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Is John Wall Spending the Summer Stroking It?

“Pace and space.”

“Positionless basketball.”

“Small ball.”

“Playmaking four.”

Modern NBA buzz words. Watch any NBA broadcast, listen to any NBA analysis, watch Around the Horn, PTI, or Sportscenter, listen to Zach Lowe or Doug Collins or The Red Line Podcast: Find yourself any conversation about NBA basketball, and you will find it littered with these buzz words.

And you will find that the conversation will inevitably center around two major questions:

Why should (insert your favorite team) play small more often?

Who are the key players who make going small possible?

For example, let’s recall a generic 2015 NBA Finals conversation:

Person A: “The Warriors pace and spacing is just too much for the Cavs when they go small. Maybe they should just bench Bogut and go small from the jump.”

Person B: “Yea. With Draymond stretching the floor, and Iggy being a playmaker, the Cavs can’t even keep Mosgov on the floor, even though he’s probably been their second best player.”

Person A: “How good is LeBron though? I know no one else is saying this, but I honestly think he should win Finals MVP even if they lose!”

Person B: “I know right! Either him, or Riley Curry! Did you see her Vine from last night?!”

You might be Person A, you might be Person B, but you definitely had or heard pretty much that EXACT conversation right? Right.

Ok, so now let’s try a Wizards related example:

Person A: “Bruh…Nene sucks!”

Person B: “F&%* Nene man! We need to just bench him, go small, stretch the floor, and create more space for Wall and Beal to operate.”

Person A: “Exactly! When we had Pierce at the four, there was so much space, we were killing it! And Otto was ballin’ out too. If Wall hadn’t broken his hand, we would’ve made the Finals!”

Person B: “Oh, of course. I’ve been telling everyone that. I like the moves we made though. Added shooting and more perimeter guys, there’s going to be a lot more space. And Oubre is mad talented.”

Person A: “I miss Paul Pierce.”

Person B: “I know bruh but don’t worry…just wait til we ge’ve got KD at the four! Wall, Beal, Otto, KD, and Gortat?! Holy sh!t man I can’t wait!”

Person A: “Yooo, I know! It’s gonna be so sick! We’ll get at least three or four rings!….PLUS No more Nene at the four then…that ___ sucks!”

You’ve heard that conversation too right? I thought so. And the optimism is well founded. We’ve got arguably the best playmaking point guard in the NBA. We saw Bradley Beal make The Leap during the playoffs, and we saw Otto Porter Junior turn into OTTO PORTER JUNIOR aka the three point shooting, slashing, wing defending human created in Trevor Ariza’s image. We saw Gortat and Wall turn into pick-and-roll professors. And we saw what can happen when the Wizards go small, stretch the floor, create more space, and Wall has two hands.

(Here comes the “but”…)

BUT…there’s more to “pace and space” than just playing smaller guys. Paul Pierce playing power forward didn’t work just because he stood farther from the basket. It worked because Pierce is a deadly shooter, and a capable playmaker. Pierce being on the floor didn’t just give Wall more space to make plays, but it enabled Beal to become a playmaker, and even Porter to become a playmaker off a dribble or two. Whether it’s Porter, Oubre, Alan Anderson, or any combination of the three, none of them are the same caliber shooters or playmakers as Pierce, which means all of them will be guarded a little less tightly, which will result in a little less space for everyone else. This is where you optimistically say, “That’s ok. Wall and Beal can kick it to those guys when teams leave them open, and trust those guys to make plays and make shots. We saw what Otto did in the playoffs!”

And this is where the problem arises. For those guys to maximize their talent, and to become truly valuable playmaking options on the perimeter, they need to have options. They need to be able to be threats to drive, and the guys around them need to be threats to shoot. And this is when I present an unpopular opinion:
John Wall is a problem. Specifically, John Wall’s shooting is a problem. Because John Wall can’t shoot.

Now, before you turn me into Colin Cowherd, let me clarify. I LOVE John Wall. I consider him a Top-3 NBA point guard, and wrote last season that he was on par with any of the other perimeter playing MVP candidates in the league. He is an incredible playmaker, creates open shots for his teammates, and is an unselfish passionate leader. I even love his dancing.

And Wall has consistently improved his shooting. He has become a better three point shooter, and a better mid-range shooter, every year of his career. And many will note that “he hit a pretty good number of threes last year, and was great mid-range.” And I would concede these points.

But when I say John Wall’s shooting is a problem, I don’t mean that John Wall can’t make the shots he takes. He can. The problem is literally the quote, “John Wall can’t shoot.” As in, opponent coaches tell their teams, “help off Wall, his shooting won’t hurt us.” Opponent defensive anchors will scream, “we’ll give him that all night.” And opponent fans will scream at their TVs after he blows by their favorite player, “Why are you trying to guard him, just let him shoot!!”

Granted, Wall is still a great player exactly as he is. But if the Wizards are going to get to the next level, Beal, Porter, Oubre, Anderson, whoever is playing on the perimeter, all need to be able to be playmakers. For them to be successful playmakers, Wall needs to be a legitimate, threatening option as a shooter. As long as Wall is a non-threatening shooter (by NBA standards), everybody else’s maximum performance remains limited.

In other words, Wall needs to improve HIS shooting to make the rest of his teammates better basketball players. It’s the next level to his progression of greatness, from Superstar to legit MVP. Cuz see…you may have heard this conversation before too:

Person A: “The Warriors are amazing. The spacing, the passing, the playmaking, the shooting. They’ve got playmakers everywhere.”

Person B: “Yea, but Steph Curry is the reason all of it works. His shooting ability creates all this space for the other guys. He’s not just out there making all the plays. Just his presence is giving them room to operate, and then he’s also acting as the recipient of those other guys. None of those guys look as good if they’re not playing with a knock-down shooter.”

Now, I believe John Wall’s shooting will improve. I believe Wall will spend the off-season doing this:

I believe John Wall will be shooting thousands of threes, and working to become a better catch and shoot option, and a guy defenses simply can’t sag off of, and a guy who makes them pay when they do. In the modern NBA, the point-guard has got to be able to shoot. There’s no “pace and space” without it. So let’s take a look at some of the top NBA point guards, and see how their shooting ability contributes to their team’s performance and success, and how a linearly improved shooting Wall could help lead to an exponentially improved Wizards team.

First, let’s look at John Wall as our baseline. Here’s a handy chart of some stats to help understand John Wall’s play as a “finishing” option, rather than the “playmaking” option we are used to thinking of him as. (NOTE: These stats may not mean much initially, but they will become more and more relevant as you see them compared to other NBA top flight point guards. I promise!)

THE HERO:

John Wall

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A few quick notes on Wall: Only 26% of his shots were assisted, so 74% of the time, when he’s scoring, he’s creating it for himself. Only 10% of his shot attempts are catch-and-shoot attempts, in which a teammate is kicking the ball to him for a shot attempt. None of this is surprising when watching the Wizards: Wall has the ball a lot when he’s on the floor, and acts far more as a playmaker than a catch-and-shoot option. His 50% effective field goal percentage is respectable, but could be improved greatly with improved and increased three point shooting. (Effective field goal percentage factors in the increased value of a 3-point make compared to a 2-point make). If he can become more of a catch and shoot option, the Wizards as a group will all suddenly appear to be much more potent playmakers.

THE GOOD:

Stephen Curry

curry

Curry and the Warriors are the Golden Standard for “pace and space” and “small ball,” and you can see why. NINETY-TWO percent of the shots Curry scored off of assists were threes! In other words, if someone was passing the ball to Curry, it was for a 3-point shot, and we all know by now how he shoots the three, hence his 66% eFG on catch-and-shoot attempts.

Additionally, you can see the dramatic difference in Curry’s catch-and-shoot shot attempts compared to Wall’s. Curry was on the receiving end of far more passes for shot attempts than Wall, a product of the Warriors incredible spacing and playmaking. However, this point can’t be overstated: Curry’s shooting ability is a major factor in the creation of this space and playmaking. Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes. All of them are better playmakers simply due to the space Curry’s shooting provides, which then benefits Curry himself. What goes around comes around.

Obviously, no one expects Wall to become a Curry-level shooter. But if Wall can become a greater shooting threat, the added spacing could create more playmaking opportunities for Beal, Porter, Oubre, and Anderson, leading to more catch-and-shoot opportunities for Wall, which he can then convert because of his improved shooting. See how this works?!

