When the Wizards drafted John Wall in 2010, excitement from fans had started to resurface after a tumultuous few years. Wall’s best known attributes were his breath-taking speed, overwhelming athleticism, and incredible court vision. Many thought that all of this talent would culminate into a new age point guard who can not only score with the best of them, but constantly get his teammates involved and turn basketball games into track meets. In a key early season showdown against Chris Paul, Wall displayed how those he's brought those talents together to make himself a terrifying presence on the defensive end.
It was clear from get-go that Wall had circled this game on his calendar. After Chris Paul dropped 38 points on him last year in a blowout in DC the competitor in Wall had to know this game would be a gauge of where he is at as a player.
Bradley Beal tried to downplay the aspect of this being an especially important game for Wall, saying, "he takes that challenge each and every night no matter who it is." While that may be the official line, those of us who have watched him over 5 seasons know the importance of these games to Wall. Marcin Gortat, never one to worry about being on message, contradicted Beal when asked if Wall was fired up to play Paul: "Of course. I mean, he ain’t gonna tell you that but I’ve known this kid long enough to tell you that he was waiting for this game, he wanted to win this game."
Chris Paul’s general box score stat line might tell you he had a solid game. 19 points on 7/14 shooting, 6 assists, and 7 rebounds all more or less seem like numbers from a typical Chris Paul game. Anyone who watched the game, however, could tell that Wall's defense took Paul out of his comfort zone. As Paul said after the game, "I think we were just a little uncharacteristic tonight. We did not get an opportunity to get into our sets and play like we want to. We want to play up tempo and set the pace. I had six turnovers...I don't know when the last time I did that. I won't have six turnovers tomorrow."
Yeah, he probably will not have six turnovers tomorrow because a 6’4 athletic freak won’t terrorize him again. Wall pressured the ball brilliantly last night and got his hands all over the passing lanes. He had only one steal but it was clear that his length was bothering Paul, as he knocked the ball of his hands twice forcing turnovers. The "Point God," as many NBA enthusiasts call him, looked like a mortal tonight. Despite being able to get off his jumper over the Wizards defenders and score relatively efficiently, he did not control the game as he normally does. Part of that was the Wizards exquisite ball denial, but much of it was Wall disrupting the flow of the offense by getting his hands in the passing lanes and being the suffocating defender we know he can be. Wall himself evaluated his defense and the significance of the team being defensive-minded. "I just wanted to be physical and play defense first. When we do that, keep teams under 100 we're tough to beat."
Even Doc Rivers was impressed with how Wall took the challenge of guarding arguably the league’s best point guard. "I thought he was terrific. I thought he was into CP most of the game and bodied him, blocked shots. He’s a freak athletically. I thought in the past it was only on the offensive end and now he’s a two-way player and that makes him a heck of a basketball player. I’m kind of happy for him." We have always seen praise for Wall’s offensive play from opposing coaches, but seeing his defensive abilities being praised by one of the league’s most accomplished coaches is something different entirely, and shows how teams are starting to catch up to Wall’s defensive mindset.
We cannot talk about Wall and the Wizards defensive mindset without talking about the man who instilled it, Randy Wittman. It’s led to a defense which is currently fifth in efficiency in the NBA, and has ranked in the top 10 the two years prior to that. According to Randy Wittman, that defense starts with John Wall: "Our defense was good, yes. It was everybody. John has been leading us in that department. I tell you guys all the time, it trickles down. When John is engaged defensively, it just kind of filters right on down."
Fabulous is correct. Wall is third in the league in steals, but that stat does not tell the whole story. Wall leads the team in Defensive Win Shares, has the fourth lowest Defensive Rating and has the by far the highest Defensive Real +/- among PGs in the league. His quickness allows him to stay in front of the league’s most elusive guards, while his size and length allow him to switch easily on to other perimeter players. He can terrorize the passing lanes not just through steals, but getting deflections and disrupting the flow of offenses, something that will not show up on box scores. He’s like a point guard Frankenstein. When have we ever seen be a player be 6’4 with a 6’9 wingspan and at the same time run at the speed of a freight train and be gifted with almost inhuman quickness? To top that off, Wall’s defensive IQ has been off the charts, as he is making smart rotations and is not prone to the same kind of ball watching he has been in the past.
We all know of Wall’s offensive capabilities and they were on display tonight, as he had yet another double-double with 10 points and 11 assists. What we always had questions of were his play on the other end. Could a player who carries so much of a load on the offensive end consistently be able to guard the league's best effectively? Last night, Wall answered these questions, showing that he’s not only terrorizing the league with his breathtaking passes and transition layups, but is now becoming a serious factor on the defensive end of the floor. It’s about to get ugly for the rest of the NBA’s lead guards.