Washington Wizards' Dream Season Riding on John Wall's Emergence

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMay 8, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 05: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards dribbles the ball against the Indiana Pacers  in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 5, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

John Wall has the unique ability to make the Indiana Pacers defense look average. 

But through the first two games of the Washington Wizards' second-round series against the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed, he hasn't been able to do so. And that's why the underdogs (perhaps in seeding only) are deadlocked with the Pacers at 1-1 rather than boasting a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 lead as they head back to Washington. 

For the Wizards, the 2013-14 campaign has been somewhat of a dream season. 

Not only did Wall help lead Washington to the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08, making the dysfunctional squads of the past few years seem but distant memories, but he's even been a part of the team that won the franchise's first postseason series in nearly a decade. 

The last time that happened, Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison led the 2004-05 Wizards to a first-round win over the Chicago Bulls (ironically enough) before falling to Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat

And that was the first series win since 1981-82. 

If Wall wants to put history behind him and continue writing this new and optimistic chapter for Washington, he needs to be more aggressive. Beating the Pacers depends on him above all else. 

It's been a dream season, but the alarm will ring soon if Wall can't emerge as the star he was throughout the regular season.


All-Star Talent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 29: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards celebrates after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Chicago Bulls in the 2014 NBA Playoffs on April 29, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: Us
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

John Wall put together a phenomenal season, one that landed him his first All-Star appearance and should have seen him start the Midseason Classic ahead of Kyrie Irving. In terms of Eastern Conference point guards, the battle for No. 1 this year (while Derrick Rose was injured) was between him and Kyle Lowry. 

And Wall won it. 

Averaging 19.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game, Wall finally made "the leap" during his fourth professional season. Yes, his player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes were both lower than they were in his third campaign, per Basketball-Reference.com, but those numbers overlook two key factors. 

Wall played far more in 2013-14 than he did in 2012-13, and he maintained his level of performance despite exerting far more energy on the defensive end of the court. 

As Ethan Sherwood Strauss espoused for ESPN.com back in January: 

He's not much of a shooting threat, but his terrorizing defense is a threat to all shooters. If Curry dazzled playoff audiences with 3-pointers from all angles, Wall might loudly announce his playoff arrival with steals and swats that defy geometry.

That ability to make an impact on the less-glamorous end of the court not only made Wall a bit underrated, but it also allowed him to establish himself as one of the truly elite point guards in the Association. In fact, he ranked third among all floor generals in my NBA 200 series generals, trailing only Stephen Curry and Chris Paul

Nothing to be ashamed about there. 

As I wrote while summing up his overall score (88/100), "We'll look back someday and view this as the year that Wall truly became an elite floor general. His arsenal expanded to include a dangerous outside shot, great defensive skills and heretofore unseen amounts of leadership."

Too bad he hasn't lived up to the lofty grades and remarks during the playoffs.  


Lackluster Performance Against Indiana

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Although Wall struggled with his shot against the vaunted defense of the Chicago Bulls during the opening round of the 2014 playoffs, he managed to minimize his turnovers and still made a positive impact on the overall proceedings. He was extremely aggressive, getting to the line 9.2 times per contest over the course of the five-game series, and his defense helped frustrate an already limited squad. 

But against the Pacers, it's been harder to find positives. 

For whatever reason, Wall has abandoned the aggressiveness that makes him so special, combining to shoot just eight shots from the charity stripe during the first two outings. He's settled for jumpers, ones that he's most certainly not hitting, and he's been forced to become a pass-first point guard. 

Just in case you thought the 0-of-7 performance from beyond the arc was the only bad part of Wall's game, take a gander at the first two outings: 

Wall's Struggles
PointsReboundsAssistsField GoalsThree-PointersFree Throws
Game 113594-of-140-of-35-of-6
Game 26182-of-130-of-42-of-2

For a point guard like Wall, one who thrives when he's attacking the basket and drawing contact, one way to quantify aggressiveness—albeit in a very cursory sense—is to compare free-throw attempts to three-point attempts. 

