January 20, 2019

John Wall, Wizards

By Jesse Blanchard

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John Wall entered the NBA full of promise, charisma and hype. The first overall pick out of Kentucky was all dances and dunks; a hype machine predicted to take the burgeoning point guard revolution to new heights.

The Washington Wizards franchise player remains all those things, but over the past few years he’s done so to relatively low fanfare compared to his peers, especially considering the attention he received when welcomed to the NBA.

From the outside looking in, it appears this has, to some level, or at least in some moments, irked Wall…from commenting on the five-year $80 million contract the Detroit Pistons awarded Reggie Jackson to proclamations of having the NBA’s best backcourt or being its best two-way point guard.

To an extent, it’s easy to see why he gets lost in the point guard hierarchy.

Blessed with gifts pulled straight out of a coaching catalog for ideal point guards, Wall almost fits the role too cleanly. The size and athleticism combination paired with intuitive instincts for finding seams in the defense and teammates in space are all near the top of the norms we expect from our point guards.

From a marketing standpoint, the problems he faces aren’t unlike the ones plaguing Superman in comics from the 1990s on, when the blueprint power set for modern day superheroes was obscured by innovative new superpowers, origin stories and costume and character designs.

Stephen Curry’s three-point marksmanship is not only something the NBA has never seen, it’s been utilized in ways few would ever thought of before. Like Batman, Chris Paul’s cantankerous technical precision would almost make you believe he might defeat anyone with enough time to plan. Almost. In his time as a point guard, James Harden displays the sort of idiosyncratic quirks that leap off the page, especially when that page is an Excel spreadsheet.

Even Russell Westbrook, whose gifts most closely mirror Wall’s, are packaged in a way that are more unhinged and unrestrained, making him infinitely more compelling.

To continue the comic book analogy, the marketing comparison between Wall and Westbrook is like comparing the X-Men’s Cyclops and Wolverine.

Unless you live in Washington D.C., you’re going with Wolverine.

But there are no reboots or reinventions necessary with Wall. To ask him to start launching three-pointers like Curry or commanding an offense with the same iron fist as Paul would harm the Wizards quicker than the Warner Bros. and Henry Cavill’s depressing interpretation of Superman.

The intrigue of Wall and the Wizards is how his superhuman feats play off an ever-improving supporting cast and how they grow together.

Wall has always been faster than a speeding bullet and able to leap tall centers in a single bound. His speed is frighteningly fast, but it doesn’t have Westbrook’s destructive feel. It’s not deceptive, because it’s something easily perceived, but his long frame also makes it look too easy, too unhurried.

What hasn’t always been there is how these things, and so much more, relate to teammate Bradley Beal.

Their relationship wasn’t marred by disharmony or disputes, but rather, two burgeoning young guards find their way on separate paths that eventually needed to merge.

“The toughest thing you have is two young players that want to be great,” Wall said [per Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post]. “Sometimes it might work, and sometimes it might not work out. But us being brothers, we put everything to the side, and we make things work because we both want to be great.

“I couldn’t be the point guard I am without him. He couldn’t be the player he is without me.”

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That developing trust is important because, for all his gifts, Wall isn’t perfect. Hampered by a flawed jumper, Wall has never been the most efficient. So far this season, his True Shooting Percentage stands at just 51.3, shooting only 39.3 percent from the field with a career shooting average of 43.3 percent.

But his speed and vision (10.3 assist per game this season) give the Wizards an identity, pushing the pace (11th last season, 10th so far this season, per Basketball-Reference) to propel the Wizards to a top 10 offense.

As Wall increased the nuances of his change of pace and direction, he’s found more ways to increase the pressure he puts on defense (increasing his free throw attempts to 7.5 so far this season), making his skill set more valuable than his efficiency in part, because he pulls defenses to inopportune areas of the court, opening things up for more limited teammates.

His reliability in these efforts has allowed for the Wizards’ player development to take hold, seeing great returns on Otto Porter and Kelly Oubre.

Now in his eighth season in the NBA, Wall hasn’t redefined the point guard position, but he’s done something perhaps just as difficult in defining the Washington Wizards. It’s time we all took notice.

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Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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