As recently as last season, John Wall was largely a theoretical defensive presence. One could plainly see the tools through which Wall might someday make his defensive ascent: the breakneck speed, the preposterous (6-foot-9!) wingspan, the pesky hands. Yet in the moment, Wall lacked mortar. There were gaps in his play on the defensive end that rendered him more of an occasional factor -- inconsistent both from night to night and play to play.
This is changing, and with it the nature of Wall's stardom. Wall is a remarkable playmaker, able to see the development of a play in a way few can and he's physically capable of executing truly spectacular sequences. He's a marvel. But every one-way player (even one like Wall who wasn't exactly a liability on D) faces a ceiling on how much good they could reasonably do for their team. Wall is slowly but surely pushing that artificial boundary, and in the process becoming a more integral part of what makes the Wizards so dangerous.
Washington is one of the better defensive outfits in the league, but only at its very best (allowing just 97.3 points per 100 possessions) with Wall guarding at the top of the floor. That on-court defensive rating is second in the league this season among starting point guards, per NBA.com. Some credit is naturally due to Wall's teammates; so much of Washington's success is predicated on the balance and size of its starting lineup, to which Nene, Marcin Gortat, and Paul Pierce are integral. Wall, though, has become a more active and committed participant in the Wizards' schemes to the point of tilting some matchups with his defense alone.
His defensive influence begins with his reach. Better positioning has allowed Wall the opportunity to change even more plays with his length, particularly when it comes to to contesting jump shots. When locked in on a matchup, Wall's combination of length and athleticism serve as a tether. He's the rare player who can go under a screen and still come out the other side in time to alter a shot, which effectively dares suspect shooters to fire away and then punishes them for doing so.
By the same token, Wall is doing better work than ever in terms of providing interior help before sprinting out to an opposing shooter. In some cases those shooters don't even know what to do with themselves. The sight of Wall, closing the gap at alarming velocity, creates panic. Attempts are rushed. Turnovers are committed as a shooter steps on the sideline in an attempt to escape or travels on their first step out. Wall is intimidating precisely because opponents are aware of how quickly he can close the gap, a fact which he uses to his advantage more than ever by closing out aggressively.
This is in part how Washington allows the third-fewest number of three-point attempts from the corners per game and the second-lowest percentage on such shots. Every Wizard is expected to run opposing shooters off the line in those situations. But Wall easily does it best, making an even more concerted effort to take away those shots than he did in years past. The speed and length are nothing new. The will, however, is more evident than ever.
Wall's ability to cover so much ground so quickly creates all kinds of opportunities for Washington's defense, both scripted and improvised. By design, Wall is expected to step over in protection of the lane in some pick-and-roll scenarios, which theoretically leaves him vulnerable to a quick kick-out should no other Wizard be in range to cover his original man. Wall manages these situations about as well as one could. There's no perfect way for an NBA defense to bend and rotate without risk, and Wall increasingly helps the Wizards to minimize theirs.
All of the Wizards' defensive output is accomplished without Wall playing an especially fundamental brand of defense. He still defends upright more often than any coach would encourage -- a trend consistent with other ridiculously athletic players in the league. Wall also runs into screens more often than he should and can fade out of a play when trailing behind it or screened out of it.
Damn, though, if he isn't tough to get past. Wall has an almost frantic energy that seems to twist an opponent's sense of timing and balance. Merely having Wall play them closely makes ball handlers antsy; after getting even a half-step on Wall, some opponents will force a pass they might otherwise look off or bumble in their attempt to make some other quick move. Wall picks up plenty of steals just by being active and engaged, benefiting from those who try to do too much to drive by him.
Those opportunities aren't there if Wall isn't in the right positions or doesn't fight through picks to offer some kind of defensive front. More and more, he's there -- pestering, hurrying, and deterring as much as he can. One can see heightened levels of effort and engagement from Wall in his defensive work, though with players of his age and experience level the more common impetus is practical understanding. Wall legitimately seems to have a better sense of when and how his defensive talents can be applied, which can only be earned by feeling out the game and his role within it.
The version of Wall who experiences the game in that way is a more actualized star than the one we saw last season. On a nightly basis, Wall vitalized the offense with his work off the bounce. To expand his contributions on the other end of the floor does more than assume a healthy balance, it takes on more significant ownership of what the Wizards do best.