Why Washington Wizards Made the Right Move to Give John Wall a Max Contract

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2013

The 2014 NBA free-agent pickings just got a little slimmer, maybe a lot slimmer if you were in the market for an elite young point guard. Not long after starting negotiations with agent Dan Fegan, the Washington Wizards announced they'd agreed to a contract extension with franchise face John Wall. According to The Washington Post's Michael Lee, the deal will pay Wall the maximum allowable, about $80 million over the next five years.

That's the kind of money you expect to pay a first overall pick, at least if that pick lives up to the hype. Wall's status vis-a-vis that hype remains an open question, but a question the Wizards were in no position to contemplate.

Players of Wall's caliber—and potential caliber—rarely come along, even to teams that frequent the draft lottery. Overpaying isn't always a bad thing, and it's still too soon to concede Washington overpaid.  

Some will argue he isn't quite worth the max—not yet anyway, not under the purview of a restrictive contractual bargaining agreement. To the contrary, though, the Wizards should be applauded for obviating any need to haggle. They avoided acrimony, and they made their very talented star a very happy man.

Wall's peace of mind is one thing the Wizards won't have to worry about for the foreseeable future. If he's worth all that money, they may not have to worry about much else, either.


The Washington Lobbyist

There's a reason Mark Cuban failed to lure Deron Williams and Dwight Howard these past two summers, and it had nothing to do with prior Shark Tank obligations. Dirk Nowitzki just isn't the draw he used to be. Elite free agents unsurprisingly prefer teams with elite rosters. 

Retaining Wall doesn't mean Washington has an elite roster, but it ensures it has a shot at one while we're all still alive. Depending on what happens to some of their own free agents (e.g. Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin), the Wizards could have enough cap space to add another piece next summer, and they should have ample space in 2016 once Nene's deal expires.

But none of that cap space will count for much without a talented core already in place. No one's coming to D.C. solely out of patriotic fervor.

Wall gives the Wizards something to show for their rebuilding process, a signal to would-be targets that the organization is serious about winning and willing to spend money to that end. The selling points aren't just about messaging, though. 

Wall's willingness to share the ball appeals to most free agents, at least if they like scoring. Aside from attracting new blood, it's also appealing to up-and-comers Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. When it comes time to negotiate their extensions, Wall ensures the Wizards a star to lobby on the organization's behalf.

It's hard to put a price tag on that.


What the Data Tells Us

Wall only played in 49 games last season after an injury to his left kneecap sidelined him prior to the season opener. After a predictably slow start, he took off in March and never looked back.

Bouncing back from a rusty February (38 percent from the field), Wall made 48 percent of his attempts in March en route to averaging 22.1 points for the month. Between March and April, he posted single-game scoring totals of 47, 37, 35 and 33 points.

Small sample size aside, Washington's floor general finished the season with an impressive 20.91 PER.

There remain some causes for concern, chiefly Wall's wavering jump shot and nonexistent three-point game. He made just 27 percent of his 45 three-point attempts last season and just over 37 percent of two-pointers more than 10 feet from the basket, per Basketball-Reference.com. That kind of shooting makes life harder for a point guard, especially one looking to ride his quickness all the way to the basket.

Even so, Wall's jumper has demonstrated significant improvement. 

For the 2011-12 season, he made just 34 percent of his field-goal attempts between 10 and 16 feet out, and just 30 percent of attempts from there to the three-point line. Compared to those blood-stained shot charts, just about anything is a step forward.

But the Wizards will take it. The shooting is a work in progress—hopefully. 

The other red flag isn't as scary as you think.

Wall still turns the ball over too much. Despite an assist average that tied Tony Parker for the NBA's sixth-best mark last season, Wall's assist-to-turnover ratio ranked 33rd among qualified players. That's a ways away from Chris Paul's league-leading mark, but it also wasn't far behind LeBron James'. It even put Wall ahead of Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook.

Some of that inefficiency is symptomatic of how heavily the Wizards' playmaking burden falls squarely on Wall's shoulders. Among point guards, his usage rate trailed only Westbrook and Kyrie Irving—guards who similarly dominate the ball when it's time to initiate offense. In other words, a few turnovers are par for the course with even the best playmakers, especially the busy ones.


The Upside...Oh, the Upside 

If you assess Wall on the basis of results or potential alone, a max contract seems too rich. If you assess him like you would any other investment, everything starts to make a little more sense. Washington's front office is primarily interested in what Wall becomes by the back end of his contract, not whether he's one of the league's three best point guards next season.

Wall turns just 23 in September. He's still a baby by NBA standards, yet we've already seen the emergence of All-Star-caliber talent amidst a franchise in chaos. With a better jumper and refined decision making, the differences between Wall and Derrick Rose become increasingly few.

Rose didn't debut with phenomenal range, either. Though he's improved more quickly than Wall, he's an important reminder that shooting is a honed skill, not an innate talent. As far as innate talents go, well, Mr. Wall has those covered.  

His speed, agility and nose for the paint keep defenders on their heels, even without a smooth jumper keeping them honest and up close. To whatever extent the in-between game and three-point stroke come along, scoring won't be a problem.

Nor should defense.

NBADraft.net's Aran Smith noted after draft-combine measurements in 2010 that Wall's "wingspan (6'9.25") is 6.5 inches longer than his height barefoot (6'2.75")." That makes him a more lethal pickpocket (1.5 steals per game for his career) and a versatile defender who can check virtually anyone on the perimeter. With a consistent coaching staff and defensive philosophy, nothing's stopping Wall from becoming an elite defender. 

Of course, there are no guarantees. Sometimes you just have to trust that hard workers find their way, and Wizards majority owner and CEO Ted Leonsis confirmed his franchise has done just that upon announcing the extension, via NBA.com:

Since drafting John with the first overall pick, we have been impressed with his maturation, hard work and commitment to our franchise. He is the cornerstone of our team, and we have clearly expressed our desire to build around him well before making it official by re-signing him today. We are extremely confident in his leadership abilities and are excited to see the continued improvement of the team.

That commitment and leadership won't show up in statistics—advanced metrics or otherwise. But these are the variables vouching for the John Wall of tomorrow, the closest things to guarantees Washington has right now.