TORONTO -- You can't keep John Wall away from the basket. He's just too fast. If he wants to get into the paint, he's probably getting there.
"Speed kills," said Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey before a recent game against Wall's Washington Wizards. "And it's one of those things that you can't scheme for. You can kind of know where your help is and know which direction you want to send him because he does have a predominant direction he likes to go. But that's about it."
Wall's been playing like he knows you can't stop him. Since the beginning of March, the point guard has averaged 22.9 points, 7.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game. He's shot 47.8 percent from the floor and taken 7.5 free throws a game. Those are Russell Westbrook numbers; Derrick Rose numbers. If this is his case for a maximum contract extension, it's a convincing one.
Wall is now consistently making shots off the dribble. The scouting reports show you shouldn't give him space around the right elbow, but that's more difficult than it sounds when you're concerned about him getting inside. This past summer, you could find 2010's No. 1 pick in an L.A. gym early in the morning, putting in the hours on his jumper and his change-of-pace moves with Rob McClanaghan, the man who trains both Rose and Westbrook.
Where earlier in the season and earlier in his career he might have forced things, he's making defenses pick their poison.
"There's a balance," Wizards head coach Randy Wittman said. "That's the thing that I think he's done a great job with. He has an understanding of picking and choosing where that aggression comes out and when it comes out. It's just, it's a feel. It's a feel. And he's in a good mode now, he's shooting the ball extremely well, he's playing with confidence."
The same couldn't be said before March. After missing the season's first 33 games with a knee injury, he averaged 13.7 points per game on 40 percent shooting over a seven-week stretch. In January, ex-Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy said in a radio interview he didn't think Wall was a player you could build around. In February, agent David Falk told the Washington Post the Wizards should trade him because he had no feel for the game. When ESPN.com ranked the top 25 players under 25 years old, the 22-year-old Wall didn't make the cut.
A 1-for-12 shooting night with seven turnovers in a loss to the Raptors on Feb. 19 was the low point until another seven-turnover night eight days later in a loss to the Pistons. Wall played 24 minutes in that Detroit game, had poor body language on the bench and talked about teammates not catching his passes after the game as those teammates had to answer questions about his struggles.
That night, veteran Washington big man Emeka Okafor got into an argument with Wall. Normally not one to be particularly vocal, Okafor challenged him. He wanted Wall to take ownership of the team, of his mistakes. If there was going to be accountability in the locker room, it had to start with the most talented player on the roster.
The sense around the team was that the confrontation would be meaningful. The question was if it would make things much better or much worse. As it turns out, it was just what Wall needed.
In the weeks since, Wall's played freer. Long gone are the days where he was learning his teammates' tendencies, learning to trust himself after an injury, learning to play at the right pace. He knows his place in the locker room and what his teammates expect of him.
Wittman has called fewer plays, giving Wall more responsibility.
"I feel like the first couple minutes of the game, I get everybody involved," Wall said. "If I feel like we're struggling a little bit, I try to pick up my load of being more aggressive. And when I start being more aggressive it ends up tending to get guys easier shots. Sometimes I need to score and sometimes I don't, but lately I've been scoring a lot."
When Wall erupted for a career-high 47 points in a win over the Memphis Grizzlies in late March, he added eight assists. In a win three days prior to that, he set a career high with 16 assists to go along with his 24 points against the Los Angeles Lakers and only turned the ball over once. It's not just that the numbers are nice, it's that he's doing it within the framework of a functional team.
Washington's turnaround since its 5-28 start without Wall prompted an apology from Van Gundy. The Wizards will miss the postseason but went 15-7 when Wall, Bradley Beal and Nene were in the lineup. Wall is adamant that he'd be preparing for the playoffs if not for injuries. Despite the 50-plus losses, there's optimism about this group.
"I really enjoy the team," Wall said. "We really have a lot of fun of just hanging out with each other, joking around. When we're on the court we're all serious, we all want to win, we know what it takes and we know what this team is capable of if we do it the right way. And that's playing defense from the start of the game and just letting our offense go and putting pace into the game."
If the offseason brings Washington some more pieces who can run with Wall and a big man who can stretch the floor, it would make him even more dangerous. Even if the Wizards bring back essentially the same group and have some better luck with health, it'll be a radically different situation from his first two years.
"Oh I have a lot, way more weapons now, just to be honest," Wall said. "More consistent shooters, guys that understand their roles, want to win and want to play for the organization. It makes it a lot easier because if you help off me I'm doing a great job of finding those guys and if you don't help off me I'm going to get to the basket and finish or get fouled. I just wish we were all healthy from the start."
While Wall will have to wait until next year to prove his point about the playoffs, he's already answered the most important questions about his game. He still has all the skills and the qualities that made everyone so confident in him coming out of college. He's also shown he has the mental toughness to take the lumps that come with hype, injuries and losing and come out the other side.
"He's very mature," said Okafor. "He has the stuff, he has his goals together. He's on the right track."
And he isn't about to slow down.