John Wall grinned. He knew my question was a setup, but he agreed with its premise, so he let the thought yo-yo in his mind.
Could you ever imagine an NBA season so full of great individual performances that averaging 23 points and 10 assists and winning a player of the month award would result in you being underappreciated?
For Wall, who feels perpetually undervalued, the notion brought out the Rodney Dangerfield in him.
“Nah, I never would have thought that,” Wall said recently. “I thought playing like this would make me No. 1 in people’s minds, but I’ll take whatever comes with it.”
For certain, Wall is having a great season, perhaps one worthy of a top-five finish in MVP voting. The problem: His great blends into the greatest single point guard season in the greatest point guard era in NBA history. When you combine freedom, responsibility and performance, point guards have never owned the NBA like they do now. It’s why averaging 23 and 10 and leading the surprising revival of the Washington Wizards merely puts Wall in the conversation of spectacular performances, not sparkling on the marquee.
Wall understands it. He accepts it reluctantly. But don’t be mistaken: In a season in which Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double and James Harden is doing whatever he wants, Wall shouldn’t be considered inferior. He is a victim of extraordinary circumstances, but his growth and impact are just as impressive as those peers putting up the gaudiest statistics.
If you needed evidence, replay Washington’s 120-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday night. Watch Wall work against Westbrook, his most difficult matchup. Watch Wall in the third quarter, zipping up and down the floor, running the show, finding open teammates everywhere. Watch the Wizards make jumper after jumper, layup after layup, dunk after dunk.
Watch the game’s most memorable highlight: Wall on the fast break, bouncing a pass between his legs to Otto Porter Jr. for a dunk.
The Verizon Center crowd went nuts. Wall barked and gestured. It was another fun night of basketball for a Washington team that has provided consistent entertainment for more than two months now.
Wall can’t match Westbrook stat for stat. Wall isn’t chasing Oscar Robertson, and he probably never will. He won’t put up 50-point triple-doubles like Harden has. He has been a good closer in the fourth quarter, but he can’t match Boston’s Isaiah Thomas in that category. But he is winning. And he is producing. The Wizards are 33-21, and everybody feels involved, and Wall’s way of doing things has never been more laudable.
On Monday, on national television against the MVP favorite, Wall got the best of Westbrook’s team. He scored 15 points and added 14 assists in only 30 minutes. Westbrook made five of his 19 field goal attempts and finished with just 17 points, four rebounds and four assists, well below his season averages of 30, 10 and 10.
Entering the game, Wall had a 1-9 record when playing against Westbrook’s Thunder. In those games, Westbrook had averaged 25 points to Wall’s 15. They’re two of the fastest point guards in the league, and while Wall might have a slight advantage on speed, Westbrook is the better athlete overall. He is stronger and jumps higher. His coordination is off the charts. And Westbrook plays with an unrivaled motor. Wall possesses a better feel for the game, but Westbrook is a bulldog. His competes through any deficiencies in his game. Westbrook is, as Wall often says of him, “an animal.”
Wall is a basketball almanac. And his respect for Westbrook is apparent. His respect for Harden, a natural shooting guard who now operates as the point in Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, is tremendous, too. Though overshadowed by their statistical excellence, Wall is proud to be playing well in what could go down as a historic NBA season.
“I enjoy it,” Wall said. “I enjoy just watching a good game. Seeing a good game, watching the highlights, and I’ll be like, ‘Damn, he had those type of numbers? That’s amazing.’ Everybody has their opportunity. They’re going to put up big numbers. The two guys that have really been doing it a lot are Russ and James. They have the ball in their hands a lot. They’re being aggressive, but at the same time, they’re being very efficient. That’s what I really respect. They’re not wasting opportunities.”
Neither is Wall. He seems the perfect fit for the system of his new coach, Scott Brooks, who helped develop Westbrook in Oklahoma City. With Brooks, it’s about freedom and accountability. It’s not about control, really. He lets his point guards play, but within his parameters. And those parameters seem to stretch depending on a players’ level of responsibility.
Brooks has benefited from coaching teams with great point guard play. Looking beyond their similar athleticism and ability to attack the point, Wall and Westbrook are quite different. Wall is more in the traditional, pass-first point guard mode. Westbrook is an unconventional beast. He does it all, and he does it his own way. But in this era of the NBA, any style of point guard is acceptable.
“They both play with that pace that I’m always telling myself, ‘I’m so glad I don’t play anymore’ because there’s no way I can stay up in front of those two guys,” Brooks said. “They play with such speed and force and determination, and with all that being said, under control. At times, it does look a little out of control and maybe it is at times, but it’s pretty much controlled craziness. But it works, and it scares a lot of opponents.”
In the “Who’s better?” race, Wall might never reach Westbrook’s status. He seems to be okay with that. He’ll often tell you that Westbrook and Golden State’s Steph Curry have ascended to another level, with their video game-like ability to dominate games. But after those two, Wall wants to hear his name mentioned. And he’ll keep working to see if he can get to Westbrook-Curry territory.
But when it comes to national perception, he’s bothered that he doesn’t hear his name immediately after those two. He is in there with Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and others. But he wants to separate from being “one of” the great point guards in a great era.
If Wall keeps playing like this, he just might.