Don't Go Chasing Wall-terfalls | Wizards Blog Truth About

Don’t Go Chasing Wall-terfalls

Updated: November 4, 2017

John Wall desperately wants to be in the MVP conversation. Last year, he officially entered that conversation about being in the conversation, and this was the year he was supposed to join Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and James Harden in that perennial MVP candidate conversation. Eight games into the 2017-18 season, Wall is even further from that conversation than he was a year ago.

In short, he’s playing hero ball. He’s not looking to create the best shot possible, instead preferring to settle for contested jumpers or drives into traffic, especially when there’s a highlight crossover that can be tied in with it. He’s still picking up assists in bunches—15 on Friday night against the Cavaliers, 14 against the Warriors last week—but he’s playing a different style of point guard than he has in recent years.

Last week, in his piece on the Wizards’ need to turn the corner, SI’s Andrew Sharp noted Wall needs to play like himself, not like Russell Westbrook, and I think there’s a lot of Westbrook in what Wall has been doing this season. The one addendum I’d include is that Wall isn’t stat-chasing—something Westbrook has been accused of doing over the course of his career—as much as he’s highlight-chasing.

If he was stat-chasing, he’d be crashing the boards, using his 6-foot-4 frame and elite leaping ability to snag every loose ball. Instead, he’s heading into transition at every shot on defense, waiting for the outlet so he can start the break where he’s at his most dominant. He’s averaging just 3.4 rebounds per game this season; in each of his seven previous seasons he’s averaged at least 4.0 per game.

Some other factors in making great highlights: flashy passes, emphatic swats, posterizations, killer crossovers, and deep 3s. Let’s take those one at a time.

Wall has always been among the league’s top passers, so it’s hard to say much has changed there. He remains as effective at finding his shooters open in the corners, and with Jodie Meeks taking the place of Marcus Thornton, and Kelly Oubre developing into a knockdown shooter from the perimeter (he’s shot 50% on nearly five triples per game!), Wall is getting more of a return on his investment to passes to the arc than he did a year ago.

Wall, who recently declared himself the best shot-blocking point guard ever, has always possessed a skill set unlike anyone else. One of my favorite John Wall stats: Last season, he became the first player in NBA history (since blocks became an official stat) to average 20 points, 10 assists, 0.5 blocks per game. He would have done it a season earlier, but he only averaged 19.9 points per game that season.

So he’s always been a more-than-capable shot-blocker, but it has absolutely been a focus of his this season. He’s averaging 1.1 blocks per game this season, the most of his career, and he leads all players sub-6-foot-6 in blocked shots. But it’s come at a price. Zach Lowe recently discussed Karl-Anthony Towns’ tendency this season to go block-hunting, and how it’s led to his man getting uncontested offensive rebounds.

It’s weird to say a point guard is hurting his team on the defensive glass by going block-chasing, but it’s true. The Wizards are the seventh-worst team in the NBA at allowing offensive rebounds, and against teams like the Warriors, who are constantly active and get the whole team involved, it hurts when one of your advantages on the glass disappears to contest a shot. While Golden State racked up 15 offensive boards against the Wizards, Wall had just two total rebounds due mostly to seeking blocks (he finished with one) and cheating toward the fast break.

Wall has a dunk contest title to his name, so you can’t fault him for cramming on folks, nor has he sought vicious posterizations as a detriment to the rest of his game. Moving on.

He’s always been a great ballhandler, and now he’s driving to the basket more than ever, sometimes finishing on his own other times finding shooters or Marcin Gortat rolling to the basket. Last season, Wall averaged 11.8 drives per game, five more than anybody else on the Wizards. This season, that number has skyrocketed to 17.4 per game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and Wall is one of the league’s most effective players driving to the basket, except when he misses easy layups that he should be finishing, like he did twice on Friday against Cleveland.

Finally, the deep 3s. This is where things get weird.

It’s great that Wall is more confident in his jumper and he’s developing a stroke that merits attention from the defense. But he’s not Gilbert Arenas and this isn’t how this should look: John Wall has taken 29 shots from 25-29 feet this season; Bradley Beal has taken 27 shots from that range.

A year ago, Wall averaged 2.5 shots per game from that range and shot .359 on them, while Beal shot .410 on 4.6 of those shots per game. That’s about how it should look. This year, Wall is launching 3.6 per game and connecting on just 31 percent of them, while Beal is shooting 3.4 per game and connecting on 37 percent.

John Wall will never be a better shooter than Bradley Beal. No offense should feature a mediocre shooter hoisting basically one deep 3 per quarter, but that’s where the Wizards find themselves so far this season. Hitting a 27-footer in the face of a defender is a great highlight, but when you’re missing a small handful of above-the-break 3s per game, the highlights are mitigated somewhat.

Beal, meanwhile, has shown confidence and playmaking skills that have been slowly emerging over the past few years. He’s increased his drives per game by more than 50 percent (6.4 last year, 9.8 this year), his dribbles per touch have increased (from 2.37 to 3.02), his paint touches per game are way up (0.9 to 2.3), and he’s expanded his game by putting the ball on the floor and attacking more than ever (33.5% of shots were catch-and-shoot last year, just 23.3% are this year).

If the Wizards are going to develop into the contenders they imagine themselves to be, the player and coaches need to find the most efficient blend of everyone’s skills. Wall is the best player on the team, and the offense should absolutely run through him more often than not. But Washington has looked more like the 2015 Oklahoma City Thunder this season than the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers or 2017 Golden State Warriors. There’s too much your-turn-my-turn hero ball between Wall and Beal, and not enough working to find the best play.

When Beal is feeling it, like he was Friday night (36 points on 12-19 shooting), Wall needs to recognize that and either try to create for Beal, or simply get out of the way. Steph Curry gets out of the way when Klay Thompson gets hot. LeBron James used to get out of the way when Kyrie Irving got hot.

Wall was ice cold, hitting just four shots on 13 official field-goal attempts, but he drew foul after foul, only to then miss seven of his 12 shots from the line. Drawing fouls is a good thing. Forcing your own offense when your teammate is on a roll (40 points on 12-25 shooting, including 6-12 on 3s, the previous game), only hurts the team.

(I’m very sorry for the headline pun.)

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Bryan Frantz
Reporter / Writer at TAI
Bryan is a D.C. native with a degree in something or other from UNC. He has important, interesting hobbies, but mostly he just weeps over D.C. sports teams. You can find him on the Metro, inevitably complaining about Red Line delays.