Wall should be taking far more of the former, and he did that during the regular season, averaging 4.8 free throws and 3.8 triples per game. 

In order to place a value on this basket-attacking aggression, I've divided his free-throw attempts by his three-point attempts for every game this season (postseason included), then multiplied the quotient by 100 to make the numbers look more accessible.

We'll call it "aggression quotient."

Excluding the one game in which he never fired away from downtown, Wall's top score was an even 1,000, which he earned on April 20 against the Chicago Bulls. During that opening game of the postseason, he took 10 shots from the charity stripe and only one from beyond the arc. 

His worst? Seven times he took zero free-throw attempts and at least one triple, and the standout of the bunch was a contest against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 28 when he let fly from downtown six times. 

Below you can see the grander-scale results of this box-score metric: 

Wall's Aggression in 2013-14
FTA3PAAggression Quotient
Regular Season4.83.8126.32
Round 19.22.2418.18
Round 24.03.5114.29

After putting his head down (but keeping his eyes up) and relentlessly attacking the basket against the Bulls in the opening round of the postseason, Wall has swerved away from what made him so special. 

Game 1 against the Pacers saw him produce an aggression score of 200 (six free-throw attempts, three three-point attempts), which was actually a pretty decent outing. But Game 2, which boasted two freebies and four triples, gave him a 50, which was one of his worst performances. 

In fact, he's been less aggressive only 12 times this season. 

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 05:  John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards shoots the ball against the Indiana Pacers  in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 5, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Granted, this is by no means a perfect measure. It doesn't account for a whole lot, merely serving as a box-score indicator with many flaws. However, there's a strong correlation between Wall's aggressiveness and the Wizards' results. 

In losses, his average aggression quotient is 149.02. In wins, that number rises to 214.20. Of his top 15 scores, only four came during losses (No. 3, No. 12, No. 13 and No. 15). 

So perhaps there is something to this. 

Not to draw too much causation from correlation, but if Wall isn't attacking the basket, the Wizards aren't going to be as successful. It's as simple as that, and his inability to do so during the first two games has prevented the Wizards from earning a 2-0 series lead that they could take back to the nation's capital. 

He's squandering a golden opportunity. 


Should Be Exploiting Weaknesses

INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 5: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards moves the ball up-court against the Indiana Pacers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 5, 2014 in Indianapolis, India
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

When you think of John Wall, the first aspect of his game that should come to mind is speed. 

Few players are capable of moving quicker than this blur of a point guard, especially when he has the ball in his hands. He whips around screens, moves up and down the court in transition like he has eight-foot-long legs and can change directions on a dime. 

In other words, he's exactly the type of point guard who should be exploiting the weakness of a stellar Pacers defense. He's Jeff Teague on steroids (metaphorically speaking, of course, as there's no reason to believe Wall would mess around with the league's drug policies). 

Teague gave Indiana's point-preventing units all sorts of trouble when he put on the jets. But he's no Wall, and the Washington floor general should be living up to the blueprint that the Atlanta Hawks granted him during the opening round of the playoffs. 

George Hill can't stay in front of Wall, and the more time the Kentucky product spends inside the three-point arc, the deadlier the Washington offense gets. Not only is he more capable of doing damage himself, but he compresses the defense for Bradley Beal and Trevor Ariza's perimeter shooting while taking attention away from Marcin Gortat and Nene. 

Hill, the Indiana native, did a fantastic job keeping Wall contained during Game 2, but it's hard to imagine him doing that night in and night out. Not if Wall is even more aggressive and doesn't act content to pull up for jumpers rather than forcing his man to stick with him. 

And even so, even with the Wizards' most important player having one of the worst nights of his season, the Wizards were in position to steal away a second game. They lost by only four points, and a few bounces could've swayed things in a different direction. 

Heading into Game 3, which will be played in front of hordes of screaming fans at the Verizon Center, there's something else that could sway things—a standout performance from Wall. 


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