Being in the NBA is a pretty amazing accomplishment. Making it this far means you beat out basically the entire global male population, joining an ultra exclusive club of 450 members. Standing out from your peers in that club is hard. Standing out as a Point Guard in that club is even harder. At a time when there are more high level PGs than ever before, it sometimes takes more than an individual’s numbers to separate themselves from the crowd. You need a story – think Isaiah Thomas and his new moniker, The King of the Fourth. You need huge individual numbers – Russell Westbrook and his 33 triple doubles. You need to improve your team, or for your team to improve – James Harden and the likely 3 seed Rockets.
Just like when you catch a hint of side boob from a beautiful woman, John Wall has been teasing us for years. It tantalizes you, excites you, but ultimately leaves you unsatisfied and wanting more. John Wall feels like he has made a leap this year, finally cementing his place among the top Point Guards in the league and leading the Wizards to new heights. His game has improved, his team has improved, and the story surrounding the team has changed dramatically compared to 7 months ago.
John Wall feels different this year, but is he? Do the numbers match the eye test? Has Wall separated himself from the Tier 2 PGs and taken a seat at the big boys table? That is harder to tell.
How is this for improvement – career highs in Points, Assists, FG%, TS%, Steals, Offensive Rating and PER. He has his best % from 15-19 feet in 2 years and is scoring on 67% of his drives, per nba.com/stats. Wall has leveraged his passing to aid his scoring, and his scoring to aid his passing. All of this is resulting in a 41-26 record and a legitimate shot at the first 50 win season Washington have had since before Scott Brooks was a NBA player.
Wall has made modest gains in his shooting inside the arc, but his confidence creates opportunities for himself and others. Not being afraid to shoot, as well as occasionally hitting some shots, means better spacing for everyone. Wall is not elite at this yet, but every little bit helps.
Looking at where the Wizards and Wall sit now, it would be easy to forget how this season started. His head coach not retained. Double knee surgery. His back court teammate getting a lucrative 5 year extension, making Wall the best player on the team but not the best compensated. The admission that he and Brad Beal didn’t really get along. Then starting the season 2-8. The vultures were circling.
Fast forward to present: as of writing Wall has played in 65/67 games and Washington have been one of the hottest teams since the calendar flipped to 2017, with a 25-10 record.
Despite the improvements across the board, Wall is still in the middle of the pack when you compare him to the other elite PGs. Thomas has gone from
basically nothing pick 60 to become an offensive dynamo similar to James Harden. Speaking of Harden, both he and Westbrook are having seasons for the ages. Steph Curry is having a down year by his lofty standards but still bends games like few players can. Paul, Lillard, Irving and Lowry have all played at a high level.
When looking at the numbers, shooting stands out as the one area that holds Wall back from leaving the crowded 2nd tier and joining the vaunted group of Harden, Curry and Westbrook. Wall is actually having a down year when it comes to the 3 ball and his efficiency numbers bare the weight of that statistic. He ranks far behind Lillard, Irving, Paul, Lowry and Thomas when it comes to 2 point and 3 point percentages. Partly as a result, his Offensive Rating of 111.4 is below Curry, Harden, Paul, Lowry, Irving and Thomas (and Brad Beal).
When it comes to the pick and roll, Wall again lags behind. He only averages 0.85 points per possession as a finisher, a far cry from Isaiah Thomas’s leading 1.07 for players who have appeared in 40+ games and average 2 possessions using ball screens. Lillard, Lowry, Curry, Harden and Irving all average more, as well as a crop of other guards including Eric Bledsoe, Mike Conley, Jeff Teague and Derrick Rose.
On the other side of the ball, Wall has dipped a little, but still offers more than the most other guards. He ranks 2nd in all point guards (min 40 games played) in FG% differential at -3.5, as well as 3FG% differential at -5.1, trailing only Jrue Holiday in both categories. When it comes to Defensive Win Shares, Wall has been the best of the ‘Tier 2’ guys.
When looking at overall impact from the 1 position, Wall ranks 3rd in ESPN’s Estimated Wins Added, 7th for Real Plus Minus, 7th for Value Over Replacement Player and 6th in PER. There is a very short list of players you would want orchestrating the Wizards instead of Wall.
