John Wall was the 1st overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Now, he’s 27, and in what should be the center of his basketball prime. He’s already a 5-time All-Star and is coming off his first career All-NBA selection. Going into the 2017-2018 season, he was seventh in Vegas’ MVP odds. However, this season, by many measures, he has struggled.
Player Efficiency Rating (league average is 15) by season:
Box Plus-Minus by season:
Win Shares per 48 minutes by season:
Not only has John had a down year, but his team has played better without him. FiveThirtyEight’s ELO ratings had the Wizards in a steady decline all season until their rock bottom on January 25th, when they lost to the Thunder and sat a tenuous 4 games over .500. That was the last game John Wall played before his “clean up” knee surgery.
Since, Washington is 10-3, with victories against the Raptors, at Pacers, at Cavaliers, and at Bucks. Their net rating of 5.2 would rank 4th in the entire NBA over the course of this season, behind just the Warriors, Rockets, and Raptors. Their net rating of 1.0 before losing Wall would rank 16th.
This, of course, begs the question: why? Clearly, Wall has had a poor season by his standards, perhaps due to the injured knee that he was playing on for most of the season before he and the team finally decided surgery was the best option. But even with the injury, Wall was an All-Star, drafted to Team LeBron, and losing an All-Star should never positively affect a team’s performance.
By certain metrics, the Wizards have perhaps looked like they lost an All-Star point guard. Their pace has slowed from 99.6 to 98.6, and their turnover percentage has increased from 14.3% to 14.5%. However, by others, it looks like they acquired one – their assist percentage has shot up from 58.5 to 71.2. Their true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage have both increased marginally. How?
For one, the absence of Wall’s large minutes chunk and 28.4 usage percentage have allowed other players to shine. More ball movement and contributions from across the roster have helped proliferate the team’s assist percentage. Tomas Satoransky, a 26-year-old 2nd round pick from 2012, has particularly performed wall as the replacement in the starting lineup. At 6’7″, he provides the ability to adequately guard multiple positions and rebound (his 7.4% rebound rate would be the second-highest of John Wall’s career). Perhaps most importantly, he’s shot 46.4% from 3-point range this season, which is higher than Wall has ever shot from the field in a season. This kind of shooting has afforded Bradley Beal, who is having the breakout season of his career, more space to work with, and the results have shown: he’s averaging 22.5 points per game on 48/38/86 splits since Wall’s last game. Perhaps the most interesting part, though, is though Beal’s efficiency has improved, his scoring output has declined – role players like Satoransky and Otto Porter Jr. (18.7 points per game since the Wall injury, compared to 14.7 before) have really stepped up and filled out the scoring.
Here’s one example of what Satoransky provides that Wall cannot – after delivering the entry pass to the post, he cuts to the weak side corner and drains the swing-pass three with hands in his face.
At 6’7″, he can easily post up most point guards and provide a different dimension to the Wizards’ offense from the 1.
His size not only allows him to guard multiple positions, but bother even the quickest of point guards:
Even when Wall comes back, though, Satoransky has the skillset to play alongside him, providing complementary playmaking alongside his Swiss-Army Knife game.
Could there also be off-the-court explanations for the Wizards’ surge? Wall has a well-documented beef with some of his teammates, most notably starting center Marcin Gortat. Earlier this season, Mavericks guard JJ Barea even assessed that Wall’s teammates don’t like him.
Wall is on the Wizards’ bench for games, though, so he’s spending time around the team, and realizes how well they’re playing without him. Perhaps this can only mean good things for Wall going forward – if the Wizards continue to play this way until he comes back, Wall may be humbled a bit and gain a certain amount more trust in his teammates. Couple that with (hopefully) being back to 100% health post-surgery, and there is optimism his return will do what you’d expect it to on paper. If the blossoming of role players like Satoransky can extend through Wall’s return, the Wizards may have a legitimate shot at making this season’s Eastern Conference Finals.
by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University