Before the Wizards’ John Wall can lead, he needs to work on his game


John Wall is shooting 32.9 percent from the field this season. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist January 5, 2012

So far into his career, John Wall is the worst shooter in the NBA.

Adults have many duties to the young. One is honesty. When gifted kids grow up, their elders, including employers, should be candid about their flaws and help them fulfill their talent. Nobody knows the whole job at age 21.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

Right now, the Washington Wizards have an enormous responsibility to Wall. They need to see him clearly and let him know that, despite his big contract, his No. 1 overall draft pick status, his face-of-franchise public relations role and his obvious talents, he is still not yet a good NBA player.

In two respects, he is actually one of the worst players in the league.

Last year, Wall was second in the NBA in turnovers per game among starting players. Everybody noticed, including Wall. It’s a hard stat to miss.

However, another number, slightly below the radar, but crucial in the NBA is “effective field goal percentage.” It’s the best measure of overall shooting ability, both from two-point and three-point range. (The formula is field goals plus half of made three-pointers divided by field goal attempts, according to basketball-reference.com). Last year, Wall tied with Travis Outlaw for the NBA’s lowest eFG percentage at .427 (minimum 1,600 minutes). Now, he’s fallen to .420 (career). He has no company at that level.

For reference, the NBA averages .498 in this metric. The Spurs were best at .527; the Bucks, worst at .467. Most NBA teams do not have a single player with meaningful minutes who has an effective percentage under .450.

Great point guards are usually selective shooters. They try to create for others before shooting themselves. So, their eFG percentages are often better than .500, such as Steve Nash (.555), John Stockton (.546) and Magic Johnson (.533).

All in all, Wall’s turnovers and bad shooting are neutralizing his strengths — speed, creative passing, ball-hawking and good rebounding for a guard. Even his free throw shooting is a hair under the NBA norm (.760 to .763), unusual for a guard. Thus far, he is probably an average NBA player.

Pro basketball has had so-called advanced stats for years. The Spurs win titles with them. Player efficiency rating is a decent measure of per-minute production, adjusted so that the league average is 15.0. Wall is at 15.6.

Wall has an enormous amount of work to do on his game. That should actually be good news, not bad.

Right now, as his coach has said, Wall doesn’t look like he’s enjoying the game. Flip Saunders wonders where Wall’s smile is.

If Wall were better instructed or if the Wizards’ front office looked him in the eye and told him how far he needed to go to be the player he wants to become, then the 21-year-old might reclaim some of his basketball joy.

Help him improve. Teach him the pro game, when to hit the jets and when to cool them, what constitutes a good NBA shot and what doesn’t.

Instead of pretending he already can carry a team, teach him how to play his position. Let him lead, but while blending, not always forcing everything.

Almost all gifted young people relish improving in their area of talent and respect those who demand the most from them. Wall seems to fit that pattern. But he had only one year of college basketball, and that was at Kentucky, renowned for recruiting more than instructing. The second-worst effective shooting percentage in the NBA belongs to Wall’s teammate at Kentucky, big DeMarcus Cousins, drafted just four spots after Wall.

The Wizards need to show that they have more candor and concern for their employees than Kentucky. Team President Ernie Grunfeld and Saunders, after all their NBA years, must know, or at least intuit, what the numbers scream so loudly about Wall. Look at Wednesday’s Wizards loss in Orlando. It was typical.

Wall converted a flashy one-on-five fast break and hit three pretty in-rhythm jumpers, but, overall, he shot 6 for 16. In the first quarter, he was 0 for 6, including two hurried misses from four feet as the Wizards began 0 for 12 from the floor and trailed 31-14. Game over.

For now, Wall probably needs to emulate great bricklaying playmakers like Rajon Rondo, Mark Jackson and Jason Kidd, who only took 10, 10 and 11 shots per 36 minutes in their careers yet were stars despite poor shooting.

If Wall’s marksmanship improves, shoot more. Some arrive in the NBA raw and then improve amazingly. Teenage rookie LeBron James had a .438 eFG percentage and a merely good PER of 18.3. By his last year in Cleveland, those numbers skyrocketed to .545 and 31.1. Wall’s bad team impacts his poor stats, but you don’t need to be surrounded by Heat players to improve your game.

Unfortunately, most No. 1 overall picks either can’t or won’t improve a great deal over their rookie years. Since the Magic Johnson draft, only four top picks have taken their PERs from the teens as rookies to the true-star 20s for their careers: Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson, James and Dwight Howard.

Some wonder whether Wall will want to stay a Wizard when his rookie contract runs out in ’14. That’s not the main issue now. Wall’s game needs a lot of work before it matters greatly where he plays or in what uniform.

Over the decades, about a third of all NBA top picks have managed to significantly improve their play after their rookie year. Wall can do it. But he needs the adults around him to do their part, too. Face the facts. Coach him up. School him. Great students respect hard teachers. He’ll probably love it.

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