WASHINGTON — Ask most anyone, and they’ll say a main turning point in the Washington Wizards season came when John Wall recovered from his knee injury and helped rescue a 4-28 season.
Martell Webster has another nomination: the day the coach cried in the locker room after another tough loss during the team’s 0-12 start.
“He was crying after that game. And he told us that he cared about us,” Webster said. “And, for me, that was a point in the season where I was just like, ‘I’m in. I’m totally in. I’ve bought into the system.'”
Other Wizards players backed up Webster’s story, saying coach Randy Wittman’s display of emotion showed them how much he cared. Wittman initially tried to feign ignorance of the incident when it was brought to light Thursday, but then he fessed up and recalled the mental toll of the one-point overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks in November.
“The thing that really got me emotional more was the fight and the heart that these guys were putting into it,” Wittman said. “And we had nothing to show for it. … This is a game of emotions. I’m an emotional guy. I don’t hide things from you guys. I don’t hid things from our players. I wear my emotion on my sleeve.”
Perhaps such bonding is one reason why the Wizards didn’t tank completely after a miserable start, why they were actually able to play close to .500 ball once Wall returned on Jan. 12. The final ledger reads 29-53 — out of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season — but the Wizards figure the more important mark is 15-7, from those rare occasions when Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene played in the same game. When those three were healthy enough to start at the same time, the record was 6-2.
“With a healthy roster, I think we played 22 games,” Webster said. “And those were an amazing 22 games. Scary team.”
Still, there is much work to do and decisions to make. Wall, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, started to hit his stride late in the season, even showing the initial signs of a promising outside shooting game. He thinks he’s done enough to deserve a maximum-value contract this summer, although he said he might take less if the team proves its commitment to winning with other offseason moves.
If there’s no deal reached before the start of next season, Wall would become a restricted free agent in 2014. Owner Ted Leonsis said during the television broadcast of Wednesday season-ending loss to the Chicago Bulls that the team will see what it can do to keep Wall “for a long, long time.”
“I know they still believe in me, and I believe in myself,” Wall said. “And I think I’ve taken the steps I need to take to keep improving, and help my game develop offensively and defensively.”
The Wizards will again have a high draft pick, but the players and Wittman all agreed that the team needs a veteran or two in free agency instead of another younger player. Many fans will applaud that approach, given general manager Ernie Grunfeld’s spotty track record in the draft.
“This team’s already been through the rebuilding stage,” Webster said. “It’s got to be now. It has to happen now. We don’t have time to develop guys. We have great young guys already.”
Webster’s contract is up, but he played well enough and proved to be such an invaluable locker room leader that there’s a good chance he’ll be back. He was a regular comedian on Thursday, doing impersonations of teammates and making fun of Wall’s shorts.
It’s no laughing matter when it comes to some of players drafted by Grunfeld, notably Jan Vesely, the 2011 No. 6 overall pick who hasn’t shown the moxie necessary to be a regular in the NBA. It was a close call this season whether Vesely would finish with more fouls (107) than points (126) or rebounds (122). He also shot 31 percent from the free throw line.
“I’ve heard out of his own mouth that he doesn’t like to go to the free throw line because everybody’s watching,” teammate A.J. Price said. “It’s a confidence thing.”
Added Wittman: “Everybody can say he needs to work on his shooting. He needs to work on his head first.”
The season started with a 12-game losing streak without Wall and Nene and ended with a six-game losing streak without Nene, Webster, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.
With all those injuries, it’s amazing that the coach didn’t cry more often.
“It would have been a sight to see,” forward Chris Singleton said, “if we were all healthy.”
Which led Wall to make what he considers to be a slam-dunk prediction for next season.
“If we’re healthy,” Wall said, “we’re easily a playoff team.”
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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