A debate about whether the Washington Wizards are better off running the offense with typical second unit point guard Tomas Satoranksy versus local star John Wall has been brewing since the Wizards have gone 10-4 in Wall’s six-to-eight week injury absence that started on Jan. 27.
I’m here to state the obvious: No, they’re not better off. It’s a little embarrassing this is even a discussion (on social media no less, the cemetery of intellect and nuance).
But that doesn’t negate the benefit an adjustment to Wall’s style could bring the team. Though Wall’s willingness to change is unlikely (I’ll get to that later), Wizards head coach Scott Brooks and the team have shown they can operate an “everybody eats” system that is ultimately better for the team’s goal of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Wall needs to take away one thing from this streak that he can use to push the Wizards over the top — learn to play off-ball on offensive. Being better off the ball requires a player to either be a solid spot-up shooter or finding free lanes to cut to the basket.
This is may be a tough task for Wall given that his entire game is centered around him having the ball in his hands. Using the 2016-17 season as a reference – since it’s a more complete picture than Wall’s abridged season this year – Wall led the league in time of possession (9.5 seconds) and average seconds per touch (6.39) while finishing third in total touches per game (89.3) and third in average dribbles per touch (5.95).
It’s not as if Wall is a selfish player. He was second only to James Harden last year in assists with 10.7 per game. And anyone who watches both players regularly knows Harden’s assists often come as perimeter swing passes while Wall’s come from pick and rolls and kick outs that depend on his athleticism and accuracy to be completed, so Wall wins out in quality, hands down.
However, in his absence the Wizards have led the NBA in assists with 30 per game. The team has demonstrated that it doesn’t need Wall to impersonate Evel Knievel every possession to achieve a comparable level of success. Yes, part of that success can be attributed to novelty. The second meeting in a month with the Toronto Raptors tonight in D.C. will show if this symbiotic style has legs. Still, the team’s ability win without him should tell Wall that diversifying his game with off-ball contributions could behoove Washington.
Unfortunately, Wall hasn’t shown he can be effective without the ball. He only averaged two catch-and-shoot attempts per game last season and converted less than one of those shots (0.7) on average. Wall was also only assisted on 20.7 percent of his field goals last year, making him 465th – out of 475 – players in the NBA.
Other All-Star contemporaries such as Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan and Harden were at the back of the pack with him in that category so it’s not uncommon. But those players are either better all-around shooters than Wall or were better at getting to free throw line. They were finding different ways to score while Wall’s largely dependent on close range buckets. Refining his shaky shooting stroke has been an adamant mission of Wall’s since he entered the league. He’ll find the motivation to improve that part of his game. And now that his teammates have shown that they can get him clean looks if he makes himself available, there’s little excuse for Wall to avoid adding another layer to his game.
Now the real question is will Wall be open to change? Probably not. For one, Wall’s style of play just got him paid. Nothing says approval likes hundreds of millions of dollars, and Wall most likely wouldn’t want to do anything like take a passenger seat in the offense to challenge his own market value.
More relevantly, his talent isn’t replicable. Plenty of teams have their own versions of Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Jr. and the like. But Wall’s skillset is a combination of Westbrook’s physical ability, Paul’s vision and his own brand of moxie. That alpha in Wall is the team’s X-factor. Sure, it’s a double-edged sword — as seen in Games 6 and 7 of last season’s second round playoff series against the Boston Celtics. However, Satoransky doesn’t have those guts which are all-important in big moments and why the argument about who’s better for the team is unsubstantiated.
The trick is finding a way to expand Wall’s somewhat narrow, albeit significant, addition to the team while not stifling his much-needed authority on the court. If the Wizards can find a way to get Wall to adjust without offending his sense of self, they have a chance to do something special. If not, then buckle up.