John Wall had perhaps the most dominant performance during the opening weekend of the 2017 NBA playoffs. The 26-year-old recorded 32 points, 14 assists, 4 rebounds and 1 block (while shooting 50 percent from the field, 50 percent from three-point range and 100 percent from the free-throw line) in the Washington Wizards’ Game 1 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
For those who have followed the Wizards this season, Wall’s latest outing was no surprise. After all, he averaged career-highs across the board: 23.1 points, 10.7 assists (second-most in the NBA) and 2.1 steals (most in the NBA) on 45.1 percent shooting from the field.
Behind the strong play of Wall and Bradley Beal (who also averaged 23.1 points), the Wizards won 49 games and secured the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. Washington dropped eight of their first 10 contests to start the season, but they managed to get rolling as the calendar flipped to 2017.
HoopsHype recently chatted with Wall to discuss Washington’s success, his breakout campaign, the NBA’s MVP race, what the Wizards need to do to contend for the championship and more.
Let’s start with your first-round opponent, the Hawks. As you’ve studied this team, what have you learned about Atlanta?
John Wall: The Hawks are a great team. They’re a well-coached team that has great players – guys that know their roles very well. They can cause matchup problems and they know how to space the floor and push the pace. You have to play really well and try not to have many mistakes to beat them.
As a team, you guys struggled a bit early this season and then turned things around. Did something change or did it just take time to adjust to new head coach Scott Brooks?
JW: We all knew that we were a better team than our record showed early on. We had to get used to a new system and we were gaining chemistry with the new guys we had. I think the win that really helped was when we were in Brooklyn in early December and we were down almost 20 points in the first half. Then we came out in the second half and played great defense, getting 10 or 11 stops in a row. Coach Brooks showed us the film and said, “That’s the team I need to see on a nightly basis.” When we locked in and did that, we started to win.
What has Coach Brooks brought to the team – on and off the court – and how have you adjusted to him?
JW: He’s brought a lot of confidence. He makes sure that everyone is confident and believes that we can compete against anybody. We all work really hard to improve and he has helped us with that too. He wants us to move the ball, take open shots and play aggressive on both ends of the floor. If you do that, everything will work out for you.
It’s very likely that a one-and-done point guard will be the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA draft. That was you back in 2010. How much have you grown – as a player, as a person – since you entered the league?
JW: Well, I changed a lot. I changed a whole lot – just understanding the game more, being able to go through a lot of stuff and making adjustments. Early on, when I was injured, I just developed and kept learning the game. It takes time. When you get drafted really high, you may go to a good team, you may not. I didn’t go to a good team early on. We had to get better, change things around, and one thing I had to do was never get accustomed to losing. I had to always believe that we could win and that things would change around for us.
Yeah, the Wizards had become somewhat of a laughingstock until recent years. How rewarding is it to have success after going through those losing seasons and being a huge part of the turnaround?
JW: It means a lot. It was tough early on and I didn’t know what to do. It was very tough for me, but I never stopped thinking we could win and that things could change here. I knew I had to get better as a player individually and just believe in the organization and what they were doing – drafting the right people and making trades for the right people. Then, good things started happening for us.
You and Bradley Beal each put up 23.1 points per game this year, and you both averaged career-highs in scoring, assists and field goal percentage. What allowed you guys to take that next step as a one-two punch?
JW: I think it was just both of us being healthy; that was the main key. In the past, there were times where I’d be playing well and Brad would be injured, then Brad would come back and play well and I’d get injured. Both of us were healthy the whole year, playing with each other and making it work. We were both having big games and that was key for us. In the past, [there were times when] I’d have an off night and I didn’t know how to get my shots when he was on and vice versa. Now, we know how to get our shots and both play at a high level.
You shot 2-4 from three-point range in Game 1 and you’re shooting 58.8 percent from beyond the arc in the month of April. How much easier is attacking defenses when you’re shooting this well?
JW: It’s much easier. With me, it’s just about being smart and taking the good threes. I’m shooting a good clip from the three-point line, but I take bad ones from time to time. I know I need to stop shooting the questionable ones that hurt my percentage and just do the right thing. When I’m doing that, it works out for me.
Brandon Jennings recently wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune stating you deserve to be this year’s MVP. It seems like the main guys in the debate are Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. Despite your monster season, you haven’t been mentioned much. Does that frustrate or motivate you?
JW: It just gives me more motivation to get to where I want to be. I want to be on top of that [MVP] list. That’s always going to be a goal for me individually. I ain’t worried about it, though. Those guys are each having a heck of a season too. All I can do is keep improving, keep winning, and eventually I’ll get there.
You guys seem to be playing with a lot of confidence right now. What’s the vibe around the team right now?
JW: We’re ready and excited. We have a couple of guys who have never been in this position before, so it’s on me, Brad and the coaching staff to lead these guys and make sure those guys are comfortable and focused and understand the task at hand. We have to take it one game at a time. We know it’s a long way, but all you need is 16 wins to be crowned the champion. You don’t know how many games it’ll take to get those 16 wins, but you just have to take things one game at a time and prepare for each one.
What does this team need to do to win a championship this year?
JW: I think the main things for us are just staying healthy and playing good defense. Whether we’re making or missing shots, we have to play defense at a high level.
It seems like Cleveland, Boston and Toronto entered the playoff as the consensus East contenders and you guys weren’t being mentioned as much as those teams. Is that bulletin board material or do you block all that stuff out?
JW: We block all that out. All of those teams, we beat them this season. But like I always tell everybody, it doesn’t matter what happened in the regular season; when the playoffs start, you’re 0-0. It’s a brand-new record. Nobody cares if you swept a team or beat them three times in the regular season. It’s a different atmosphere in the playoffs.
You’ve done well in the playoffs. Do you enjoy that atmosphere and the challenge of being on the biggest stage?
JW: I enjoy it, man. You know me, I love the spotlights and big stage. It gets no better. That’s where legends and superstars make their name, in these big-time playoff games. People see how far you can lead your team. I enjoy it; there’s nothing more fun. When you walk into the arena, you feel how loud it is. Every possession, the crowd is up. There’s never a dull moment. There’s never empty seats in the building. It’s what I live for. I’m excited that I have a couple teammates getting the chance to experience it for the first time this year.
Interview, Playoffs, Top, Bradley Beal, Brandon Jennings, James Harden, John Wall, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards