The Great Wall of Washington

by Jordan Lee

Mike Wilbon recently said it best in an episode of Pardon the Interruption: “I love watching the Wizards and I think they’re a great story, and this is a media story, too.  Don’t tell me that the only thing worth discussing is a 3-11 team.”  Despite pushing Toronto for the top spot in the East with an 18-6 record, the Wizards haven’t received the recognition they deserve.  Yes, it helps that they’ve faced the second easiest schedule in the league thus far.  No, they haven’t overtaken the Cavs or Bulls as the favorites to come out of the East.  But John Wall has evolved into one of the premier point guards in the NBA and should have the Wizards competing for a championship sooner rather than later.  

Before he hit the national stage at Kentucky, Wall was best known for his highlight reels on the internet.  As a kid in high school, he had everyone drooling over his freakish athleticism and thunderous left-handed dunks. However, under the guidance of Coach Calipari, Wall proved he was the complete package, a true point guard that had the potential to dominate both sides of the ball.  It’s easy to see why he emerged as the obvious choice with the first pick in the 2010 Draft.

Rookie seasons are especially hard on point guards.  They have to learn the ins and outs of sophisticated offensive systems that are required to break down NBA defenses. They also have to adapt to constantly guarding the most effective play in basketball: the pick and roll (pick and rolls are obviously used in college too, but are not nearly as effective as they are with the pros). And it doesn’t help that they have to deal with elite players like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook on a nightly basis thanks to how much talent and depth there is at the position.

Despite all of this, Wall was able to shine in his rookie campaign, jumping on the scene with averages of 16.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 8.3 assists.  He is sixth all-time in assists per game for a rookie, which becomes even more impressive when considering who the Wizards had on their roster.  Outside of Wall, the only players to appear in over 40 games and average 20 minutes were Andray Blatche, Nick Young, Kirk Hinrich, JaVale McGee, and Al Thornton.

Wall has always been able to create so much for his teammates because of his electric speed and explosiveness.  He zooms up the court faster than anyone with the ball (except maybe Westbrook), and it showed as the Wizards’ fastbreak points jumped from 26th to 5th upon his arrival.  But Wall also showed us how deadly his athleticism was going to be in the half court.  He could get by virtually anyone in the league and was fearless when attacking the rim.  34% of Wall’s shots were layups, and he converted almost 57% of them.

Still, Wall had a lot of room to grow.  While his blazing speed is one of his best assets, it also led to some problems in his rookie year.  Wall seemingly moved too fast for his mind at times, and as a result, was out of control far too often.  This is a big reason why he averaged 3.8 turnovers per game, the second worst mark in the league that year.  However, the biggest hole in Wall’s game was clearly his jump shot, as he converted a meager 30% of them.

Unfortunately, Wall’s potential for greatness was overshadowed by Blake Griffin’s postponed rookie season (Griffin missed his first year with a patella fracture).  Not only was he averaging 22.5 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 3.8 assists, but he was also dunking on EVERYONE.  ESPN simply couldn’t get enough of Blake’s dazzling highlight plays.  On the other hand, Wall seemed to get more attention for his “Dougie” than his playmaking abilities.  However, I can’t really blame anyone... That’s just a testament to Wall being THE greatest dancer in NBA history.

In reality, Wall proved just as much as Griffin during his rookie season, and they should have been compared side by side.  They were literally the same player, just at different positions. Two raw rookies whose unparalleled athleticism alone allowed them to have an instant impact on games.  The sky was the limit for Wall and Griffin, but their future success would be dependent on improved jump shots.

The next season, defenses learned to sag off Wall and bait him into taking mid-range jumpers. He went through the infamous “Sophomore Slump” as the league adjusted to his game.  It was clearer than ever that John Wall would need to improve his shooting in order to take the next step.

Before his third season (2012-13), Wall would injure his patella and miss significant time, but still somehow managed to finish the year on a strong note.  For the last 21 games, he averaged 24.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 8.3 assists and only 2.7 turnovers per game.  

