Four years ago when John Wall was the first pick in the NBA Draft and joined a team that won 26 games the expectation was for the Wizards to be respectable again. No one dared thought he might lead them to a Conference Final. After all, the Wizards won 23 games in John’s first year. Yes, his team was mediocre but John lived up to the hype. He averaged 16 points and 8 assists. The moment he stepped onto a NBA court he was the fastest player in the league. But basketball velocity, he learned, was dependent upon pace. It was less about how fast you were and more about how effective you can be using speed. He was a mediocre shooter, especially from the perimeter, but it was just his first year-there was time to work on his shot and his defense.
Before he began his second year the Wizards drafted Jan Vesely . He was a bust-someone who never developed- who they eventually traded. It was the lockout year and the Wizards won 20 games. John again averaged 16 points and 8 assists. He played in every game but was surrounded with mediocre talent with the exception of Nene Hilario who the Wizards traded for in March of 2012. In the upcoming draft the Wizards selected a shooting guard out of University of Florida, Bradley Beal, who was thought of as the best shooter coming out of college, regardless of his age. The combination of Beal and Wall in the backcourt was an intriguing idea for General Manager Ernie Grunfeld. The idea transformed into the backbone of the team. Wall and Beal had an innate sense of how to play off of one another. Both were unselfish in their approach to the game and how they related to each other and their teammates. The Wizards then added veteran wingman Trevor Ariza who completed the backcourt with his specialist role as a three point shooter. That year the Wizards won 29 games, a +9 game improvement. And John Wall averaged 20 points.
The Wizards drafted Otto Porter out of Georgetown in 2013. Then, later in the summer, they acquired Marcin Gortat from Phoenix. It was a move that signified to everyone in the Eastern Conference that the Wizards were ready to make the playoffs. Gortat, who was Dwight Howard’s back up in Orlando, was a pick and roll player who was tough around the rim and excelled at setting screens. Not long after the Gortat signing John Wall agreed to a maximum extension. Now that he had his money what would he do? It could go either way. There were players who took the money and became complacent and there were players who took the money and had something to prove. During training camp John let it be known his goal was to make the playoffs. But the Wizards started the season losing 7 of their first 9 games. On February 3, John Wall experienced a first: it was the first time in his professional career his team was over .500. From that point on the Wizards were 20-14. In March they added Drew Gooden who was sitting at home without a team. They added Andre Miller to back up John Wall. It completed their roster. The fast point guard. The skilled shooting guard. The three point specialist. The strength up front. The veterans who had been through everything. Next stop the playoffs.
Out of respect for the Bulls, the Wizards were not given much credit for what they did in the opening round, how their backcourt disamantled the Bulls defense. The Wizards were too difficult to guard in the paint and on the perimeter. The Bulls lacked the firepower to keep up with Wall and Beal- that was the excuse given for Chicago losing to Washington in 5 games. Yes, Wall and Beal were the difference makers. But Ariza hit perimeter shots and no one on the Bulls had an answer for Nene. The Wizards were given lukewarm credit for sending the Bulls on vacation.
Projections in the second round had most thinking Indiana was over their funk. Besides, the Wizards had lost 12 straight games in Indiana. But the beauty of basketball is next man up. The Wizards did to the Pacers what they did to the Bulls. They took an early lead based on their backcourt speed. Their big guys were dominant in the paint, rebounding misses. They moved the ball from side to side. And they did not panic because they were on the road. At times the Wizards looked like a veteran team and at times they looked like this was their first time in the semi-final round. But the Wizards guard talent was too overwhelming, just as Ernie Grunfeld thought they would be two years ago when he brought them together. John Wall and Bradley Beal make each other better. Simply, they are the future. And their future is right now.