How ’bout that John Wall guy?
Against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, John Wall, playing his 165th game in the NBA, finished with 23 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. It was a really good, smart performance from the team’s starting point guard. But it’s also a line we’ve seen before: he has 13 career games in which he’s scored at least 20 points, dished out 10 assists and grabbed six rebounds. It was Wall’s second straight double-double (he had 27 points, 14 assists and seven rebounds in a loss to Cleveland on Tuesday).
Why is that number of games played (165) significant? Because Wall’s story is a coming-of-age tale of sorts. People who talk basketball like to point to a player’s third season as the “breakout year,” and everyone expected Wall to show serious progress in 2012-13—a constant theme in summertime Wizards coverage. In a way, the Wizards-Bucks game was opening day for John Wall version 3.0 (two typical, 82-game seasons add up to 164). So, not a bad “season debut” for the third-year player.
The numbers, much like his play on the court, are ticking upward—Wall’s averaging 18.6 points, 7.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds in seven games this March. His confidence is ticking upward, too.
“Everywhere is my sweet spot,” Wall told Grantland’s Zach Lowe in a recent interview, adding that shooting from the right elbow is where he feels most comfortable. Lowe also asked Wall if he felt he was a max contract player—and if Wall deserved the big payday.
“I feel like I am,” the point guard answered. “I do, definitely.”
But is Wall worth max money? Is he worth as much to the Wizards as Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook mean to their respective franchises? ESPN Insider’s Amin Elhassen seems to think so. This week, he named Wall in his list of the most indispensable players point guards in the Association:
While Derrick Rose takes Chicago from good to elite, Wall has shown this season that he can take abysmal to playoff-level production. Since Jan. 12 (Wall’s first game back), the Wizards have the second-best defensive efficiency in the league (96.8), and have gone from minus-7.3 point differential to plus-2.8 (11th in NBA in that span).
The Wizards’ record with Wall has been a solid 15-13; without him, they were hurtling toward a worst-in-league record at 5-28. Wall’s breathtaking athleticism, particularly in the open court, allows him to get into the paint repeatedly and wreak havoc by converting at the rim or finding teammates. But Wall’s impact is greater felt on the defensive end, where his length and agility allow him to be a versatile defender on the perimeter. Going into a contract extension summer, Wall’s agent will have a large amount of data to point to as evidence that his client is pivotal to success in Washington.
But a max player? It’s not necessarily an easy answer. As Lowe noted, we’re dealing with “a strange, unproven player entering a very important phase of his career and financial life.” Wall, as a no. 1 overall pick and the face of the franchise, may well demand both a maximum extension and the extra fifth year for good measure. [Note: teams are allowed to name one player their "designated player," which allows them to give out a five-year extension instead of four.] Wall is also injury prone, missing 46 games out of a possible 211 (21.8%) with pre-stress fractures, shoulder injuries and more.
“I think this summer I was in my best shape ever,” Wall said after the Bucks game. “But having to sit out 33 games you lose it. But still, I’m still trying to get back into top game shape. We have 20-something games left. It’s hard because practice can help, but practice and games are two different things.”
While he’s showing signs of improvement, Wall is still behind schedule. Lately, however, I’ve often responded to John Wall’s critics with a quick history lesson. Wall last year became the sixth-fastest player in NBA history to reach 2,000 points and 1,000 assists (124 games). (Only Oscar Robertson, Damon Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway, Phil Ford, and Chris Paul did it quicker.) He joined that exclusive club on April 5, 2012. Wall put up 28 points and 10 assists in a 99-95 loss to the Pistons in Detroit.
Wall may not have mastered the pick-and-roll like Chris Paul (a mySynergySports.com report shows the Wizards produce at least one point 38.2% of the time when Wall is the handler in the pick-and-roll; CP3 produces at least one point on 45.6% of his P&R possessions). Nor does Wall possess the smooth, full-court game Kyrie Irving has (Wall is a career 22.6% 3-point shooter; Kyrie Irving won All-Star Weekend’s 3-point contest). But Wall knows how to get people open, which has helped the Wizards become the best 3-point shooting team in the NBA with just two shooters on the roster, Martell Webster and Bradley Beal. (Trevor Ariza, to his credit, is shooting 46 percent from the corner and better than 40 percent beyond 16 feet.)
Most importantly, Wall is still learning the game, picking up the X’s and O’s. As Mike Prada of Bullets Forever reported, Wall is often the first Wizards player to call out the plays an opponent is running when on defense (which is often done by the point guard anyway):
“He knows, from a scouting standpoint, the plays that the other team [runs]. He’ll call that out sometimes, which is pretty good. [He remembers] that we’ve played Milwaukee three times and that ’54 Dive’ is a play for [Ersan] Ilyasova. That’s a talent you can’t teach,” [Randy Wittman] says.