Last season, Wall picked up where he left off and got the credit he deserved, making the All-Star game for the first time.  He led the Wizards over a gritty Chicago Bulls team in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Indiana Pacers.  Considering Washington’s struggles over the last 30 years, getting to the second round was an accomplishment that shouldn’t be overlooked. After all, it was only the second time the Wizards have made it out of the first round since the 1982-83 season.

But entering this season, Wall said the chip on his shoulder has only grown.  He admits he keeps a list of all the criticism he hears and uses it as fuel to get better.  After the Wizards completed their first training camp practice this season, Wall said, “I’m one of the most complete point guards in the league.  I rebound, I assist, play defense, steal, score. I don’t get why I’m overlooked. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Obviously the criticism has only helped Wall, and there are no more glaring weaknesses in his game.  So far this season, Wall is off to a terrific start, averaging 17.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 10.6 assists.  He leads all guards in double doubles with 16 and is the only player to have at least 20 points and 17 assists in a game, something he’s done twice in the last five games.  Like Blake Griffin, adding a consistent jump shot has allowed Wall to dominate games like never before. 

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Obviously Wall’s jump shooting percentages are still not great, but it’s improved enough to force defenses to guard him.  In his first few seasons, Wall hesitated to take open shots and often forced the issue trying to create an even better look.  Now, it’s a different story as Wall reacts to what the defense gives him.  If they want him to take open jump shots, he’s proven he’s confident enough to take and make them.  As a result, Wall has career highs in field goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio through 25 games.

Wall led the league in assists last year, but only because Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, and Ty Lawson missed games due to injury.  This year, there are no such caveats, as Wall has created more points off assists than anyone in the league.  He has a legitimate shot at winning the assist title this year, just .2 back of Rondo’s league best 10.8 per game.  He also leads the league in free throw assists per game (passes leading to free throws) and is second in secondary assists (hockey assists) behind only Chris Paul.

So far in December, Wall is on a tear shooting 49% from the field and averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 13.2 assists.  But what makes Wall so special is his commitment to the defensive end, something he has really emphasized this year:

As a tall, lanky 6’4” point guard, Wall has all the tools to be one of the best defenders in the league.  He is already averaging 1.7 steals and .6 blocks per game in his young career, and his commitment to the defensive end is showing this season more than ever.  He is averaging an absurd 2.2 steals and 0.8 blocks per game.  Now I know stats don’t tell the whole story, especially on the defensive end, but Wall has been giving elite point guards a tough time.

In arguably his worst statistical game against the Clippers, Wall had 10 points and 11 assists while only going 4-10 from the field, but he made his presence felt on the defensive end.  A huge reason why the Wizards were able to win that game is because Wall held Chris Paul to a season low 6 assists and forced him to turn it over a season high 6 times (CP has a 9.7:2 assist to turnover ratio on the season).  Wall stuck with CP3 all game and his relentless effort forced the league’s most efficient point guard to uncharacteristically make a lot of bad decisions.

Despite Beal and Nene missing 10 and 8 games respectively, the Wizards haven't missed a beat.  Even though Wall is only 24 years old, veterans like Paul Pierce and Andre Miller have not shied away from labeling Wall as their leader.  He has always led with his work ethic, but has become more vocal on and off the court.  After the Wizards double OT win against the Celtics, Pierce said, "He's our leader.  Everyone talks about Paul the veteran, but he's our leader."

Wall has improved every part of his game, whether it be offense, defense, or leadership.  He made it clear before the season that he doesn’t care for the individual accolades, putting all the emphasis on winning.

Well the Wizards are winning now, and they are going to be contending for championships in the near future, so let’s start to appreciate the future Hall of Fame talent that brought this team back from the dead.  Wall will soon be entering his prime alongside Bradley Beal, who’s an unbelievable talent himself at 21 years of age.  I know the Splash Bros are going to get all the praise this season, and it’s well deserved.  The Warriors have been the most dominant team in the league, but don’t be surprised if Wall and Beal take their crown for best backcourt in the league in the next few years.