Heading into this offseason, we knew that John Wall believed himself worthy of a maximum contract. The question was whether the Washington Wizards' front office, led by owner Ted Leonsis and team president Ernie Grunfeld, shared that belief with enough conviction to pay as much as the collective bargaining agreement allows to lock up a player with all of 184 NBA games under his belt — and on Wednesday, we learned the answer.
Michael Lee of the Washington Post reported Wednesday afternoon that Wall and the Wizards had agreed to terms on a five-year contract extension in the neighborhood of* $80 million, confirming a deal that Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reported was close to consummation last Wednesday. The extension will kick in beginning with the 2014-15 season, according to Lee, meaning the Wizards will pay Wall $7.46 million next year, which was scheduled to be the second-to-last season of his rookie deal, before the max re-up starts. The deal will keep Wall in D.C. through the 2018-19 season.
* I say "in the neighborhood of" because maximum salaries pay their recipients 25 percent of the salary cap in a given season; since we don't know exactly what the '14-'15 cap amount will be, we can't know for certain what Wall's final dollar figure will be, but as SB Nation's Tom Ziller noted, it's likely to wind up somewhere between $78 million and $82 million.
About an hour after Lee's report, the Wizards confirmed their agreement with the 2010 draft's top overall pick (though not its terms) in a team statement:
“Since drafting John with the first overall pick, we have been impressed with his maturation, hard work and commitment to our franchise,” said [...] Leonsis. “He is the cornerstone of our team, and we have clearly expressed our desire to build around him well before making it official by re-signing him today. We are extremely confident in his leadership abilities and are excited to see the continued improvement of the team.” [...]
“I am both proud and humbled by the belief that the Wizards organization, the fans and my teammates have shown in me since I arrived here three years ago,” said Wall. “I can promise all of them that I will repay that belief by representing the city of Washington and doing everything I can to get this team back where it belongs.”
Whether the lightning-quick point guard, who'll turn 23 in early September, is capable of pushing the Wizards not just back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but past that plateau to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference and into title contention ... well, that's the roughly $80 million question, isn't it?
In committing to the deal, the Wizards are enthusiastically answering in the affirmative, not only by paying Wall as much as they can, but also by tabbing him as their "designated player," a distinction that carries with it a fifth year of max money and that each team can only use once. (Well, unless you're the Oklahoma City Thunder.) Doing that based on Wall's talent is one thing, but doing it so early — less than a month into the NBA's official offseason, well before the Oct. 31 league deadline to extend rookies from Wall's 2010 class before consigning them to restricted free agency following the '13-'14 season — is another.
Could the Wizards have perhaps bargained Wall's price tag down a bit? If negotiations with Wall and agent Dan Fegan got contentious, could they have played hardball and said they'd like to see Wall produce at a high level next season and allow him to hit RFA status, where they'd have the right to match any offer sheet Wall received from another team and bring him back at a lower (perhaps substantially so) rate? The short answer is, "Yes, they could have done all of those things." The longer answer is, "Yes, they could have done all of those things, but they have decided against it, apparently in the interest of avoiding the engendering of any ill will with the player they want to be the face of the franchise for as long as possible."
I tend to agree with the smart folks who think the Wizards might be shooting themselves in the foot by paying Wall as much as they can before anybody else even gets a chance to bid on him and set a market. Clearly, though, the Wizards have decided they are going to ride with Wall, come hell or high water, in the hopes that, after three years of false starts, he'll fulfill the superstar promise he held coming out of Kentucky and has shown in flashes in the pros. And make no mistake — he has shown it.
Individual performances like the 47-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound masterpiece he turned in against the Memphis Grizzlies back in March pop to the front of one's mind, but really, Wall's produced like a top-flight lead guard when he's been on the floor throughout his first three seasons. Only three other players in NBA history have matched his career per-game averages (16.9 points, eight assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals), and Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Chris Paul represent some pretty heady company. Only five other players have matched the single-season, per-36-minute line (20.4 points, 8.4 boards, 4.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals) that Wall put up last season: Magic, CP3, Isiah Thomas, Russell Westbrook and Baron Davis. Beyond his individual stats, though, the impact Wall had on the Wizards last season was stark and undeniable.