Hall of Fame point guard Gary Payton, who has become close with Wall and plans to workout with him this summer, says “he’s a kid that wants to learn and that’s the good thing about him. He can sit there and listen and take criticism, and call players that he’s watched in his young years to ask for assistance. Some of these kids now days think they are so good that they can’t ask anybody for anything.”
At All-Star Weekend, Payton had this to say about Wall (hat tip to WizardsExtreme):
The guy reminds me of myself. He’s very long. He can score. He’s got a good knack for the basketball. He just needs somebody that can teach him how to play defense.
Overall, Wall allows opponents to score 0.89 points per play (which ranks 248th in the NBA). That can be attributed, in part, to Wall’s lax defense on the perimeter. Among Wizards, Wall’s Defensive Rating (102) ranks sixth, tied with Cartier Martin, but his Contest% is a team-low 67 percent. Most of his teammates have contest rates in the 80s, though Trevor Booker (72%) and A.J. Price (75%) round out the bottom three. Wall’s sometimes disappointing defense is as much about effort (boxing out and staying with his man off-ball) as it is fundamentals (keeping hands active to disrupt passing lanes).
On offense, Wall scores 0.81 points per play (ranked 343rd). His shot chart isn’t pretty but Wall is shooting career-bests from 3-to-9 feet (40%) and 16-to-23 feet (35%). That’s not great, but been good enough to win a few games for the Wizards this season.
“I’m just being more aggressive from the start of the game, not being passive,” Wall told the patient members of the media who waited in the locker room for Wall to finish a courtside autograph session on Wednesday night. “I think when I was extra passive, I had a lot of turnovers. I’m just being more aggressive and taking better shots than what I was taking. Just giving credit to me working harder with Sam Cassell on my jump shot.”
Wall also mentioned that his strengths are the midrange jumper and shots around the basket, but he’s working on being less hesitant in scoring positions and extending his range beyond the 3-point arc. Jason Kidd did it, Wall said. And so has Rajon Rondo, with a little help from Kidd, as told by Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins:
The Celtics always wondered what Rondo could accomplish if he burned those sagging defenses, and after dozens of fruitless sessions with shot doctors, he was curing his jumper thanks to one simple piece of advice from New York’s Jason Kidd: “If you’re going to shoot, you need to have your mind made up that you’re going to do it.”
I caught up with Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors in February to talk Wall. He’s another guy who enjoys pushing the tempo and grabbing boards. Lowry, however, has also become a deadly 3-pointer shooter—he was a sub-30 percent shooter from deep in his first few seasons, but is shooting better than 40 percent this year. Lowry’s secret? “Hard work,” he insisted.
I asked him if he saw his younger self in the Wizards point guard.
“He’s much more talented than I was,” Lowry told me. “His jump shot isn’t there, but that’s gonna take a while. My rookie year—first three years—no one even played me to shoot … first five years! But I think he’s a guy whose going to get that confidence and get that rhythm going. Once he gets that going, his speed—you can’t stop his speed. It’s unbelievable speed, unbelievable athleticism. Once he finds rhythm in the game, the game slows down for him more, he’s gonna be really good.”
“I thought this was one of [Wall's] better games of sustaining the pace of game. First half was as good a pace that we’ve had. We’ve got to continue—not only John, as a team—to learn how to play that way. We’re not made up right now to be a walk it up, slug it out, grind it out team. And we need to take advantage of John and what he can do.”
Historically speaking, there’s never been a player like Johnathan Hildred Wall, Jr.
- Only Wall and Steph Curry have recorded 2,500 points, 1,200 assists and 500 rebounds in 250 games or fewer.
- Only George Senesky, who played guard for the Philadelphia Warriors from 1947-54 (before the 24-second shot clock), has recorded more points, assists and rebounds faster than John Wall (5,000 minutes). Senesky averaged 7.2 points per game for eight seasons alongside Hall of Famer Andy Phillips. “We were explosive, a joy to watch,” Senesky recalled.
- Wall is the only player in NBA history to put up at least 2,600 points, 1,300 assists and 700 rebounds in 165 games or fewer.
Wall’s game is about more than eye-popping numbers. He’s developing as a true leader, too—a floor general who can inspire his troops. “There was an instance tonight where I really saw greatness and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with performance,” Martell Webster told the media in the locker room after the Bucks game. “It has to do with understanding that we gave the lead up and he took us and put us on his back and was able to find guys, was able to score, was talking, able to get steals, and I think that all-around game was what got us back into the game. We fed off his energy.”
While Wall, 22, presents almost as many questions as answers, his historic numbers and still untapped potential suggest that investing in Wall is a worthwhile gamble. It’s simply too early to give up on him.
Is Wall a max-contract player? It’s a tough question, but Wall is making a case for himself in D.C.
John Wall: “We got three stars: me, Brad and Nene.” #wizards
— HELLO my name is (@JohnCTownsend) February 24, 2013