The past two nights I proudly entered a new minority–I am among the privileged few that witnessed both the Washington Wizards and the Minnesota Timberwolves play their first preseason games. Most would ask, “Why would anyone want to join your ‘privileged’ minority? What’s special about worthless preseason games from NBA bottom-feeders? The regular season is meaningless enough as it is!” Well, world, through these games and by watching John Wall and Ricky Rubio, I re-learned an important lesson about the point guard position in the NBA, namely the various perils of north-south basketball and the benefits of an east-west, 360° approach to point guard play. Simultaneously, I developed questions about why certain players choose to play one way versus another and to what extent it is possible for a given player to change and adapt their playing style to become a more complete player.
Part 1a: The Physics of John Wall
As a Wizards fan, it was painful to watch the Wizards’ paltry defense serve as a fresh oil change for the Sixers’ typically average offensive motor. I almost mistook Spencer Hawes for Hakeem Olajuwon. The Wizards, for all of the positive talk over the summer and in training camp about fitness, defense, health, and leadership, looked like the Wizards of years past. JaVale McGee was over-eager to block shots, Jordan Crawford was an offensive nightmare, Andray Blatche floundered in his isolation attempts, and Rashard Lewis was a ghost of a shell of his former self. Most troubling to me, though, was the play of franchise cornerstone John Wall.
John Wall is as fast and athletic as any player in league history. Those attributes allowed for the night’s top play:
“It’s not just that Wall is fast. It’s that he makes open court defenders impossibly disadvantaged. Really, the only time he ever messes up in the open court when he’s shoving the ball down the transition defense’s gullet is when he’s going too fast for his own good. Some people might look at that as a problem, but it’s really just something young, elite athletes have to deal with.”
This is fair and accurate–Wall was young last year as a one-and-done product out of Kentucky and is only 21 entering his sophomore campaign. His off-season development was stymied by a lockout and a shortened training camp. Moreover, he was injured most of last season and reminded the world this summer of his scary athleticism:
It’s fair to think that the above videos, combined with his competitive drive, natural improvement, and good health, justify the supposition that Wall will have an exciting break-out season. Unfortunately for Wall, his team, and his fans, Harper’s mild criticism shone through much more than improved health and maturity in the game against the Sixers. J-Wall would run one-man fast breaks against a barely set Sixers defense, and although he almost always successfully made his way to the rim, he would be contested by three defenders: two Sixers and the bottom of the backboard. Famed Wizards blog and TrueHoop affiliate TruthAboutIt.net gave a detailed run-down of the Wizards-Sixers game and granted Wall 2.5 stars out of a possible 9 in his preseason debut. Among their statements regarding Wall’s play:
“He was listless, sloppy with the ball and often caught himself too much under the rim to finish effectively”
“Sixers’ Coach Doug Collins described Wall as a running back who thrives on open space and lanes. On Friday night, Wall was stifled for the most part, and he was never able to display that blinding speed of his”
“Wall had trouble finishing at the hoop early, seemingly because he was trying to be cute and get a shot off in traffic.”
They couldn’t be more right, except for one thing: Wall was indeed able to show off his uncanny speed, but he was unable to reap any benefits from it. And that is because being an effective basketball player requires more than just north-south speed–in fact, superior north-south speed can be a hindrance for layups (as was mentioned) and for passing. Manning the point, even on fast breaks in a time-warped sense, requires patience, creative movement, and court vision. Truth About It, HoopSpeak, and Doug Collins would all acknowledge that Wall’s speed at times causes layups to become difficult. The talk of Wall’s speed as an impediment to effective passing however, is left out of most analysis of Wall.
The above quote from Doug Collins that Truth About It relays is a telling one–John Wall needs lanes and open space to thrive, or else he is stifled by people-traffic and the basket itself. What they leave out are two important interrelated facts, facts that shine brighter when contrasting Wall and Rubio: 1) Wall might need lanes and open space so he can use his speed to hit gaps (like a running back), but not often enough does he create lanes and space for himself by creatively dribbling in novel directions/spaces to keep the defense guessing. 2) In Wall’s blazing north-south pursuit, he loses the ability to clearly see the court and creates fewer and more difficult passing angles.
In other words, if Wall slowed down and experimented with “east-west” and change-of-speed dribbling, he would have clearer court vision and wouldn’t be miles ahead of his teammates, allowing him to utilize his very real and very formidable passing skills. In extending Collins’ running back metaphor, think of the “option” play commonly run in college football. A quarterback or a running back on these plays will sweep out wide after the snap, patiently running sideways or diagonally with the ball, reading their blocking and the defense, and measuring if and when they should pitch the football to their teammate. John Wall doesn’t move laterally enough, and therefore cannot as easily see the defense and his own teammates. To recap, the effects of John Wall’s speedy north-south style cause him to attempt overly difficult layups and preclude him from seeing his teammates, and even if he can see them, his passes are made more difficult by the speed at which he’s moving. It also makes Wall more predictable.
