John Wall isn't going to make this easy. He never does.
The Washington Wizards point guard has oozed superstar potential out of his 6'4", 195-lb. frame ever since being the first prospect to shake commissioner David Stern's hand at the 2010 NBA Draft. Lightning quick with a laser-like focus, he fits the physical profile of a star right down to his customized size 13 kicks.
But shining in the eyes of strength and conditioning coaches has never been a problem. It's making those natural gifts translate to the stat sheet—and more importantly the win column—that's been an issue.
Now that the fourth-year pro—and recent max-money recipient—has polished his box scores and, more importantly, Washington's win total with a new kind of luster, that elusive "elite" label moves one step closer toward falling across his shoulders.
Although legitimate superstardom still escapes him, the speedy point guard is quickly closing on its doorstep.
First-round picks don't enjoy the luxury of patience. Former first selections are graded on an even steeper scale.
Wall wasn't simply brought in as a piece of Washington's puzzle, he became the main building block for a franchise in desperate need of a facelift. Less than one year removed from Gilbert Arenas' and Javaris Crittenton's armed altercation inside the Wizards' locker room, Wall became the face of the franchise the moment his name escaped Stern's lips.
He was the present and the future. He was, in the organization's mind, the game changer:
Was John Wall surprised he made such a dramatic impact on #wizards after team started 5-28? “Not at all. They call me the Game Changer.”— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) April 25, 2013
Never mind that his skill set was incredibly raw. Wall had to deliver results. Yesterday.
Some four years later, he still finds himself judged by that same grading scale. For perhaps the first time in his career, though, he's passing that test with flying colors.
Numbers are nothing new to the floor general. He's put up plenty before and gaudy ones at that. The next season he averages fewer than 16.3 points or 7.3 assists will be his first.
But these digits are different. They're cleaner, grander and more consistent. Most jarring, though, is the last adjective assigned to his numbers—efficient:
How is this for efficiency? In his past 3 games, John Wall has scored 99 pts on 57 shots #wizards— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) November 27, 2013
He's been a game-changer this season, attacking with both proficiency and poise like never before.
His scoring has reached a new level (career-high 19.5 points per game). Ditto for his distribution (9.0 assists) and work on the glass (4.6 rebounds). His efficiency has never been higher (21.4 rating); his giveaways have never been lower (15.0 percent turnover rate).
But what good are these numbers without the right context?
He's fourth among qualified point guards in scoring, tied for second among all setup men and the fourth-best rebounding floor general in the business. For anyone thinking he only plays one end of the floor, he's also the league's fifth-best pickpocket with 2.14 thefts a night.
Need more convincing? Just ask New York Knicks wing Iman Shumpert about Wall's defense.
His jumpshot still isn't where he would like it (32.6 three-point percentage), yet he's made 61.4 percent of his field-goal attempts and 50.0 percent of his triples over his last three games. His production over that stretch? Nothing short of All-NBA numbers: 33.0 points, 6.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 steals.
"He's playing out of his mind," teammate Martell Webster said, via Michael Lee of The Washington Post.
The entertainment factor that all superstars this side of Tim Duncan share? Wall has it in bunches.
But one thing's still absent from Wall's superstar resume. And this challenge will be greater than any that he's faced before.
The Road Ahead
Wall's not one to shy away from making boisterous claims:
"I'm the best point guard in the league. That's my statement." - @John_Wall— FOX Sports: Hoops (@HoopsonFOX) November 27, 2013
But it's that subtle message scribbled across the side of his sneakers that will be the hardest to live up to.
Judging a player solely off team success isn't fair.
But as the franchise savior—the game-changer in D.C. talk—he has no security of excuses.
The Wizards (6-8) appear to be turning the corner. They've won four of their last five games, a stretch that began right on the heels of a four-game skid.
But this might just be the work of the generous schedule makers.
The Wizards nearly shocked the Oklahoma City Thunder inside the Chesapeake Energy Arena, but moral victories don't carry any weight in a playoff chase. Washington's other chances to secure a statement win—road games against the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks—have all ended with double-digit defeats.
Herein lies the final hurdle for Wall to clear, the last velvet rope standing between him and the superstar club.
Are you ready to put Wall in the superstar ranks?
Even before the Empire State's collapse and the Derrick Rose lost season sequel, back when we actually wondered how many teams might challenge Miami for its conference crown, the Wizards still looked like a playoff team.
Wall's marked off every item on the individual superstar checklist: production, efficiency, excitement. But a postseason appearance remains the last glaring omission from his elite-level credentials.
His body is right, his supporting cast is strong and the East is as bad as its ever been.
There are no more excuses to be made. The final free pass has already been written.
If Washington isn't dancing in late April, then Wall's the same player he's been throughout his career: immensely talented, wildly productive and incredibly exciting.
But not a full-fledged superstar.