John Wall must learn to balance aggression and caution

The Washington Post's Michael Lee talks with Sacramento Kings rookie DeMarcus Cousins about his friendship with the Wizards sensation John Wall. Los Angeles Clippers number one pick, Blake Griffin, also weighs in on the race for Rookie of the Year.
By Tracee Hamilton
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 1:13 AM

Rookie John Wall plays as hard as anyone I've seen in a Washington Wizards uniform in a long time - when he plays. And therein lies the rub.

It's hard to tell a 20-year-old to stop throwing himself all over the court without curbing that hellbent-for-leather attitude desperately needed by the Wizards, who played without him Wednesday night and got drilled by the Sacramento Kings, 116-91, to fall to 6-15.

But the Wizards desperately need a lot of things this season, and one of those is a healthy John Wall in the lineup every night. They desperately need him to play at Verizon Center to sell some tickets, and they desperately need him to play on the road, where they have failed to win a game this season.

Wall has missed seven of the Wizards' first 21 games because of injuries to his foot and knee. He also has had a lot of close calls, such as the one at Toronto last week when he nearly suffered whiplash banging into a defender. He has run into the stanchions holding up various backboards around the league so often the padding should come with a chalk outline of his body. Photographers leaguewide should be issued helmets.

This aggression is great, except when it isn't. The Wizards are walking a fine line: They need him to learn how to curb his impulses and control his body without banking his natural competitiveness. That's not going to be easy.

And Wall has to want to learn those lessons. Right now, he seems to be making highlight-reel moves with high-risk factors. Let's hope he's not trying to garner some rookie of the year votes.

I'm not saying Wall plays selfishly; in fact, just the opposite is true. He's averaging more than nine assists a game along with 17.4 points and 2.4 steals. But his recklessness shows in the nearly four turnovers a game he commits as well as the six games he has missed.

If Wall is serious about contending for the rookie of the year award - and he'll have stiff competition from the Clippers' Blake Griffin and the Knicks' Landry Fields, among others - he has to stay healthy for a big part of the season. Through Tuesday, Griffin and Fields have played 22 games apiece compared with Wall's 14.

In fact, the past 10 rookie of the year winners have averaged nearly 77 games played in their debut seasons. Wall would have to play in every game the rest of the season to hit 75. Portland's Brandon Roy is the only winner in the past 10 years to not play in at least 70 games; he played in 57 but still won the award in 2006-07.

That season's voting could be an object lesson for Wall. Among the also-rans was Jorge Garbajosa, who broke his fibula and damaged his ankle in a game late that season. He tried to return the following season but needed further surgery and was eventually cut by the Raptors. He's back in his native Spain now, playing for Real Madrid.

And then there is Celtics guard Rajon Rondo, who finished 12th (and last among vote-getters) in the voting that season, garnering three third-place votes. He's also the only one on the list with a championship ring. I doubt he would trade it for the 2006-07 rookie of the year award.

Wall's style of play is often compared to that of Allen Iverson, who threw himself around the court for 14 seasons while largely avoiding major injury. But few players can play with Iverson's reckless abandon, and Wall may not be one of them.

Wall brings a spirit and an energy to the Wizards that they've lacked - to put it mildly - in recent years. Some in the national media have been more focused on Wall's dance moves than his body-slamming style of play, even though he's done the full Dougie exactly once, during pregame introductions before the Wizards' home opener. Oh, the sturm und drang over that innocent and odd little dance routine.

If you want to play the Rev. Shaw Moore to Wall's Ren McCormack, go ahead. But did we learn nothing from "Footloose"? The kid's gotta dance! As long as he's not bustin' an anterior cruciate ligament while he's bustin' a move, I have no problem with the Dougie. It's his mosh-pit style of play that gives me pause.

Wall is barely out of his teens; he's suffered no serious injury, and his body is still young and pliant. A season in the NBA - with back-to-back games and travel and all the rest - will make an impression, certainly. Like most of us, as he ages Wall will have to learn caution and his body's limitations. If he doubts that, he should have a nice long talk with Wes Unseld some time.

I'm sure John Wall wants it all: rookie of the year, all-star berths, playoff berths, championship rings. He is at that magical time of life where nearly every good thing still lies in front of him, just waiting for him to catch up. That will be tougher to do on crutches.

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