Tuesday, August 5, 2014

John Wall: The First Team USA Snub?

Washington Wizards star John Wall was one of three players cut from Team USA Tuesday.
By Bennett Corcoran (@CorcoranNBA)

With Paul George sidelined after a devastating knee injury, only a handful of players appear to be locks to make Team USA for the upcoming FIBA World Cup. Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Anthony Davis all have gold medals from the 2012 Olympics and seem likely to make the squad. If for some reason you haven’t seen Derrick Rose play basketball in the last few weeks, it’s abundantly clear why Coach Krzyzewski is awarding him so much praise, as he is practically jumping out of the gym. Stephen Curry’s shooting ability and ascension as a playmaker last season also solidifies his spot on the roster.

With Rose and Curry both in the fold, that leaves perhaps just one other roster spot for a point guard. Curry can play off-ball, and might even be featured as the starting shooting guard, but will likely still spend some time bringing the ball up given his ability to distribute. This dynamic provokes a perplexing debate for the Team USA coaching staff, which must decide between Damian Lillard, John Wall, and Kyrie Irving.

It appears that Team USA has taken a step towards making this decision with the announcement that Wall, Bradley Beal, and Paul Millsap will be cut from the Team USA roster.

After signing a five-year, $80 million extension a year ago, John Wall proved he was worth the maximum amount last season in Washington. The Wizards made the playoffs for the first time since 2008 (back when they boasted a Gilbert Arenas-Antawn Jamison-Caron Butler trio), defeating the Chicago Bulls in the first round before falling to Indiana.

Perhaps the most apparent development in Wall’s game was his transformation into a league-average three-point shooter. Wall attempted just 202 threes in his first three seasons in Washington, and converted them at an ugly percentage (24.3%). But last season, Wall hoisted 308 shots from beyond the arc, nailing 35.1% of them.

Wall needs to add a floater to his game after making just 32 of 120 shots (26.7%) in the paint but outside the restricted area (all offensive numbers per NBA Stats). Wall also fell in love with the pull up jumper last season, heaving 8.9 pull up attempts per game, and hitting a measly 34.0% of them. Only Curry took more pull up shots last season, so it appears Wall still has work to do in terms of developing his jumper and shot selection.

In today’s NBA, the term “true point guard” is seldom used. Wall deserves this designation, along with the likes of Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, based on his ability to find his teammates for open looks. In fact, Wall was third in the NBA last season in points created by an assist, as his passing accumulated 21.3 PPG for his team. This mark trailed only the aforementioned Paul and Rondo (it should also be noted that Rondo played just 30 games). His quick first step allows him to penetrate defenses effortlessly, and Wall has shown he can consistently find his teammates even if his shot isn’t falling.

Trevor Ariza may want to thank Wall for the four-year, $32 million contract he recently inked with the Houston Rockets, as Wall assisted 102 of Ariza’s 180 made threes this season. His quickness and flashy passes can get him into trouble, though, as his 3.6 turnovers per game was the third most in the league last season.

Lillard drove to the basket over 100 times more than Wall last year, but converted just 40.4% in comparison to Wall’s 49.5%. While Lillard did get to the free throw line at a slightly higher rate, Wall was still the more efficient playmaker.

Although Lillard also struggled with his floater last season, he was a much more reliable outside shooter than Wall. Lillard has established himself as one of the premier three-point shooters in the NBA. Only Steph launched more threes in 2014 than Lillard, who knocked down a sizzling 39.4% from deep. He’s not the passer that Wall is, but his elite shooting, particularly in clutch moments, could be a useful asset for Team USA.

In an underwhelming 2014 season for Cleveland, Irving didn’t quite improve as much as anticipated. To be fair, the Cavs were a complete mess last season. Between the re-hiring and re-firing of Mike Brown, the Anthony Bennett fiasco, trading real assets for Luol Deng and Spencer Hawes, yet still missing the playoffs, and firing general manager Chris Grant, it was quite a year for the Cavs. All of that aside, Kyrie’s numbers will surely escalate with LeBron in town, and potentially Kevin Love on the way as well.

Irving has the scoring ability and ball handling to be a very good NBA player, but I question whether his game fits the international style of play. He’s not nearly as quick as Lillard or Wall, and doesn’t drive as much or get to the line as frequently.

When considering the third point guard role for Team USA, Wall’s defense ultimately sets him apart from his competitors. Wall is the only one of the three that rates as a plus defender using on/off splits, and his quick hands generate steals and allow the ‘Zards to run the fast break. His defensive rating of 104 (defensive stats per Basketball Reference) isn’t great, but it represents a solid mark, especially when compared to Lillard’s (116). Irving (108) rates slightly better with this metric, but the Cavs defense also allowed 5.9 more points per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor. Part of that falls on his teammates and the coaching staff, but part of this is also on Irving to stay focused and develop as a defender, as he lacked energy and a consistent defensive stance for long stretches on that end of the floor last season.

Of the three guards seemingly destined to make the team, one is returning from a second major injury in Rose, while the other two are notoriously poor defenders in Curry and Harden. The Warriors often hid Curry on the perimeter last season, instead using Klay Thompson or Andre Iguodala to check the opposing point guard. If you don’t know much about Harden’s defense (or lack thereof), let’s just say he’s a defensive juggernaut.

In an international setting with a roster that will probably only feature one true big, it’s clear Team USA is going to play fast and move the ball to open shooters spotting up behind the shorter three point line. Wall gives them the athleticism and passing ability to do just that, and would ensure that USA has either Wall or Rose on the floor at all times, guaranteeing an explosive playmaker at the helm. A third point guard should be able to bring intensity and set the tone, and Wall has the intangibles and veteran poise to do so.

His glaring weakness is his shooting, especially in comparison to Irving and Lillard. But that area has improved significantly, and during the tournament, Wall would be surrounded with some of the best shooters in the game such as Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.

In terms of per game numbers and splits, the three are all in the same ballpark, and you really can’t go wrong with any of these guys. It’s not like picking Kyrie over Wall is going to lose Team USA the World Cup. Maybe Coach K goes with Irving over Wall because of his familiarity with Kyrie at Duke, similar to the rumors that Mason Plumlee will beat out DeMarcus Cousins for the big man spot on the roster.

These details are mere semantics, and an overflowing stockpile of capable point guards is a great problem to have for USA. Given his experience, defense, and passing, Wall seemed like the logical choice to make the team, and therefore in a sense this does represent a snub of sorts. But in the end, no matter which point guard wins this battle, Team USA will be just fine.

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