John Wall has shown signs that he’s starting to hit that dreaded rookie wall. He’s been struggling to fight off injuries, and as a result, his aggressiveness, his explosiveness and his ability to defend opposing point guards has suffered. I’ve been watching basketball long enough to know that all rookies go through this type adversity at some point, let alone rookies who are assigned the arduous task of running a team and saving a franchise. With the Utah Jazz in town to face the Wizards on Martin Luther King afternoon, I knew I would have the opportunity to get some point guard perspective from three different members of that model franchise.
Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan instructed Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton for 15 seasons, and he’s coached All-Star Deron Williams for six. Williams is in the ‘best point guard in the league’ discussion along with Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo. His backup, Earl Watson, was coached by former Sonics great point guard Nate McMillan and mentored by a future Hall of Famer Gary Payton.
Among those three men, I was sure I could learn the traits of a good point guard, what Wall might be going through right now and get a good assessment of how he’s progressing almost halfway through the season.
Before the game, Sloan talked about how little the Wall/Williams match-up meant to him, and how important intelligence is to playing point guard:
Unlike Wall, who entered the NBA after just one season in the college, Watson was a four-year starter at UCLA when the Seattle Supersonics drafted him in the second round with the 40th overall pick in 2001. He appeared in 64 games as Payton’s backup and averaged 3.6 points and 2.0 assists in 15.1 minutes per contest. I asked Watson about his experiences with the rookie wall and what helped him fight through it.
“I hit that wall right around this time of year–right before All-Star break. It wasn’t the competition, it was more or less the travel, the wear and tear of your body, learning how to play injured for the first time, and consistently playing at an NBA-level. I think the mental focus that it takes to a backup point guard, let alone a starting one like Wall, just wears you out physically. And everyone goes through it, but point guards hit that wall hard, but it’ll help them when year two comes. Luckily for me I had Nate McMillan as my coach, and he had played the point, and then of course Gary Payton was a tremendous help to me–in fact he still helps me to this day, we’re still friends.”
I then asked Watson to assess what he saw in Wall up to this point
“I think he has a lot more room to grow, I think he’s going to be a great guard, no doubt. But it’s going to be important for this organization to get the right players around him, so that he can maximize his talents and become a winner. I think that’s important to any point guard, talent and ability are fine, but ultimately it’s the players around you that define your legacy. Plus, he looks like he’s playing hurt right now, so it’s really not fair to truly judge him … later on in the season is when you can really tell what he’s got.”
John must have heard all this talk of injuries and the rookie wall, because he came out on Monday afternoon looking nothing like the player who had been struggling. He controlled the game with 19 points, 15 assists and four rebounds in 40 minutes of play. His seven turnovers demonstrated that he still struggles with controlling decision-making along with the pace of his game, but Wall more than held his own against Deron Williams (28 points and 11 assists)–especially in crunch time.
With 58 seconds left in the game, the Jazz had cut the Wizards’ lead to four points, and had a chance to make the game even more interesting, but Paul Millsap missed a wide open jumper. Wall grabbed the rebound, took advantage of a JaVale McGee screen on the other end, and found Nick Young in the corner for that familiar wide open three-pointer. A few seconds later, after being intentionally fouled by Williams, Wall calmly hit the two free throws that put the game out of reach, with the Wizards ultimately taking it 108-101.
After the game, Williams talked about Wall’s performance, and he reiterated some of the points Sloan had touched on before the game:
“I’ve been impressed with the kid since he was there in Kentucky. He’s playing great this year. He’s definitely one of the best point guards of the game already. He played well tonight, picked us apart with his passing, scored what he needed to and hit free throws down the stretch. He’s one of the fastest, quickest guys. He’s a smart point guard, he knows how to get others involved, and he’s going to be in his league for a long time and be one of the tough point guards for a long time.”
I also asked Williams if he was surprised at how much energy Wall had played with, given that he seemed to be slumping coming into this game. Williams looked up at me with a smile on his face and said:
“Not at all, of course he’s going to get up to play against me, it’s his first time seeing me. I knew that coming into the game.”
So it seems that match-ups do mean something after all.