Despite a disappointing, injury-riddled 2017-18 season, it’s too early to give up on John Wall as he looks to bounce back and lead the Washington Wizards.
For John Wall, the 2017-18 season was a massive disappointment. He slugged through an injury-riddled campaign before the Washington Wizards were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. As a result, the perception of Wall has tumbled, as rumors of poor leadership and the absence of playoff success continues to hold his image down.
As we head into the new season, there is plenty of pressure on Wall to perform and help the Wizards finally break though. For that to happen he’ll have to explain (with his play on the court) why last season was such an anomaly.
The questions about last season’s disappointing campaign are almost completely tied to the left knee injury (he underwent an arthroscopic debridement procedure in January) he struggled with. Not only did the injury cause him to miss 41 games (the first season Wall failed to play in at least 77 games since 2012-13), he struggled with conditioning and separation when on the court, forcing him to change his game.
Starting in the 2013-14 season, Wall finally capitalized on his explosiveness in attacking the rim in transition and in the halfcourt, combining his dynamic play with impressive defense to become a perennial All-Star. Unfortunately for Wall, a player with his style of play that relies on athleticism will be severely hampered by leg injuries, which was clear in the 2017-18 season.
Last season, shots within three feet of the rim made up just 31 percent of Wall’s total shot attempts, a significant drop off from the 2016-17 campaign in which such shots accounted for 38 percent of his attempts. When Wall is at his best, he is attacking the rim in transition and half court sets, looking to create an open 3-pointer for a teammate, set up his big man for a dunk, or capitalize on a defense caught off guard to get his own open look at the rim. With Wall’s increase in 3-pointers attempted (his 3PAr increased from 19 percent to 25 percent) and his decrease in free throw attempts (6.8 per game in 2016-17 to 5.9 per game last season), you get the picture of how much Wall’s injury prevented him from playing his ideal game.
On the defensive end, Wall’s effort waned throughout the season and he was less willing to do the dirty work such as rebounding (career-low 3.7 rebounds per game) and causing turnovers (1.4 steals per game, his lowest since the 2012-13 season). Once regarded as one of the best guard defenders in the league, Wall has quickly tumbled down to being an average defender, despite his potential to be elite on that end of the floor.
As Wall’s health continued to improve late in the season, he reverted back to his usual style in the playoffs, attempting 34 percent of his shots at the rim, increasing his free throw attempts (7.8 per game) and cutting down on his 3-pointers (3PAr was just 16.5 in the playoffs). It’s a small sample size, but it reflects the importance of Wall feeling like himself in order to be at his best moving forward.
Wall has been working out all summer and appears to be fully healthy and preparing for a bounce back season, one in which he has declared that his goal is to win MVP (which… come on).
While Wall made a lot of changes to his game last season to accommodate for his injury, one blessing in disguise was his increase in 3-point shooting. Up until last season, Wall had never attempted more than 3.8 3-pointers per game or shot above 35.1 percent from beyond the arc. As he worked to avoid the physical play in the paint, Wall increased his volume (4.1 attempts per game) and surprisingly hit 37.1 percent of such shots, making it the best shooting season of his career.
One of the knocks against Wall throughout his career has been his limited shooting and ball-dominance, two issues that can be resolved with the shooting improvement he showcased last season. If Wall can continue to increase his attempts and hit 3s at an above-average rate, defenses will have to respect him from beyond the arc, opening up more possibilities to get to the rim or to play off-ball as a catch-and-shoot threat.
Such possibilities would diversify the Wizards’ offense, which ranked just 14th in the league last season and has finished in the top 10 just once in Wall’s career. More importantly, a dependable 3-point shot will be critical for Wall as he continues to age and avoid the physical contact in the paint when he gets into his 30s.
In the immediate, it’s important that Wall is healthy enough to return to being the dynamic, attacking guard he has been in previous seasons. With several shooters around him and a new alley-oop threat in the paint in Dwight Howard, interior defenders won’t be able to simply focus on Wall’s drives with Howard there ready to catch a lob (think of how James Harden is able to get open layups when Clint Cappella is roaming around the rim).
After being bounced in the first round, Wall asked for more athletic bigs on the Wizards roster and certainly got his wish in Howard, even at his advanced age. While Howard is nowhere near the screener that Marcin Gortat was (the Polish Hammer consistently ranked near or at the top of the league in screen assists), Howard does add a new vertical dynamic to the Wizards offense, something that Wall has been calling for.
If Wall can simply return to his 2016-17 levels of attacking the rim and running in transition while continuing to improve as a shooter, he will be much better offensively this upcoming season with the personnel around him, outlining the possibility of a comeback season, especially if he provides more consistent effort on the defensive end (something the Wizards could use to improve on their league-average defense).
Simply put, this is a “put up or shut up” season for Wall and the Wizards. Long known for excessive trash-talking (remember when Wall insinuated that the Cleveland Cavaliers dodged them in the 2017 playoffs?), Wall and the Wizards haven’t been able to ever come close to defending their loud mouths, and fans have grown accustomed to hearing Wizards players in the news only to be embarrassed on the court.
Wall is a dynamic and explosive player the likes few have ever seen in the NBA. Given a clean bill of health and several new intriguing teammates that will help Wall’s game, we should witness a true comeback for the 28-year-old, one in which he reclaims his spot on an All-NBA team and directs the Wizards on a playoff run.
Maybe, just maybe, rumors of John Wall’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.