John Wall's NBA Playoff Debut Next Step in Superstar Journey

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John Wall's NBA Playoff Debut Next Step in Superstar Journey
USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Wizards' point guard is both an unstoppable force and an immovable Wall. It took a few years to happen, but finally, John Wall has earned a spot as one of the top floor generals in the NBA.

The Kentucky product was always a freak of nature as an athlete. Along with Russell Westbrook, healthy Derrick Rose and Eric Bledsoe (his former partner in crime at UK), Wall is up there as one of the fastest, most powerful guards in the league. But just like with so many young, athletic players, it took a little while for Wall to implement savviness into his game.

For the first few years of his career, Wall put up solid numbers, but he wasn't someone who dominated operating in a half-court offense. He was too raw. To some, too transition-oriented.

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

It's not that Wall was never going to have a refined skill set. That argument, though somewhat prevalent, wasn't fair.

He came into the league at just 20 years old, and just as with guys like Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard, if you are a No. 1 overall pick who is built like a house and moves like a Ferrari, expectations become unfairly unrealistic.

Why can Blake only dunk?

Why doesn't Dwight have post moves? 

Why can't Wall shoot?

Shockingly, not all players dominate in every aspect of the game immediately upon entering the league. So, the current 23-year-old budding star went through some bad shooting years. Actually, they were worse than bad. They were downright awful.

 

The Shot

USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, Wall made just three of his 42 three-point attempts. Last year, he got better, but he still wasn't anywhere close to a threat from long-range, accurate on only 12 of his 45 looks from beyond the arc. He wasn't taking many threes, and he was making so few that defenses were simply giving him that shot on the perimeter.

But wait, what's that? Young players get better? That's possible? No way.

Check out Wall's three-point progression over the past five months (save the small sample size of only 20 threes he took in April):

John Wall 2013-14 Three-Point Shooting Splits
Month 3PM/GM 3PA/GM 3P%
December 1.1 3.9 27.9%
January 1.2 3.5 35.0%
February 1.5 4.2 34.5%
March 2.0 4.4 45.7%
April (8 games) 0.5 2.5 20.0%

Basketball-Reference.com

Wall is hitting 40.2 percent of his threes since Feb. 19. Now, defenses are starting to adjust, and the Wizards offense is improving because of it.

Heading into that 29-game Wall hot-streak, the Wizards were averaging just 101.4 points per 100 possessions, 21st in the NBA at the time. But since their point guard caught fire to close the season, it's all changed.

The Wizards scored 5.3 more points per 100 possessions in those final 29 contests. To put that difference in perspective, 5.3 points per 100 is greater than the difference between the first-ranked Los Angeles Clippers offense and the 13th-ranked, stagnant-at-times New Orleans Pelicans attack.

That's one heck of an improvement, and so much of it has to do with Wall's shot-making influencing teams to change their defense.

 

Defensive Adjustments

Gary Dineen/Getty Images

As Wall has learned to shoot, defenders have started to go over picks when teammates come over to set ball-screens for him, and that's added a new dynamic to the Wizards offense. But even before Wall could knock home jumpers, he was the guy who made the Washington attack click.

When he missed the first 33 games of the 2012-13 season, the Wizards easily had the worst offense in the NBA. Washington ranked dead last in offensive efficiency without Wall and began the year with a 5-28 record. But then, its best player returned, everything started to change for the better, and Washington's offensive efficiency jumped 3.3 points.

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Even when the Wizards weren't scoring efficiently, they were putting an extreme emphasis on the corner three. Last year's team ranked top 10 in attempts and second in percentage from the corners. This season hasn't been much different. Again, the Wizards are top 10 in both attempts and percentage.

Really, there are two main ways to get threes from the corner, the second-most efficient type of shot besides the dunk or layup: drive-and-kicks and swings around the perimeter. And now, the drive-and-kick with Wall is working incomparably better.

In the past, point guard defenders could drift under screens against Wall and worry first and foremost about cutting off cross-court passing lanes, especially from the right side of the floor, which Wall tends to favor.

Today, it's all different. He can pull up and hit that shot. So now, that defender has to go over the screen, and when your roll man is Nene or Marcin Gortat, that opens up plenty of possibilities for the Wizards offense.

 

All's Right in the World

Ned Dishman/Getty Images

Don't underestimate exactly how important it was for the Wizards to acquire Nene and Gortat over the past two years. Washington has two guards who can run the pick-and-roll in Wall and Bradley Beal, and now they've paired them with two capable bigs. 

Both those guys can shoot. Both can set picks, and either one can act as a threat popping out as Wall dribbles around a ball-screen. Ultimately, you want Wall going right, where he makes his shots far more often with his screen-setter popping left. At that point, the Wizards have plenty of options. 

