Among John Wall’s latest tricks is a bit of dribbling wizardry that has wowed fans, created blog headlines and fooled at least one announcer. While driving into traffic, Wall appears intent on making a so-called “pocket pass” — feeding a moving big man in the lane. But instead, his right hand somehow spins the ball back into his own stride, paralyzing the defender and opening a path to the basket.
He calls it a “cut dribble,” and while Drew Gooden III takes credit for showing Wall the concept in practice, the point guard is the one who’s used it to perfection during nationally televised games — last week during a home win over the Bulls on ESPN, and this week during a home win over the Spurs on NBA TV.
“I know exactly what you’re talking about,” Garrett Temple said. “He freezes the big, and then you’ve got ’em at your mercy.”
“That big might react to that pass — AH! — and [then the ball] comes back to him and he’s in rhythm with his right hand to shoot,” Gooden said. “Just playing around in practice we started doing it, and then he took it to the game.”
“It’s just another way to hesitate the bigs,” Wall said. “I try to do it once in a while. Some teams go for it, some don’t.”
It’s easy to imagine Wall making it all up as he goes along — the floaters, the post-ups, the three-pointers, the jump passes, these newish cut dribbles. ESPN’s Mike Breen thought Wall had accidentally lost the ball while executing this fake pass, so convincing was his deception. But moments after the Wizards beat the Spurs for the first time in a decade — and the first time in Wall’s career — the point guard made it clear that virtually everything he does on the court is planned, and practiced, and purposeful.
Take the floaters, which he used several times during Tuesday’s impressive win over defending champion San Antonio. Wall said he’s studied the various floaters used by NBA stars, from Tony Parker’s delicate flick to Derrick Rose’s athletic leap to Chris Paul’s well-calibrated version. He practices the shot with assistant coach Howard Eisley, and while it sometimes led to embarrassing air balls early in the season, now it’s another arrow in his quiver.
“The floater is just watching a lot of film and understanding that sometimes you can’t get all the way to the basket,” said Wall, who had 25 points and eight assists against the Spurs. “That’s a thing that can help me expand my game and not take so many beatings driving to the basket.”
His explanations of his various other offensive tricks are just as considered, all part of his quest to “make the game easy.” His post-up game — which he also showed off on Tuesday — is meant to take advantage of the smaller guards who sometimes defend him. His three-point shooting — he made two-of-three attempts on Tuesday — actually forced defenders to fly out to the perimeter, which would have been hard to imagine four years ago. (“That means I’m getting some respect when guys are doing that, instead of just waving me off like they would my first two years,” he said.)
Knowing when to make a skip pass, when to try the pocket pass, when to use the cut dribble — these are all ways of keeping defenders off-balance, unsure what’s coming next.
“I have to just take my time, and keep watching a lot of film and reading what teams are [doing],” Wall said.
For years, the biggest knock on Wall was his tendency to play out of control, something that still surfaces occasionally, as with his frequent ill-fated solos at the end of quarters. But increasingly, Wall plays and talks like a player in control — of his team’s offense and of his own game.
“John has always looked forward to playing against [superstars], raising his level, getting hyped for those games,” Temple said. “But I think the big difference this year is he’s hyped for each game. He’s playing the same way against every player, no matter who it is. His level of play is high, no matter whether we’re playing a top five guard in the league or a guy that’s not even a starter.”
Which doesn’t mean Wall doesn’t relish some of the recent milestones — his first win against the Spurs, which came after Washington had lost 17 straight to San Antonio, or his first win against Rose, or his first win against Paul. Bradley Beal called the victory over San Antonio “just another win, in my opinion,” and wasn’t sure how long the drought had lasted, but Wall seemed to take more pleasure in the achievement.
“You want to beat every team you play in this league at least once,” he said with a chuckle. “So I’m happy to finally get it out of the way, But we’re a team that’s just trying to become great … and we’ve got to find ways to just be consistent. We can’t just have a good game like this tonight, and then go [get blown out] tomorrow against Chicago. So we’ve just got to find a way to be one of those elite teams, and be consistent, and find ways to do this on a nightly basis.”
Wall, though, figures to keep experimenting during that search. The ultimate goal is for all his tricks and standbys to be polished in April, not in January.
And while the guard works on the next thing, fans are already worrying about naming his latest creation. Wall and his teammates said a few other players, including Paul, have used the maneuver in games, and he’s used it on bigs like Kevin Seraphin (and Gooden) in practice. Some fans suggested calling this fake pass “the Yo-Yo,” which is just about perfect. Gooden, though, had another idea.
“He’s doing it,” Gooden pointed out. “It’s got to be the John Wall.”