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“I Was Just Playing the Normal Game I Play”

John Wall missed a potential game-tying 3 in Washington’s overtime loss to the Lakers. The question for the point guard and his team remains: How much better does Wall have to be for the Wizards to be great?

Lonzo Ball attempts a shot while being defended by John Wall Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It was not a good last shot. Scott Brooks knew it. Bradley Beal knew it. John Wall knew it better than anyone.

It was a weird game for Wall and the Wizards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday. They had the game under control for much of the evening—until it slipped away in the fourth quarter, and then the fourth quarter slipped into overtime, and then they didn’t have any control at all. What they had was one last chance, down three, to beat the Lakers on their court. They hardly made the most of their final opportunity.

No, it was not a good shot. On top of it being an awkward heave at the hoop, Wall also passed up an opportunity to swing the ball to Beal in front of the Lakers’ bench for what would have been a wide-open corner 3-point attempt. Instead, Wall shot it himself and the Wizards fell, 102-99. It was Washington’s first loss of the season.

Afterward, Beal called it an atypical outing. “I don’t know who were tonight,” he said, “but we weren’t the Washington Wizards.” He said he “didn’t fault” Wall for taking the last shot, but he conceded that he was open in the corner. Wall acknowledged it, too. Time was ticking down, but Wall said the clock didn’t force his decision. He saw Beal in the corner, but chose to take the shot himself instead. “I still could have made the pass, just to see what could happen,” Wall said. “It wasn’t a good shot.”

The result—losing to the Lakers and handing them their second victory of the season—was not what the Wizards expected. As Beal put it, “We know the team we have to be, and to do that we have to have wins like this.” The team they want to be is an upgrade of the squad that won 49 games a season ago and lost to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But in order to advance beyond that, the Wizards need Wall to be the best version of himself on almost every night—even when they’re not playing against an ever-growing number of superteams. Even when they’re just playing the still-learning Lakers. Which takes us back to that less-than-ideal final play.

“John, we have to find a better shot,” Brooks said bluntly. “He’s better than that. I trust John’s decision. I didn’t like the shot, but I trust his decision. He’s made a lot of great decisions over the years, and with me the last year and four games. So I live with those decisions, but we have to get better with them.”

Wall had 18 points and nine assists Wednesday, but he also notched four turnovers, converted just seven of 22 shots from the field, and finished minus-14. There were a couple of highlight plays—he hit Lonzo Ball with a nasty crossover early on and then blew past him later for a filthy dunk—but his performance did not quite match the pregame promises.

For his part, Wall tried to be (somewhat) diplomatic* about the whole affair before the game. (*“Diplomatic” as graded on the Patrick Beverley Weakass Motherfucker Scale.) Wall told The Washington Post that there are “certain matchups you really get up for” and put Ball in that category, along with guys like Steph Curry. Which was nice of him, I thought. But Wall also warned: “This is the league now. It’s a different ballgame.” Then he channeled his inner Cobra Kai sensei and said there would be “no mercy” for Ball and the Lakers.

Try as he did, Wall did not sweep the (metaphorical) legs of Lonzo or the Lakers. Nor did he torture Ball as Marcin Gortat predicted. Lonzo didn’t score his first field goal until the third quarter; he scored his second (and final) field goal in overtime. But Ball still ended up with two impressive stats: 10 assists and eight rebounds. He was also a plus-13 in the win. That Wall didn’t burn Ball and render him a pile of point-guard ashes might have been frustrating for Wall. After all, every time Wall steps on the court, it feels like he’s trying to flambé the opposition. Wall has the same I’ll-show-you quality demonstrated by guys like Russell Westbrook and, before him, Allen Iverson.

But if any of that was on Wall’s mind during the game—the aforementioned desire to demonstrate to Lonzo that “this is the league now”—he wouldn’t cop to it after. He was so insistent on that point that he broke into the third person when pressed on the matter.

“Never. You watch John Wall play, John Wall plays always aggressive,” John Wall said about John Wall. “Doesn’t matter. Play, try to find my teammates, try to make shots—the same shots I’ve been taking all year. Some of them didn’t fall today, but I wasn’t letting all that get to me. I was just playing the normal game I play.”

That’s fine. But it also presents the same question that has faced the Wizards for years: How much better does John Wall have to be for the Wizards to be great?

Through the first four games, Wall is averaging 22.8 points, 9.8 assists, three rebounds, 1.3 blocks, and one steal. Those are the kinds of numbers we’ve come to expect from him. Wall averaged 10 assists in each of the past three seasons—placing him in the top three in the league every year during that stretch. Among point guards, he also had a top-10 PER in each of those seasons.

But while Wall has been an All-Star the past four seasons running, it sometimes feels like he’s overlooked. Consider one of ESPN’s preseason promos—a beautiful mosaic, replete with some of the best players (and particularly some of the best point guards) in the NBA. Wall was not included.

Wall hasn’t been shy about feeling underappreciated. On a recent Timeout With Taylor Rooks podcast, Wall said he still doesn’t get the recognition he thinks he deserves. He pointed out that only two players other than him averaged 20 points and 10 assists a season ago, and yet “I barely made an all-NBA team.” (He was selected to the third unit.) Wall thought maybe the people still asking if he’s a top-five point guard were holding his somewhat slow career start against him. Wall was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, but injuries limited him to just 69 games that season and only 49 two years later. His most memorable moment as a rookie might have been doing the Dougie when he was introduced. It was a bit of harmless fun encouraged by then–assistant coach Sam Cassell—which mattered not at all to hot-takers like Colin Cowherd, who for years referenced that moment when spewing vile opinions about Wall.

It is how things have gone for Wall for much of his career. To hear him tell it, he often doesn’t get the credit he thinks he deserves for evolving. As a rookie, for example, 12 percent of his field goal attempts were 3-pointers, and he made just 29.6 percent. Two seasons ago, nearly a quarter of his attempts from the field were from beyond the arc and almost 19 percent of his FGA were 3s in 2016-17. Still, as we were once more reminded Wednesday night, no one will confuse him with a long-distance marksman; he’s a 32 percent 3-point shooter for his career. Attacking remains the best part of his game. A year ago, Wall was fourth in the NBA in drives per game and tied for sixth in points off drives, per In the process, he posted career highs in true shooting percentage (54.1) and PER (23.2).

Wall is also regarded as one of the best defenders at his position. But here, again, he is often an afterthought in terms of official recognition. His only All-Defensive appearance was a second-team nod in 2014-15. The past two seasons he was somehow left off completely. Last year, the omission was especially glaring; Wall led the league with 157 steals and all point guards with 47 blocks. Didn’t matter. Despite 38 points overall and 14 first-team votes, Wall didn’t make the All-Defensive team—which made him LOL.

During the offseason, while Kobe was sprinkling MVP challenges around the league, he tasked Wall with making the All-Defensive Team. It took Wall less than a half hour to respond.

About that: After Wednesday evening’s loss to the Lakers, Wall was asked what he and the Wizards have to do to take that next step. “Play some damn defense,” he immediately replied. He was not happy with his effort at that end of the floor—or, come to think of it, the other end, either.

Before Wall headed out of the visitors’ locker room, he allowed that, for the Wizards to be better, he has to be better. He said nights like that “happen” and momentarily propped himself up on the old “you can’t win them all” crutch. Which is true. But so was his final point: “Those are the games you should have won that you’ll look back on later in the year.” Then he said he wants “to move forward,” which is exactly what a lot of people want from John Wall.