The black hole left by the departure of Paul Pierce took about 14 games to fill. John Wall, the Wizards' all-everything point guard who has long been their best player, has filled it. Tonight, he'll see his one-year mentor in a game vs. the L.A. Clippers (CSN, CSNmidatlantic.com and NBC Sports Live Extra, 6:30 p.m. ET).
“A great one," coach Randy Wittman said of Pierce's impact in which he came a three-point shot away from forcing a Game 7 in the East semifinals with the Wizards before leaving as a free agent. "I think it’s just another part of our development as individual players what they’ve learned from him in just a year’s time. I can see it in some of our guys.
"I think John learned a lot from him, a guy like Paul, character-wise and leadership-wise, playing-wise. What he was able to do on the floor as well. It was nothing but positive, obviously, with Paul. One that I’ll cherish having the opportunity though it was for just a year to coach him. It was great. You don’t always get superstars like that. I’ve been kind of lucky having a guy like (Kevin) Garnett and him. It’s pretty special.”
The Wizards (14-14) are on a four-game winning streak led by Wall's furor on both ends. He vowed to come through for them on Dec. 1, when he scored a season-high 35 points, 10 assists and five steals to hand the Cleveland Cavaliers their first home loss.
Eleven of Wall's East-leading 15 double-doubles have come in December, now that he feels better following a right knee ligament strain that occurred in the fourth game of the season. He also had a right knee bruise, a high right ankle sprain and discomfort from a bone spur in his foot. He has acknowledged all of those ailments but the latter.
In 14 games this month, Wall is averaging 22.8 points on 47.2% shooting and 11. 8 assists
Last season, when Wall became an All-Star starter for the first time, he proved himself in his first head-to-head meeting with Chris Paul. That game with the Clippers came 12 months ago, too, and it was one of his better performances.
Wall only had 10 points on 4-for-10 shooting and 11 assists but it was a perfect example of a boxscore not telling the story. He dominated Paul, who was forced into six turnovers in a 104-96 loss to the Wizards. Wall's ball pressure disrupted the Clippers' offense and prevented DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin from getting easy baskets on lobs from Paul on their backdoor cuts.
"He's just been a tough person to compete against," Wall said of his matchup with Paul. "A very tough competitor that always gets the best of us. We never had a chance to really beat them since I'd been in the league. It was a great opportunity to play well against him and get a win at home."
A win here would put the Wizards above .500 for the first time since they were 6-5 on Nov. 24.
Wall has taken control to get his team on this season-long winning streak, with the Wizards still missing Nene (calf), Drew Gooden (calf), Alan Anderson (ankle), Bradley Beal (leg) and Gary Neal (back).
“He’s got a good feel of what buttons to push, when to score, when to pass, just from the leadership in the locker room, on the floor, he’s playing at a good clip," Wittman said, echoing comments he made after Saturday's 111-96 win vs. the Brooklyn Nets.
The competitive drive that Wittman sees in Wall, something he used to have to stoke because of his point guard's inconsistent play on defense, has been omnipresent. In his sixth season, Wall doesn't require the same motivation.
“He’s grown in that aspect of it," Wittman said of Wall's desire to go against Paul. "These guys all love to play against the best. As a player that’s what you want. I don’t think I need to tell him who he’s playing against (Monday). He’s kind of taken that on his own. The importance of him out front is vital for us. When our guys behind us see him up there with the intensity and pressure it bleeds down to those guys. I think he understands that.”
This is where Pierce probably helped most. It's one thing to hear constructive criticisms from a coach. When a future Hall of Famer emphasizes the same principles, the message is easier to digest and it passes on.