The 2017-18 season for the Washington Wizards was characterized by maddening inconsistency and the usual byproducts that come with that including questions of locker room discord. Add it all up and it was a trying year for many members of the organization who grew frustrated, knowing from recent history what the very same players were capable of as a collective unit.
In many ways the season was a learning experience for John Wall and Bradley Beal as leaders of the team. The locker room has been turned over to them in recent years as veterans like Paul Pierce, Trevor Ariza and Nene were jettisoned. Wall and Beal over the years have gone from upstart young players to veterans who speak for the team after games and are turned to in times of turmoil.
This season took those responsibilities up a notch. Both Wall and Beal at times issued tirades at their teammates behind closed doors, imploring them to display the passion and effort that head coach Scott Brooks was calling out publicly.
Wall has grown accustomed to fiery speeches and calling out his teammates before. Beal, who has a more reserved personality, has recently brought that out of himself. Earlier this season, he said that at halftime and after games he will "blow up" and that wasn't always the case.
The problem is that those speeches or rants, or whatever you want to call them, didn't always work. Time and time again the team would lose to lowly teams like the Suns, Magic and Nets and often right after beating teams like the Rockets and Celtics.
Wall and Beal feel confident about their abilities as leaders, but this year put them to the test.
“It was great, but tough at times because as a leader you’ve got to do it at all times," Wall said. "You never take a day off. That’s something I can get better at. When you have your mood swings or days you don’t want to be bothered, you have to still be a great leader. That’s something I definitely can learn from this year."
"It's tough to do. It's a challenge and at the same time it's fun. It kind of challenges you and I feel like that's the next step for me being in the league. On the floor, bringing it every single game and in the locker room bringing a certain type of style and culture that we need. Knowing that every single day we're going to better and we're going to compete. Every time we step on the floor we need to have the mentality that we're not just going to talk, but actually really perform."
Wall's ability to lead the Wizards was certainly hampered this season by injuries, as he missed 41 games and for a handful of the ones he played was clearly not himself. He was limping around on defense and opponents were taking advantage. He didn't necessarily have room to call others out.
Wall found it difficult to still impact the team as a leader when he was going through his rehab. He would sit on the bench for games, usually donning designer sunglasses, and felt there was only so much he could do without the ability to lead by example.
"When you’re not playing it’s kind of hard to be a leader because you don’t want to say too much because you’re not out there playing or competing with the guys but at the same time you have to be a leader and hold it down," he said.
Ironically, those were the times Beal felt like he grew the most. When Wall was out, Beal became the No. 1 scoring option for a longer period than ever before. He got to see what it was like to run a team and be the primary voice to speak for it.
It appeared that Beal grew fatigued with both. After a double-overtime win over the Celtics on March 14, Beal remarked to ESPN that Wall needed to hurry up and return from his injury. He was joking in part, but it was clear he was happy to get some help after fighting through double teams constantly.
Beal may have also grown annoyed with being the locker room spokesman. Three different times after losses this season he left before the media arrived. Given how many times he had to answer the same questions about losing to bad teams, it would be understandable if that were the reason.
Beal, though, sees all of those things as creating an opportunity to grow.
"There was a lot I learned, being the focal point of scouting reports on a nightly basis and having to lead a team with John being out. It was a lot of tough and adverse times that I went through," Beal said.
Wall and Beal saw how difficult it can be to lead a team through adversity in November when a team meeting was held and, as Wall describes it, some players didn't appreciate the message. Weeks after the meeting took place, Wall again went on national TV and mentioned how it backfired.
Wall can blame that on the individual or the individuals who expressed discontent, but in a vacuum, the incident displayed room for growth for the locker room as a whole. In hindsight, Wall can see what went wrong.
“[Meetings have] happened every year we’ve been here. It’s just at times, where we kept it in the locker room and guys moved forward. We had one meeting, ‘alright, we’re grown move past it, let’s go play basketball," he said.
"If we have a team meeting and we’re brothers and if you’re a grown man like you supposed to be, if I have a problem with somebody, I can confront you and talk to you without having to have a problem. You’re supposed to talk to your brother, you’re supposed to have arguments, you’re gonna have fights, you’re gonna do all that, but at times if you can’t talk to somebody because they always think it’s negative or taking it the wrong way, we’re going to have issues and problems in the locker room and that’s where inconsistencies happen.”
Wall continued to explain why he thinks the current leadership structure, including himself, can be a productive influence. He was asked about whether a veteran leader should be added to the locker room this offseason and said that isn't necessary.
"You can fix it," he said. "Certain people you talk to can handle certain situations like I might can yell at you, but I might not can yell at him. You got to know how to talk to certain people, then when certain people feel offended by that, it’s kind of hard to balance it out. If I have a problem with somebody, we might argue here but when I get on the court, I throw it to the side because I’m trying to win. Some people can’t function both of those ways. Sometimes it escalates from having a problem in the locker room or disliking somebody and taking it on the court and not playing as a group.”
Wall will have to learn to manage different personalities. As he explained, his leadership style is brutally honest and, as he now knows, not everyone responds to that type of message.
Center Marcin Gortat may have been the subject of some of Wall's criticism, but he remains a good viewpoint of Wall and Beal's growth as leaders. He has played with them for five seasons. When he arrived in D.C., Wall was 23 years old and Beal was just 20.
Gortat sees a dynamic that could work really well both on and off the court.
"They fit each other perfectly, because one guy handles the ball, pushes hard. The other guy is a great shooter, great athlete," Gortat said. "They're both different. Ice and fire, I would say.
"They value different things in life. One guy is super loud. The other guy is super quiet. Sometimes when you're playing with John, you're at some point, like, 'Can you please not speak any more.' And when he's actually missing, you have Brad, and it's like, 'Can you please say something.' They complement each other perfectly."
Wall and Beal have grown up together in the NBA. The 2017-18 season was another step in that process.
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