John Wall, learning the ropes as an NBA point guard

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that John Wall is only a rookie. His buzz attracted national attention for three years preceding his professional debut, and now seems to have faded amid the point guard debate echo chamber and Blake Griffin’s megaphoned redshirt ROY campaign. But Wall’s inconsistent play over the Wizards’ holiday weekend homestand was an example of how the twenty year old point guard is still finding his way, and still deserves the hype.

On Saturday night, Wall looked hurt, tired, and disenchanted. It was frustrating to watch Wall allow himself to be contained by the Raptors’ notoriously penetrable defense. On pick and rolls, he was indecisive, and on his signature full court sprints to the hoop he struggled to finish, often appearing out of control. What’s worse, he gave Jose Calderon, a slightly above average point guard, free reign to drop 21 points and 15 assists by failing to pressure the ball away from Calderon’s comfort zones.

It was the kind of performance that rookies have when they’re on a bad team, playing against another bad team in a half empty arena. This was the Raptor’s second meeting with Wall (who did not play in the teams’ first meeting), and like most teams this season they sunk deep in the paint on pick and rolls to discourage Wall from driving. What was alarming wasn’t that this strategy kept Wall from getting inside, but that it seemed to prevent Wall from finding a rhythm in the rest of his game.

Mental exhaustion seemed to be the culprit in his eight point, nine assist, three turnover performance. It was all he could do to manage the game, he didn’t have the juice to dominate it.

As Calderon said afterward, “I think he’ s going to be a great player, but it’s tough in the first year, and plus he’s dealing with injuries.”

Before facing the Wizards on Monday, Jazz back up point guard Earl Watson sympathized, “I hit that wall right around this time of year–right before All-Star break.  It wasn’t the competition, it was more or less the travel, the wear and tear of your body, learning how to play injured for the first time, and consistently playing at an NBA-level.  I think the mental focus that it takes to a backup point guard, let alone a starting one like Wall, just wears you out physically.”

But just 40 hours after his lackluster showing, Wall was another man.

Fired up for his Monday afternoon matchup with Deron Williams, Wall came out trying to do a bit too much. But I liked that. I wanted to see him go for it, turnovers be damned. I wanted to see him forcing the action and applying pressure all over the court, even if it occasionally caused him to loose his grip on the game. I wanted to see him push his decision-making to keep up with his brilliant speed instead of playing slower to eliminate all mistakes.

By halftime against the Utah, Wall had a double double in points and assists, and was heading for a dubious triple double with six first half turnovers. Jimmy operated the pick and pop to perfection, drawing the Jazz defense then finding his pop man with crisp, accurate passes. Wizards strech fours Yi Jianlian, Andray Blatche and Rashard Lewis all connected on Wall kickouts to keep the Wizards ahead while leading scorer Nick Young was still freeing himself from Raja Bell’s handcuffs. Oh yea, Wall also threw it away three times in the first five minutes leading to two Utah buckets. But don’t worry about that.

In the second half, Wall seemed to find a balance between his too modes. He blew past C. J. Miles on an anklemelting cross-over for an easy bucket, got to the free throw line three times and helped facilitate Nick Young’s sterling second half by ensuring his scorer got the ball where and when he needed. This included a game-clinching drive and kick with a minute left that sealed the Wizards first win streak of the season.

Wall would finish the game by putting up nine more points, five more assists (including this absurd oop to Washington’s resident Wookie) and only one more turnover.

When asked if he was surprised at how well the seemingly banged up Wall played, Deron Williams (who hit six threes on his way to twenty-nine scintillating points) said, “Not at all, of course he’s going to get up to play against me, it’s his first time seeing me.  I knew that coming into the game.”

Control may be the better part of exuberance for Wall, but I have to think his perhaps overly aggressive mindset contributed to the way he sustained his energy and focus throughout the important moments of the second half. He’s still finding the balance that Deron Williams so expertly exhibited yesterday, as the Jazz point guard seemed to know exactly when to go hardest on the throttle, and when to coast.

One day soon Wall will be the one handing out lessons on a nightly basis. His season average of nine assists per game is the best for any rookie in the last fifteen years, and for a 20 year old ever. Still, he’s taking plenty of lumps from the grinding NBA lifestyle and even from some point guards he’ll one day dominate. But that’s what being a rookie in the game’s most talented position is all about.

Follow Beckley on Twitter!

Thanks to Rashad Mobley and for the quotations!

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