You'd be hard-pressed to find someone in the NBA quicker than Wizards point guard John Wall, who has a blurring, blink-and-you'll-miss-him speed that Nets coach Avery Johnson says makes Wall "a one-on-five fast-break threat." On March 21 against New Jersey, Wall got the ball after a Deron Williams layup and had thrown down a lefthanded tomahawk dunk on the other end so fast the baseline referee didn't have time to cross half-court. So why is it that after a runner-up Rookie of the Year season, Wall's stock has plummeted?
Part of it is Washington, which has redefined dysfunctional. The Wizards opened the season 0--8 and fired coach Flip Saunders shortly thereafter, and the toxic—worse, indifferent—locker room has taken a toll on the 21-year-old Wall. One rival assistant coach says that when Wall was at Kentucky, he was known for his work ethic. "Now," the coach says, "you don't see the same effort."
Part of the blame must go to Wall, whose game, despite recent signs of life, seems to have stagnated. The book on him is that if you can stay in front of him, you can contain him. "He relies too much on his speed," says a scout. "If he could go behind a pick and make a jump shot, how could you stop him? He would be better than Tony Parker."
Interim coach Randy Wittman has tried to simplify the game for Wall, meeting with him before every game to go over three or four ways to attack their opponent. "John has a big heart and big balls, and sometimes that is his greatest weakness," says Wittman. The coach also says he has seen a change in Wall over the last month. "I think John just decided, this season is what it is, and I'm going to make the most of it," he says. The numbers back it up. Over the last 20 games Wall is averaging 18.4 points and 8.8 assists while shooting 46.7% from the floor. Wall recently sought the counsel of Kevin Durant, who endured back-to-back losing seasons to begin his career and emphasized that Wall should be the first guy at the gym and the last to leave.
Wall knew what he was getting into when Washington drafted him but says, "It's time for things to change." The Wizards began disinfecting the roster at the trade deadline, trading the erratic JaVale McGee and Nick Young. The housecleaning will continue in the off-season, with Andray Blatche (amnesty) and Rashard Lewis (buyout) likely to leave. The team picked up a cornerstone player in center Nen√™ for McGee and should add a top five pick in a talent-rich draft in June. Change is coming in Washington, and the Wizards will be counting on Wall's game to continue to change with it.
THE SCOUT SAYS ...
SI had a veteran evaluator weigh in on three pressing NBA questions
WHAT HAS MIKE WOODSON DONE TO ENERGIZE THE KNICKS?
"He hasn't changed a lot. They are still running a lot of pick-and-rolls, only now when they come out of them there are built-in isolation plays for Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire (left). It's empowering them and making them happy. Anthony looks much more comfortable on both ends. Defensively they are more aggressive with their traps, which is creating easier offense."
IS VINNY DEL NEGRO THE RIGHT COACH FOR THE CLIPPERS?
"His offense is predictable: a lot of high ball screens, a lot of elbow sets. A high school coach could devise a game plan to defend it. They are passive defensively, which makes it easy for the top point guards to attack. It's not all on Vinny, though. They have made sweeping changes during the season and have had little practice time to get comfortable with the guys they brought in."
WAS DEREK FISHER A GOOD PICKUP FOR OKLAHOMA CITY?
"[Rookie] Reggie Jackson was not ready to play in the postseason, so Fisher will be a better backup to Russell Westbrook. He's a step slow defensively, but you can live with that in a lesser role. Plus, with his ability to make shots, you can play three-guard lineups with Kevin Durant at the four. And Fisher will be a leader in a locker room without a lot of veteran voices."
NED DISHMAN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (WALL)
ROUGH STUFF When it comes to running the floor, Wall has few peers, but turnovers and a woeful J have held him back.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (STOUDEMIRE)