Kyrie Irving

irving

Curry and the Warriors are the benchmark, but Kyrie Irving may be the bar. Prior to last season, Kyrie Irving was considered by many as an exclusively “one on one” player. He wasn’t great at creating for others, but was great at creating his own shot. In this sense, RELATED EXCLUSIVELY TO THEIR PERSONAL SHOOTING, Wall and Irving were similar. Yes, Wall passed far more often, far more unselfishly, and far more effectively. But when Wall DID shoot, it was Wall creating the shot for himself. Just like Irving. But this season, with the arrival of LeBron, Irving also added the function of a recipient, a finisher off of LeBron’s playmaking. Seventeen percent of his attempts were catch-and-shoot, not a huge number, but still a very significant seven percent greater than Wall. And his outstanding 65% eFG on those shots is a reflection of his effectiveness in this role, drilling threes and spacing the floor. Yes, LeBron was the primary playmaker, and yes, without Kyrie Irving, LeBron was still great. But look at LeBron’s efficiency numbers after he lost Irving. His shooting percentages dropped dramatically from his normally insane standard, and his numbers became more a product of volume than accuracy. LeBron gets Kyrie good shots. Kyrie’s shooting helps give him the space to do so, and gives him the space to be great himself.

Bradley Beal is not LeBron, but with improved shooting from Wall, he’d immediately become a more potent attacker, a better passer, and take the next step as a playmaker. Never forget:

James Harden

harden

OK, OK. James Harden is not a point guard. But he functions as the Rockets primary ball handler and playmaker. It’s widely stated that Harden “does EVERYTHING” for the Rockets offense. And yet, take a look: Harden scores more off assists than Wall, and gets more catch-and-shoot opportunities (which he converts at an excellent 59% eFG). And unlike Kyrie Irving, Harden’s not playing with LeBron. Harden’s generally playing with Patrick Beverly, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Terrence Jones, and/or Jason Terry. None of those guys are exactly “playmakers” in the traditional sense. And none of them are on par with Beal as a playmaker. So what gives?

Well, watch the Rockets play. After Harden creates the initial bend and help rotation in the defense, the Rockets then go into a series of drive-and-kicks. If a defender closes on Ariza, he’ll drive and kick to Terry, who can then drive and kick to Brewer, who could then drive and kick to Harden. With four of the five Rockets on the floor always being capable three point shooters, the floor gets spread, and the defense gets bent, and offense becomes easier. Players like Ariza and Brewer suddenly become effective playmakers and passers. And Harden can transform from being the creator early in an offensive possession to being a spot-up shooting threat and/or drive and kick option later. His quality as a catch and shoot threat makes this possible.

There’s no reason to think that Porter or Anderson wouldn’t function just as well as playmakers as Ariza or Brewer or Terrence Jones if provided the same type of spacing and threats around the floor. But for that to be possible, John Wall needs to be a truly viable shooting threat.

THE ANOMOLY:

Chris Paul

paul

Chris Paul is an anomaly. Despite being a very effective shooter (see his eFG%), only eleven percent of his shot attempts are catch and shoot, and only nineteen percent of his baskets were assisted, both either comparable or lower than John Wall. This happens because the Clippers don’t really play the “pace and space” system, but still remain as the league’s number one rated team in offensive efficiency. How? They have one of the best point guards ever breaking down defenses and setting up open shots. That’s part one. Part two? They have Blake Griffin playing power forward, putting up playoff triple doubles, making passes like this, and generally being an incredible basketball player. We have Nene.

So when Paul’s not dominating the ball, he’s dumping it into Blake. His shooting threat gives Blake room to operate by the rim, and Blake does so spectacularly. Leave Paul, and Blake can find him. Where the Clippers have Paul, we have Wall (That’s fine). Where they have Blake, we have Nene…

THE BAD:

Russell Westbrook

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I think we can all agree: We don’t want the Wizards offense to look like the Thunder offense. More importantly, we don’t want John Wall to look like Russell Westbrook. Yes, sometimes we’d like to see Wall attack more like Westbrook, getting to the rim instead of settling. But we don’t want Wall doing everything all the time. It works in stretches, for moments. It doesn’t work for seasons, and it doesn’t work for Champions. Championship teams need ball movement, player movement, and a healthy Kevin Durant would help too.

