A few weeks ago, the Wizards were fed into ESPN’s mid-day debate machine, and a piping hot John Wall critique popped out.
“I like John Wall very much personally,” Skip Bayless intoned, while discussing a failed last-second shot. “This is not personal. I’m just not sold on him as a star point guard and leader of a team that could be a threat to win the Eastern Conference. … You’re better than that, John Wall. You’ve got to use your brain better than that.”
“You’re absolutely right about John Wall, because you can’t make those” mistakes, said Stephen A. Smith, temporarily forgetting his program’s “Embrace Debate” mandate. Moments later, Smith referred to Wall as “a scoring point guard.”
Look, you can debate the specifics of all this if you want. It’s fine to doubt the Wizards as an Eastern Conference threat, but no serious person would list Wall among the roster’s biggest concerns. And it’s fine to criticize Wall’s sometimes discouraging late-game missteps, but no serious person would describe him as a “scoring point guard.”
Remember, Wall leads the NBA in assists per game. He’s second in assists-per-48 minutes, and second in the percentage of teammates’ baskets he assisted while on the floor, according to Basketball Reference. He is, as my friend Kyle Weidie wrote, “currently the most passing-est of pass-first point guards in the NBA.”
But put all that aside. The bigger question raised by that relatively mindless “First Take” banter was this: Why has John Wall been such a condemnation magnet for virtually his entire professional career?
Consider this short history of John Wall Hot Takes. Colin Cowherd said Wall was “not a sharp guy” who “will never have” a championship ring. Agent David Falk said Wall “will never be as good as Kyrie Irving was in his first week in the NBA.” My colleague John Feinstein argued that “Kendall Marshall, in terms of running a team, potentially is a lot better than John Wall,” later saying that Wall is Washington’s fourth-best player. Stan Van Gundy said “I don’t think John Wall’s good enough to be the guy that you build around,” and that “I haven’t seen any indication that John Wall is a great decision-maker.” Just last week, ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez argued that the Wizards “need a leader to sort of rally around; I don’t know if John Wall’s doing that right now.”
That’s an awful lot of grief for a player who has never gotten into trouble on or off the court, has never said anything remotely controversial (or even memorable), and has helped shepherd the Wizards from national embarrassment to playoff lock. Remember, the last time Wall missed significant time, the Wizards went 5-28 without him, then became a .500 team upon his return. And this is the guy — not No. 3 overall picks Bradley Beal and Otto Porter, not the franchise’s architects or coaches, not anyone involved in drafting Jan Vesely, not the owner who said Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche were part of his new big three — who became the national punching bag?
“The whole thing is bizarre,” wrote Grantland’s Bill Simmons, when asked about this topic. “Wall was pigeonholed early as a ‘great athlete/can’t run a team/isn’t a pure point guard’ guy, and it just kind of stuck as a permanent hot sports take.”
“People cling to the tired argument of ‘Yeah, his athleticism is off the charts, but he doesn’t have that ‘feel for the game,’ whatever the hell that means,” wrote J.E. Skeets of Turner Sports. “I just have no clue why people were so quick to dismiss him, outside of the fact that NBA heads hate guards that can’t shoot.”
Some of the critics, it’s worth noting, have later amended their Wall thoughts as his game has evolved. And it’s also fair to wonder whether we’re just hyper-sensitive to the Wall talk in Washington, if we’re ignoring similar waves of criticism that wash over every No. 1 pick or potential franchise player.
“I wouldn’t call it criticism; I would just call it questioning,” TNT’s Kenny Smith said. “This is not anything unusual for a guy who could become a perennial all-star and a franchise player, to go through that questioning: ‘Is he that guy?’ There’s only two or three guys who won’t go through that, because they will instantly have success: from Magic Johnson all the way up to LeBron. … But everyone else, they have to go through those questions to be a superstar.”
“I’ve been extremely impressed [with Wall], because I wasn’t sure myself,” added Smith’s colleague Grant Hill. “Really it’s a credit to John, not settling and not being satisfied. He signed a big contract, so financially he was set, but he himself wanted to be great and put the time in, and it’s showing now.”
That all sounds reasonable. But fans of the Wizards — and fans of Kentucky — would argue that Wall has gotten more than his fair share of barbs, comments that Damian Lillard and Jeff Teague and Kyle Lowry perhaps have been spared.
“I can’t think of a star who gets as much criticism as him for no obvious reason,” said Matt Jones, the founder and host of Kentucky Sports Radio and an admitted partisan. “It is odd, because every other player in the league that gets criticized, you can point to something they’ve done, where — correctly or incorrectly — you can see why it rubs people the wrong way. I don’t see what it is with John Wall. I don’t know what he’s done. He’s never in trouble; he doesn’t run his mouth; he doesn’t really do anything.”
Jones thinks Wall’s close association with Kentucky Coach John Calipari and the one-and-done phenomenon made some critics predisposed to find fault in his game. When asked about Wall earlier this week, Calipari in fact brought up one of his current players, Andrew Harrison, saying critics want to “attack something about me and Kentucky and this program.”
“When [Wall] was drafted, I told everybody, if you think he’s taking Washington, by himself, to 50 wins, you’re out of your mind. It doesn’t happen in that league,” Calipari said. “And so walking in, he’s in an environment where they’re not winning, and it all came back on him. And that’s part of being the number one pick in the draft….[But] when you look back, John Wall was the right pick. I mean, it wasn’t even close. It wasn’t even a question.”
Others have suggested that Wall’s quiet personality and sometimes scowly on-court demeanor have encouraged his doubters, or that it has been a reaction to excessive cheerleading from local media members, or to the over-hyped introduction after Wall was drafted. Still others have argued that Wall’s name attracts interest, and that highlighting his shortcomings is a sexier business than wondering why Marcin Gortat can’t get on the court in the fourth quarter.
Still, it would be nice to see the ol’ mid-day debate machine have a change of heart. Wall is an All-Star game starter and Washington’s best hope for a playoff run. He might not be a top 10 NBA player, but he’s been the pillar during the Wizards’ slow climb back to relevance. He’s the best player on the best NBA team Washington has had in a generation.
That’s not as exciting as Falk saying he’d trade Wall, that the guard “doesn’t have a good enough feel for the game to be an elite player.” But sometimes, all the takes don’t have to be hot.