On June 24, 2010, the Wizards drafted John Wall and a month from now, he will have been with the organization for a decade — which 1) makes me feel old and 2) makes me realize just how finite a basketball career is.
We’ve spent years talking as if his future is limitless, but when he does step on the floor again, he’ll be returning as a veteran on the back nine of his career. A decade in, injures and a semi-rebuild have him in familiar territory, trying to prove himself once again.
Wall started slowly in Washington but became a five-time All-Star. Not everyone can survive the dysfunction he faced at such a young age while also being tasked with being the face of the franchise. He did about as well as could be expected, especially considering the heavy burden placed on him by the revolving door of limited teammates. That hasn’t shielded him from criticism however.
For all the good, he’s never led his team past the second round of the playoffs. Every time the team seemed ready for takeoff, they’d stumble. They followed their hard fought 2015 series loss to Atlanta by missing the playoffs altogether in 2016. After pushing Boston to game seven, they slouched to eighth in the following season — a campaign best remembered for the “everybody eats” controversy. Add in a supermax contract and the shine was off Wall’s star even before his latest injury.
Over the years, we saw tantalizing looks at potential greatness — for example, the two Player of the Month awards or or the 40 point, 14 assist ass-kicking he gave Lebron’s Lakers last season. But those were exceptional outbursts, not a sustained level of performance. From Wall, what we saw was good, not great.
The best of Wall could overwhelm the opposition like an avalanche. But there is a worst of Wall and he could derail a game by himself. Turnovers, ball stopping, shot selection, indifferent defensive would make fans wonder how he play like an MVP candidate one night and the polar opposite the next.
With his latest injury, Wall has been away from competitive basketball for close to a year and a half. Any discussion of him has to at least consider whether he’s an anchor on the team’s future or cause for optimism.
I was a big tennis fan growing up, particularly in the Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi era. Even though Sampras was the dominant player — the infallible superstar, my favorite was Agassi. He had all the talent but went through myriad ups and downs. He was full of potential but defined by imperfections. Agassi went from being one of the best to 141st in the world. One of the elites, reduced to an afterthought in the tennis landscape and forced to play challenger matches to get back on the ATP Tour. He took ownership of the last few years of his career, and changed everything.
In the end he did something not all athletes are willing to do, he paid the price to to achieve a performance level late in his professional life that came to define his career.
Wall’s opportunity reminds me of Agassi in that way. Going into his eleventh season, the chance to be great may have vanished. But that doesn’t mean he can’t recreate himself in a second act.
An Achilles injury has historically been devastating to NBA players which makes skepticism about Wall’s return only fair. Layer in additional serious injuries the previous two seasons. And then consider normal stuff like career aging patterns. Even before the Achilles injury, analysis showed that players similar to Wall haven’t produced well as they got older.
In spite of all that I think he has the opportunity to be successful when he gets back on the floor because there are things he can tangibly improve that aren’t predicated on his athleticism. Tommy Sheppard was recently on with True Hoop and had this to say,
"One great byproduct of this injury is he's improved his shot dramatically. He'll be a perimeter threat. ... Nobody has seen what we've seen."— Henry Abbott (@TrueHoop) May 12, 2020
--Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard on @JohnWall https://t.co/anafkdF3XB
No one associates Wall with good shooting, but he’s been solid on catch and shoot threes — 37.3% on 3.2 attempts per game in 2018-2019. His overall percentage suffered because he took 2.0 pull-up threes per game and made just 20.4%. The picture was similar in 2017-2018: 43.8% on catch and shoot threes but only 37.3% overall due to pull-up attempts.
If what Sheppard is saying is accurate, the potential is there for him to be a formidable three-point shooter, if he has the discipline with his shot selection.
Similarly, another critique of Wall was his poor off-ball movement. Zach Lowe had this stat on Wall in January 2018,
Suffice it to say, some of this was likely because of the injuries but that’s not all of it. For comparison’s sake, Ish Smith had an average speed on offense of 5.11 mph this season. Wall on the other hand, averaged 3.87 mph on offense in 2018-2019, slowest on the Wizards.
Even in his lone all-NBA season, he was only slightly better at 4.07 mph. Wall is certainly the more talented player of the two, but he may have been suppressing his full impact by not playing to his strength — his speed!
Kyle Lowry, the 34 years old point guard for the Raptors this season had an average speed on offense of 4.22 mph. It’s more than sprinting down-court at every opportunity. Moving without the ball, setting screens, making hard and fast cuts are activities that force a defense to react.
If Wall approached the game similarly, and was on the move and probing, the defense would get little rest. When he’s standing still the defense can ignore him off the ball. If he’s not going to move, they know exactly where he’ll be and it’s easy to recover if a teammate passes him the ball.
The Wizards haven’t had many players capable of initiating the offense share the court with Wall, but I shouldn’t have to go back to his Kentucky days to find evidence of Wall cutting baseline for an alley-oop in half-court set!
Wall has a unique opportunity that not every player gets. Many coming off a major injury to a team in transition don’t get the chance to evolve with their current team. The franchise just moves on.
He has to realize the team isn’t the same one he left, so trying to come back as an older version of the same player isn’t best for anyone. If he can strengthen those weaknesses in his game — shooting, turnovers, off-ball movement, defense — it may be enough to offset whatever he’s lost physically.
He has the chance to go from the player who elicits fierce debates, to being the comeback story. Wall’s career can be defined by what he was before the prime years he missed, or similar to Agassi, he can be remembered for his second act. He can silence his critics if he puts the team first and strives to be great in his role. Paul Pierce’s five-year old quote still rings true — it’s up to Wall.