Whilst Wall may not be separating himself from the group of very, very good Point Guards, the story around him seems different this year. New coach Scott Brooks has bonded with Wall in ways that Randy Wittman couldn’t. The on court connection between Beal and Wall has never been better. Washington are winning and Wall is healthy. Instead of hearing about how annoyed he is at Reggie Jackson getting paid more than he is, we are talking about whether the Wiz can snag the 2 seed from Boston. The man has been here through defensive lapses, Randy Wittman coaching clinics, broken hands and an interesting game one introduction. Now that the Wizards are doing well, the masses are are free to appreciate what he brings to the table.
After making the risky choice to operate on both knees at the same time in the off season, it would have been fair to be skeptical of his ability to remain healthy, athletic and effective (just look at Derrick Rose). Wall had missed a lot of Regular Season games early in his career and several playoff games when his team has made it to the second season. Those injuries have often hampered his shot and his ability to impact the game positively. Now Wall is healthy and has been getting better as the season has gone on. The Wizards are going to the playoffs and will have a legitimate shot to make the Eastern Conference Finals.
The whole team has gotten better. Gortat is the only player in the starting 5 who you could argue has ‘regressed’, but he has still been solid. You can chalk this up to Brooks system and individual work over the summer, but the responsibility to make plays and get players the ball in the right spot still falls mostly to Wall each night. The improved play has lead to wins and home court advantage in the playoffs, possibly through 2 rounds.
As a distributor, Wall has reached close to Chris Paul levels. He can manipulate defences whilst at speed, zipping the ball to shooters in the corner out of the pick and roll or threading pocket passes to bigs rumbling down the lane. Only James Harden has created more opportunities for his teammates.
Wall has also leveraged the threat of his jump shot and his penchant for driving to draw help defenders out of position, resulting in highlight plays galore. His career high PPG has been boosted by a healthy 5.8 points in transition per contest (3rd among guards per nba.com), as well as 9.9 in the paint. That means the defence overreacts and allows this.
Despite Wall constantly being in attack mode, he has made sure to keep his teammates involved and it has resulted in notable career years for Brad Beal and Otto Porter. To say they haven’t made improvements themselves would be wrong, as both are showing more with their game than ever before. But Wall is the fulcrum that makes everything work. With Wall and Beal on the floor together (without Otto Porter), Beal shoots a robust 61.7 TS% and averages 1.24 points per possession, per nbawowy.com. With Wall and Porter on the floor (no Beal), Porter shoots 56.6 TS% and scores 1.27 ppp. If all 3 are on, Porter shoots 67.5 TS% and drops 1.43 ppp and Beal has 61.4 TS% and 1.26 ppp. Take Wall off the floor though?
Otto Porter somehow jumps to an insane 85.7 TS%…on a ridiculously low 9.8 usage rate.
The Wizards have predictable on/off numbers when it comes to Wall as well. With him, they have a Net Rating of +6. When he rests that disappears to -7.7.
Although Wall’s individual defensive numbers have gotten slightly worse, he still offers a player capable of guarding a lead ball handler with either quickness, strength or size. Not having to hide him on ‘weak’ players helps with the Wizard’s overall flexibility and means they don’t lose anything on D with him on the floor – unlike Damian Lillard and Isaiah Thomas.
Despite the seemingly modest gains in his individual game, 2017 Wall is better than previous versions. The fit between coach and player is always important, and with Brooks he has been unleashed. This has allowed him to orchestrate the revival and improvement of teammates across the board, and ultimately has resulted in wins – the ultimate tiebreaker for every player.
With the regular season set to conclude within a month, Wall will have the chance to separate himself in another way too – 1/1 match ups. The Wizards are poised to face either Kyrie Irving and the Cavs, Kyle Lowry and the Raptors or most likely Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics in the 2nd round of the Playoffs. If ever there was an opportunity for separation, the competition will set the stage. Wall may not have pulled away from the pack just yet, but the Playoffs are where names can be made and reputations created – just look at Kyrie transforming from gunner to champion.
John Wall is coming.