John Wall isn't perfect.
Are you OK? I didn't mean to drop that bomb on you. Really, who would have thought a 23-year-old star point guard piloting the new-to-the-playoffs-this-side-of-2008 Washington Wizards would be anything less than flawless? This is shocking, perhaps even life-changing.
All right, it's not.
Many of us made a big deal about Wall's superstar arrival this season. Or his emergence as a legitimate star. Whatever you want to call it doesn't matter. Star, superstar—whatever. Wall came on in a big way during the regular season, working tirelessly, improving as a player, evolving as a leader, securing his place among other elite floor generals.
People were excited. They were excited when he earned his first All-Star selection and when he led the Wizards to their first playoff berth in six years. They were still excited when the Wizards, despite Wall's struggles, overpowered the Chicago Bulls and set up a second-round rendezvous with the disconnected and fast-plummetting Indiana Pacers.
Wall was due for a breakout postseason performance. Redemption would be his middle name. The Pacers would bend to his speed and energy.
Instead of running circles around Indiana, Wall continues to suffer from a bad, potentially contagious case of Postseason Blues. The Wizards—who certain NBA cretins picked to oust Indiana (not me*)—are down 3-1 in the series after losing two straight at home and face elimination in Game 5.
Win, lose or draw by way of permanent power outage, Wall has been exposed as a star with plenty more to learn. And while others will lament his shortcomings, Wall's postseason plights will be well worth the price of an early, still-totally-impressive exit if he's able to parlay this seemingly failed venture into another pivotal aspect of his maturation process.
Against the Pacers, Wall has treated Wizards fans to more of what they saw in Round 1—nothing special, sprinkled with teensy bits of hope, inundated with slabs of disappearing acts.
Through the first four games, Wall is averaging 11.5 points on 31.4 percent shooting, including a 9.1 percent conversion rate from beyond the arc. His biggest problem, as it always seems to be, is his jump shot.
During the regular season, Wall expanded his range and became more of an outside threat. He wasn't someone you chased off the three-point line, but he did bury a career-high 35.1 percent of his long balls. Still, he was far from incredible away from the basket.
Outside eight feet, Wall converted just 35.3 percent of his field-goal attempts overall, according to NBA.com. The real story was his refusal to avoid jumpers altogether. He attempted (308) and made (108) more three-pointers in 2013-14 than he did through his first three seasons combined (202/49).
Increased aggression was the true boon, though. Hitting a higher percentage of his threes while still struggling between eight and 24 feet was, believe it or not, a bonus.
All of Wall's progress has been erased by the Pacers, including his aggression. Over the last four games, he's converting just 21.6 percent of his shots outside eight feet (8-of-37), according to NBA.com. Though he's still hitting more than 57 percent of his attempts inside eight feet, the Pacers have ensured those looks are close to nonexistent.
Wall is averaging just 3.5 shot attempts inside eight during this series, compared to the 5.3 he was accustomed to during the regular season. Attacking and reaching the rim has been his bread and butter for four years, and that hasn't changed.
Moving forward, it absolutely needs to.
Point guards are expected to do a number of things. They should pass. They should lead.
They should be able to shoot.
Speed and athleticism only get you so far. Floor generals spend much of their time operating from the free-throw line extended, so they should be able to score consistently from there.
Perimeter shooting matters. It's something Wall made a point to improve last summer. It's still something he must work on now.
Nothing could be better for the Wizards next season—save for maybe Kevin Durant preemptively guaranteeing he'll return "home" in 2016 free agency—than welcoming back a more mid-range- and three-point-savvy Wall.
Plagued by Indecision
If there's one thing Wall is not, it's disgusted by the thought of hot chocolate-binge drinking.
If there is a second thing he is not, it's indecisive.
From the moment Wall has entered the league he has radiated confidence. Sometimes it's misconstrued as arrogance or youthful ignorance. But he's done a good job balancing his self-assured spirit with humility.
Until this series.
The aggression is gone. At his peak these days, it's been wavering. He has yet to attempt 15 shots in a single game this series, which, for a player who averaged over 16 during the regular season, is saying something. The four games he has gone without attempting 15 shots is his longest streak of the year.
When he enters the paint, it's without purpose. The Pacers are swarming him, forcing the ball out of his hands. While this usually wouldn't be a problem, Wall has become visibly rattled.
Passes are going awry. They're being intercepted. He's handling the ball like it's been coated with a mixture of butter, Crisco and baby oil. He looks confused.
In the last two games, he's committed 12 total turnovers. The Pacers' hounding defense has him thinking twice about everything. It has him deferring before running plays, ensuring his typically productive passes are of less significance.
Here's a look at how the end result of his passes in the playoffs compare to the regular season:
|Wall's Playmaking Problems|
|When...||MPG||Touches Per Game||Passes Per Game||Assist Opportunities Per Game||Points Created by Assists Per Game|
|NBA Player Tracking.|
Basically, we're seeing Wall play more minutes, but he isn't receiving as many touches per game nor are his passes having the same impact. More than the Pacers defense has to be at play. They have him out of sorts, but where regular-season Wall would power through, postseason Wall is submitting to the will of his opponent.
The Wizards cannot have this.
Not now, not ever.
The Inexperience Factor
Citing inexperience is often a cop out. Wizards head coach Randy Wittman refused to use Wall's lack of familiarity as an excuse after Game 4.
"It's a process," he told reporters. "He's just got to continue to stay aggressive. And he can't worry about anything else."
Making excuses is frowned upon, so kudos to Wittman. But experience definitely played a role in Game 4. It was the classic, veteran stylings of Al Harrington, Andre Miller and Drew Gooden that helped Washington's lead balloon to 19 points.
It was the young guns—Bradley Beal and Wall—that aided in its disappearance.
And that's going to happen with young players. It just is. The Wizards are simply at the point where they expect and need more from Wall.
Knowing how he carries himself, you forget he's still only 23 and new to some of this. If you needed a reminder of how far he still needs to come, though, it was there, staring you in the face, wagging its finger in front of your eyes during Game 4.
Trailing by three points with under a minute to play, Wall did something he doesn't usually do: He panicked.
Let's pass the baton to The Washington Post's Mike Wise for a moment:
The series — and likely the season — was on John Wall’s fingertips. He stood behind the arc with less than a minute left, on the right wing in front of his bench, a clear look at the rim, his team down by three points. And he didn’t want to take the shot.
For all his miscues and caroms off the back iron this postseason, his lost stroke, the crowd was still exhorting him on. Shoot! Shoot!
He froze. There would be no all-net, all-even, best two-of-three going back to Indiana.
Wall passed to Beal instead. The younger Beal. The 20-year-old Beal. The sweeter-shooting Beal, who, while wide open, isn't Wall.
The Wizards would lose, 95-92.
“I told him to shoot, but I guess he saw something else—[Bradley Beal] coming open on the other side,” Harrington said afterward, via Wise.
Those are the shots Wall needs to take. Forget that he was 4-of-11 from the floor at that point. Forget that he is 1-of-11 from deep this series. The Wizards are Wall's team. He would have taken that shot in the regular season. Shooting percentages be damned. He needs to develop the same approach during the playoffs.
Once he does, his development will be complete, so to speak. Until then, the Wizards will wait.
Only eight teams have successfully come back from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series, per The Washington Post's Jason Reid. How close these Wizards come to being the ninth is up to Wall. They've made it this far with him struggling. His unadulterated presence moving forward is non-negotiable.
Game 5 needs to be better than Game 4.
Next season needs to be better than this season.
"John's going to close out games," Wittman said. "This is part of his growing up."
A part of his growing up the Wizards cannot wait to move past.
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