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Elfin: Can Wall Follow Path To Greatness?

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John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards

Credit: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

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Four years ago, the Chicago Bulls got very lucky. With just a 1.7 percent chance to draw the top ball after finishing with the ninth-worst record, the Bulls won the NBA draft lottery and the right to select do-it-all guard Derrick Rose, who had led Memphis to the NCAA final as a freshman.

Chicago, which had gone 33-49 in 2007-08, finished .500 and lost in the first round of the playoffs in Rose’s debut. He was voted Rookie of the Year but played second banana to guard Ben Gordon and was the only new member of the Bulls’ top seven players. Chicago matched those results in 2009-10, but center Joakim Noah, forwards Luol Deng and Tyrus Thomas and guard Kirk Hinrich were the only remaining pre-Rose players as the hometown hero became the team’s dominant force.

Last season, the Bulls rocketed to a 62-40 record under new coach Tom Thibodeau and reached the Eastern Conference finals with Rose winning MVP honors at the age of 22 with the help of holdovers Noah and Deng.

That history is relevant locally because Rose and Chicago, tied for the NBA’s best record at 9-2, visit Verizon Center tonight to take on Washington which ended its winless season by thumping Toronto on Tuesday.

After finishing with the fifth-worst record during Rose’s second season, the Wizards, of course, won the lottery and also chose a 19-year-old guard, John Wall, who had led Kentucky to the Elite Eight in his lone college season.

But unlike the Bulls, who improved by eight games during Rose’s rookie year, the Wizards lost three more games in Wall’s debut than they had in the season before his arrival. Washington was also in the midst of a makeover as only guard Nick Young remained a constant in its top seven players from 2009-10 to 2010-11 with Wall becoming the team’s instant focal point while finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting.

And unlike Rose, who shot .475 from the field as a rookie and is at .468 for his career, Wall has been as inaccurate as the polls of Republicans’ presidential preferences over the past year. Wall shot .409 as a rookie and is at .341 this season. The South Carolinian is terrific in transition, but he probably won’t ever lead the Wizards to the playoffs, let alone their first title since 1978, if he doesn’t become a more reliable shooter.

“Young players need that confidence that comes from making shots,” said Wizards coach Flip Saunders, who has one of the NBA’s youngest and worst-shooting squads. “I’ve coached at a lot of camps over the years and when a kid makes a shot, the next time down the floor on defense, he’s all excited and slapping the floor. But if he misses that first shot, he mopes.”

Wall wasn’t moping last night as the Wizards routed the Raptors with a balanced, defensive-minded approach. The much-needed victory hid the fact that Wall was again clank city, sinking just three of 12 shots including just three of 10 from inside the 3-point arc.

Saunders said his team’s intensity improves when “we make our shots” as was the case last night when everyone but Wall combined to hit 37 of 70 attempts.
The formula worked against Toronto, but the Wizards aren’t going anywhere without Wall leading the way.

Saunders hopes that Wall will emulate Jason Kidd, the 38-year-old floor leader of the defending champion Dalls Mavericks.

“Jason Kidd couldn’t put the ball in the ocean during his first three or four years and now’s he a really good shooter,” Saunders said.

Actually, coach, while Kidd hit slightly more than 38 percent of his shots during his first two years – Wall is at 40 percent – he has had a shooting percentage as high as .444 during only one of his 17 full seasons and is at just .401 for his career.

And if Wall follows Kidd’s path – albeit not with a trade after his first two years — the Wizards will be thrilled. Kidd’s teams (Dallas, New Jersey and Phoenix) have made the playoffs 15 years running, advanced seven times and reached three NBA finals. Washington and Wall should be half so fortunate.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March 2011.

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