John Wall's dismissal from Team USA's FIBA World Cup roster isn't a disaster for the Washington Wizards' up-and-coming point guard, but it proved something important about his ongoing push toward the NBA's upper echelon: He still has a ways to go.
Per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Wall found himself on the chopping block when Team USA's roster downsized to 16 players:
USA Basketball cut Washington's John Wall, Bradley Beal and Atlanta's Paul Millsap today, sources told Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) August 4, 2014
USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo made it clear the latest round of cuts had nothing to do with individual talent, which, by the way, makes perfect sense. We've seen in the past what can happen when Team USA piles on the flash and forgets to add shooting or pass-first point guards. Just look back to the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics or the sixth-place finish in the 2002 World Cup for reminders of that.
Colangelo, in USA Basketball release today: "We are looking to select the best team, which are not necessarily the best players."— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) August 5, 2014
That's a roundabout way of saying Wall's exclusion shouldn't be viewed as a condemnation of his game. There's no shame in losing out to the likes of Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard.
At the same time, if Wall's skills were more developed, he'd probably still be in the running for a roster spot. The cut proves his weaknesses are real—even after a 2013-14 season everyone termed a "breakout" one.
That's not a wholly inaccurate label, by the way. Wall's improved three-point shooting stroke got plenty of deserved attention. It's not often a player goes from an accuracy rate of 26.7 percent on a paltry 45 attempts to 35.1 percent on 308 tries in a one-year span.
In addition, Wall took his Wizards to the playoffs for the first time in his career. The more experienced Indiana Pacers prevented Washington from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals, but they needed six games to do it.
The dirty secret about Wall's so-called breakout campaign, though, is that it wasn't actually all that much better than his performance the prior year:
Wall's suddenly respectable three-point shot was a real thing, but it came at the cost of other efficient opportunities. He swapped out free throws for threes, and the result was an offensive season that was only marginally better than what Wall produced in 2012-13.
Granted, it's harder to sustain good numbers when playing a bigger role on a better team over more games (Wall played every contest in 2013-14 after suiting up for just 49 the previous year). But any honest assessment of Wall's year has to include his relative statistical stasis alongside his improved grades on the eye test.
He can get better. And his growth will have to start, predictably, with his shooting.
Despite Wall's improved stroke, defenders still frequently ignored him on the perimeter. Per Grantland's Zach Lowe: "Wall has improved his jump shot, but he’s an inconsistent and sometimes reluctant shooter, and defenses shade away from him when Beal has the ball."
Here's an example from Lowe's conference finals write-up of the way George Hill basically dared Wall to beat Indy's defense from distance:
Though a small sample, Wall connected on just four of 21 threes in six postseason games against the Pacers. Indiana's strategy paid off, which serves as a prime example of how critical it is for Wall to continue working on his perimeter stroke.
We saw him shoot exactly 40 percent from beyond the arc after the All-Star break, so there's little doubt he can dial it in for large chunks of the year. In order to take the next step, Wall must not only be a consistent threat from three but also one defenses can't cast aside when the games really count.
Wall must also reach back into his recent past to rediscover the aggressiveness that so routinely got him to the foul line. We've already touched on the trade of free throws for threes Wall made last year, but a glance at his career foul-shooting rates shows how far he strayed from a former strength last season:
A devastating force when he can get to the middle of the floor, Wall has always excelled at finding efficient shots for his teammates. Last season, he assisted on a bevy of the NBA's most prized shots, per Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland:
Wall not only has assisted on the most corner 3s this season, but also leads the league in overall 3-point assists. His passes have led to 243 total 3-pointers, and 109 of those have been in the corners. Although his favorite partner in crime in the corners has been Ariza, Bradley Beal and Martell Webster are also very common collaborators. In fact, Wall is involved with three of the top six corner 3 partnerships in the league this year.
As opponents hone in on Wall's penchant for pitching to the corner, he'll see more chances to finish on his own. He must take advantage of those opportunities, as they'll provide more high-percentage looks and, hopefully, a return to his previous free-throw rates.
If it feels unfair that we're asking Wall to improve his perimeter shot and his work in the lane, well...nobody ever said being a superstar was easy.
The fact that we can ask so much of Wall is a testament to his talent and work ethic. He's not the same player who entered the league four years ago, and he's made significant strides on both offense and defense. In fact, we haven't even credited him for his growth as a stopper; Wall's length and speed make him one of the most fearsome on-ball guards in the game.
Wall can improve, but ultimately he might have to hold himself back to move forward.
This is the greatest paradox of Wall as a player, and it represents the most significant improvement he'll have to make in order to reach superstar status: He must slow down.
At 100 miles per hour, the Wizards point guard is a beast. There are perhaps a half-dozen NBA players who can match his raw speed and coordination in transition.
But while Wall is a phenomenal sprinter, he's not so hot on the jog.
If we adjust for a per-100-possession pace, the Wizards ranked seventh in the league in fast-break points and fourth in points off turnovers last year, per NBA.com. Those are good indications of how potent Wall made his team in scattered situations.
Despite excellent on-the-break numbers, Washington finished 16th in overall offensive efficiency last year, which reveals half-court offense to be the club's main weakness. It'll be up to Wall, a player who led the entire league in total time of possession last year (nobody had the ball in his hands more, per SportVU data provided to NBA.com), to figure out how to score when the game slows down.
He can do that by tying all of the above listed areas of improvement together.
Wall must survey the defense, fire away from distance when opponents dare him, penetrate and finish when that's the play to make and set up his teammates for open looks as circumstances dictate. Being a superstar point guard is hard, and Wall will be asked to maintain his blazing speed in some situations while reining it in in others.
The East is a conference in flux.
The Miami Heat are one megastar short of being the favorite. The Indiana Pacers are picking up the pieces after Paul George's devastating injury. The Cleveland Cavaliers are as young as potential contenders come.
Even the Chicago Bulls, everyone's prime pick to ascend this year, have plenty of question marks.
Washington brought in Paul Pierce, a veteran who can impart valuable wisdom to Wall as he grows into a leader. And the overall conference landscape makes it possible for the Wizards to entertain realistic dreams of going further than they did a year ago.
"The Finals. All you can ask for now is the Finals," Wall told Michael Lee of The Washington Post before he was cut from Team USA.
Wall, adding skills by the year and perhaps motivated by his recent Team USA dismissal, might be ready to take the most important step of his career this season—a step that could elevate his game and raise his profile in the league.
And the Wizards could come right along with him.