Top 50: John Wall, no. 24

by October 06, 2013

by Dave Zirin / @EdgeofSports

John Wall was asked at age 19 to make a playoff team out of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and a group of disinterested spare parts more likely to space out on the court than practice proper spacing. Over the next two dispiriting seasons, Wall averaged 16 points and 8 assists albeit in a manner that made the holy “keepers of the advanced statistics” cringe.

The complaints piled high about his “inefficiency,” low “win shares” and a “true shooting percentage” that would shame Brad Lohaus. He also suffered by comparison, as another young quicksilver point guard drafted No. 1, Kyrie Irving, looked light years ahead of Wall, although the results both of their teams produced were strikingly similar.

Then, just as Wall was making noise about “proving all of the doubters wrong,” he suffered what was described with disturbing vagueness as a stress injury to his left kneecap and the DC hoops scene went into an emotional tailspin the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Gilbert Arenas treated the team’s locker room like the OK Corral.

We thought that this young man for whom we literally rolled out the red carpet and believed would be the savior of this sorry franchise would never truly reach his promise. He would never be that rarest of point guard birds: the Jason Kidds, the Chris Pauls, the floor generals whose mere presence on a team raises everyone’s game and sparks a turnaround. The team started the ’12-13 season with Wall on the bench and an endless losing streak, effectively ending the season before it could even get out of bed.

But then something remarkable happened. Wall achieved something with a degree of difficulty far greater than anything Paul or Kidd ever had to do. He came back for the final 49 games to a team as depressed and dispirited as any in memory, playing in front of empty arenas for a coach and GM with one eye on the want ads, and raised the entire team up to near elite levels.

Do you think I’m exaggerating by using that word “elite”? Over the last 49 games, 42 of which he started, Wall showed what he could do not only for himself but others. The team went from unable to beat the Charlotte Bobcats, to playing .500 ball. This despite an injury to his backcourt mate Bradley Beal, who has the potential to be the best young shooting guard in the League.

Wall had a swagger and a vibe missing since his days at Kentucky. He made the arena electric. Even more satisfyingly, he had all the advanced statisticians with their jaws on the ground. When the team was healthy, and Wall was surrounded by his three best teammates, Beal, Nene and Martell Webster—with proper floor spacing in other words—the Wizards outscored opponents by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions. That is elite, top of the Eastern Conference level play. Also elite: Wall got the dime on 44 percent of all made jumpers when he was in the game.

Even more impressive than the stats however, is when we look at just with whom Wall was working. With Wall leading the charge, Webster and Trevor Ariza became two of the most efficient scorers in the game—seriously—constantly getting open looks from what the advanced stat guys call the best shot you can take on the court that is not an open lay up: the corner three. Webster in particular, who came out of high school with great fanfare and hasn’t done much of anything, was a revelation, shooting 60 percent on corner threes with Wall running by his side.

As for Wall himself, as he spaced out and organized everybody on the court like he was Stanley Kubrick framing a scene, his own much maligned jumper saw considerable improvement. In Wall’s first two seasons, he shot just 31 percent and 32.5 percent on mid-range jump shots. These are numbers that would make Brandon Jennings cringe. After March 1, 2013, Wall was up at a respectable 40.2 percent.

Yes, J-Wall knocked down only 12 three-pointers last season, which represented a tripling of his previous output. Yes, he may never be anything other that a decent jump shooter, but as Magic Johnson and Kidd can tell you, making the transition from being an awful shooter to an average shooter is the easiest thing to learn in the world of basketball. It is much easier to learn than how to be faster than mercury, or put a damn franchise on your back, or turn Webster into Dale Ellis.

Thanks to John Wall, the future is finally bright in DC. We may only be talking about basketball, but it is nice to say that there is hope in the Nation’s capital.

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10
48 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 14
47 Greg Monroe Pistons PF 12
46 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 9
45 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 13
44 Al Jefferson Bobcats C 9
43 David Lee Warriors PF 11
42 Jrue Holiday Pelicans PG 12
41 Anthony Davis Pelicans PF 10
40 Joe Johnson Nets SG 4
39 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 9
38 Kevin Garnett Nets PF 8
37 Rudy Gay Raptors SF 8
36 Paul Pierce Nets SF 7
35 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 11
34 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 7
33 Al Horford Hawks C 8
32 Andre Iguodala Warriors SF 6
31 Brook Lopez Nets C 7
30 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 6
29 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 6
28 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 10
27 Josh Smith Hawks SF 5
26 Joakim Noah Bulls C 5
25 Roy Hibbert Pacers C 4
24 John Wall Wizards PG 9

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.