Let’s quickly look at Friday’s preseason game. John Wall shot 3-12 from the field, leading his team in field goal attempts. He had 0 rebounds, a team-worst +/- (-24), and a game-high 6 turnovers. He had just 3 assists, although you can’t fault him for having offensively inept teammates. Wall’s speed allowed him to get so far ahead of his team that he was unable to pass it effectively (see: high turnovers and low assists), convert layups (see: poor FG%), or get back on defense (see: poor +/-, zero rebounds).
After watching this game, it’s fair to wonder whether Harper’s sole criticism of Wall, the “too fast” problem, is an issue that Wall will correct any time soon. Yes, Wall is young and will surely learn with experience, but this game begs the question: Has Wall focused on or even acknowledged this weakness in his development? Why does Wall continue to make this mistake and play this style, especially in light of other players (e.g. Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo) who have proved the effectiveness of other forms of movement? And to what degree is it possible to integrate their east-west/360° style of play–can it be consciously turned on with the flick of a switch, can it be deliberately learned if it’s more difficult than that, is it only gradually internalized over time, or is this style the result of an unattainable intuitive feel for the game? I will hypothesize the various reasons why Wall continues to play a north-south style, beyond the obvious fact that it helps to be faster than everyone else, and then contrast Wall with the play and development of Ricky Rubio to help answer these questions.
Part 1b: The Psychology and Development of John Wall
As a warning, I will say that my thoughts about the psychology/development of John Wall are merely educated guesses. I do not have the pleasure of knowing him and freely acknowledge that my ideas are far from guaranteed truths.
John Wall’s high school mixtape has 6 million views on YouTube. It’s no wonder–he wows the camera with a rare combination of quickness and athleticism:
As you can see, Wall toyed with his “competition.” Everything came easily to him, to the point that it was unnecessary for him to develop a sound jump shot, something he is slowly developing as he enters his second NBA season. When the going got tough, he knew he could outrun and out-jump his competition. The problem is that in the NBA, speed and athleticism can only take you so far. This isn’t to say Wall gets by on his physical attributes alone, but I am saying that his athletic prowess in high school might have prevented him from seeing the game from other angles, such as the east-west angle that I have alluded to and will discuss more with regards to Rubio and others. Even the top point guards that successfully dominate in the athletic fashion that Wall does–Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose–don’t tally up assists or involve their teammates as much as players like Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and Rajon Rondo.
This off-season, Wall claimed that we, the public, have yet to see the real John Wall (referring to his health issues last year). My gut feeling is that Wall thinks that his new healthy self will allow him to dominate games using his old ways, the ways that helped produce a YouTube video and hype for the ages. Wall had an entire off-season to study the game, and while he played lots of basketball and had plenty of meaningful practice, I am left wondering whether he tried to alter his game or whether he would even acknowledge that his game needs more dimensions (literally). Sometimes, players believe they are their own player and have no reason to look to other players as models of the game–in a recent interview, JaVale Mcgee shot down comparisons to Tyson Chandler, saying he “didn’t see any similarities…it’s who I am, I play like myself.” This might be true, but trust me, JaVale, you would be served well by taking a page out of Tyson’s book of defensive communication and discipline. John Wall isn’t JaVale McGee, but I do fear that he has yet to internalize that he can and should dominate in ways that go beyond his one-man fast break, as effective as it is. Even in half-court sets, while he runs the offense soundly, he doesn’t penetrate in and out of defenses, keeping them guessing about every move and dribble, every shot and pass.
Sometimes competitiveness can result in a certain arrogance and stubbornness, attributes that might cause Wall to overlook the benefits of altering his game. That’s an unfounded accusation in Wall’s case, but it is not a stretch to think, given his history of success and his injury-induced limitations last year, that he believes he’ll continue to dominate by playing his own style. Maybe Wall is doing his own thing, or perhaps he’s aspiring to emulate last year’s similarly athletic/fast MVP and fellow Calipari product, Derrick Rose. But with a Wizards team in desperate need of play-making and offensive creativity, John Wall might be better off opening his mind to setting up his teammates in ways akin to fellow North Carolinian Chris Paul. The question remains: how attainable is this skill?
