Back in April 2016, the Washington Wizards were searching for a direction to follow in the future. Randy Wittman was fired as head coach after leading the team to a 41-41 record that missed out on the post-season after a team defined goal to make the Eastern Conference Finals after two consecutive second-round exits.
To make matters worse the franchise superstar John Wall missed the end of the regular season due to a knee injury that was initially thought to be for precautionary reasons, but on Cinco de Mayo, he underwent double knee surgery to remove loose particles from his right knee and calcium deposits from his left patella tendon.
Drake’s verse “started from the bottom now we here” was a fitting motto for the Wizards team last season after a dismal free agency period and 2-8 start before achieving the best record in 38 years, but the lyric is also applicable to the budding relationship between Scott Brooks and John Wall.
“John does make his teammates better,” said Brooks in an introductory statement, “but the thing that I have noticed this past year is that he makes his coaches a lot better also.”
Recollecting back to his Oklahoma City days and game-planning for Wall twice a year, Brooks admits that despite recognizing him as a talent, he did not realize just have much of one he was.
“Coaching against him for the five or six years before coming here, I knew he was a really good player,” started Brooks. “I knew that he did a lot of really good things on the court that is not normal. Just a special talent. Being able to coach him this past season, it took my thinking to another level on who he is as a person, on how he works as a player. He does definitely make his teammates better. He has a good heart, a caring soul. He cares about his teammates, he cares about this organization, he cares about the city that he lives in. It’s really impressive.”
Of course, that is a realization after having to meet his franchise player for the very first time as head coach, while he laid in a Cleveland hospital. A rocky start to say the least.
“The first time I did meet him personally, it was last summer and he was just coming off of two knee surgeries and I’m thinking to myself, ‘wow, this is my point guard?’,” pondered Brooks. “But he worked extremely hard to get where he is at right now. Not a lot of players in this league can be a three-time All-Star prior to last season and take it to another level.”
Even before Wall was back to full strength and limited in practice time on the court, Brooks started to see flashes of greatness.
“The first time I noticed him in training camp and he wasn’t going full speed because he is just coming off of his knee surgery, but I’m thinking to myself, ‘if this is not full speed, I can’t wait for that to happen’ because he was pretty impressive come October,” shared an enthused Brooks. “But as the season went on, you saw his ability to play at a high level that not a lot of players in this league can play at.”
Another attribute of Wall that Brooks was not able to recognize from afar was his unmatched motor. It is that quality that allowed him to play in back-to-back games much sooner than an initial January estimate.
“There’s times where you don’t think he is probably going to play tonight, but he plays with such toughness,” described Brooks. “He doesn’t want to miss a game, he doesn’t want to disappoint his teammates, he’s always out there competing. He just has that winning, competitive spirit that you need to have to have a successful team.”
For all the praise Brooks has for Wall, it is a two-way street as the Wizards point guard as seemed to create a strong bond with his coach that is clearly closer when compared to the somewhat distant relationship he had with Wittman. Washington players have praised Brooks for being a players coach is allowing them leniency, but also when to push them harder as well.
“Coach Brooks is going to push us every day,” said Wall. “Sometimes, I want to put him in a headlock because he gets on my nerves, but when he does, he gets the best play out of us.”
Wall, who will turn 27 in less than a month, is in the prime of his career, but if you ask his coach, he is nowhere close to the end of it nor is he close to his ceiling as a player.
“He’s in the start of his prime and we expect for him to even continue to get better,” proclaimed Brooks. “We couldn’t ask for a better leader to run our team every day during practice and during games. We thank him for his effort and commitment.”
Although he did not mention defense, which Brooks later jokingly made clear is another point of emphasis, Wall shared he is striving to improve many facets of his game.
“Post up, shooting floaters, working on my three-point, definitely being in better shape,” shared Wall. “I think last year in Game 7, I ran out of energy in the fourth quarter so I want to make sure I am in the best shape possible. If coach needs me to play the full 48 minutes or the whole second half, I want to be able to get the job done.”
Wall’s willingness to accept his shortcomings and turn them into additional fuel is another reason why he has room for growth under the tutelage of Brooks.
“Game 7, not the way we wanted it to end,” stated Wall. “I definitely went out swinging. I didn’t go 0 for 0, I went 0 for 11, shot the ball, played the game I wanted to play. At least I wasn’t being passive, I was being aggressive like I was the whole playoffs. I can deal with losing that way and use that for motivation for this season coming up.”
The LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard’s of the NBA are always going to get the immediate attention as one of the league’s best, but don’t tell his coach that.
“He’s not only one of the best point guards in the league, he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Brooks. “He’s right there with any of them.”