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NBA playoffs

The John Wall Dilemma

A legitimate franchise player for the past five years, Wall's drawbacks are starting to catch up with the qualities that make him so great.

Michael Pina

Photo by Dan Hamilton - USA TODAY Sports

After watching Game 1 between the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards on Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but conclude that John Wall has officially entered the bleakest, most compelling segment of his career.

Wall is 27 years old. Last season, he averaged 23 points, nearly 11 assists, and two steals per game. This year, after having his campaign interrupted by knee surgery, he almost averaged 20 and 10. It’d be wrong to say that Wall isn’t a very good player, with game-altering qualities that, though increasingly stale, remain functional.

He’s a blur in in the open floor and a genius setting teammates up off the bounce, but his presence creates various disadvantages, too. The criticism isn’t new, and making declarative statements after one playoff game that happened to be on the road against a 59-win team is not smart. Wall’s best days may still be ahead. But as someone who should be entering his prime right about now, it’s troubling how distant from it he appears to be.

Some of Wall’s Game 1 issues (particularly regarding his 3-for-11 shooting in the restricted area) aren’t sustainable. Layups will drop, and a 6-for-20 night won’t happen again if he gets the same looks at the rim. Wall still finished with 15 assists while Washington’s offense was comatose in the nine minutes he sat.

But at this point—270 days after he signed a four-year, $170 million contract extension that guarantees Wall $46.8 million when he’s *extreme Richard Hendricks gulp* 32 years old—the thought of him ever again being a top-five player at his own position, or even the most irreplaceable piece on his own team, is fleeting.

Even though it's not his fault Washington's front office offered that much money, or backed themselves into a corner time and time again in their constant failure to surround Wall with the same resources comparable colleagues have in their own situations—a backup point guard and more reliable three-point shooting wouldn't hurt—the gap between his projected on-court value and looming pay day is wide enough to drown Washington for years. And in Saturday’s playoff opener, Wall’s (oft-admirable) stubbornness crystallized in a way that presented him so clearly as one of the league's most polarizing leaders.

An unwrinkled, less tempestuous version of Russell Westbrook, the five-time All-Star doubled down on an uncompromising brand of basketball that repeatedly thrust him into a tricky situation, just to prove he can figure it out. Even when he’d cross over his man and bolt into the paint on a gear few have ever reached, Wall’s teammates would sometimes look even more surprised than the Raptors. It was a rung of hero ball that couldn’t be more frustrating.

Two seasons ago, 29 percent of his baskets were assisted at the rim. This year? 12 percent. He’s yet to detach himself from long twos, and the need to treat them as a reasonable solution whenever a play goes off script is troublesome, at best. On the other end, Wall’s energy continues to wane, and that aforementioned unpredictable shot selection doesn't exactly help Washington balance the court. The frequency at which Washington’s opponents ran on them in transition was way higher with Wall on the floor this season. All of these numbers could easily be an outlier. Or they could be the sign of pending, irreversible decline.

With each passing season, Wall’s lackadaisical defensive effort and unspectacular jump shot become more troublesome, and it’s sadly not that hard to envision a day very soon when his first step no longer strikes like an angry rattlesnake. Without it, justifying a max contract becomes extremely difficult. The trust issues, physical drawbacks, and various insecurities that cut into an otherwise dazzling performer are painful to see. More likely than not, they’re also a long-term obstruction.

Right now, Wall clearly feels the need to do too much, partly because his skill-set doesn’t allow for him to impact the game in any other way. His usage in Game 1 was higher than Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James’s, and 5.2 points above his own previous postseason average. (When compared to the regular season, only James Harden and Joel Embiid’s were higher.)

Meanwhile, Wall’s most capable teammates—a fellow All-Star and wing with 50.3/44.1/82.8 shooting splits—were background noise. Bradley Beal’s usage rate in the third and fourth quarters (of which he played every minute) was almost half of Wall’s, while Otto Porter’s was a measly 8.9 percent. That’s partly because Wall continues to be a liability whenever he dawdles without the ball. This sequence illustrates how bad it can get.

Keep an eye on Raptors rookie O.G. Anunoby throughout the play. He digs in and swipes at Beal on the initial drive, then completely ignores Wall again later on, as Beal is set up to attack Kyle Lowry from the top of the key. The rationale in having a longer, rangier defender on Wall while the opposing point guard matches up with Beal is obvious thanks to plays like the one above. (On 37 possessions with Lowry guarding Beal, he only took eight shots.)

Again, Wall can still be dynamite and is nowhere near average or even inessential. Among active players, only three have averaged more minutes per game throughout their careers than Wall’s 35.9. The Wizards are routinely, season after season, way better when he’s on the court. But today’s NBA has no place for someone who wants to dominate the ball as often as Wall does, and any solution for this growing dilemma is much easier said than done.

The Wizards are not “better” without Wall—a season-long argument that always felt tired and besides the point—but what can they be with him? That’s the only question that matters. Again, not all of the organization's struggle should land at his feet, and fair arguments that detail how Wall has thrived in spite of incompetent personnel decisions over the past few years are welcome. But if Wall's best days are indeed behind him, his peak can best be described as a missed opportunity.

For now, he's good enough to keep his team competitive. But any talk of a championship, Finals appearance, or respectable playoff run sometime in the near future feels increasingly preposterous.