In March 2011, I went to the Verizon Center to watch the Washington Wizards take on the Los Angeles Clippers. I chose to attend that particular game because I wanted to watch the players that I thought were the two best rookies in the NBA, Blake Griffin and John Wall, square off against one another. But when I left the arena later that evening, a part me knew (even though I would spend the next several months denying it) that only one of those rookies, Griffin, possessed true superstar potential.
During significant stretches of that game, Wall was matched up against his former college teammate Eric Bledsoe, and much to my chagrin and to the chagrin of the 20,000 fans in attendance, Bledsoe thoroughly outplayed him.
For those unfamiliar with the two players' history, University of Kentucky coach John Calipari recruited Bledsoe to be the starting point guard on his 2009-10 team. But when Wall, who was a more highly touted player coming out of high school, opted to attend Kentucky, Bledsoe was relegated to the role of second banana in the Wildcats starting backcourt.
Against Wall, Bledsoe notched 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting in only 22 minutes. Had he played more, he easily would have surpassed 30 points. Wall managed 25 points in 42 minutes, but only made 9-of-23 shots, an all-too-typical performance for him.
As indicative as that stat line may be, it doesn't properly illustrate what everyone who watched that game saw. Every time Bledsoe got the ball, he drove right at Wall without hesitation, and on most of those possessions he either scored or set up a teammate—Bledsoe also finished with six assists. The former understudy showed no fear in attacking the No. 1 overall pick, and Wall couldn’t do anything to stop him.
What made Wall's defensive shortcomings even more apparent was that when Bledsoe wasn't in the game, Wall guarded Mo Williams, who also recorded an incredibly efficient offensive performance. The two Clippers guards to whom Wall was assigned scored 45 points on 57 percent shooting. Wall looked thoroughly outclassed throughout the contest, leaving fans to wonder why the No. 1 pick had to work so hard to get his points while his opponents got theirs without breaking a sweat.
Wall bashing, as well as Wizards bashing in general, is quite in vogue at the moment. Journalists writing for local sports sections and national publications alike have criticized the second-year point guard in recent weeks. The criticism has primarily focused on Wall's atrocious shooting percentage and penchant for turning the ball over, two factors that are part of the reason why he ranks 178th in the league in terms of player efficiency rating (PER).
But most of the critical columns also contain the caveat that Wall has the bad fortune of playing with horrible teammates. In other words, if he played for a different team his numbers would be better.
I've never agreed with that caveat because of what I saw on at the Clippers-Wizards game in March 2011 and what continues to be apparent on a weekly basis: Wall often gets horribly outplayed by the opposing team's point guard, and his teammates have nothing to do with this.
Case in point: Chicago's backup point guard John Lucas dominated wall last night. Lucas put on a clinic—25 points, eight assists, eight rebounds—while Wall struggled. If you're like me, prior to that game you thought John Lucas hadn't seen NBA action since 1990, but that was before this rarely used guard embarrassed the player Washington's management has been touting as the franchise's future.
The game of basketball is more than just the sum of its parts, but on some level, the following statement applies to each of the 10 players on the court: Outplay the person you are matched up against, and you will give your team a better chance at winning.
The biggest problem with Wall is that he almost never outplays the person he is matched up with. Here’s a brief list of the opposing players that have outplayed Wall this season: Ricky Rubio, John Lucas, Luke Ridnour, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Jennings. Opposing starting point guards are averaging 13.3 points per game and 7.3 assists per game compared to Wall’s 13.4 PPG and 7.1 APG.
That stat is even more telling when you consider it 1) doesn’t factor in Rubio’s performance since Rubio did not start against the Wizards, and 2) does factor in Toney Douglas’ zero-point, zero-assist performance that occurred when the Wizards played the New York Knicks.
Wall often gets outplayed by the opposition because at this stage in his career he is not only a terrible offensive player—his speed in the open court cannot make up for his subpar ball-handling skills and low field goal percentage. He is also a poor one-on-one defensive player. As a result, he labors to score, making each basket seem like a Herculean triumph, while opposing guards score easily against him.
Defense in the NBA is about so much more than steals and blocked shots, just like defense in the NFL is about more than interceptions and forced fumbles (e.g, Darrelle Revis did not finish in the top 10 in interceptions, but most football coaches and analysts would still rank him as the game’s top cornerback.) Good NBA defenders prevent opposing players from making plays; they disrupt the opposition through a combination of good positioning, athletic ability and sheer will. In theory, Wall should be a great NBA defender—he is fast, tall for his position and has long arms—but for reasons that are difficult to articulate, Wall is actually terrible on defense.
Part of Wall’s defensive shortcomings stem from his seeming lack of balance. Wall looks great when he’s racing through the open court, but when he’s standing still he comes across as a bit gangly and somewhat uncomfortable in his own frame. Whenever a possession requires him to body up to an opposing player, Wall gets pushed around and knocked back on his heels. His inability to hold his balance allows players to drive right at him without any fear.
At this point, it may be a bit early to definitively label Wall as a bust in the making, but with each game it looks less likely that Wall will be able to one day turn into an NBA superstar. It’s even doubtful that he will reach the level of play former Washington guard Gilbert Arenas did during his good days in a Wizard uniform.
Think about it: Name one top-20 NBA player who consistently gets outplayed by his counterpart on the opposing team. It can’t be done because such a player doesn't exist.
Wall's immense personal charisma—he had his own personal dance before he scored his first points as a college player and also does a fantastic version of the Dougie—made him something of a media darling from the get go. When he was in college, many writers (myself included) overrated Wall’s ceiling for NBA potential—Bill Simmons called him a can’t-miss prospect on par with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
Many writers, analysts and fans (myself included) continued to fawn over Wall during his rookie year and overlooked his obvious flaws as a player. These flaws can be boiled down to the following statement: While Wall possesses more than his fair share of athletic ability, he is not a skilled offensive or defensive basketball player. And to be a great NBA player, a player needs to possess a certain degree of skill in addition to raw talent.
Wall's future depends on his ability to quickly learn the skills—shooting, dribbling, passing—that he failed to learn during his first 21 years on earth. I don't see that happening. If the Wizards want to one day bring an NBA Championship to Washington, they will need another superstar to helm the ship.