Wall is one of the most spectacular athletes in any pro sport, as well as one of the toughest at playing through pain. Wall will run through a wall to win.
But can Wall alter his point guard game even slightly? Can he take lessons from watching his team play so well without him (11-6) the past month?
As point guard, can Wall, when in a half-court offense, keep the ball moving swiftly to maximize the talents of Otto Porter Jr., Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky and Mike Scott, each of whom has shot more and more accurately without Wall.
Because 10 Wizards are better shooters than Wall — from all distances combined, throughout their careers and in some cases by huge margins — will he help them get more shots while sacrificing several shots of his own per game?
Will Wall realize he now has enough talent around him that he can make the Wizards better by doing a bit more of what he does best with his imaginative passing, end-to-end speed in transition, courage driving to the basket and hounding defense, while doing a bit less of what he does poorly: shooting and over-dribbling?
In his eighth season, can Wall tweak his game to be more like future Hall of Famers Jason Kidd and Steve Nash and current Hall of Famer John Stockton, who shot just about a dozen times a game and averaged about 15 points? Or will Wall put up 18 shots a game, as he has the two previous seasons, feeling responsible to score 20 a game?
These sound like easy questions, but they aren’t. Few things are harder than asking a star, with an ego, image and $190 million still due on his contract, to alter his game in areas as eye-catching as shots, points and sharing the ball in the half court.
My guess is that Wall has more than enough basketball savvy, and enough team-first modesty, too, for such a subtle change. But does his coach, Scott Brooks?
NBA gadflies have buzzed with nonsense about the Wizards being “better without Wall” because, out of necessity, they now pass the ball like it’s made of molten lava and can’t be handled for long, much less dribbled very often.
In the past month, the Wizards and Warriors lead the NBA with 30 assists a game, 25 percent more than the NBA average and 13 percent more than any other team.
People who say the Wizards are better without Wall “don’t know anything about basketball,” Kevin Durant said, correctly, last week.
But when Wall gets back, will the Wizards be as improved as they should be?
On Wednesday, Brooks said, “There’s no question that we can add some of the things that we’ve done. But [Wall] is the fastest guy in the league going basket-to-basket. He generates four or five easy buckets for himself and six or seven easy three-point shots for our perimeter shooters, let alone our bigs for layups. . . . We don’t want to take his pick-and-roll game away. . . . We need that.”
“When John comes back, Tomas isn’t going to play those minutes. But [his] 15 to 20 minutes is going to be better because he’s gotten more confident,” Brooks said. “Tomas doesn’t have the abilities that John does.”
We’re still in lock-step, coach.
“We don’t want [Wall] to change,” Brooks said. “John is elite.”
Time out. Wall isn’t elite at everything.
In today’s NBA, effective shooting percentage is the gold standard because it measures two-point and three-point shots on a weighted scale. The average NBA eFG% is .520. This statistic, which adjusts for the fact that three-point field goals are worth 50 percent more than two-point field goals, allows all players to be measured on the same scale regardless of where they take their shots.
The Wizards are loaded with high eFG% shooters: Satoransky (.602), Scott (.602), Ian Mahinmi (.576), Porter (.570), Morris (.534), Marcin Gortat (.528) and Bradley Beal (.527) are all above average. Kelly Oubre Jr. (.504) is decent. But three Wizards always have been poor shooters: Jodie Meeks (.470), Wall (.461) and Tim Frazier (.460). Wall’s career eFG% is .460 with last season his best at a poor .482.
Fortunately for Wall, his speed and leaping allow him to take almost a third of his shots (32.5 percent) from within three feet of the basket, where his career percentage is .614. But his percentages from three to 10 feet (.323), 10 to 16 feet (.361) and 16 feet to the arc (.357) are awful. This year, with his bad knee, he is even worse at those distances: .316, .293 and .297.
Luckily, even though Wall is just the seventh-best three-point shooter on the Wizards (.358), he is still decent enough beyond the arc to be allowed to shoot there when open. In a perfect fantasy world, Wall would be fined every time he shoots between three feet and the three-point line. Does Wall understand? Does Brooks?
If Wall wants role models, he has three immortals. Kidd, two-time MVP Nash and Stockton averaged just 11.8, 13.3 and 10.6 shots a game in their superstar years. They averaged 13.5, 15.3 and 15.6 points in those seasons. For their whole careers, they shot and scored even less.
Yet, despite low shot volume, all three added huge value to their teams in advanced stats that the NBA now obsesses over, such as value over replacement player, winshares and player efficiency ratio. Kidd, with great defense and rebounding, was in the top 20 in VORP a dozen times, half of them in the top 10. Stockton, seldom taking a bad shot, was in the top 20 for 14 years in win shares, including eight times in the top five. Nash ranked in the top 20 a dozen times in either Win Shares or VORP.
In eight years, Wall has finished in the top 20 in PER twice (18th and 19th) and three times in VORP (16th, 16th and 18th). He misses too many shots and has too many turnovers to show up in win shares leaders. The NBA has several other metrics for offense and defense. Kidd, Stockton and Nash were all over them. Wall has never appeared on any of those lists despite his athleticism.
What the Wizards needed was a chance to find out whether they had the depth and shooting firepower to have a balanced-scoring offense, even without Wall. By luck, they got the chance. Guess what? It appears that they do.
In Wall’s absence, Porter has increased his scoring from 13.5 points to 19.4 while Morris has jumped from 10.2 to 13.5 and Satoransky, with far more minutes, from 4.8 to 11.2. Beal has dipped a bit from 24.0 to 21.4, but the Wizards have shared the ball so well that five players have averaged 11.2 to 21.4 points with four others contributing 6.3 to 8.9 points. Yes, everybody is eating.
The Wizards and their fans always ask how to get to the next level. When Wall is back, they will have a team that’s 10 deep and now appears to trust each other. The weight will be on Wall to make it click together, even if he must make sacrifices.
If Wall wants to win friends and influence the standings, he needs to watch how the Wizards are playing now, then come back, add his own dynamic dimension and help them do it even better.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.