in Washington just this year and had their preconceived notions of the franchise’s star point guard shattered.

“From the outside looking in, I thought John liked the lifestyle more than the game,” said 16-year NBA veteran Al Harrington, who signed with the team last August. “That’s just from me looking outside.”

Forward Marcin Gortat, acquired in a trade with Phoenix on Oct. 25, just days before the season began, said he was afraid of the city, afraid of the team, which hadn’t made the playoffs in six years, and that he’d heard “rumors” from acquaintances around the league that Wall was overrated, that he wasn’t capable of making his teammates better.

Andre Miller, a 15-year NBA veteran, arrived in a trade from Denver on Feb. 20. His impression of Wall came from television and a handful of games played against the Wizards. He remembered the dancing and posing from when Wall played college basketball at Kentucky and from his rookie year in the NBA. Basketball is supposed to be fun, Miller acknowledged, but Wall appeared to take things too far.

“A young guy enjoying his early NBA experience,” Miller said. “I thought he was a goofball at first. Just a little bit too playful.”

Once they got to know him, though, their perceptions changed.

“It was totally nonsense,” said Gortat. “He’s a tremendous kid. He’s a tremendous talent.”

But even those who knew Wall well, like fellow 2010 draft picks Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker, wondered if this would be his breakthrough year at age 23. Wall told Seraphin during the preseason that he would be an NBA All-Star for the first time this year.

“And to be honest, I did not believe him when he told me that,” Seraphin said. “He knew that. I told him it would be hard. After that he showed me wrong and I’m proud of him.”

Wall played in all 82 games for the Wizards this season, earned that coveted All-Star game spot and led the team to the second round of the playoffs, where it finally lost in six games to the Indiana Pacers. It was the deepest postseason run since 1979 for a franchise that has set a low bar the last 35 years.

“Our goal was to make the playoffs when we started training camp,” Wall said  Monday. “We did that and brought some excitement to the city. When you lose [a series] like that, most people in a locker room would be happy, we accomplished what we wanted. But there was a lot of disappointment. We felt like we could have went further.”

And if they are to make another leap forward, that starts with Wall. He improved to a career-best in points per game (19.3) and assists (8.8), though his overall field-goal percentage stagnated at 43.3 percent. He became a passable 3-point shooter (35.1 percent), developed a lethal floater in the lane and was a defensive terror.

Still, critics harped on Wall’s decision-making, which was suspect during the last four games of the Indiana series. He had 22 turnovers during that stretch, three of those games Washington losses. He shot just 4-of-21 from 3-point range against the Pacers and 7-of-32 overall in the playoffs (21 percent). And Wall doesn’t always filter criticism well.

“John is one of those people that likes to please everybody around him,” Washington forward Trevor Ariza said. “He wants everybody to do well and he takes on the burden of what people think of him a lot. I tried to instill in him that everybody has an opinion, everybody is always going to say something about you no matter how good or how bad you do. Just go out there, run your team and play your game and whatever happens after that happens.

“Nothing else really matters except what those guys in the locker room think about you.”

There is an entire summer to work on becoming a more efficient offensive player. This season, teammates credited a team meeting after a disheartening home loss to Charlotte on April 9 with turning things around. It was one that also showed noticeable changes in Wall.

When coach Randy Wittman was showing video clips of Washington’s offensive struggles, Wall demanded that he go back to focusing on the defensive end. It was a vocal request that wouldn’t have happened his first few years in the league. Teammates picked up on it. The Wizards won nine of their next 10 games, including five in the playoffs.

Harrington said that simply continued a maturation process for Wall that began during a players-only meeting on Nov. 19 before a game against Minnesota following a frustrating 2-7 start. After that, Wall began voicing his opinion more often, even unprompted.

“John really embraced it,” Harrington said. “I guess he really was just waiting for somebody to give him the go-ahead like ‘Look, this your team. Here go the keys.’ After that, he did his thing.”

Early in his career, Wall said, he would have fought back when Wittman pushed him to take more responsibility for his team’s struggles. It isn’t a message players particularly care to hear. But it resonated this time, another step forward for a player with room still to grow.

“If you want to be the best player on the team and the franchise guy, you’ve got to be able to take that criticism in front of the team and sit back and accept it,” Wall said. “If you’re one that wants to argue back, it makes it seem like he can’t get on nobody else. That was a big step I took.”

• Brian McNally can be reached at bmcnally@washingtontimes.com.

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