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The Washington Wizards took down the New York Knicks, 106-96, at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night, upsetting the East's No. 2 seed behind scorching shotmaking from the likes of Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster (a combined 10 for 16 from 3-point land), strong-enough fourth-quarter defense against Knicks star Carmelo Anthony and a strong performance from starting point guard John Wall. The 2010 draft's No. 1 overall pick scored a team-high 21 points, dished nine assists and grabbed five rebounds in 39 minutes; he looked like an explosive, dynamic whirlwind on both ends of the floor in leading the woeful 13-35 Wizards to their ninth win over a playoff-caliber team, and their fifth over a division leader.
Three of those division-leader-toppling victories — against the Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers and Chicago Bulls — have come since Wall's return from a knee injury that cost him the season's first 33 games; the Wizards were 5-28 without him, and are 8-7 with him in the lineup. The turnaround in the Wizards' fortunes doesn't exactly have the team's fans thinking about the playoffs, as they were before Wall went down a month before the start of the season, but it has led to some supporters rekindling their beliefs that the 22-year-old triggerman could actually be the kind of franchise-changing centerpiece many believed him to be coming out of Kentucky. Stan Van Gundy, it seems, isn't one of them.
The former Miami Heat and Orlando Magic head coach recently drew some DMV ire for saying in a D.C.-area radio interview that the Wizards, even with a healthy Wall, have no foundational pieces: "He’s certainly got talent, but I don’t know that even John Wall is a great player to build your franchise around [...] I think there’s a lot of people in the league — I’d certainly be one that would share this opinion — I don’t think John Wall’s good enough to be the guy that you build around." With Van Gundy in D.C. last week to call a college basketball game for NBC Sports Network, CSN Washington's Ben Standig caught up with the coach to see if anything had changed. It hasn't:
"I said this: John Wall is a talented guy, a very good player. I don't think he's good enough that you can build a franchise around him," Van Gundy said [...] "I don't think he can be your best player, certainly not clearly your best player. You need one guy better than him or a couple of guys at his talent level for them to win.
"To me, that's not a negative. I didn't say it as a negative. I think some people took it that way. I just don't see John Wall as a franchise player because — a lot like Rajon Rondo; I don't see him as a franchise player even though he's an All-Star — he's not a good enough shooter yet and he's not a reliable go-to scorer.
"In the NBA, your franchise guy has got to be a guy you can put the ball in his hands late in the game and he can get you a basket. I don't see that from John Wall at this point in his career. Maybe it will develop, but I don't see it."
To a certain extent, you can understand why this would hit Wizards fans' ears like a dig or a slam. I mean, anybody who watched the Wizards in Wall's absence earlier this year can't help but see a marked difference in the team with him now back running the show.
The Wizards' offense hasn't been stellar with Wall on the floor, scoring at a rate (100.5 points per 100 possessions) that would rank 19th in the NBA over the course of the season, but it's been loads better than the toothless, worst-in-the-league unit Washington has featured with Wall off the court (94-per-100, including 93.1-per-100 during the year's first 33 games). Washington gets considerably better, higher-percentage and higher-value looks with Wall orchestrating, as HoopChalk's Jared Dubin recently pointed out in analyzing the skyrocketing number of restricted-area and short-corner 3-pointer attempts the Wizards have taken since Wall's return. He's made rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal a much more effective off-ball weapon; in 10 games and 152 minutes of shared floor time for the backcourt of the future before Beal went down with a wrist injury, the Wizards scored like a top-six offense, averaging 105.8-per-100 (on par with the likes of the Clippers and Denver Nuggets).
