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Breaking Down the Wall

[Editor’s note: the stats in this post reflect John’s numbers prior to last night’s game in Cleveland. He just messed everything up with that monster performance.]

Last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers struggled coming out of the blocks. They were having trouble integrating new players, and implementing a new system, all while expectations for the team were sky high. The team looked shaky, their MVP level player looked lethargic, and the criticism and panic began to grow, and grow, and grow. After 20 games, the Cavaliers looked around the conference, and found themselves surrounded by mediocrity, and they were right in the thick of it. You could summarize the 2014-2015 Cleveland Cavaliers like this:

Everyone was in a panic. Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! Oh no! And then, after taking a week long hiatus, LeBron and the Cavs busted through the wall, finishing the regular season 34-9, second in the Eastern conference, on their way to the NBA Finals.

So…there is historical precedence for a team to start slowly, and then turn things around. There is precedence for an MVP level player to play below standard, before turning things on and busting through the rest of the regular season, pummeling every wall in their path. Yes, it can be done.

Last night, the Wizards took a big step toward proving they’re a team that can break through, and showed signs of progress. Still, one game does not negate a seasons worth of trouble, and the early season signs have been troubling. The Wizards have struggled to win consistently, and the biggest Wall currently challenging their success is their pre-season-MVP-hopeful, John. So what’s going on, how bad is it, and why should we be optimistic?

Let’s break the Wall down:

INDIVIDUAL SHOOTING:

Wall is currently averaging a career low 16.1 points per game. He’s shooting a career low 39% from the field, and shooting 28% from three point range, the second lowest mark of his career, but attempting a career high 4.2 three point attempts per game.

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In one sense, these scoring and shooting struggles are a product of a new Wizards system. The Wizards are shooting more threes, Wall included. Not historically a great three point shooter, it’s no surprise that Wall is missing more of the shots he’s taking, since more of those shots are three point shots he’s not good at.

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On the flip side, the fact he’s not good at them is trouble. Many of the looks he’s getting are wide open looks, but Wall is shooting just 20% on “wide-open threes” per NBA.com player tracking. Wall has yet to hit a corner three, the most efficient shot in basketball today. When teams are able to comfortably give up looks to a guard in the corner, it allows them to play better defense everywhere else.

Wall’s confidence in hit shooting, or lack thereof, is also a concern. We can look at stats all day, but watching the games repeatedly reveals Wall passing up great looks to make an alternative play. In some cases, the result is positive: An open shot later in the possession for a better shooter, or a lay-up at the rim. However, other times, Wall passing on great looks stagnates the offense. By passing up a great look, the defense is able to recover, reset, and force a lower percentage shot. Many people, get on Carmelo Anthony or James Harden for being isolation players that can stagnate an offense. However, passing up open looks can create similar stagnation, even with unselfish intentions.

There is a glimmer of hope, and that glimmer is found within John Wall, and started shining through last night. Wall is a professional, and has a drive to be great, so you can be certain he will continue to put in work. With work comers confidence, and with confidence comes performance. Expect Wall to continue to get looks, and hope that they start to fall.

PACE, PASSING, and BALL SECURITY:

This aspect of Wall’s struggles is by far the most troubling. Wall has never been great as a shooter, but his transcendent greatness as a passer and playmaker, both in half-court and in transition, has been his trump card. We’re accustomed to is Wall making plays like this in transition:

And making plays like this in the half court:

What we’re not accustomed to is having those flashes of greatness neutralized by turnovers. And Wall is committing turnovers at a career high rate, at 20.4 per 100 plays per basketball-reference.com. In simpler terms, Wall is averaging a career high 4.3 turnovers per game. Combine this with a career low 7.6 assists, and it’s impossible to deny that Wall is in a slump. His current 1.77 assist to turnover ratio is the first time he has been under the 2.0 mark in his career.

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So what’s changed? Well, in terms of how the Wizards are playing, everything has changed, and it’s taking the greatest toll on Wall. Maybe we should’ve seen this coming. When it became clear, the Wizards were converting to a more modern, up-tempo, pace-and-space style, we rejoiced and salivated at the thought of the fastest point-guard in the league end-to-end playing in a wide open end-to-end game. But the forbidden fruit was deceiving, albeit if only temporarily.

The Wizards are currently ranked 4th in pace, at 101.46 possessions per 48 minutes. The FASTEST any John Wall Wizards team had ever previously played was 96.47 possessions per 48 minutes, during Wall’s Rookie Year.

That huge increase in pace of play reflects a completely different style, a style Wall has never played up to this point. After years of being told to “slow down” and “control his pace,” Wall has now been asked to turn the tempo up to 100 (or 101.46). As a result, Wall is finding himself occasionally forcing the issue, while other times finding his teammates not ready to keep up, or not ready to turn up. The result has not just been turnovers, but ugly turnovers. Ball’s thrown to unsuspecting teammates. Fast breaks gone wrong. Plays that have never been associated with John Wall.

But the fruit will only be poisonous for so long. Wall is too good and too smart of a player to let these issues persist. Eventually, he will find the new balance in the Wizards new scheme, and you will see the assists rise and the turnovers fall. But when? There’s no way to know. Wall has shown signs, particularly during a three game winning streak earlier in the season, but has since regressed. Like the Wizards new tempo, Wall better speed it up, or it may be too little too late.

TEAM SHOOTING:

Wall’s greatness is defined by his play-making for others, and right now his others are simply not making plays. John Wall is at his best drawing and bending defenses, and then shattering those defenses with pin point passes to set-up open shots for his teammates. Wall is among the best in the league at creating open three point looks, and we already know he is always among the league leaders in assists.

But you don’t get an assist when your teammates miss, and Wall’s Wizard teammates are missing more than in past seasons. Last season, Wall’s best season, the Wizards shot 40.2% on open jump shots (defined as shots with the closest defender 4 feet away or further) per nbasavant.com. That was good for 7th in the NBA. From three point range, the Wizards shot 37.9%, good for 6th in the NBA. A huge portion of these open shots were bring created by John Wall. This season, those number have fallen drastically. They are shooting 37.5% on open jumpers overall (19th), and 36% on open threes (13th). When the shots don’t drop, Wall’s numbers do.

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Jeff Van Gundy says it all the time: “It’s a make or miss league.” For John to break through this wall, he needs his teammates to stop throwing up bricks.

HOPE:

Just like hiring a new coach, or adding a new star, implementing a new system requires some time to adjust. No one would suggest that the Wizards shouldn’t play fast, or shouldn’t shoot more threes with a point guard like John Wall. The ideas are good. The intentions are good. The expectations are high, like the 2015 Cavs, and the 2011 Miami Heat before them. Each of those teams stayed the course, found their identity, their stars reestablished their greatness, and they and went on season-defining runs. The precedent for successful change exists. And that precedent shows that change takes time. Change takes patience. The Wizards and John just have to keep chipping away at that wall, game by game, practice after practice.

Last night was a great way to start.

Eventually, the wall will fall. And the DC Wall will rise again.

we are Hoop District

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