When the Washington Wizards signed John Wall to a max-level extension this past summer, the popular opinion said that he had been overpaid. With a year left on Wall's rookie contract, the Wizards had decided to reward the first-overall pick in the 2010 draft for what he might become, not what he had done up until that point. Instead of waiting to gauge his value as a restricted free agent, the Wizards gambled that paying Wall early would compel him to play like a star. That reasoning runs counter to common beliefs of how to pay players (or any employee, really), but it made decent sense for a franchise in need of some stability.
The early returns were not promising. After entering the season expecting a playoff berth, Washington started out 2-7 and looked in serious danger. In the midst of that struggle, players asked Wall, their appointed leader, to take control. From Shams Charania for RealGM (via PBT):
Within a team meeting pushing hours, John Wall sat and listened to veterans lash out and grumble about misplaced shooting tendencies of younger players. Nene had pressed the issues of selfish play days earlier and Trevor Ariza and Al Harrington hatched a team sitdown nine games into the season, a cleansing of beliefs about distributing offensive touches and roles, about minutes and schemes.
Everyone spoke, everyone provided opinions on why another season had started like so many others for the Washington Wizards: unorganized and mismanaged. Final say? The exchanges stopped upon John Wall’s words.
Essentially, teammates gave Wall the room, centered him in a classroom setting and asked: What should our roles be? You’re the heralded franchise star, the organization’s maximum salary designation. How about you tell us?
“From that day forward, I knew I was the guy, the leader, and I knew that they trusted me,” Wall told RealGM. “I let everybody know what I thought about our state. I think we were passing the ball, but when you’re not playing good for a stretch, frustration sets in. So guys find a way to blame it on somebody else or something else. Nene told me to stand up in front of the whole team and told me, ‘You’re our leader, you’re our franchise guy, so tell us what you think everybody’s roles are.’
Wall goes on to explain that he's drawn on the examples of veteran teammates like Nene and Marcin Gortat to find his voice as a leader, but it's clear that this is not so much preparation as learning on the job. It's also hard to imagine that he would have been identified as the team's obvious leader if not for his massive deal. Essentially, that contract put Wall in a position where he had to organize and inspire his teammates in order for the Wizards to succeed. If they didn't, that failure would reflect on him.
Since that poor start, the Wizards have topped .500 for the first time in three years and appear to have cinched a spot in the playoffs. Along the way, Wall has been a legitimate star, averaging a team-high 19.5 points, 8.8 assists, and 2.0 steals on the way to his first All-Star selection. He's justified his contract and rewarded the Wizards' hope that he would turn into such a player.
In the process, Wall has also called into question the way we typically judge what a player is worth. When most deals are signed, analysts look at both what a player has contributed up to that point in his career, how his career path determines what he's likely to do in the future, and how comparable deals set the market for such a player. On the first two points, Wall didn't meet the mark -- he had shown flashes of star quality but hadn't strung together many extended stretches at that level. On the last point, the Wizards could have made an argument for paying Wall the max, but that was debatable. On the merits, they paid Wall too much, and that's usually believed to be an invitation for the player to slack off.
It had the opposite effect on Wall. With the Wizards desperate for postseason action and Wall needing to justify the hype that preceded his pro career, the max contract actually seems to have accelerated Wall's development into a star. Much of that was likely the result of several things coming together for the Wizards, including an improved supporting cast and a lack of injuries and distractions. However, it also seems like paying Wall forced him to take responsibility, if only because his teammates now saw him as the person who had to take charge. He was pushed into that role in a way that might not have occurred if not for the new deal.
It's likely that this sort of contract would not make many players perform in the same manner. Wall is a special case, in that the Wizards seemed headed for this result anyway and because the team seemed to lack any other options. But that should serve as a reminder that not all free-agent scenarios are the same. Some players react to big contracts differently, based on their own personal needs and the course of their careers. Each situation is unique, and we'd do well to remember that the next time a contract seems handed out on potential and not observed results.
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