Before Wall's return, opponents were outscoring the Wizards by nearly nine points per 100 possessions, a massive amount; since his comeback, they've outscored opponents by 3.6-per-100, the 10th best mark in the league. (Seven of the nine teams ahead of them are playoff squads; one is the Los Angeles Lakers, whose statistical profile has outpaced their win-loss record all season; and the other is the Dallas Mavericks, who are surely benefiting from a beard-related bump.) Wall doesn't deserve all the credit for the team's turnaround — the team's overall defense has been somewhere between good and excellent all season (though that's picked up since his comeback, too) and the Wizards have gotten steady (and in some cases very good) play from other sources, especially Nene and Webster — but it's impossible not to see the lightning-quick point guard as the catalyst in a bright stretch.
That said: It doesn't mean Wall's a franchise player. At least, not in the way Van Gundy means, which differentiates "franchise player" from "the best guy on each of the NBA's 30 franchises."
When Van Gundy's evaluating Wall's credentials in the former category, he's not considering whether Wall makes the Wizards better (that much is obvious) but rather whether he can be viewed as the No. 1 piece on a team that can win an NBA title. For all Wall's athletic talents on both sides of the ball, and even given the JaVale McGee/Andray Blatche/Nick Young-driven idiocy pervading Washington and perhaps arresting his development during his first two years, it's difficult to see how what he's accomplished through his first 150 NBA games would suggest he's that kind of player. He's an ace at getting into the paint, but he's only a slightly above-league-average finisher at the rim; he's shown an improvement on his midrange jumper this season, but he still hits those shots at a below-league-average clip; and he's still an abysmal 3-point shooter, making just one of his 12 attempts this season after going 3 for 42 last year. He's a strong (at times) on-ball defender with long arms and the ability to play a major role in the scheme of a good defensive team, but his gambler's instincts sometimes get the better of him; he's not good enough defensively to overcome his offensive shortcomings.
If you'll forgive a perhaps-too-easy (based on position and draft status) comparison, one of the things that makes Cleveland Cavaliers point guard and 2011 top pick Kyrie Irving so deadly late in games is that defenders can't simply sag off him to cut off his driving lanes, because they know he'll gladly wet the J if they do; when opponents do press up, he's able to use his quickness and handle to break them down off the dribble and get into the lane either to look for his own shot or to collapse the defense and kick out to an open shooter. His ability to keep defenses guessing — and, even if they guess right, to beat them either at the bucket or by stepping back — has made him one of the league's most dominant fourth-quarter players over the past two years (31 points per 36 minutes of final-quarter work last year n 51.8 percent shooting, 33.5-per-36 on 44.7 percent this year), while Wall (16-per-36 on 41.5 percent shooting as a rookie, 16-per-36 on 37.9 percent last year, 18.1-per-36 on 37.1 percent this year) lags in scoring but posts better per-minute assist numbers.
And that's fine. One of the things we're learning these days is that there's no shame in not being Kyrie Irving, because that dude's insane, and I'm willing to bet that if you asked Wizards fans if they'd be happy with Wall turning into their version of Rondo — a thrilling talent with an innate gift for setting up teammates who's capable of taking over games in stretches but rarely looks like someone capable of dominating consistently — I think they'd probably take that. But from where Van Gundy's sitting, if you're not a post player who can routinely draw double-teams or a wing player who creates mismatches against defenders of all shapes and sizes, you need to be able to both consistently get and reliably make your own shot to move into that upper, "franchise player" echelon. Like Rondo, as Van Gundy told Standig, Wall's not there:
"To me, [Wall] can be your starting point guard and be your leader on a good team, but he can't be the franchise guy. They're going to need to surround him with guys like Paul Pierce or a Dwyane Wade or a Kobe Bryant. A scorer is going to have to surround him for them to really make a rise in the NBA. I don't think he can carry the load."
Right now, he can't. That's not to say, however, that a 22-year-old with just 150 NBA games under his belt can't improve, that a hard worker can't develop a stronger jump shot and that a version of the Wizards with more perimeter shooting couldn't become a more dangerous team than the one that exists today. But as far as Wall being one of those special few players who can consistently and repeatedly lift his team through the sheer force of his talent ... well, like SVG, I think I'm going to have to see it to believe it.