John Wall played less than 50 games last season, but that brief window of time was a revelation. After returning from a knee injury, Wall shot better, scored more efficiently, turned it over less and generally looked like the whirling thrill machine that caused everyone to fall in love with him during his Kentucky days.
Over the final 21 games, he averaged more than 24 points and eight assists. He tortured some of the league's best defenses, putting up 47 against the Grizzlies and 37 versus the Pacers. This was what the Wizards expected when they made Wall the top overall pick in 2010. He wasn't just good, he was captivating in an appointment viewing kind of way.
Just as importantly, the Wizards began winning games. They were 5-28 when he came back to the lineup and 24-19 with him before a six-game losing streak ended their year. In other words, the Wizards looked like a playoff team with Wall on the court.
All of that was enough to convince the Wizards to give him a five-year maximum extension. It's telling that for all of his first- and second-year struggles, the decision to max him out was greeted with general approval around the league. We've all suspected that Wall was due for a breakout, and when it happened, it was more of a reminder than a shock. This was how 2012-13 was supposed to go for the Wizards and their young point guard. (Minus the bad start, of course.)
With Emeka Okafor and Nene up front, along with promising rookie guard Bradley Beal, the Wizards began the year with playoff dreams. They soon fell into a familiar nightmare, the one where injuries decimated the starting lineup and A.J. Price was getting major minutes.
But the positive signs were everywhere by season's end. The precocious Beal lived up to the hype and made first-team All Rookie honors, despite missing 26 games. Nene began to get his game back together after dealing with a persistent foot ailment. Martell Webster had a breakout season at age 26 after a long, hard road back from injury problems of his own.
And despite all the injuries, the Wizards played outstanding defense, ranking fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions, per basketball-reference. Much of that credit goes to Okafor, the perennially overlooked big man who had a monster defensive rebounding rate, snaring nearly 27 percent of available defensive boards. Once Nene was able to get back on the court, the two developed a nice chemistry inside.
The Wizards moved quickly in the offseason, landing Otto Porter in the draft, re-signing Webster for mid-level money and bringing in Eric Maynor to provide competent backup point guard help. They even had some extra scratch to sign Al Harrington, giving some veteran relief to a frontline that had to rely on the likes of Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton.
On paper the Wizards look like a playoff team, or what passes for one in the top-heavy Eastern Conference. This is something of an annual tradition in Washington, but it appears that the pieces are finally in place to do some damage. Unlike past Wizard attempts to buy their way into competence, there's sustainability mixed in with the optimism, even with the setback of Okafor's neck injury.
All of this comes back to Wall. If he has truly arrived and is finally the player everyone wants him to be, then the Wizards can finally take that elusive step forward. Three years is nothing, really, especially at his age. The breakthrough was long in coming and a most welcome sign for a team that has treaded on hope and unfounded optimism for far too long.