It became something worth writing about when I read ESPN’s latest 2020 NBA mock draft, which has the Wizards selecting Tyrese Haliburton with the ninth pick.
I’m not writing about Haliburton, the 6-5 sophomore point guard from Iowa State specifically. LaMelo Ball, Cole Anthony, and Killian Hayes are talented lead guards who could be on the board when the Wizards make their pick.
The only hesitation in selecting one of them is the presence of John Wall. He’s also the reason it’s worth consideration. Full transparency: if Wall was 25 years old and coming off an All-Star season I might not be writing this. I emphasize might.
But, he’s going on 30 and he’s played just 73 of a possible 228 games over the past three seasons. That’s a valid argument for the Wizards to address the position, regardless of Wall’s contract. However, even if Wall could be counted on to be healthy and good, there may still be merit in adding another lead guard to the roster.
You may be getting tired of hearing this but the league has changed and it’s not about position basketball and plugging holes on a depth chart. As threes and small-ball have taken over, position matters less and versatility (and interchangeability) have become more important.
And while the the league has moved in that direction, the Wizards really haven’t. The ball is dominated by their guards but otherwise they are traditional. Whether it be Wall when he’s been available or Bradley Beal, whose usage surged in Wall’s absence, we know who will have their hands the majority of possessions. That was the dynamic before injuries set back Wall, and that remains the dynamic today.
This is not to take anything away from either. A team’s best players should have the ball often, but it also makes the offense more predictable and easier to defend. Spectacular exceptions — like Beal scoring 17 consecutive fourth quarter points to force overtime versus the Bucks — should be the exceptions, not the plan.
On most nights, opponents have blitzed Beal or packed the lane versus Wall because they’ve known the players on the court around them are not playmakers and are not empowered to have the ball consistently funneled to them.
Could defenses key in if there was a viable third option on the floor? We know the Wizards chased small forwards in the trade market, but what if they can add a player with the traits they seek, but at point guard?
Drafting a player like Haliburton (for example) and playing him alongside Wall and Beal can potentially change how the Wizards are defended. It would give Washington a dynamic they haven’t had — interchangeable ball handlers at PG-SF. Any one of the three can push the ball up the floor, any one of the three — depending on Haliburton’s (in this example) learning curve — would be able manipulate and stress the defense and create opportunities for themselves and teammates.
Haliburton, Ball, and Hayes are all 6-5 or taller, which would allow the Wizards to play this style without being at the distinct defensive disadvantage they would face if they tried it with Ish Smith or Shabazz Napier.
If you want to see how it could work, check out the Oklahoma City Thunder. Most assumed after acquiring Chris Paul that they’d move a point guard to plug the hole that Paul George left at SF. Instead, they made a three point guard lineup their team identity and had a season that defied expectations.
The three-man lineup or Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Schroeder had a +28.6 net rating in 401 minutes. That net rating jumps to +35.1 in 197 fourth quarter minutes. Those numbers are 1) insanely good and 2) why a team that many thought was going to tank after trading Russell Westbrook and Paul George is fifth in the Western Conference at 40-24.
Rather than filling out the lineups in a traditional manner, they put the ball in the hands of their best playmakers.
The Wizards have historically been reactive to league trends. While Ernie Grunfeld spent the entire Wall era looking for a stretch four, the league evolved to stretch fives.
The Wizards may decide they need a traditional 3&D wing, but that does little to change the trajectory and dynamic of this roster. At the end of the game, that 3&D will be standing in the corner and the opponent will be able to key on Washington’s two-man backcourt as they take turns running pick-and-roll. It’s predictable and makes them easier to defend in the game’s most important moments, so why keep doing it? Action creates reaction — another point guard capable of playmaking on the floor can force the defense into scramble-mode.
Imagine the possibilities if the Wizards can spread a team out playing small ball with three ball handlers, Davis Bertans, and Rui Hachimura? Or maybe a lineup with either Bertans or Hachimura with a rim-running five? For the first time in the Wall/Beal era, we’d see what they can do with an open floor and a defense on their heels.
It would be irresponsible of me to dismiss Wall’s health in discussing drafting a point guard. Even if all systems are a go for Wall and he comes back at or near his All-NBA level, it would be a mistake to assume he could assume that burden for 36 minutes per game over an 82-game schedule. The team would need to manage him more wisely than they have in the past and instead of playing hurt like he has so often — he and the team will have to be smarter about when he plays and when he sits.
Wall’s contract can’t be ignored entirely either. After the 2019-20 season (whenever it ends), Wall has three years remaining on his supermax deal. A rookie would have a year left on his rookie contract after Wall’s contract expires, leading to a natural succession.
That’s a component of the discussion but not the impetus behind adding another point guard. The goal is to be better now by taking some of the playmaking burden off Wall and Beal. Allowing them to use other parts of their game while defenses have more on their plate than they did before will make life easier for them both. Beal has developed into a prudent isolation scorer but came into the league working hard off the ball and can attack defenses using both set of skills.
Although Wall hasn’t ever had to really play off the ball due to the load and role he’s had for the organization in the past, he’s a student of the game. With willingness and good coaching, there’s no reason he couldn’t adjust.
And while he’s not the elite shooter who’d make a perfect fit in a five-out spread offense, he did shoot 43.8% and 37.8% on catch-and-shoot threes his last two seasons. If he can consistently knock down that shot, defenders will have to close out on him, which should give him opportunities to attack the basket. Learning the science of off-ball cuts would make him an even bigger threat and benefit him and the team during the next stage of his career.
The Wizards are eight years into the Wall/Beal era and are still chasing that third perimeter player. When they’re on the clock in the draft and the best perimeter player on the board is a point guard, they should take him. Get the roster and organization help now — while also looking to the future.