Part 2a: The physics of Ricky Rubio
Watching Rubio’s first NBA action, even if it was the preseason, was something special. Rubio made a stingy Bucks defense look like the Wizards’ defense, and he made his own lackluster offense look like that of the D’Antoni-era Suns. Even though Rubio barely shared the floor with offensive juggernauts Kevin Love and Michael Beasley, he made just about everyone look like an offensive threat. And we’re talking about the Timberwolves! He would come of screens and probe the defense to force a collapse, only to whip a wrap-around skip-pass bullet to an open-shooter (and yes, I had to make up a name to describe this never-before-seen pass). Despite his Rondo-like offensive limitations (minus Rondo’s free throw ineptitude), Rubio had the defense in a constant state of flux. One might say that while John Wall’s speed always has a defense on its heels, Rubio’s creativity always had the defense on its toes.
In Saturday’s game against the Bucks, Rubio only shot 1-4 from the field, reminding the world that his individual offense is mediocre at best. As a believer in the power of advanced statistics, I was pessimistic about Rubio’s success after “The professor” John Hollinger wrote:
“There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Rubio’s translated European stats are just awful, and have been for the past few years. I have a system that’s been pretty reliable in terms of predicting first-year NBA performance for imports from the Euroleague, and what they project for Rubio offensively is ghastly: a 27.3 percent shooting mark and a 9.93 PER. It’s not just his play in that league either; Rubio’s play for Spain in international competition has been similarly discouraging. Much has been made of Rubio’s poor jump shot, but a far bigger problem is that he’s a lousy finisher. Many point guards have survived the former, but they all were very effective in the paint; Rubio, on the other hand, routinely blows layups.”
But everything else was there from Rubio in this window into his NBA future. He recorded 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and just 1 turnover in his first 24 minutes of NBA action. He controlled the pace of his team and his pace as a player, something that Wall cannot always do for himself. He had multiple behind-the-back dishes, which proved to be more substance than style.
An important point to be made is that I don’t believe that Rubio’s passing ability is superior to that of John Wall–Wall recorded almost 9 assists per game last season with bricks for teammates. What I do believe is that Rubio’s style of movement on the court–the unpredictable changes of direction, the hesitation dribbles and speed-changes, and the subtle probing of defenses–physically allow him to see the court from more angles and ultimately, more comprehensively than a player like John Wall. By moving around the court in a variety of speeds and directions, especially at controlled speeds, Rubio and players like him can see and pass from previously unfathomed angles.
This skill not only allows for improved passing and facilitation, but the unpredictability that comes with it can open up individual offense as well. Pop Quiz: Rank the following six players–Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, and Rajon Rondo–in terms of their career effective field goal percentage (eFG%), a statistic that fairly weights traditional FG% with the relative value of three-pointers and how often you attempt them. The answer?
1. Steve Nash (55.5%)
2. Chris Paul (50.3%)
3. Rajon Rondo (49.4%)
4. Derrick Rose (48.8%)
5. Russell Westbrook (43.4%)
6. John Wall (42.7%)
Rajon Rondo’s jump shot is more off than year-old milk, but his career eFG% is on par with Chris Paul’s and ahead of players that most would consider more talented (scoring-wise, at least) in Rose, Westbrook, and Wall. One might counter that Rondo has HOF-caliber teammates, that he isn’t relied on to shoot as much, and that his opportunities are not the result of his style, but of defenses guarding against his stellar passing abilities. And all these things are undeniably true and imperative to this discussion. But the same skill that allows for Rondo’s passing ability also allows him to be an efficient scorer from the field–he has a mastery of angles and speed that baffles defenses time and time again. Unlike Nash and Paul, Rondo can’t shoot a lick, and furthermore, he’s afraid to drive because he can’t shoot free throws (unlike mediocre shooters who excel at the stripe such as Rose, Westbrook, Wall, and Rubio). Despite Rondo’s fear of free throws and the defense’s luxury of stacking the paint, Rondo still boasts an eFG% above Rose, Westbrook, and Wall. I’m as dumbfounded as you are.
In looking at the above list, eFG% is almost perfectly correlated with subjective ratings of those players’ abilities to change speed and direction on a whim. Surprise, surprise. This bodes well for Rubio–despite Rubio’s reputation as a poor finisher at the rim, his style resembles the players towards the top of that list more than the players at the bottom. Plus, unlike Rondo, Nash, or Paul, Rubio is 6’4″, a sure advantage despite being more in line with Rose, Westbrook, and Paul, the players with inferior eFG%’s.*
In the end, I am arguing that the skill of varying movement and speed in an unpredictable fashion (as compared to speedy/athletic north-south play), even if this skill is coupled with poor individual scoring abilities (e.g. Rondo), results in a confused defense and superior angles/control, which in turn allow for superior distributing and scoring.
Part 2b: The Psychology and Development of Ricky Rubio
As a warning, I will say that my thoughts about the psychology/development of Ricky Rubio are merely educated guesses. I do not have the pleasure of knowing him and freely acknowledge that my ideas are far from guaranteed truths.
