John Wall got paid last summer and with big money came expected added attention; get paid like a franchise centerpiece, time to carry a team like a franchise centerpiece. Today, the Wizards are standing at 2-0—ready to head home and finish off the three-seeded Chicago Bulls—with Wall at the helm of what will likely be their first second round berth since 2005. It’s fair to say that the fourth-year pro has delivered in kind.
Crucial to his success, Wall has had to strike the right balance between scoring and playmaking— no easy task for a young player. Slowing down is one of the first signs of maturation for a primary ballhandler. Given that Wall’s speed has been a key to his breaking down defenses since he was in high school, taking it down a notch (without being forced to by defenses) seems like a voluntary handcuffing. Only, along the way to this playoff run, Wall began to figure out the difference between running smart and running wild.
Wall’s first two seasons were a lesson in theatrics. He flashed endless potential paired with an affinity toward risk, the high assist totals were as electrifying as the turnover rates were troubling (he finished 46th in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio his rookie year, and outside the top-30 thereafter. Yet the early kamikaze style was a blessing in disguise. Wall has become accustomed to risk, to the point that connecting crosscourt passes to 3-point shooters and threading the needle in high traffic areas for dunks is just a regular part of the John Wall Experience.
This season, though, Wall is managing that high-wire act better and to the benefit of the team. He’s throwing 100 more assists than last season, finishing with roughly the same amount of turnovers as before; now his ratio has him in the league’s top 30. Not only is Wall tenth in secondary assists and fourth in assist opportunities, per SportVu, his passes are exploiting the court’s sorest spots: 61 percent of Wall’s assists and hockey assists at the rim or outside the arc.
Wall’s fusion of the traditional (savvy playmaking) with the daring (relentless athleticism, rim-rattling contortions for layups) makes for a thrilling and tough cover. Few players can fuse effectiveness with excitement so naturally, yet Wall’s high wire act makes efficiency fun. We’re watching this merger take shape in this series against Chicago.
The Bulls, a defensive team that prides itself on forcing midrange jumpers, routinely go under screens, giving opposing guards ample space to take long twos. When guards manage to penetrate against them, the Bulls opt to help off big men rather than weakside spot up shooters.
In their Game 1 victory, the Wizards’ offense exploited the open shot without Wall going superstar. Nene roasted Chicago to the tune of 24 points exploiting the top-of-the-key J that was open for him all night. Tellingly, the Wizards were forced out of their normal style of jacking threes—they took just eleven 3-point attempts, down from 20.8 per game in the regular season—and still pulled out a W. Washington is infamous for a midrange proclivity but they made an effort to improve in Game 2. Wall was a mixed bag, 6-15 from the floor and a bit heavy on the jumpers, but the Wizards nailed 9-of-23 from deep.
Nene is one of the best release valves in the league (he shoots 50% from the field for the season and routinely feasts on shots from just inside the arc.) That’s his shot. For the most part, Wall’s teammates shoot the shots he creates for them. Nene’s an exception. He’s been an easy find for a player used to operating at full throttle and the fact that Wall now makes the easy pass when it’s there is as important to the Wizards’ victories as Wall’s ankle breaking penetration.
Now the Wizards have eked out two road wins. Headed back to DC with the advantage, the game should slow down even more for Wall. If he can find it in himself to wait an extra few seconds to let a second option develop before flinging the ball to Nene or taking an 18-footer, Wall could flip the anatomy of the Wizards’ offense over on its head. Against the Bulls, Nene’s jumper might be enough. Against a tougher opponent in the second round, though, “good enough” isn’t going to cut it.
Upward movement comes in fits and starts, but the self-aware Wall has been working on pacing himself all season. In November, he told Mike Prada at Bullets Forever, “That shot’s [the midrange jumper] is going to be there every time for me, so I don’t have to take it every time and I definitely don’t need to take it early in the shot clock.” Self-awareness is one thing but improving upon fully formed habits is a different monster. Wall still ended up shooting one-third of his shots from the midrange area.
The best version of Wall is never going to be a brazen and relentless rim-rattler, though. Wall could develop Chris Paul’s midrange game and Tony Parker’s finishing ability and distributing would still be his most effective trait. Wall’s key to superstardom is cut in a different, more challenging ilk: the happy marriage of warring instincts.
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