Wall has Wizards in chase for Eastern Conference top seed

by Sam Smith

The NBA’s most unexpected and overlooked, if not undeserving, Most Valuable Player candidate this season has had perhaps the most unusual of career arcs.

After all, it was just a few years ago that John Wall was being called out, condemned and dismissed, the subject of trade requests from a Washington Wizards season ticket holder. Of course, that was not unusual with season ticket holders after a third Washington sub-30 win season and out of the playoffs, all with Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Fans spend most of every NBA season if their teams are stumbling suggesting pretty much everyone be traded or fired.

Though this was a little different since it was David Falk, the basketball agent for Michael Jordan and a major corporate figure in Washington, D.C. Falk launched a bizarre, unprovoked ad hominem attack on Wall, going to the media and declaring Wall will never understand or have a feel for the game, comparing him with Nene, of all players, saying he’s an athletic tease who never will be a great player or nearly as good as Bradley Beal.

Now, Beal is very good, but everyone on the Wizards, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, is better because of Wall — one of the prerequisites for MVP — and Wall is better than he ever has been in leading the Wizards into a battle with Boston for second in the Eastern Conference, both closing on the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The NBA’s MVP race this season has been a great debate basically among Russell “Triple Double” Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. Kevin Durant’s defection to Golden State basically eliminated him by playing with Stephen Curry, and recently Durant was hurt and is out for several weeks.

But Wall, though no one is likely to outpace Westbrook and Harden as the leaders, has made a strong case to not only be among the top five in the MVP voting, but a true elite player and leader.

Wall is blowing away virtually every personal career best, putting up career highs in points, assists and steals. He’s second in the NBA in both assists and steals and third behind Westbrook and Harden among guards with double-doubles. Coming into the season slowly, which mirrored a 6-12 Washington start, after double knee surgery in the summer and not playing back-to-back games, Wall’s return to full health has made the Wizards the East’s winningest team since the beginning of December and a contender to actually take the top spot away from the stumbling Cavs.

Though John Wall has a history of silencing doubters; he’s been through this before. He endured a traumatic childhood, only meeting his father when he was 8 and his father dying of cancer shortly afterward. His father had been in prison until then for robbery and murder.

Wall, perhaps unsurprisingly, chose his own violent and rebellious path, repeating a year in high school, kicked off the basketball team. Wall was rescued in transferring to a Christian academy and went on to the University of Kentucky and the top of the NBA draft with the super speed of a world-class sprinter. While dribbling a basketball.

That’s all Wall seemed to be even at the top of the 2010 draft class, and repeated 20-some win seasons with the Wizards only seemed to reinforce that he was incorrigible as a player. His shot was so crooked he hit seven percent of his 3-pointers as a sophomore. His ego seemed to transcend his sense. He complained about being overlooked and underpaid. He said who was Steph Curry compared to him.

He famously even last summer challenged the oft-injured Beal, now with a big contract, to get better and note that he and Beal were no great pals.

New coach Scott Brooks, welcome. It was Wall, the edge he carried with him from his youth, but a welcoming and charitable side. When he got his first big contract, he built a home large enough to include his mother and siblings. He’s called wining the NBA’s regular community assist award the highlight of his career. He’s a regular visitor to local hospitals, and when one of the children he’d been mentoring died, he broke down crying after a game when it was mentioned.

There are plenty of caring people. There are not many people anywhere who can play basketball like John Wall. He retains that amazing speed, as fast end to end as anyone in the NBA today and compared only with Westbrook in that category since Derrick Rose’s knee injuries. Wall also is a quiet student of the game, something of a basketball junkie who in his off time watches D-League basketball, womens’ games, high school and college games, studying, studying, studying constantly. Brooks said when he first met with Wall that Wall was telling him about players he had never heard of.

Wall improved his defense even from being on the all-league team. Once a player defenders dropped off, he now drew the opponent’s top defenders because of his shooting. His shot got dramatically better to where he is a competent 3-point shooter.

When the Wizards made a big comeback last week in Portland, it was Wall bringing them back shooting 3s. Though, more so, he’s an excellent mid-range threat to play off the deft 3-point shooting of Beal. Wall’s attack with Beal running the wing has the Wizards quietly one of the league’s most explosive offensive teams, fifth in points scored, third in overall shooting percentage and fourth in 3-point shooting.

That’s thanks to Wall’s penetration to open the perimeter for Porter, Beal and Morris. Plus, the Wizards lead the league in forcing turnovers and have been in an engaging feud with the Celtics, Wall saying in January the team was coming to play the Celtics in black. You know, it would be a funeral. The teams split two games in January and play in Boston on March 20.

The Wizards missed the playoffs last season, Wall was facing surgery, Beal was a free agent, the team seemed to be going nowhere. Now, they’re a serious contender, general manager Ernie Grunfeld revived the bottom of the roster with adept additions, Wall’s an MVP candidate and David Falk, well, it’s just all hot air now.

John Wall’s taken off.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”