Littered among the inevitable throngs of tweets that burst forth following any moderately above-average play by Chris Paul in this or any postseason are frequent exclamations of, “POINT GOD.”
It’s a title born of a decade of exquisite mastery over the NBA floor from Paul, expressed in a manner that in many ways exemplifies what we think of when we discuss the idea of a “true” point guard. CP3 is the consummate floor general, thinking and operating on a plane unmatched by all but a few of his contemporaries. He pleases the “old-school” crowd with a rare ability and willingness to create for teammates, but one cultivated through a well-known ability to dominate as a scorer when needed. It’s all topped off by a clinical understanding of where his talents are best used in a given situation.
There’s no replacing a deity, of course. It took Paul years to develop and refine what’s become his own personal brand of control over the court. But slowly, along the Eastern margins of his dominion, rises a Titan looking to overthrow him: John Wall.
Like many a would-be usurper, Wall has approached his desired coup in a different way than his target went about rising to power. He’s the brash upstart in some ways (not his personality, of course), with a raw physical skill set that likely eclipses Paul’s – he’s taller and longer, with strides and acceleration that count him among the fastest players in the league.
Paul is the position’s premier stopper, but Wall’s stature and already-elevated prowess on this end makes him perhaps the more prototypical defender for the increasingly versatile NBA. But by the same token, he’s yet to master the finer points of the game to anywhere near CP3’s degree. He’s getting there, though, and this year showed us signs that his seemingly unlimited ceiling might be within reach.
For starters, he’s become one of the most involved players in the league in his team’s cumulative offense. A more standard measure like usage percentage is somewhat incomplete for someone like Wall, who fell outside the league’s top 20 here on the year mostly due to his level of involvement as a passer, something this metric doesn’t track.
But per more detailed numbers compiled by Nylon Calculus’ Seth Partnow, he was very near the top of the league for the 2014-15 season in True Usage: A more nuanced and detailed statistic that pulls from SportVU tracking data to estimate the percentage of offensive possessions during which a player contributes to the end result of a play – that is, through a scoring attempt, a turnover, or a potential assist (whether converted or not, as SportVU publicly displays “assist chances” and “free-throw assists” along with actual assists).
A deeper look here reveals just how heavily the Wizards lean on Wall as a distributor and the initiator of their entire offense while on the floor. He was sixth in the league for the regular season in Assist Usage (percentage of possessions where the player generated a potential assist, whether converted or not); per standard SportVU figures on NBA.com, only Ricky Rubio generated more potential assists that led to free-throws. In all, Wall assisted on over 46 percent of all made Washington baskets while on the court, easily his career-high and the third-largest figure in the league behind only Paul and Russell Westbrook.
The Wizards’ offense, never exactly a thing of beauty given the many peculiarities of coach Randy Wittman, predictably curled into the fetal position and died without Wall. Washington approached top-10 levels on the year with their star point guard on the floor despite Wittman’s insistence upon playing ill-fitting lineups and emphasizing long midrange looks as a focal point, but couldn’t survive without Wall’s creation, dipping below the three-figure level on a per-100-possession basis with an output roughly equivalent to the unwatchable Hornets (28th in the league) when he sat down. They were even more reliant than usual on midrange shots (over a quarter of their total points scored without Wall), scoring a nearly unfathomable 70 percent of their points from 2-point range without their All-Star on the court, a number that would have led the league by a mile.
And none of this heavy reliance on Wall speaks to his defense, which is already elite for his position and shows no signs of relenting. He finished third in the league in DRPM among point guards, behind only Rubio and Eric Bledsoe. Wittman is often lost on the other end of the floor, but has smartly utilized his personnel defensively, including a varied attack against opposing pick-and-rolls that fits Wall’s skill set perfectly. He could use work with his screen navigation, but his long frame and smarts make him excellent for the high traps Washington will throw at ball-handlers in certain situations. His closing speed is elite as well, and he’s just as comfortable scurrying around picks and back into the picture to disrupt things when Wittman has Washington’s bigs dropping back. He’s got quick hands attached to long arms (a wild 6’9.25 wingspan as measured at his draft combine), and can swipe the ball even after getting beat:
Despite all this, though, Wall’s true charge toward the “point god” crown began in earnest over these last couple weeks as the Wizards embarrassed the Raptors in four games. Toronto’s incompetence wasn’t exactly the stiffest test of his resolve, but it’s not the result alone that signified a changing of the tides. The way the Raptors almost shoved Wittman into utilizing his offensive personnel optimally gave us a tantalizing look at how Wall can operate when his surroundings are maximized.
That’s unfair to Wittman, to a point. His move to Paul Pierce at power forward for larger stretches seemed at least somewhat premeditated, and appeared to untether Wall to a degree. He averaged just short of 19 assist opportunities per game for the regular season, according to SportVU, a top-five mark in the NBA. This number skyrocketed to 23 against Toronto, easily the top figure for the postseason (the original point god himself is second by nearly seven chances per game).
More importantly, these aren’t empty totals perhaps born of a defense funneling Wall away from his own offense and into uncomfortable passes. Washington converted nearly two-thirds of these chances into buckets or shooting fouls, quite a high share that showcases their level of effectiveness. The extra space was especially useful for Wall’s roll men in pick-and-roll sets, who shot an unreal 17-20 (85 percent) on the series, per Synergy Sports:
Overall, 67 passes out of pick-and-roll sets from Wall to a teammate finishing the play resulted in 88 points (over 1.3 points-per-possession) on 59 percent shooting against Toronto, per Synergy. He absolutely tore the Raptors to shreds both in the halfcourt and transition, threading his preferred full-speed one-handed lasers – ones he pulls off better than anyone besides perhaps LeBron – to shooters dotting the perimeter. Almost exactly half of Washington’s baskets while Wall played drew his assists during the series.
Again, a four-game sample against a woefully unprepared foe doesn’t make a trend. But the template on display was scary to the rest of the East, with Washington spreading the floor out and allowing Wall to wreak havoc with his full complement of talents.
Likewise, it’s a long way yet before he presents a true apples-to-apples challenge to Paul’s “point god” title. He has a ways to go as a game manager, and even a major improvement here will likely never see him equal CP3’s ridiculous and generationally unique blend of high usage, gaudy offensive numbers, and criminally low turnover totals. Paul is also still likely the better play-for-play defender at this point, though Wall is just entering his physical peak and has a higher ceiling on this end if he can tighten up certain details.
Wall also has a lot of work to do as a shooter if he ever wants to command a balanced enough game to achieve Paul’s value. He regressed markedly from beyond-the-arc this year after a breakout season in 2013-14, and though he posted career bests from the longer midrange areas, he’s still well short of CP3’s stratosphere.
But the skill set is absolutely there. Such hypotheticals are often silly, but it seems no stretch at all to say that Paul’s consciousness transferred to Wall’s body today would yield a monster worthy of comparison to either current player. There’s never anything resembling a guarantee that high-upside guys check every box, but even a solid A-minus from Wall in this regard could see him demand possession of your “POINT GOD” tweets in short order.
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