You probably know the basics — with Wall sidelined by a stress injury in his left knee Washington was abysmal to start the 2012-13 campaign, losing its first 12 games and going 5-28 in the 33 games Wall missed, but rallied something fierce after his Jan. 12 return, finishing with a 24-25 mark over the final 49 games. The deeper numbers offer an even clearer picture of just how much his insertion in the lineup mattered — the Wizards scored nearly 7 1/2 more points per 100 possessions with Wall on the floor than without him, according to NBA.com's stat tool, which is the difference between being by far the least efficient offense in the league and slotting somewhere just below the middle of the pack.
Wall's ability to penetrate the paint, collapse opposing defenses and create open looks for teammates led to the activation of rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal, whose already-in-progress development took off when his backcourt partner came back. Beal shot 50 percent from 3-point range with Wall on the floor compared to just 34.1 percent without Wall, with a much higher share of his triples coming from the short corners (which he buried at a 62.1 percent clip alongside Wall) on catch-and-shoot attempts created by Wall's probing. The effect wasn't quite as massive for small forward Martell Webster, but he too benefited from Wall's presence, taking and making short-corner 3s more frequently with Wall on the floor. In fact, surprising as this might sound given the Wizards' status as a lottery team, the five-man unit of Wall, Beal, Webster, Nene and Emeka Okafor ranked among the very best in the NBA, outscoring opponents by just over 27 points per 48 minutes of shared floor time; only the Miami Heat unit of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers outpaced them among groups that played at least 100 minutes together last season.
So, yes: Wall by himself is, to a large extent, the difference between Washington being very bad and a playoff contender. But when you consider, as Lee noted in a quick-hit post after breaking the news, that Wall just became only "the fourth point guard in the league with a maximum deal, joining former league most valuable player Derrick Rose and all-stars Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook," the nature of the commitment and the expectations it carries start to sink in.
Does the evident impact Wall has on the Wizards' on-court performance mean he's worth more than $15 million a year? There are certainly reasons for pause, topped off by the fact that he's missed 20 percent of his NBA games through three seasons, primarily with knee issues.
Also near, if not right at, the top of the list: Wall's lack of a consistent jump shot, which has resulted in him taking just 202 3-pointers in 184 NBA games and making less than a quarter of them. Wall's efforts to extend his range took a step forward last season — he hit 37.8 percent of his midrange tries after making less than one-third of those tries in his first two seasons, and established something of a "sweet spot" from the right elbow — but he's got a long way to go before defenses consistently fear him beating them from the perimeter, imposing a ceiling on how effective an offensive player he can be.
He similarly took a step forward as a ball-securing facilitator, increasing the share of Wizards possessions on which he notched an assist to an elite level (43.9 percent, third in the NBA behind Paul and Greivis Vasquez) while also sharply curbing his turnover rate, coughing it up on just over 15 percent of his possessions (higher than Paul, lower than Vasquez). As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently noted, though, he's still susceptible to poor decision-making and a bit too much wildness in the half-court. To maximize his gifts, court vision and the value of shooters like Beal and Webster, he'll need to develop a better feel for knowing when to slow down to let openings develop and when to take full advantage of his speed and quickness to seize opportunities when they present themselves.
I believe Wall — who, again, hasn't even turned 23 yet — is good enough to continue that improvement, and to continue improving his jumper, and to continue developing as a defender. That's why the Wizards will pay him, because they believe he'll get there, and in doing so, they're making a franchise-defining gamble — that the version of Wall who turned the team around over the final couple of months of 2013-14 will only continue to get better and eventually perform at a consistent All-Star level commensurate with the likes of Paul, Rose and Westbrook. I think he's got an excellent chance of getting there; I just kind of wish the Wizards would have had the sand to see if he could get them there at a slightly less costly rate.
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