NEW YORK – For the good of John Wall, and more importantly, the good of the Washington Wizards, Emeka Okafor felt obligated to speak up; the conversation needed to be had.
Wall had hit the bottom of one of his worst career slumps during a late February loss to Detroit and didn’t respond well to getting benched after committing five turnovers in the first quarter of the 96-95 loss. He publicly criticized his teammates for not catching his passes, and continued to pout and complain in the locker room about sitting most of the fourth quarter.
When Okafor attempted to explain afterward why Coach Randy Wittman had to make the decision to give A.J. Price more playing time, Wall snapped back, leading to a heated argument that was audible from the walls on the other side of the training room.
“It was just me being young and very frustrated. I wasn’t making anything, turning the ball over, and we lost a lot of games that we should’ve won and I put the toll on me,” Wall explained, as he recalled his emotions before the encounter. “A lot of frustration was coming out. As a veteran and being a leader on the team, [Okafor] stepped up and said something. At the time, it was in the heat of moment. I was upset.”
Wall was unaccustomed to having a teammate challenge him, but in hindsight, he couldn’t disagree with anything that Okafor told him: Wittman had to go with someone else if he was ineffective and Wall has to trust that the coach is doing what was in the best interest of the team, which should always come first
“It wasn’t nothing bad. I felt like, what he said was right,” Wall said of Okafor “It was all the right things at the right time. 'You’ve got to learn how to control your anger more.' Ever since that day forward, I became more focused. Came to practice the next day, talked to him, put it behind us and I just went out there and tried to play basketball. Didn’t hold no grudges.”
What followed after the encounter has been the best basketball of Wall’s young career. Beginning with the next game on March 1 against the New York Knicks – the Wizards’ opponent on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden – the third-year point guard has been on a statistical tear that has changed perceptions of his career and shown that his talents are no longer stagnating.
In his past 21 games, Wall is averaging 22.7 points, 7.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds and has recorded 10 games with at least 20 points, three games of 35 or more, and seven double-doubles. In that time, only LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are averaging at least 22 points, seven assists and 4.9 rebounds.
“I think I really had to grow. Get my teammates back behind me. Because that’s not the way you’re supposed to come out as a leader and as a franchise guy,” Wall said of his attitude the night of the argument with Okafor. “I had to compete and compete, not really saying too much, just letting my play do the talking and those guys will believe in me and follow my lead.”
Given the title of team captain on his first day of training camp as a rookie, Wall – the 2010 No. 1 overall pick who is still just 22 – didn’t really understand what it meant to be a leader his first two seasons. He was surrounded by a group of immature and undeveloped teammates, giving him a default title, since he hardly knew where he was going. But last offseason, the Wizards added veterans Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster to help solidify a locker room desperately in need of direction.
“It’s really important to be able to have those kind of guys on your team when you do have a roster of young guys,” Wittman said, while adding that Okafor’s presence and consistent effort has helped Wall. “When John was struggling coming back, you could see that it was a big help and that’s a learning process for John. John is a young guy that I’m trying to develop into a leader, into a guy that we’re going to be talking about, ‘Isn’t John really helping out so-and-so now?’ It’s important to see it and I think it’s John has become a little more vocal now in talking to guys and helping guys and correcting things.”
Okafor is more a quiet leader, the kind who hopes that his example of showing up early, leaving late and committing to a consistent routine of weightlifting and film study would rub off on those around him. In his ninth season, Okafor has plenty of experience and greater perspective, which helped the team rebound from a 4-28 start and kept some teammates engaged even when they weren’t getting much playing time.
The 2005 NBA rookie of the year, Okafor had to undergo similar growing pains as Wall in Charlotte, where he was asked to be face of the franchise from the moment he was drafted.
“I give a lot of credit to John, because he is handling his position relatively well,” Okafor, 30, said. “He’s very mature about his responsibilities and what he has to do. I’m impressed with how he’s gone about some things and his attitude. My role, again, is just to give guidance where guidance is needed. Rein in when they need to be reined in and put things in perspective.”
Wall has reduced his turnovers to just 2.9 per game since that clash with Okafor, recording five or more turnovers four times after reaching that total in five of his previous nine games.
“Having more years under my belt having those guys talking to me as much as possible, and we’re not yelling or fussing, but we can say, ‘That’s not a good shot,’ ” Wall said. Okafor “was telling me it wasn’t just because I wasn’t doing the right thing, you just have to have somebody to run the offense and get things done. I think I’ve improved.”