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John Wall, The 'Footballization' Of The NBA And The Wizards' Problem

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Let's not sugarcoat this: John Wall has not had a great season. Most figured he'd take a leap from a good-for-a-20-year-old rookie season that saw him miss lots of time due to injury. Instead, he's taken a step back in pretty much every way offensively. He's shooting 23 percent from the field on shots that aren't at the rim. His assists are down and his turnovers are up. His advanced shooting numbers, which were pretty poor last year, are even worse this year. It's not wrong to say that Wall has been bad this year.

That, of course, has led to all sorts of reactions from people around here. There's something to every possible data point on the wide spectrum of opinions on what to make of Wall's issues. In many ways, I think the level of disappointment stems from the weight of expectations placed on him by the team and by his draft position. He's far rawer than we realize.

But that doesn't mean I have concerns. Specifically, I'm worried that the environment to foster Wall's improvement is not there. It all speaks to what I call the "footballization" of basketball and its point guards.

We all know that the NFL is currently in the middle of an offense-first era. Great quarterbacks and great offenses win in this league. We're moving away from rigid plays called by the coordinators and moving into an era of reading and reacting, all facilitated by the quarterback. But for all the credit that quarterbacks are taking, there's a symbiotic relationship that must develop between the QB and the rest of his offense. Eli Manning makes Victor Cruz better by delivering great back-shoulder catches, and Cruz makes Manning better by running any route he needs. Tom Brady makes Rob Gronkowski better by zipping the ball into him in traffic, and Gronkowski makes Brady better by catching literally anything thrown in his direction. You need both elements to be successful, because only then can each element lift up the other.

It's a similar story to what's happening in the NBA. Equal-opportunity systems are becoming a thing of the past. Now, point guards are increasingly given the ball and asked to read what's happening. It's great power for a point guard, but it comes with great responsibility. Like a quarterback, the point guard must store more information in his head than anyone else on his team. The best ones certainly do that well. But because that's such a burden, they also need teammates that can help play to their strengths. They are the straw that stirs the drink, but that straw needs a drink to stir.

I think that's what Wall was getting at when he said this after the Bulls game:

"It's not hard when you got guys like Kyle Korver that can make shots and you can run him off down screens, and you got a guy like Carlos Boozer that can pick and pop. When Luol Deng's in, you have a guy who you can run plays for, make shots and create his own shots. It's kind of easy."

He's not scoffing at Derrick Rose's talent, nor is he saying that he needs superstars around him to succeed. What he's saying is that the rest of the Bulls players have certain skills that Rose is easily able to amplify. Korver is one of the league's best spot-up shooters. Boozer is a great pick-and-pop big man. Joakim Noah is a great screener and fantastic passer for his position that can bail the Bulls out when Rose is trapped. Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton are two of the best in the league at catching and shooting while coming off screens. The Bulls' players aren't superstars, but they have strengths and play to them. Rose is a superstar, in part because of his talent and drive, but also in part because he knows the strengths of his teammates that he must amplify.

A similar situation is playing out in Cleveland. To say Kyrie Irving is better than Wall is not to put down Wall. Irving is that good. But he also has a set of teammates that play to their strengths, even if they aren't supremely talented. Anthony Parker and Omri Casspi mostly are spot-up shooters that don't step out of line. Antawn Jamison moves like a madman and doesn't dominate the ball. Anderson Varejao is an elite screen-setter, offensive rebounder and passer for his position, and he too never stops moving. Their skills, combined with their acceptance of said skills, make it easy for Irving to dominate the ball, and in turn allow him to better understand how to lift his teammates' skills. They provide a clear drink flavor, and he stirs it.

Can we say the same thing about the Wizards? Do they have players that know their role and accept them? Is Nick Young a spot-up shooter or a primary scorer? Is Rashard Lewis a spot-up shooter, or is he the small forward he once was in Seattle? Is JaVale McGee playing an Anderson Varejao kind of role, or is he a post-up player? Do Chris Singleton and Jan Vesely have the necessary skills to back up the roles they seem cool with playing? Or, all they all young players trying to find themselves at the same time that Wall is trying to find himself?

I worry it's the latter, and I worry that just makes everyone worse. Without a drink to stir, Wall is struggling. If the NBA is footballizing, Wall is like that quarterback forced to deal with a leaky offensive line and no playmakers. The uncertainty of the roles of Wall's supporting cast is making Wall uncertain, and that makes nobody better.

None of this is to excuse Wall's own shortcomings, but everything is related. For Wall to be better at making others better, the Wizards, through better coaching, roster construction and player acceptance of roles, have to become better at making life easier for Wall.