WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – When point guard John Wall represents Washington in tomorrow’s NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, he’ll be the first Wizard so honored since 2008. That was so long ago that Wall was then a 17-year-old high school junior in Raleigh dreaming of where he’d play in college.
Since Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were Washington’s last All-Stars, the Wizards have employed four coaches and a staggering 69 players. They have made the playoffs once – losing in six games to Cleveland in the opening round in April 2008 – while winning about a third of their games (160-315). They finally stuck their heads over .500 after November on Feb. 3, but at 25-27, they can’t do so again before next week.
However, not only does Washington finally have an All-Star again, it’s also in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, as close to third place – three games — as to being out of its first playoff spot in six years with just 30 games remaining.
Wall’s All-Star selection is also a good omen because – not counting automatic pick Michael Jordan’s two years in Washington – the Wizards reached postseason in each of the last five seasons that they had an All-Star: Butler and Jamison (2008); Gilbert Arenas and Butler (2007); Arenas (2007), Arenas and Jamison (2005); and Chris Webber (1997).
Other than the Jordan years, only three times in franchise history has Washington had an All-Star when its season didn’t end in the playoffs: Juwan Howard (1996); Michael Adams (1992); and Bernard King (1991).
The franchise had at least one All-Star player from the time it was born as the Chicago Packers in 1961 through the 1979-80 season – the year after its last trip to the NBA finals as the Washington Bullets. Fourteen of those 19 seasons ended in the playoffs, including 1978 when the Bullets won their only championship.
The 23-year-old Wall is the 26th All-Star during the franchise’s 53 seasons. Only six players have been so acclaimed more than twice: Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes (eight times), Wes Unseld (five), Gus Johnson (four) and Walt Bellamy (three) as well as the mercurial Arenas (three) and sweet-shooting guard Phil Chenier (three).
Given Wall’s tender age and the fact that the contract extension he signed before the season should keep him in Washington for at least five more years, he might well become the seventh player on the above list. And considering that four of the six are enshrined in Springfield and the first three have their jerseys hanging in the Verizon Center rafters, a pretty strong case can be made that Wall’s All-Star selection is a major step for the top overall pick in the 2010 draft on the road to becoming one of the franchise’s greatest players.
Although Wall was leading the Eastern Conference with a career-high 8.5 assists when he was selected while averaging 19.8 points and 1.9 steals — both also career highs — he said it was “shocking” that he was chosen. But Wall quickly added that being picked among the NBA’s best was a sign that his rehab from a knee injury that sidelined him for the first half of last season as well as his grueling sessions last summer with famed trainer Rob McClanaghan were worth it.
“It feels great,” Wall said. “It lets me know that the all the hard times I’ve been through, fighting through injuries, all the hard work and dedication I put in during the summer … is paying off.”
And like the late Johnson, whose Baltimore Bullets didn’t become winners until his sixth season – by which time he was a three-time All-Star – there might finally be a team payoff for Wall, too, after plenty of lean days.
“[John has] worked hard,” said Wizards coach Randy Wittman, who has been with Washington throughout Wall’s three and a half seasons. “[It’s] well-deserved. … When you’re a young kid that played one year in college and you’re thrust into a situation [as] the No. 1 pick, a lot was thrown at him. People could falter under that kind of pressure, but [John] accepted it. He continued to grow. He has made great strides, not only in his individual game, but in his development as a leader, his development as a point guard. [But] he’s still got a lot of room for improvement. Hopefully, this will just be a steppingstone for him.”
If that’s the case, Wall’s appearance in tomorrow’s no-defense, playground-like game could be a milestone for him and his franchise.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last four Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.
Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.