On July 21, 2017, the Washington Wizards signed their All-Star point guard John Wall to a ‘supermax’ extension worth $170 million. If you asked anybody, if you were offered $170 million, you would be hard pressed to find someone who would turn down that kind of money, so it was no surprise that Wall took the offer, but as Notorious B.I.G. taught us, “Mo’ money, Mo’ problems.”
Since signing that extension, it has been a tough go for Wall. He struggled with injuries throughout much of last season, leading him to shoot the lowest field goal percentage since his rookie year through the first half of the season. He didn’t look like the same player. There was plenty of discussion about the data that showed he spent 76.57 percent of the time on the floor either standing still or walking, which was close to the same amount of long-time NBA all-star Dirk Nowitzki, who is on the tail end of his career. At least some of this could be explained when it was discovered that Wall had a bothersome knee injury that caused him to miss nearly two months. He returned in late March, just in time for the playoffs, and played much better but not well enough to prevent the Wizards from making an early playoff exit.
This season, the scrutiny has gotten more intense. He has looked lethargic on defense at times, shot poorly to start the season, and of course the Wizards got off to a 2-9 start. His play has picked up recently, especially now that he’s over a thigh contusion he suffered early in the season, and the Wizards have consequently started to win again.
Unfortunately for Wall, because of the price tag in front of his name, the moment that the Wizards hit another slow patch his game, and perhaps his off-the-court activities, are going to come up again. We see breakdown after breakdown of questionable effort on the court, poor shot selection or unforced turnovers and because of his price tag, fans will clamor for more from the Wizards’ franchise player, but the question is, what is our expectation of Wall? Do we expect more because of the amount of money that he is going to be paid, starting next year or do we really see a player that could do more?
If we’re being honest, maybe we’re focusing on the wrong things. Instead of focusing on what we want Wall to be because he has to ‘live up’ to this contract, maybe we should ask the question, has he reached his ceiling as a player?
Consider his age for a moment. Wall, at age 28, is in middle of what most would consider his prime. He’s in his ninth NBA season, four of which have included playoff appearances. As gifted as he is physically, there will come a point in time where those gifts will start to diminish, if they haven’t already. What will allow him to maintain a high level of play beyond his physical prime is refining his basketball skills and leveraging his physical advantages in new ways.
The more that Wall relies on physical gifts, the less likely it is he’ll be able to be effective at the tail end of his contract. Think about those dribble drives, those quick first steps, those crossovers or those blazing one-man fast breaks that get him to the basket, how much of that will be effective five years from now?
Last season was the first time in Wall’s career where he did not finish in the top seven in the league for fast break points per game. His average was a point and half less than his previous low. This season, in a relatively small sample size, he is averaging 4.0 fast break points per game. That’s the 12th-best average in the league but still considerably below his career norms. Washington’s poor rebounding and defensive issues could certainly account for some of those issues, but if this trend holds up, it doesn’t send a great sign for how he’ll age.
If Wall is going to take his game to another level, it has to happen soon, while physical capabilities are still near their peak. He needs to show consistency on defense, play a cleaner floor game, force less contested shots and shots off the dribble, and learn to play off the ball as needed.
As much as we can say these things are about Wall, this is not all on him. No matter where you look in sports, players rarely reach their potential unless they’re in a proper environment to develop. Are the Wizards capable of providing that? Is Scott Brooks the coach that will help Wall to eliminate some of the weaknesses to his game? Based on how little has changed since he arrived, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
A better supporting cast would help as well. Outside of Bradley Beal, the Wizards lack players capable of creating for themselves or others. It’s hard to expect Wall to make positive changes to his game when there are so many times where he is forced to make suboptimal decisions so often.
The Wizards’ only path to success right now is with John Wall playing at the top of his game before he falls behind the aging curve. Both sides need to figure out ways to bring out the best in one another to make the most of the time they have left.