Wall lives on the right elbow, hanging out on that side so often that even Buster Bluth's doctor is starting to talk about him. And when he's going well from there, that's when the Wizards offense tends to click. There's a reason Washington shoots better from the left corner than from the right: Wall and his cross-court passing.

Once Wall gets around a screen, he opens up shots for teammates on the weak side. Often, that's Trevor Ariza, Washington's go-to, left-corner shooter. In this play against the Denver Nuggets, Wall uses the right side to find an opening on the left:

Wall pulls the same move against the Charlotte Bobcats:

You want to know the most important moment of any Wall offensive play on the right side? On that Nuggets play, it's right here:

Courtesy of NBA.com

Or against the Bobcats, it's here:

Courtesy of NBA.com

The right elbow. By the time Wall penetrates that far into the defense, the opponent has to commit, and it becomes determination time for the 23-year-old. 

Just look at those two screen shots. One shows four Nuggets getting ready to commit to Wall. That's how Ariza gets so open.

Of course defenses are worried. The Wizards point guard is as strong a finisher in the paint as any other player at his position in the league, and he made a highly efficient 66.5 percent of his shots at the rim this season. If the opponent commits late, or doesn't at all, you're staring at a layup, foul or and-1.

With the Bobcats play, it's even more exaggerated. All five Bobcats are lunging toward the Wall, and we're talking about a disciplined Bobcats defense, here. If a ball-handler can become so dangerous in the lane that he has every defender coming at him, he's going to be able to create.

The right elbow is where Wall is in ultimate decision mode. It's where he has an option of shooting, passing or continuing his drive. It's the sweet spot of the Washington offense. And if Wall can get to that area cleanly and consistently, the Wizards will usually have a chance at a high-percentage shot.

 

Playoff Time

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

In the Wizards' first-round playoff series, a 4-1 gentleman's sweep over the Chicago Bulls, Wall completed his ultimate test. Sure, the Bulls couldn't (can't?) score, but they did have the league's Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah

Combine Noah's dominance with coach Tom Thibodeau's ability to adjust in-series, and all of a sudden, Wall was going up against the most difficult challenge of his career. But something crazy happened: Wall held his own.

This isn't about his unimpressive 36-27-76 shooting line in the series. For Wall, the scoring will come. It's about his ability to make decisions and adjustments.

Even with Wall's improved shooting, the Bulls, unlike many other teams, went under screens against him throughout the series. The Chicago defense is one of the most disciplined units in the NBA, and the Bulls' first priority was clearly containing Wall and taking away that right side, forcing the Wizards into only 18 corner-three attempts the whole serieswith just 11 coming from the right side. 

So, Washington adjusted its offense and instead concentrated on getting looks in two-point land.

Wall created open shots for Nene, who ended up becoming the most valuable player in the series, and—against one of the league's most vaunted defenses—the Wizards actually scored at a more efficient rate than they did in the regular season.

Nene, who shot a ridiculous 51.3 percent from mid-range in the series, got plenty of looks partly because of Wall's ability to find him hovering around the middle of the floor:

Wall found success hooking up with Nene on the pick-and-roll and in drive-and-kicks. Basically, all he needed to do was dribble toward the hoop to make the Chicago defense commit to him.

But let's not pretend John Wall is perfect. He's far from that. 

 

Room to Grow

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

It's not like those Nene 18-footers are the types you want as your first options. Live by the mid-range shot, and you'll probably die before you even finish this sentence. But Wall was fortunate. His power forward was on fire. 

Those pick-and-rolls with Nene served as a nice microcosm for improvement, though.

As Seth Partnow noted on WhereOffenseHappens.com, Wall is so fast that sometimes, he doesn't control pace. Speed is great, but like with a power pitcher on the mound, a 96 mile-per-hour fastball only becomes effective once you add a decent changeup or breaking ball. 

Changing speeds means something. For now, that's not a strength of someone who is closer to Aroldis Chapman than Randy Johnson.

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Wall still pulls up too often for long twos, instead of open threes. He's inaccurate from the left side of the court, something you don't want to see in a point guard, a position that has to be balanced in floor favoritism.

Wings and bigs can lean toward one side, usually righties on the left and lefties on the right. But a point guard has to understand how to affect a game from all spots.

For now, defenses know that when Wall takes a long two on the left elbow, he's shooting 35.1 percent. When he takes a left-side three from above the break, he's at just 30.3 percent. Opponents are happy to allow those attempts.

The long two isn't usually a good one, even from a player who's an upper-echelon mid-range shooter. So for Wall, those plays come down to decision-making, like everything else.

Is he going to continue to attempt those pull-ups? 

A one-side dominant Wall isn't the best one we're going to see, but it's surely an improvement from what we saw in the past. So, at least at the moment, the Wizards can take solace in the fact that both on and off their court, their point guard is going in the same direction: the right one. 

 

All statistics current as of May 3 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

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