John Wall’s Ascendance to Greatness for the Wizards

John Wall is having a career year. He has led the Washington Wizards to a top seed in the Eastern Conference and staked his claim to be a top-three NBA point guard. How has Wall become such a force this year?

Washington Wizards franchise player John Wall has always been a very good point guard. He’s made the All-Star team every year since 2013-14, with averages of 18.9 points and 9.7 assists per game in his three previous All-Star years. Wall has improved upon those averages this season, scoring 23.4 points and 10.8 assists per game as of March 30, per basketball-reference. In the NBA’s pantheon of point guards, Wall has cemented his place, going from very good to great. The former number one pick is still only 26 and is surely entering or in the midst of his prime right now.

What has led John Wall to a phenomenal season?

The Raw Numbers

Wall is playing the most efficient offensive basketball of his career. He’s currently shooting an effective field goal percentage of 48.4 percent, per basketball-reference. Although his 3-point shooting numbers have dipped (31.3 percent this season compared to 35.1 percent last season), Wall is making 48.8 percent of his 2-point field goals. His 10.8 assists per game only trails James Harden in the NBA league leaders, and he is ranked 10th overall in efficiency, per Wall is shooting more free throws, shooting 6.8 per game and converting them at an 80.7 percent clip. He’s committing 4.1 turnovers per game, similar to his numbers last season. Amidst all the turnovers, Wall is still having a career year.

But most importantly, the Wizards are winning. After a subpar start to the season, the Wizards hold a 46-29 record as of March 30, which is good for the number three seed in the NBA. It’s an improvement over their 41-41 record last season. A lot of the credit in the Wizards’ newfound winning can be placed on the addition of Scott Brooks as Head Coach and the emergence of Otto Porter, but Wall has broken out in his own right. We’ve seen the very best of Optimus Dime (nickname per basketball-reference) this season.

Offensive Brilliance

The addition of coach Brooks has economized Wall’s time on the court. Using NBA’s tracking data, Wall throws 59.1 passes per game, with 19.8 potential assists per game, only trailing Harden again. Wall's assist to pass percentage is a league high 18.2 percent, with Russell Westbrook trailing Wall with 17.1 percent. Despite the huge numbers offensively, Wall's usage rate is low compared to other high scoring players, trailing behind such guards like Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas and Demar DeRozan.

So Wall’s role is more decisive in the current Wizard’s lineup compared to the Randy Wittman-era Wizards. For a player that relies on speed and creativity to find angles for assists and buckets, Wall seems like an optimal fit in Brooks’ offense. Brooks previously coached another All-NBA point guard in Westbrook.

Wall and Westbrook are the two most athletic players in the NBA, but differ in style. Westbrook’s play is violent and in your face with overwhelming athleticism. Wall uses his length and speed to find angles. Westbrook travels on a traditional linear slope, while Wall usually travels along the x-axis but with above average speed.

Wall excels at manipulating the pick-and-roll, an area of strength throughout his basketball career. This season, he’s added more efficiency to those pick-and-roll plays. Last season, he ranked in the 38th percentile of all pick-and-roll ball handler. That number has risen to the 67th percentile this season. Wall’s speed is on full display, scoring 9.0 points per game off of these plays. As a scorer, Wall is most effective when he dribbles off the pick and dribbles to the basket away from the pick, ranking in the 89th and 98th percentiles respectively, per Synergy.

Wall is such a magnet when blazing to the basket that his teammates benefit as well. Off of the pick-and-roll, his teammates shoot 48.4 percent as roll men, and 71.1 percent as cutters, per Synergy.

But Wall doesn’t just use his athleticism to score and dish. Wall's court vision has improved in the open floor, now able to find Otto Porter, Bradley Beal, Jason Smith or any of the Wizards’ shooters due to the collapsing defense. He can accelerate and stop on a dime and, despite the regression of his 3-point shot, his midrange shot has improved this season so he doesn’t have to rely on going all the way to the rim. Wall’s game has become both smooth and explosive — a deadly combo.

One weird but cool area that Wall shows his offensive brilliance is kick-outs off of isolation. Synergy sports ranks him as an “excellent” player off of these plays. Being flanked by efficient shooters is great, but Wall’s ability to drive and kick efficiently is the motor of the Wizards’ offense, which ranks eighth in the NBA in offensive rating.

Lagging on Defense?

Despite Wall’s offensive perks, his numbers have slipped somewhat. His best seasons saw a defensive rating of 104 or lower, but this season it’s climbed to 108. That’s the worst defensive rating since his 2010-11 rookie year. Wall has the skill set and physical attributes to be a great defender, but he hasn’t been able to do so on a consistent basis this season.

Wall spends most of his time defending the pick-and-roll, accounting for 41 percent of all of his defensive possessions. He’s merely average at defending shots off of the pick-and-roll, with opposing point guards scoring 42.8 percent of the time. Obviously, the NBA has become a pick-and-roll dominated league, with many point guards making their mark by shooting off the dribble. Wall will have to tighten up the defense as the Wizards gear up for a playoffs matchup.

Wall’s defensive regression may be due to his minute load. After the Wizards’ loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday night, Wall logged 2,668 minutes on the season. That ranks him fourth in the NBA in total minutes. Andrew Wiggins, Karl Anthony-Towns and James Harden are the only players ahead of Wall in minutes logged. Harden is the only one of those players that will play in the playoffs. Hmmm … the Harden and Wall comparisons have come up pretty frequently, haven’t they?

Wall’s impact on the Wizards is well known, but as the season winds down he may need to roll back the heavy minutes load to play effectively at both ends.

Recent Tear

Wall has been on a tear in his last three games. Here are his eye-opening stats (and highlights).

March 25 vs Cavaliers – 37 points, 11 assists, 14-of-21 shooting

March 28 vs Lakers – 34 points, 14 assists, 4 steals

March 29 vs Clippers – 41 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds

In those games, you can see the full Wall repertoire  scoring on coast-to-coast drives, exploding off of the pick-and-roll, finding teammates with pinpoint passing and the overall play of a superstar. Wall is starting to click at the right time.

Interestingly, Wall’s highest scoring output games (41 against the Clippers and 52 against the Thunder) have been losses. In the playoffs, Wall may see his best minutes as a facilitator, especially with defenses keyed in on him for seven games.

Quiet Dominance

This year’s “Best point guard in the NBA” race has been a two-man battle. Westbrook and Harden, who I’ve mentioned way too many times in this piece, are neck-and-neck for MVP votes and could face each other in the playoffs. After this impressive season, Wall belongs in the conversation with these two. He may not be as deadly a force of nature as Westbrook or as brilliant a creator as Harden, but Wall seamlessly combines the best of both. His combination of speed and developing basketball smarts will likely grow as he progresses through his prime. And where Wall goes, the Wizards will go.

But Wall’s ascension has been quiet. He may be the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, and if it were any other season, he would be garnering MVP votes as well, especially with the way Washington has played as of late. With the playoffs approaching quickly, Wall will need to continue his brilliant play into April and May for the Washington Wizards.

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