Without Durant, Westbrook put up ridiculous stats, but their actual effect was largely exaggerated. Only six percent of Westbrook’s attempts were catch-and-shoot, suggesting that virtually ALL of his shots outside of the paint were being created off of his own dribble. In other words, unless Westbrook was right next to the rim, he was a complete non-threat to actually do anything away from the rim without the basketball. Defenses could swarm him when he had the ball, drift off him when he didn’t, and then swarm him when he got it back. Granted, Westbrook wasn’t exactly surrounded by All-Stars, but you can be sure many of his teammates would’ve seemed more talented if Russ was providing them some space as a catch-and-shoot option. Oh, and passing them the ball.

THE UGLY:

The PG Formerly Known as Derrick Rose

ROSE

Poor, poor Derrick Rose. The guy is actually the perfect example of what would happen if Wall tried to act like a great shooter before actually becoming a great shooter. Eighteen percent of Rose’s shot attempts were catch-and-shoot (eight percent greater than Wall), and 44% of his assisted baskets came from the three point line. The problem? Derrick Rose can’t shoot! His 41% eFG is bad. It’s even worse when you consider the volume of three point attempts. Of every player that shot more than 270 threes, Rose, at 28%, is the only player to shoot under 30% from three. He ranked 25th in three point attempts per game, while being one of the worst three point shooting point guards in the league. Ricky Rubio shot 25% from three. Rajon Rondo shot 31%. That’s not the company you want as a three point shooter as a point guard in today’s NBA. But if you’re in that company, you definitely don’t want to be 25th in attempts.

However, consider Rose, and then consider the Bulls offense. There’s a reason the team struggled to score, and their offense often appeared crowded and stagnant, despite having Mike Dunleavy as a floor spacer, and Pau Gasol, a good shooter and excellent passer. The reason is Rose. Despite all he does for the Bulls offense, his shooting created an engrained limitation. When he was creating and attacking, things were okay. But when others had to create, the space simply wasn’t there. Defenses sagged far off of Rose, cutting off driving lanes for Butler or Dunleavy, doubling Gasol, and daring Rose to shoot. And shoot he did. But try as he might, he simply could not make the defenses pay. He continued to shoot with confidence, but the confidence proved unfounded, turning “shooting with confidence” into shooting with reckless abandon.

Pause for a second to think about Rose. Done? Then consider this: John Wall shot 30% from three point range last season.

Even as an improved shooter, Wall is right there with Rose. He’s smart enough not to continue shooting them to his team’s demise, but the lack of threat is a problem. But like Wall, Rose was never a great shooter, even before his injuries, and yet he won an MVP. And 2015 John Wall is just as good as MVP winning (but arguably not deserving) 2011 MVP Derrick Rose. Which brings us back to where we started.

John Wall is already a superstar. But for Wall to take the next step to bonafide MVP contender, the shooting stroke has to improve. He doesn’t have to be Curry or Irving. Even just Jeff Teague or Kyle Lowry level shooting may suffice. And with Pierce’s departure, the issue becomes more urgent. For Porter to turn into the Ariza clone we all imagine, he needs the same type of space Harden helps provide. For Beal to turn into an All-Star caliber two guard and playmaker, he needs just a little portion of that space Curry provides to Klay Thompson, or Barnes, or Iguodala.

Wall already makes his teammates better. We see it visibly, with every assist, with every incredible cross-court pass or twisting pin-point pass for an open three. But now, he needs to make his teammates better in the ways most of us don’t see. We need to see Beal driving to the rim for a dunk, or Porter kicking it to Wall or Beal for a three, and we need to hear, “Man, Brad and Otto are taking it to the next level this year.” And then we need to rewind the DVR, and pull up some highlights from last season, and think, “hmm. That help defender stuck two steps closer to John this year, no wonder Beal had the lane,” or, “hmm, Wall’s defender is scared to leave him this year, Otto has a lot more room to see the floor and make that play than he had last year.”

If Wall makes the shooting leap this offseason, he’ll make the leap from superstar to MVP candidate, because the Wizards will make the leap from cute contention to true contender. And that’s what we’re all really waiting for.

Remember: Even Kevin Durant needs space to operate.

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