Washington Wizards point guard John Wall inspires mixed opinions, and this season hasn't done much to clarify them. After missing the first several months with a left knee injury, Wall returned to the Wizards in mid-January with the need to prove he could become the star many (including me) thought he would become nearly instantaneously after becoming the first overall pick of the 2010 draft. The team has been quite good since his return — 20-16 entering Monday night's game against the Memphis Grizzlies, a marked improvement on Washington's horrific 5-28 start. At the same time, Wall still struggles with outside shooting and turnovers, the two areas that have held back his development. He's getting better, but he's not yet the max-contract player he thinks he should be.
If Wall does establish himself as a star, the aforementioned Grizzlies game might stand as a turning point. In a 107-94 win, Wall scored a career-high 47 points on 13 of 22 shooting from the field and 19 of 24 from the foul line, dished out eight assists, grabbed seven rebounds, turned it over two times, and added a steal and a block in 45 minutes. For one night, at least, Wall was everything his most optimistic fans have envisioned.
Simply put, this performance was one of the best of the 2012-13 NBA season so far. His 47 points marked the third-best total of the season, behind Stephen Curry's 54 against the New York Knicks in February and Kevin Durant's 52 in an overtime win over the Dallas Mavericks in January. The 24 free-throw attempts were the second-most of the season, topped only by Dwight Howard's bizarre record-tying ordeal in his return to Orlando. So, while a cynic could label these numbers a fluke due to Wall's inconsistency, it may be more accurate to say so simply because these stats would be outliers for even the best players in the NBA.
Check out the highlight reel above (or watch an expanded clip at The Point Forward). After the jump, join us for some more analysis and insight into Wall's career-best night.
The most impressive part of Wall's scoring night might have been the fact that he didn't rely on anything outside his normal range of abilities. While he was lucky to face the Grizzlies when they were without indefinitely sidelined defensive linchpin Marc Gasol, it's also true that Wall identified the gaps in the Memphis defense and exploited them with relentless attacks to the basket. It's unlikely that Wall will notch 20-free-throw games with regularity, but he can make getting to the line and scoring at the rim dependable parts of his game. He has all the athleticism and skills to do so.
It's also possible that Wall is beginning to understand his most productive areas of the floor. His shot chart won't tell the full story due to the high number of free throws, but it also shows that he didn't simply get lucky on the deeper shots that typically plague him:
For comparison, here's Wall's shot chart for the full season (including Monday night):
As you can see, Wall shot uncharacteristically well from several spots on the floor. On the other hand, the sample sizes in each area are small enough that the percentages aren't entirely outlandish — it's possible to imagine him hitting two of three jumpers from the left elbow even though he struggles from that spot. Plus, the right elbow, from which he hit all four of his jumpers, has been one of his most dependable shots on the season. A charitable view says that Wall performed to the best of his consistently present abilities. He got lucky, but it's not as if everything was a fluke.
There are plenty of reasons to think that Wall won't become a star just yet. For one thing, he doesn't always come across as the greatest leader, and there are unanswered questions about his maturity level. (As ever, these signifiers depend on team performance. Would people think differently if Wall had been healthy at the start of the season and the Wizards were a playoff team?) His outside shooting and turnovers are also issues that don't look likely to go away any time soon. He's not a perfect player by any means.
Yet, in a league where many young point guards (Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, et al.) have found success at historically rapid rates, it's worth remembering that some players take longer to develop. Wall has some major gaps in his game, but there's also reason to think that he's beginning to understand that his strengths can make him a uniquely dangerous player. He's not so great as to be impervious to a well-executed game plan, but he's also someone for whom teams need to plan.
Perhaps this performance will only serve as a new high in a career that remains up and down. Yet that would also mean that Wall's current best-case scenario has improved considerably, and that's not something to ignore.
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