Surrounding John Wall—one of the most dynamic point guards in modern NBA history—with talent that can benefit off his speed and court vision seems like an obvious roster-building tactic, but it’s one the Washington Wizards have reluctantly relied on.
For the first few years of his career, the team’s brass tried to assemble a roster of young, athletic players—but missed out on the most important factor: the talent and basketball IQ each player possessed.
JaVale McGee, who remains difficult to guard purely because of his length, had the potential and build to become a forceful, Tyson Chandler-type of player, but maxed out as a slightly more effective Ryan Hollins. Andray Blatche, a 6-11 forward capable of generating his own offense at a time when versatility wasn’t nearly as valued as it is today, neglected his health and become content with collecting DNP-out-of-shape. Nick Young, a long, athletic wing, was more interested in taking bad shots than forcing the opposition into taking them. Jan Vesely, perhaps the team’s last effort at getting Wall a player who could maximize his physical traits alongside the point guard, lacked any basketball talent whatsoever.
Washington’s approach left a lot to be desired and they bailed on all the aforementioned players, only to begin replacing them with high IQ veterans at the latter stages of their careers. Wall squeezed all the juice he could out of those players - Nene, Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Paul Pierce, and countless others.
For the first time in about seven years, though, Washington’s front office signed players with the intention of tapping into their star player’s elite physical attributes - ones that have been sorely underutilized since he was drafted.
Jeff Green, Austin Rivers, and most notably, Dwight Howard, have athleticism that the players they’ve replaced simply don’t - and it’s going to change the way the Wizards run their offense, particularly when Wall shares the court with Howard.
By doing the “little things” - setting screens on and off the ball, and boxing out—Marcin Gortat learned how to make an impact when other aging centers saw their careers end. This past season, Gortat’s age became more apparent—he lost bounce, wasn’t as quick off screens and was slower on fast breaks. Not only did it hinder Washington’s ability to score in transition, but Gortat wasn’t as effective rolling to the basket. In 2015-16, Gortat scored 274 points on 226 possessions as the roll man. Last season, he only scored 135 points on 154 possessions.
Howard could bring that dimension back to the offense this season—with a new wrinkle. Because Gortat never played above the rim, Wall was forced to make traditional pick-and-roll passes, which forced him to try to fit passes in tighter windows. That shouldn’t be the case with Howard, who will—sometimes to a fault—expect to get the ball above the rim. The defense will no longer be able to help off Washington’s big to stop Wall at the rim—it’s going to have two choices: allow Howard to become a lob threat or hope Wall doesn’t overpower his defender before scoring inside (that is, of course, assuming Howard isn’t spotting up behind the 3-point arc...).
Last year, Gortat caught just three alley-oop passes. Howard caught 51, the fifth-most in the league, per NBA Savant, and single-handedly made the Hornets one of the better alley-oop teams in the league, even though no one on Charlotte averaged more than six assists per game and only two Hornets averaged more than three per game. His ability to out-jump the opposition makes him a threat to score even when the defense has cut off everything else.
Howard’s totals should only go up now that he’s playing with Wall, whom he already sees an elite passer: “No disrespect to any of the point guards I played with in my career—John is a different type of animal. The way he passes the ball, the way he draws so much attention with his aggressiveness on the offensive end, it’s going to make things very difficult for teams to really guard the pick and roll.”
He’s yet to play a second for the Wizards, but Howard’s presence on the roster has already been debated enough to the point of redundancy. The outcome of the signing won’t be known for a while, but there’s no debating the added athleticism Howard brings—and there’s no question that Wall will finally have a vertical threat that’s been missing for most of his time in Washington.