WASHINGTON - They say point guard defense doesn’t matter as much as it used to because everyone at the position is an elite scorer. But for the Wizards, it matters more than anything else.
When John Wall plays defense at an elite level, the Wizards win games. Wall can be the most menacing player on the floor defensively, when he wants to be. And for the Wizards to reach the elite status they yearn for, he has to do that every single night.
The Wizards have struggled mightily defensively all season long. Defense is the reason they blew huge leads against the Warriors and Suns. It’s why they couldn’t stop LeBron James from scoring 57 on their home floor. They’re currently 19th in defensive efficiency allowing 104.6 points per 100 possessions on the season after Thursday night’s win against the Lakers.
Wall hasn’t been awful defensively this season — it’s better described as passable, if anything. The Wizards are still holding opponents to 104.6 points per 100 when Wall is off the court, per NBA.com’s stats tool but opponents are also shooting a slightly worse field goal percentage when he’s on the court.
“It starts with me and John,” Bradley Beal said after the Wizards gave up 113 in a loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night. “We’ve got to come out better and be better leaders on the team. The rest will follow.”
If there was a game that showed what Beal was saying rang true, it was Thursday night against the Lakers. Wall played his best defensive game of the season. The Lakers scored .82 points per possession when Wall was on the court and 1.02 per possession when he was off it.
“We took on the challenge of trying to guard our man one on one,” Wall said after the win. “When guys were getting beat back door, someone was there to help. We just took care of each other’s back, no matter what.”
Wall registered three blocks against the Lakers, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He guarded everyone from the Lakers’ point guards to their power forwards and flew around everywhere in transition and the halfcourt.
Defense is largely about skill, but still takes first and second efforts. Wall made those efforts last night and showcased skill that not many other players, let alone guards, in the league have.
There, he blocks Jordan Clarkson’s initial shot that should have been an easy layup. But immediately after he hits the ground, he springs up and disrupts a put-back attempt by Lonzo Ball.
He does the same thing here on this block on Kyle Kuzma.
He makes the first effort in an attempt to steal the pass, but then gets back up to challenge Kuzma at the rim immediately.
Those are just blocks. He also hounded players on the ball like it was 2013. Brandon Ingram didn’t stand a chance here.
Those are three possession where the Lakers didn’t get shots on the rim simply because Wall was so active defensively. That’s a small number on the surface, but each possession matters in basketball — the Wizards have found that out the hard way this season.
So much of defense is being in the right places and being able to move laterally to keep up with the ball, but special players are able to change games defensively like Wall did here. But there have been too many times this season where Wall has gambled and made bad decisions on the defense end. We even saw a few here and there against the Lakers, like this shot made by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope during a Lakers’ run.
And I’m sure you remember this gamble on Stephen Curry from earlier in the season.
Wall’s biggest mistakes come on gambles where he tries to use his speed and athleticism to make up the difference but can’t. And when you couple that with the plays where he lethargically dies on screens and gets a step behind the ball, he becomes a net negative on defense. Those nights are the worst of John Wall.
But that doesn’t happen often. Wall is still in the 79th percentile of the league in defending isolation plays. He’s in the 57th percentile in defending pick and roll ball handlers, only allowing .76 points per possession on those plays.
He’s a good defender who has bad nights — but the issue here is that the Wizards need him to be a great defender. He has to take smarter gambles, play harder on the ball and try not to get picked off when being screened. He is their best on-ball defender, their best rim protector, their best help defender and their best facilitator. They need him to be fully engaged on every single possession.
That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of one player. But when Wall gives the Wizards nights like this on defense, they’re hard to stop on both ends.