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The Illusory Star Status of John Wall

Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports

At first glance, John Wall looks like he’s regressing this season. As though a player, once on his way to stardom, may have taken a detour. Maybe it’s his fault. Maybe it’s a failure to commit. Or maybe it’s a false narrative.

Last year, Wall averaged 17.6 points with an effective field-goal percentage of 47.3. This year, he’s notching 18.4 on 47.0. So his scoring is actually up. His assists are down from 10.0 to 7.9; his rebounds have dropped. His turnovers have climbed.

So there’s marginal regression if you’re looking for it.

But there’s context. For example, according to NBA.com, one thing worth noting is that the Wizards as a team have more assist opportunities than they did last year. Some of the issue, then, is the new offense is going less through Wall than it used to, but there’s still more passing.  A criticism that’s never fair is one levied at players who are doing what their coaches instruct them to do.

And when we look at various advanced stats, there’s only a slight regression. His PER has dropped from 19.8 to 19.1. His Win Shares per 48 has fallen from .132 to .077. While those numbers are lower, he was 43rd in PER last year and 52nd this year. He was 101st in WS/48 last year, and he’s 197th this year. And part of that can be attributed to the change in team play. 

More to the point, that’s a drop-off, but he wasn’t “elite” last year either.

However, when the team struggles, Wall is blamed, even if he’s playing well, as demonstrated by the fans’ reaction when the Wizards hosted the Los Angeles Lakers (although, this was likely also thanks to a large amount of Lakers fans in the building for Kobe’s last game there):

Kelly Dwyer of Ball Don’t Lie wrote about his performance:

Wall contributed 34 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds in the loss, with two steals and five turnovers, just one night after dropping 35 (with ten assists) on LeBron and Co. With that in place, the Wizards point man has been roundly criticized by local observers for not penetrating as much as he should in the half-court. He’s still roughly shooting around the same percentage of shots in the paint as he has in years past, but many of those looks have come in transition.

And this is interesting because even Dwyer’s qualification isn’t quite accurate.

This year Wall is averaging 8.1 drives per game, scoring 4.8 points on those and kicking out on 45.0 percent of them. Those kicks turn into another 1.3 field goals. Last year those numbers were 7.2, 4.2 42.4 percent, respectively. So the problem really isn’t “regression.”

In 2015-16, he’s notched 76 points on drives, which places him 36th in the NBA, just behind his former Kentucky teammate, DeMarcus Cousins, who’s played five fewer games than Wall.

Point being: The narrative isn’t wrong in saying that Wall has lost his star status; it was premature to grant it to him in the first place. Now we’re trying to find a way to fit the present reality into the false construct that Wall was an elite player when he never was.

In sports, in general, and perhaps more so in the NBA, we tend to tie winning and losing to the best player. If a team is winning, then it must be because of the “star” on the team; and if they’re losing, it’s because the “star” is underperforming. It’s a bogus construct.

Wall is really not that different a player this year than he was last. The problem is that the team around him isn’t winning. Some of that, but not all of it, is on him. Just as with last year, some but not all of the credit belonged to him.

We, as a viewing community, need to allow for more nuance in our world. Wall is an exceptional player. He’s not an elite player. He can do extraordinary things. He’s fantastic in transition. He gets to the rim in the blink of an eye. And he has great decision-making on those drives, targeting open shooters with ease.

But he also has failings. He’s never developed much of a jumper, though, it’s obvious he’s worked on it by the steady improvement over his career. For all his vision on seeing shooters, 68 percent of his turnovers come on bad passes.

In short, what Wall is, is a very good player with flaws. He helps win games. But he’s not the caliber of player that Stephen Curry or LeBron James is, where his presence alone makes a team a contender. And here’s the pill that might be tougher to swallow: There’s nothing wrong with that.

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