At any given time, the NBA’s ideal “best backcourt” typically consists of one top-15 player and his All-Star caliber sidekick. The Washington Wizards don’t have either yet, but in due time they should.
John Wall is a 23-year-old one-time All-Star coming off by far the best season of his promising career. Right now, he’s the franchise, a playmaking dynamo who uses uncanny speed to gloss over a leaky jumper. Bradley Beal is his sidekick (for now), a 20-year-old knockdown three-point shooter who’s already showing growth in other areas of his game.
These two will become the NBA’s best backcourt in just a couple years if they continue on their current path. Here's what Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah had to say right after the Wizards ended his season, courtesy of The Washington Post's Michael Lee:
...then they have those young players…Bradley Beal. He’s a beast, man. He’s one of the better players in our league and to be that young and do the things that he can do, it’s very impressive...And then John Wall, he’s doing a great job pushing the ball up the court. They caused a lot of problems, so you got to give credit when credit is due.
The long-term competition to be the absolute best is actually quite thin. Most elite point guards are paired with weak shooting guards, and vice versa. The only duo that’s both extremely good and very young is the Splash Brothers out in Golden State. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson hold stiff competition for the mantle.
Arguments could rage for years between these two exceptional pairs of guards, and proving which duo is better may end up being impossible. But Wall and Beal hold a higher ceiling than Curry and Thompson. They're younger, can play both ends and make others around them better. Curry and Thompson are fantastic shooters, but the former can't player defense while the latter has no play-making ability whatsoever.
Whether Beal and Wall actually reach their potential, though, is another question.
Where Wall ends up in history is anyone’s guess. His physical tools allow him to do things nobody else can, and despite him making the All-Star Game this season (and winning the Slam Dunk Contest), Wall has yet to scrape the ceiling of his individual impact.
Wall is a legitimate 20-point, 10-assist per game player. His per-game averages of 19.3 points and 8.8 assists this season were both career highs, and few players in the league are more dangerous when presented with a high screen.
As perhaps the fastest player in the league, Wall flies into the paint with steady control. This season he learned how to read defenses correctly, and instead of forcing too many jumpers or driving straight into the defense’s teeth, he now makes proper reactions.
Wall punishes help defenders who wander off his teammates by whipping darts to the weak side. His vision has nearly caught up to his leg speed, which makes him a near impossible cover, especially when teammates are knocking down three-pointers.
He’s also shown well-documented growth from beyond the three-point line. In his first three seasons, Wall averaged 1.1 three-point attempts per game, making an unsightly 24.3 percent of them. This past season, these numbers spiked to 3.8 attempts per game and 35.1 percent.
But he's far from unguardable. Wall’s jumper remains an issue. He made just 36.7 percent of all shots between 16 and 23 feet from the hoop during the 2013-14 season. This shot made up over a third of all Wall’s field-goal attempts this past year, so upping the accuracy here is paramount. He also needs to work on off-ball cuts.
What makes Wall so valuable is his impact on defense. Even with the high level of responsibility he has on offense, he (mostly) maintains focus guarding his man. Off the ball he's a devil in passing lanes, always ready to swoop in and take a lazy pass the other way.
Guarding the pick-and-roll, Wall slithers above (or below) the screener and makes the ball-handler's life a living hell. This is a simple effort play, and Wall does a solid job on it more often than not.
The other half of Washington's backcourt is one of the youngest studs in the league. He can shoot threes, run a pick-and-roll and has immense room for growth. He'll be 21 years old next season, his third. This is the definition of a blue-chip prospect.
Beal shot 40.2 percent from behind the three-point line this year, averaging a more than respectable 4.7 attempts per game. He's already one of the more dangerous offensive weapons in the league, and it's downright frightening to imagine where he'll be as a two-way force in three years (which is roughly five years before he reaches his prime).
Here's Grantland's Zach Lowe on Beal's recent growth:
He has emerged as a capable secondary ball handler, flashing a collection of wily moves on all sorts of pick-and-rolls. He has often supplanted Wall as the team’s top clutch option, jacking more crunch-time shots than Wall in the playoffs after attempting about the same number during the regular season on a per-minute basis. He made massive plays down the stretch in Game 1 against Indy, and in Games 2 and 3 in Washington’s grinding five-game win over the Bulls.
Wall and Beal appeared together in 73 games this season, and the Wizards were 2.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opposition with them on the court. Washington’s offense and defense also performed slightly above its season average when the two played together. Expect all of these numbers to rise in the coming years as Wall and Beal grow more comfortable beside one another and improve their individual skills.
Both players can already run a pick-and-roll at the NBA level. They know how to draw help defenders, and when it's time to pass versus shoot. When Wall has the ball, the threat of Beal's shot is strong enough to keep the floor spread for driving and passing lanes, and Washington's point guard knows how to capitalize.
In transition, they're a perfect pair. Wall likes to race up the floor and force defenders to backpedal into the paint to protect the rim. This leaves a trailing Beal wide open behind the three-point line, and it's one of Washington's most devastating scoring methods.
In their first playoffs together, Beal and Wall are 6-4, six wins away from the NBA Finals. At times, they look to be rolling through an Eastern Conference that could be theirs for the taking in the years to come. The rest of the league already has a major problem on their hands every time they visit Washington, and it's only going to get worse by the time this duo becomes the best backcourt tandem in the world.
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