If you’re still waiting for John Wall to take over the postseason with his point totals, don’t hold your breath. One of the NBA’s fastest players down the floor prefers to craft a more diverse spreadsheet.
Against Indiana in Game 1, Wall’s mosaic impact was understated: 13 points, nine assists, five rebounds, two blocks, one steal, one turnover.
Can a point guard break out as a game manager?
“I always tell these guys that I don’t worry about scoring unless I’m hot,” Wall said after a Game 4 win, and a 10-assist outing, against Chicago on April 27. “I don’t mind being a decoy.”
Wall sped past Pacers defenders Monday and fed his wing artillery the proper coordinates all game as the defense collapsed around him. Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza shelled Indiana from behind the arc, connecting on nine of their 11 3-point attempts. Asked about his role in the win, Wall told reporters he was just “getting those guys involved, getting those guys the shots they needed.”
Wall, the NBA’s third-leading assist man in the regular season, hasn’t always been viewed as a distributor, even though there are few monikers he’d carry better. In the rush to understand a unique player burdened with the long-term fate of a faceless franchise, assumptions about Wall’s game flew like buckshot in every direction. Many missed the mark.
In Washington, D.C., early attempts to measure Wall’s potential and predict his trajectory remain infamous. NBA agent David Falk cast a curiously anachronistic vote of no confidence for Wall’s future in February 2013, as Wall ripped through the league after recovering from a stress fracture: “He doesn’t have a feel for the game. He only knows how to play one speed. Magic Johnson had a great feel, a court sense, by the time he was a sophomore in college. Chris Paul had it by the time he was a sophomore in high school.”
And, finally: “You want to know the reason why just nine teams have won an NBA title in 40 years? Because if both of them came out today, 99 percent of all general managers would still take John Wall instead of Kyrie Irving. They’d take the athlete over the ballplayer. And they’d be wrong.”
Luckily for the Wizards, there is no law of nature, nor of logic, that prevents an athlete from being a ballplayer too.
Perhaps it’s nostalgia for a different NBA, perhaps a failure to acknowledge the reconciliation of speed and care, but there’s a lazy need to fit every point guard into one of the two categories of several neat dichotomies. Pass-first or shoot-first. Facilitator or scorer. Game manager or game-breaker.
You’ll find Wall in the gray area. If you can find him. The Wizards haven’t been on national TV in the regular season since Wall was a rookie, in 2010-11 (a blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks).
Not all stories accelerate from zero to 60. As a player, Wall has learned to pump the brakes, pull back and look up, locating opportunities for his teammates. In his rookie season, the Wizards had the lowest assist ratio of any team. This season, the Wizards were tied for seventh best in the league.
Things change. Players evolve. Over the course of years, or even within a season. "Earlier in the season, me or Brad or Nene or those guys would try to do it on our own,” Wall said at a between-series practice. “I think now we understand we don't have to. We've got six or seven guys who scores in double figures for a reason.” In Game 1, six Washington players had 12 or more points.
Despite a breakout half-season last spring, there were still doubts about whether it would be wise to hand Wall the keys to the kingdom by offering him a maximum extension. That conversation was led by The Washington Post’s Jason Reid, who wrote that Wall wasn’t as valuable as other players who did not receive the max, like “old-school floor general” Mike Conley Jr., “shooting star” Stephen Curry and “one-man fast break” Ty Lawson, and questioned Wall’s decision to renege on his no-tattoo stance.
Many pixels were expended, but the Wizards ultimately did what most expected them to do: They bet on John Wall becoming one of the best point guards alive.
After gaining a measure of All-Star and playoff validation, Wall looks more the part. When he pounds his chest and tells the D.C. crowd, “This is my city,” it will raise some eyebrows, but it will raise hairs on your neck too. Make no mistake: In Washington, pride is found in the assist.
In Indiana, Wall did more than involve his teammates. He featured them. A blur down the lane ending in a pass that wrapped around Roy Hibbert’s back and led to one of Nene’s signature, bruising dunks. A backbreaking fourth-quarter dime with three Pacers caving in on him to a trailing Beal. Some point guards manage games by plodding through a half-court set. Wall manages games in additional, unexplored ways: on the fly, in midair, even on his way out of bounds.
And now, with a Game 1 win against Indiana in hand, he has managed to take the Wizards farther than they have been since 1982: three wins from an unexpected berth in the Eastern Conference finals.
Conor Dirks writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow him @ConorDDirks.