I had a chance to catch up with John Wall one-on-one for a bit after the scrum exited following the 98-95 win over the Toronto Raptors. We chatted about a couple of things, but the main takeaway is that Wall is still struggling with injuries. I wrote a long feature about that issue for SB Nation D.C., and this was the money quote to me.
"It's just kind of tough for me because of the injuries. "That's the only thing really I think that's stopped me from being who I want to be and controlling myself."
The same old injuries (foot, knee) are still there, and now, Wall also has a jammed thumb that's affected his jump shot. I believe he suffered the injury in the Philadelphia game, and while it's nothing serious, he did have some sort of bandage on his hand.
"Right now, it's kind of tough when I hit the floor and I got all this padding on my left hand, so it's kind of tough to grip the ball when I'm coming up to shoot it. But I'm working on it everyday. It's just being confident and holding my follow through."
More quick notes below the jump:
The two biggest issues with Wall's game now is that he looks tentative offensively and is struggling mightily defensively. In talking with Wall, observing his play and listening to Flip Saunders and others, it's pretty clear to me that injuries are playing a big role. Not only is he unable to generate the same kind of speed he usually gets, but he also seems a little less confident because his body doesn't feel right.
Let's tackle these one at a time.
Wall's jump shot has been erratic all season, and it's especially been a problem recently. He was 1-6 on jumpers outside of 16 feet against Toronto and 0-5 against Minnesota. For the season, Wall is shooting just 32 percent on shots from 16-23 feet and 30 percent from three-point range.
Before the game, I asked Saunders about Wall not looking for his perimeter shot much against Minnesota.
"He's got to take 15-foot shots when they're there. He can knock down that shot. He's a 80 percent free-throw shooter, and he works a lot on taking that shot. But I think what happens is that he's been somewhat surprised about how far back teams are playing off him, so he comes off really tentatively instead of coming off aggressive. If it's there, you go ahead and shoot it."
It's a fair critique here. Wall seems to shoot his jumper reluctantly, when shooting in rhythm would be better. But when I asked Wall about this critique in the midst of the scrum after the game, he gave an interesting answer.
"I know teams are going under, I make it at times, and at the same time, I can still be aggressive and get to the paint. But if I see it's clogged up, I don't want to force it for no reason. I can find my teammates a shot. I think that's where you're going to see me force the issue more, but like I said, I'm not that kind of person. I'm not that kind of point guard, unless I got it going. So it's pretty tough at times."
The part that got me, though, was the way Wall began his answer, prior to giving that quote.
"I don't want to blame it all on having an injury in my knee that's still sore, and my hands. I never want to complain about nothing. If I'm out there playing, I'm playing."
The weird thing was that I didn't explicitly mention injuries in my question. He had answered a question about injuries earlier, but I don't recall saying anything about how his injury was affecting his performance. It was just a reality that he felt the need to dispel right off the bat.
I didn't get a chance to get a question out to Saunders about Wall's defensive issues recently, but I did speak to Wall extensively about his struggles on that end.
How bad is he struggling? I crunched some numbers, and in the eight games since Wall went back in the starting lineup, point guards have been lighting the Wizards up. On average, they are scoring 18 points and getting 8.5 assists while shooting over 58 percent from the field. Those eight point guards? Chris Paul, Devin Harris, Jrue Holiday, D.J. Augustin, Luke Ridnour, Beno Udrih, Jose Calderon and Darren Collison (twice). Not exactly a murderers row. Take away Harris (who had just four points and three assists on 1/7 shooting), and those averages rise to 20/9.2 on 62 percent shooting.
One thing that Wall said he's still figuring out is that point guards in the NBA are also elite shooters.
"It's tough, because a lot of teams run a lot of pick and roll, and guys can shoot it better than guys in college. You're not going to have too many guys in college coming off screens shooting NBA threes or pull-ups. They're trying to get to the basket. NBA point guards are more explosive, and they know how to pick and choose, and they aren't about to rush anything."
I asked him if he was surprised about this. He said no.
"It doesn't surprise me. When you get paid to do this, you got a lot of free time working out in the gym. It's basically shooting with confidence."
He also said he studies these guys a lot. Before each game, he asks the video coordinator to give him a 5-10 minute clip of every guard he will face during that game. But when the game actually happens, Wall is still trying to break his college habits. He said he needs to work on getting up into the player instead of dropping back and surrendering the open shot.
The major issue seems to be his defensive stance. Right now, he's not getting low enough, and these crafty point guards are getting him off-balanced. That has a lot to do with pain he's experiencing in his knee. But it's also worth noting that many rookies struggle defensively in their first year in the NBA. The Wizards are 4.5 points better defensively per 100 possessions with Wall out of the game, but that's not too uncommon. Among those who were net negatives to their team's overall defensive performance: Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Brandon Roy, Deron Williams and even Blake Griffin.
At the end of the day, we're ultimately worried about a guy who is averaging 15 and 9 as a rookie. Despite all the issues, he's performing fairly well. Saunders knew this and immediately launched into a two-and-a-half minute defense of his point guard after his initial comment about being aggressive.
We're asking a lot of John," Saunders said. "If you really look at his progress, you gotta look back and look at other point guards. Where was Chauncey Billups his rookie year, and what did he turn out to be? Where was Rajon Rondo? He played 24 minutes, and look where he's at right now."
Saunders noted that only three players have ever averaged nine assists a game as rookies, and mentioned that Wall is still learning how to perform in close games. Calling him a "willing learner," Saunders declared that Wall's last 43 games would be much, much better than his first 25.
But at the same time, Wall is clearly hurting. I asked him about what type of advice people have given him, knowing that Brandon Jennings has already publicly said that Wall needs to pace himself more than he does. Wall acknowledged that he talks to Jennings from time to time about how to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of being a rookie. I asked him what specifically Jennings has told him and how he plans on taking that advice.
"I think I'm still playing with the type of energy [that I need] for the whole season. Yeah, it's going to be tough. We'll see how it goes for the rest of the season," he said.