But how did Rubio attain this skill? Earlier, I looked at Wall’s development from a dominant player in high school to a struggling one in the NBA. I theorized that this is largely due to the fact that Wall’s style proved successful his entire life, providing him no rationale to adopt a more east-west style of play. Rubio, on the other hand, underwent an experience of the opposite nature. Playing against grown professionals since age 14, Rubio has rarely been significantly larger or more athletic than his competition–in fact, he was most likely smaller, weaker, and less athletic (although likely close to as fast) as his opponents. These shortcomings could not be made up for with a deadly shot, as one might be able to say about Steve Nash (who is athletic in his own right, but cannot jump or beat you with his first step). Instead, they were compensated for by an adapted ability to move and see the court, an ability that shines bright now that he is a grown man with experience under his belt. If anything, Rubio’s limitation as a shooter and finisher (nevermind playing professionally as a young teen) has also forced him to be even more creative as a mover, dribbler, and passer (see: Rajon Rondo). Furthermore, despite Rubio’s hype over the years, I would guess that he was psychologically humbled by playing with physically dominant professionals. Rubio’s struggles in Europe (at least compared to Wall’s utter HS dominance), coupled with the physical limitations that caused this failure, was likely a catalyst in inspiring an open-minded, adaptive approach towards the point guard position. Whether this was conscious (i.e. intentional) or subconscious (i.e. gradually internalized) is beyond my knowledge, but knowing the answer to this is crucial in hypothesizing what the future holds for John Wall.
No doubt Rubio has a “natural” feel for the game that not everyone has, but does anyone seriously believe that Rubio was born with this ability and that John Wall wasn’t? Perhaps, but I reckon that this skill was born out of experience and circumstance. Even in my personal experience as an unrefined, untrained 5′-11″ player with average athleticism at best (I can touch the rim!), I have watched Paul and Nash play enough to emulate their ability to manipulate a defense with creative movement in a way that allows for unpredictable and effective passing and shooting. Not that I have this specific skill, but I have unpredictable idiosyncrasies akin (albeit less impressive) to Steve Nash’s ability to shoot layups after jumping off the wrong foot.
Future Directions and Conclusion
I have argued that speedy, north-south basketball players (e.g. Wall) are prone to attempt difficult layups and face limited angles with which to see the court and make passes. In the same vein, playing at varying speeds and angles keeps the defense on its toes, allowing for effective passing and efficient scoring. I tried to answer how and why players like Rubio, Rondo, Paul, and Nash came to play basketball in this fashion (the answer: situational constraint and ensuing patterns, coupled with natural feel) and I reasoned why Wall, Rose, and Westbrook play a speedier north-south style (answer: it’s good to be fast and this style has been effective for these players in their past).
What I cannot answer, and here, reader, is where I’d love your input, is how easy one can acquire the skills of Nash, Rubio, and Paul. No doubt their vision is excellent, but it’s also the style they play that allows their vision to work via confused defenses and new passing angles. LeBron James enlisted Hakeem Olajuwon’s help to work on his post-game after years of refusing to take his game to the low-block. We’ll see whether LeBron posts up more and whether Olajuwon’s tutorship helped. If John Wall feels similarly frustrated with his north-south style in three years, is it even possible for a retired Steve Nash to impart to John the 360°, change-it-up style of play?
To use one final cross-sport analogy, fans frequently laud Brazilian soccer players for their style, grace, and creativity, soccer-related attributes that are by no means inherent yet nonetheless seemingly unattainable. Despite Brazil’s widely noted success and the style attached to it, few players, teams, or nations have found a way to replicate it. We all know that a given player cannot make himself taller or change his body type, although to a degree he can make himself stronger, faster, and more explosive. The question for Wall is the opposite: is the varying speed and movement that characterizes the success of Rubio, Paul, and Nash A) a mentality that Wall can consciously turn on if opens his mind, B) a skill that can be learned through deliberate study and hard work, C) a skill that, with the experience of failure, is gradually internalized/adapted to over time, or D) an unattainable, savant-like creativity and intuition that only geniuses possess? My cop-out answer is that it is a mix of A, B, C, and D, but only if/when Wall acknowledges his shortcomings and works to improve upon this apparent weakness can we answer those questions and see whether John can become the transcendent point guard that we want him to be.
What do you think about John Wall and Ricky Rubio? Where do you stand with regards to style and its ability to be learned? What other thoughts, concerns, or questions do you have? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.
*That last sentence is a perfect example of the lesson that correlation DOES NOT EQUAL causation. In other words, despite the fact that my list of 6 players had it’s tallest players at the bottom, I don’t think any rational analysis would conclude that PG height hinders eFG%–if anything, we would expect height to increase eFG% on the whole.