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On John Wall: Growing Pains and Growing Gains

balance

Photo Credit: Colin Harris via Flickr 

John Wall has heady aspirations. That much he made clear when he abandoned the vague optimism and half-truths that define media day to make a sweeping declaration: that he’s the best point guard in the league. The Washington Wizards stumbled through the first ten games of the regular season, though, accumulating a disappointing 2-8 record along the way. The blame partially hinges on the Wizards’ once-shaky defense— now well on its way back to the league’s top ten— but John Wall and his wayward jumpshot were a definite factor. Plain and simple, his offseason shooting regimen wasn’t producing many gainly results. Ten games in, this was Wall’s shot chart:

John Wall first 8 games

To Wall’s misfortune, there’s a difference between a good shooter in an empty gym and one that can bomb atomically on live television. As goes with all kinds of progress, in-game improvement is a precarious affair. Per NBA.com,Wall was shooting 35.9 percent from the field and heaving 4.6 treys per game despite shooting a shoddy 30 percent from beyond the arc.

Most of Wall’s misses are in pick and roll situations, isolation and off the dribble. After making just 15 shots over the course of two seasons, Wall was hard pressed to contain his excitement from beyond the arc early this season. 18 games in, he’s already eclipsed his previous mark and then some, connecting on 22 treys. Needless to say, this is the first time in his career Wall’s had to read and react in spot up situations; fluctuation is to be expected. Moreover, while Wall’s teammates are effective ancillary players, not a single one of them is considered a reliable shot creator. Washington’s success hinges on Wall’s slink shoulders. That’s why the Wizards are a historically inept unit on offense when Wall is on the bench. When he’s on the floor and assertive, Wall ignites their potential. Problem is, he must remain a perpetual narcotic; a heavy but definitive burden. Here’s the good news: Over the past eight games, Wall has dialed back his three-point attempts to 3.1 per game and he’s shooting a staggering 40 percent from beyond the arc. In turn, the Wizards have gone 6-2.

Wall is adjusting on the fly, learning to pick his spots in catch-and-shoot situations, especially when his man ignores him on the perimeter. Mastering the three-point shot is tricky, especially for someone with Wall’s phenomenal drive-and-kick expertise. The difference between a good decision and a bad decision is usually determined by a matter of milliseconds. John is still prone to settling where he should be creating for others but his recent adjustments are encouraging. In the mean time, Wall’s attempts from mid range have skyrocketed. Opponents are beginning to play him differently in pick and roll situations, which simultaneously opens the floor up for creation but invites a pernicious temptress: Teams are duping Wall into taking long twos. He went from taking six mid range shots on a rotten 29.2 percent clip to a Nowitzki-esque 8.4 attempts per game while, oddly, increasing his efficiency to a marginally improved 36.8 percent.

Wall is surprisingly self-aware, luckily— something his quick adjustments this season attest to. In his rookie year, Wall took 115 threes but struggled mightily from beyond the arc. Over the next two seasons, he took less than 90 shots from three. After a win against the Minnesota Timberwolves two weeks ago, in which Wall took ten two-point jumpers, he readily admitted his faults to Mike Prada over at SB Nation’s Washington Wizards blog, Bullets Forever:

That shot’s going to be there every time for me, so I don’t have to take it every time [it’s there] and I definitely don’t need to take it early in the shot clock. If I can get the ball back later in the shot clock and there are like 14 or 12 seconds left, I can take it then. But [it’s better] to just move the ball and get some flow into our offense.

The Wizards everyday fears have morphed from fear itself to the growing pains of their star in a transition year. Relatively speaking, these are halcyon times.

Put aside his freakish athleticism and it’s Wall’s court vision that truly leaves us speaking in tongues. According to SportVU’s Player Tracking data, Wall is second in the league in points created by assists, assist opportunities and assists per game— only Chris Paul is ahead of him. Blessed with the best floor game of the NBA’s young point guards, Wall’s arsenal has never been short of elite playmaking. His propensity to squeak the ball through high-traffic areas is somehow thrilling, endearing and wildly effective at the same time. In line with legions of potential-laden youngsters, the elusive ingredient he lacked was consistency. After returning from a knee injury last season, Wall gave us a preview of just how devastating he could be when given the ability to harness his talent by pure exercise of will. Upon Wall’s return, the Wizards three-point shooting improved from 6.5 makes on 32.1 percent shooting to 6.8 makes on 38.5 percent shooting. That increase in efficiency marks the approximate difference between the eighth ranked Dallas Mavericks and the putrid, third-worst New York Knicks.

Today, Wall’s floorsmanship is prestidigitation on 94×50 parameters. He’s siphoning an array of efficient shots, boasting a career high in assist/turnover ratio and, yes, walking the dog. Last season, 30 percent of Wall’s assists led to two-point jumpers while 31.6 percent of them were beyond the arc. This year, he’s assisting less on mid range jumpers while his three-point assists have jumped to 37.3 percent. Most notable has been Wall’s increased ability to find his teammates for easy shots at the rim. 38 percent of Wall’s assists have resulted in dunks and layups this season, as opposed to 32.1 last year. Cut the sample size to the past ten games and that figure increases to a staggering 46.9 percent. Even Daryl Morey is blushing.

Wall is innately interesting because he represents an unexplored faction of the NBA’s positional revolution. If the prodigal pure point guard ever existed—even Steve Nash, a paragon for desirable point guard play, has compiled historically efficient scoring seasons— it’s certainly been ravaged by the likes of Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. Today’s de facto traditional ideal is Chris Paul, a guard who’s having his best season with the Clippers by embracing his terrifying scoring prowess. But John Wall is neither here nor there. He isn’t as methodical or inventive as Chris Paul but he isn’t as potent a scorer as Russell Westbrook— nor as maddening, for that matter. Wall’s mid-air theatrics are reminiscent of Rose but the latter can’t read and react to a defense the way Wall does. His skill set allows for a never-before-seen duality, one that’s closer and closer to becoming a continuum. It’s an equally tantalizing and unnerving prospect for Wall to attempt such mastery, one that’s likely to give him his first All-Star berth. Sure, that’s an easy thing to say in an Eastern Conference where losing might be easier than winning (I’m only kind of joking) but for John Wall, perfecting this balancing act could be more; a means to perennial stardom.

Statistical and visual support for this story providing by NBA.com’s Stats Tool. 

Seerat Sohi

Seerat Sohi (@DamianTrillard) watches NBA basketball from the confines in her home in Edmonton, a small town on the outskirts of Siberia, because the idea of running around on ice always made her feel nervous. She oscillates between loving and hating the Bulls, depending on the amount of minutes Jimmy Butler plays on a given day. She also writes for Clipperblog (www.clipperblog.com) and Rufus On Fire (www.rufusonfire.com). Her request for the domain name DidSeeratSohiSleepLastNight.com was recently rejected, but that won't deter any future attempts.