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John Wall, Tai Chi, The A-Team And The Sophomore Slump

Before we get started, there are several different systems for the romanization of the Chinese language. Americans are most familiar with the tai chi spelling, but if you prefer taiji, t'ai ch'i or what-have-you...potato tomato, potato tomato. The essence of tai chi is hotly debated by its aficionados, so forgive me if I further offend your sensibilities on a more important score.

From my limited experience, combative tai chi is not about speed, but intent. That's not to say you always move slowly, tai chi can be fast and brutal. The aim is to make your intentions invisible while deducing your opponent's and to exploit holes in their defense before they realize they're there. When this is successful, the opponent is often confused as well, because they have no idea what hit them or from where.

Sophomore campaigns often present difficulties in any competitive environment. The cliche 'sophomore slump' is sufficient proof of that. When a player finds success in an unorthodox way, opposing coaches use a year's worth of game film to their benefit in the offseason and put it on that player to adjust.

John Wall has got that blazing speed which always puts him a step ahead, but against a head coach's machinations? As Hannibal Smith says:

One step ahead of the game isn't the plan, kid. Two to three steps ahead. Beating an enemy's move before it's even made. That's a plan.

via subzin

Give me a minute, I'm good. If I've got an hour, I'm great. You give me six months, I'm unbeatable.

via subzin

To apply the lessons of tai chi and The A-team, it doesn't matter how fast you are if your intent is obvious and opposing defenses know what you're going to do. Sure, John will win the coast-to-coast gambit several times a game with that other gear nobody else possesses. But if all a coach has to get his team to stifle the Wizards' offense is:

  • Look for John Wall in transition
  • Put NBA version of bump coverage on Nick Young
  • Look for John Wall in transition
  • Stand in the paint against everyone else with arms in the air for those long rebounds
  • Aaaand look for John Wall in transition

What coach could fail to do that? And remember Ziller's recent missive on Mark Jackon's Hack-A-Dwight strategy? I've noticed something interesting...on a significant number of possessions it seems like defenders aren't offering much contact to John in the paint. Part of me supposes John has been using excessive contact to decelerate at the rim and make an adjustment for his shot. If he has, and opposing coaches have noticed, they simply tell their defenders to keep a hand in his face as much as possible while waiting for him to overpenetrate and shoot off-balance.

But the tai chi metaphor goes deeper than 'being predictable is bad'. With a touch, tai chi practicioners are attempting to divine their opponent's intent while disguising their own. Let me offer an example, the first time I engaged in push hands (what some/most offshoots of tai chi call sparring) I attempted to punch my opponent's xiphoid process (chest area). Half a second later, my left leg is twisted off the ground behind me with my right knee about to buckle while I'm bent backwards at about forty-five degrees being gently choked (yes, that's possible). My buddy released pressure and told me, 'You can't be so obvious and muscle in like that. Being fast and hitting hard isn't enough.'

Let's just say a lot of time went by before I started to get the slightest inkling of what he meant. Was Flip attempting to cultivate John Wall's sensitivity to the state of opposing defenses in the beginning of the season, before he resumed playcalling duties? As John becomes more comfortable feeling out what opposing defenses are showing him following his rookie campaign, we should also see a jump in half court virtuosity. While plenty of us are looking to see him slow it down and slice apart the defense a la Chris Paul, that will happen once John is comfortable again on the floor. If yesterday's performance against the Rockets is any indication, that might be sooner than we dared hope.

"It is better to be violent if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence."

via subzin

Hannibal quoted Ghandi to remind B.A. of his identity. Hopefully, last afternoon's effort from John will pull those inclined to panic back from the edge. John will continue to progress, but he isn't going to become everyone's idea of a pure point. It's amusing to watch the despondency over John Wall versus Derrick Rose comparisons made when Wall was drafted. Derrick Rose didn't blossom overnight, yet Wizards and Bulls fans have been laughing (sadly and contemptuously, respectively) forgetting history barely a few seasons old.

Players who have the capacity to 'revolutionize the position' have a big leap to make once league defenses make their adjustments in a new season. Once the player learns to play their game against gambits designed to take it away, the fans get a glimpse of just how far they can take their potential in the NBA. We got a glimpse last night, and while the Rockets' defense isn't world-beating, it's a reassuring reminder that John Wall is going to beat the sophomore slump.