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Time to Worry about John Wall


If you're a Wizards fan not worried about John Wall, you're not paying much attention. All that's wrong with his game was on display in exaggerated form in last night's 96-95 loss to the Detroit Pistons.

Against Detroit, Wall managed 4 assists and 7 turnovers in just 24 minutes of action. He shot 3-9 from the floor -- 1-4 on jumpers -- and posted an individual offensive rating (points produced per possession x 100) of 48. This in a game where his team's offensive rating was 105.

He got taken to school repeatedly by Jose Calderon and Brandon Knight. Worse, Wall's body language projected a near despondency at his ineffectiveness. And even worse yet, in post-game comments he appeared to blame his teammates for his turnovers.

In many ways, Wall's disappointment is understandable. Selected with the top overall pick by the Wizards of the 2010 draft, he was feted as The Franchise Savior before he'd so much as signed a contract. The team literally rolled out the red carpet for Wall's first visit to Washington and he instantly became the centerpiece of its marketing efforts.

Flip Saunders, the guy who would be his coach, gushed to reporters that, "Point guards are not made -- they're delivered from heaven. And I believe he was delivered from heaven."

Thankfully, Saunders stopped short of calling Wall the Messiah.

There were some who fretted -- at the time -- that it was all a bit much for a guy yet to play in the NBA. But they were dismissed as fuddy-duddies. Wall had played a year at Kentucky and was used to big crowds. Plus, he was a "can't miss" prospect with good size and outlandish athleticism.

But there was a problem. Two of them, actually. The first: his jumper was terrible. The second: he committed lots of turnovers. When either problem was discussed, it was always with an air of inevitably. Wall would learn to shoot. The turnovers were a result of youthful exuberance. They'd come down as he gained experience.

Except, point guards aren't delivered from heaven, they're made through persistent practice and competition. Similarly, a bad jump shot isn't something that will automatically improve over time, it's a skill that must be acquired the only way humans learn skills -- through constant repetition and attention to detail. The fact that Wall made it to the NBA without properly learning the skill of shooting meant that his task was extra difficult because he'd first have to break old shooting habits.

He logically got a pass as a rookie. His shooting was abysmal and his turnovers high, but he was just a kid learning the league while playing with bad teammates. Wait 'til next year was the mantra.

In year two, the jumper was still bad, and the turnovers still abundant. This was excused because of the crummy teammates and the lockout. Although, that extra long offseason could have been used to spend additional time honing that jumper. But his first two seasons bore a not-superficial resemblance to the early careers of players like Isiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook, so it was still premature to worry.

The start of his third season was delayed because of a troublesome knee. But now that he's back, the jumper is as bad as ever and the turnovers are more abundant than ever. There's no discernible change in the form he uses to shoot -- the off hand is still on top of the ball (where it doesn't belong), he still drifts and floats and kicks his leg from time to time. He still seems to hold the ball too long and shoot on the way down.

Whatever time he's put into fixing that jump shot has been wasted. The results are the same -- he misses about 7 in 10 attempts -- and the form looks the same.

At this point, solidly into his third season, with more than 5,600 career minutes, it's fair and reasonable for fans to start wondering why Wall isn't improving. The same problems that were evident in college are plaguing him now. If he's putting in time on these issues during the offseason, there's a disconnect somewhere or he's working on the wrong things or in the wrong way.

So, what's the solution? For Wall, it's actually pretty simple: get to work. The right way. If he wants to become a good NBA player, he must find a way to improve. I can see more than one pathway to success.

The simplest would seem to be fixing the jumper. That would entail spending many hours in the gym taking shots over and over and over again with a focus on maintaining perfect form. I'd even consider having him try learning to shoot left handed because he won't have developed bad habits with that off hand. I've heard lots of chatter about the need for a shooting coach, and while that's a fine idea, a player can fix his jumper on his own with repetition and attention to detail. My guess is that Wall has already been taught good shooting technique. But he hasn't internalized the lessons. Yet.

Reducing turnovers could be an issue of experience, although he's posting his career high turnover rate this year -- in his third season. His lowest turnover rate: as a rookie. I think the turnovers could be brought down with serious study of opposing defenses. Perhaps.

Wall could still be a useful PG even if he never develops a good jumper. It would require him to become a lock-down defender and first-rate facilitator, which would necessitate that he reduce turnovers and become a true student of the game. This isn't the most glamorous route, but at least he'd be able to help a team.

For the team, Wall's lack of improvement presents a different problem -- what to do about it. One option would be to trade him this offseason in hopes of getting a high draft pick or another young piece to the puzzle. The hazard: they'd open themselves up to criticism for giving up on him too soon, as well as to the potential that he "gets it" at his next stop and becomes the true star Washington needs. (See Blatche, Andray)

Another option could be to delay a decision until training camp or even the 2014 trade deadline. This would give him another offseason to work on his game, and another opportunity to show improvement. The hazard: if he comes back without improving, his value in the trade market could drop.

Yet another option could be to give him a contract extension and hope he improves. The hazard: the Wizards could end up paying a sizable contract to a turnover machine who can't shoot, which would be a disaster for the franchise.

At this point, the Wizards front office must ignore the fact that they used the top draft pick to take him. They also to put aside all the hopes invested in him, the red carpet treatment, the Franchise Savior dreams. Those are what economists would call "sunk costs." What's needed is an honest assessment of what Wall is doing on the court, and what he's likely to do in the future.

My hope that Wall's dejection last night might in part be the realization that he's not as good as he thought he was -- that the's not as good as everyone's been telling him he is. I hope that frustration will get him working on his game, and will motivate him to become an elite player for the Wizards.