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John Wall’s 52 Points Can’t Mask the Wizards’ Stink

Washington’s star point guard is working himself to the bone trying to right the ship, and there’s no rest in sight

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best players in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.

King of the Court: John Wall

Whether or not you believe that participation trophies send the wrong message to children, you’ll agree that John Wall deserves a prize for Tuesday night’s performance: 52 points on 31 shots with eight assists and four rebounds in a 124–116 loss to the Magic. Maybe Wall should be rewarded with a lifetime supply of chicken sandwiches, or perhaps with a trade to a contender; in the meantime, we’ll bestow upon Wall the prestigious honor of being Tuesday’s King of the Court.

Wall’s night was the 333rd instance of a 50-plus-point game since 1963, but only the 90th instance that resulted in a loss, according to Basketball-Reference. In other words, when a player scores 50 or more, his team has won 73 percent of the time — a percentage that would work out to 60 wins if a team sustained it for an 82-game season. Wall’s performance was beautiful, but the loss lingers over it like a stain.

So, too, does the level of exertion Wall put into yet another disappointing Wizards loss. He underwent double knee surgery in May and Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said last month that part of Wall’s rehab plan was “to be real cognizant of his minutes.” The All-Star played 42 minutes and 18 seconds against the Magic on the second night of a back-to-back, and he won’t be playing on more than one day of rest until Christmas weekend.

Unfortunately, he’s the Wizards’ biggest hope of keeping fans in their seats, and any success they have as a team is incumbent on his own success — Wall is the A-list actor cast in a box office flop. The Wizards go from average when Wall is on the floor (plus-0.4 net rating) to a tragic, hopeless mess when he’s riding the pine (minus-10.2 net rating). They’ve thrown “cognizant” out the window; Wall is now tied for the 11th-most minutes played per game in the NBA.

Wall is relatively transparent with the media and has never been afraid to face the music. He was the only player who made himself available to talk after Tuesday’s loss, and critiqued the team’s effort for reporters. “To still be talking about playing hard, that’s something that you should be able to do after just waking up,” Wall said. “If I had the answer we wouldn’t be in this situation, to be honest.” This is about as far as he ever goes; he’s never flat-out said he’s unhappy or wants out, but no one would blame him if he did feel that way.

The Wizards have time to turn this around, since Wall won’t hit free agency until 2019. But if they plan on signing free agents, it doesn’t bode well for them that they couldn’t get a meeting with hometown kid Kevin Durant (or that they probably won’t have much cap space for the next two summers). If their plan is to make a big trade, they lack the valuable assets to acquire another star. Washington has all of its upcoming first-round draft picks, but if the team keeps fighting for the playoffs it’ll keep landing in the mid-lottery-to-mid-first-round range.

Wall’s value couldn’t be any higher right now: He’s locked up through 2019 on a team-friendly contract, he’s apparently healthy enough to play heavy minutes, and he’s having perhaps the best season of his career. With time on their side, the Wizards don’t need to do anything with Wall, but the front office should at least listen once teams start calling. If the Wizards could acquire another top pick in the loaded 2017 draft, in addition to other highly valuable young assets, they would be on a fast-track rebuild. The franchise’s best path to success could be to tear down the Wall.

Runner-up: Kris Dunn

There were many worthy runners-up on Tuesday: Carmelo Anthony scored 35 points in a vintage performance against the Heat; Kawhi Leonard was masterful; Ersan Ilyasova dropped a Marc Gasolesque line in Memphis for the Sixers with 23 points and 17 rebounds. But this night belongs to Wall, so it’s fitting that our runner-up happens to be Walmart John Wall: Kris Dunn. The rookie point guard scored a career-high 15 points in the Wolves’ 105–91 loss to the Spurs and showed flashes of his Wallesque potential. Dunn was 6-of-7 from the field, with all of his points coming from different areas of the floor. Look how quickly Dunn turns the corner in this pick-and-roll:

Sure, the Spurs reserves are on the court and David Lee’s feet are permanently Velcroed to the court, but Dunn’s level of burst and acceleration is rare, and he put it to full use making plays for his teammates:

Dunn’s decision-making has been better than anticipated so far. In limited minutes, he has a 2.1 assist-turnover ratio, which actually exceeds his production in his last season at Providence (1.8). Dunn still needs years of development to ever come close to Wall, but it’s performances like Tuesday’s that provide reason for optimism.