By Rob Mahoney
The rookie scale -- a predetermined range that dictates minimum and maximum contracts for first-round picks -- is team-friendly by design and generally serves to create some of the most cost-effective contracts in the NBA. But from the time a premier prospect is signed to his rookie deal, the countdown begins. Teams have four years (two guaranteed and two club options) to assess their future with a given player, and even less than that if there is any expectation from either side that an extension may be in the cards.
But in the case of John Wall and the Wizards, that rookie-scale grace period has been riddled with complications. As a rookie, Wall slogged through the mire of a team in disarray, and he also missed 13 games with knee and foot injuries. Last season, Wall couldn't benefit from a real training camp or team-assisted offseason regimen because of the lockout, endured a midseason coaching change and lost out on 16 games in a truncated 66-game schedule. And just before the start of his third season, Wall sustained a stress injury to his left knee that sidelined him until Jan. 7, taking another 33 games of evaluation and development off the table.
All in all, that puts Wall at 168 games played, barely more than two full NBA seasons. Even if Wall finishes out the season to play a total of 184 games, the fact remains that the Wizards will likely need to make a tricky decision regarding a potential (and likely lucrative) extension for the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft without really having had much of an opportunity to see him grow as a player.
Will the Wizards give John Wall a max contract? According to several persons with knowledge of the situation who talked with CSN Washington, all the signals point to the answer being yes.
For the embattled point guard, of course, rewarding him with a max contract is a no-brainer.
“If they believe I’m their franchise guy, that I’m the max player that I feel that I am, they’ll do what’s best for them,” Wall told CSN. “I feel like they believe in me. My coaches and my organization believe in me. The owner (Ted Leonsis) and GM (Ernie Grunfeld) believe in me. ... They like what I've been doing lately.”
If the "signals" that Michael cites wind up being indicative of the Wizards' thinking, it would hardly come as a surprise. Wall remains a valuable prospect, and Washington certainly wouldn't be the first team to commit to an unproven player at the end of his rookie deal. This situation only serves to accentuate how little we really know about Wall at this stage in his career. Everything is still deeply hypothetical, and yet the Wizards' front office has the unenviable task of sorting out whether Wall might actually be worth the exorbitant sum he reportedly could be paid. (Whether the Wizards would label Wall their "designated player," making him eligible for a five-year extension instead of a four-year deal, is also part of the equation.)
Wall, 22, is a terrific athlete. He possesses the balance and straight-line speed to perhaps become an elite penetrator. But lingering concern over his shooting ability makes it difficult to project his effectiveness. Elite perimeter shooting may not be a prerequisite of high-level point-guard play, but it certainly helps in executing a solid offense. By projecting a threat as a shooter, Wall would twist the defense and carve out lanes to the rim or to the open man, to say nothing of the more creative play design that would feature him as an off-ball cog rather than a ball-dominant instigator.
For now, Wall helps offset his shooting limitations with his terrific vision -- a defining characteristic that separates him from other rangeless, drive-centric lead guards. Wall is already a better passer than off-the-dribble creators such as Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose were at similar stages of development, giving him an opportunity to grow into a more balanced skill set. In the meantime, those playmaking skills also allow him to boost the Wizards' offense even as he rounds out his overall game, though relying on Wall exclusively in such a capacity oversimplifies Washington's play actions and curbs its lineup flexibility.
We envision the league's best playmakers to be full-time initiators of the offense, but in today's NBA a point guard is well served to stretch his game as a spot-up shooter and curl option -- two areas where Wall is undeniably raw. Wall has his sweet spot from mid-range, but he only has access to that part of the floor off the dribble and remains a dreadful -- and understandably reluctant -- long-range threat. He is still inexperienced enough that these are classified as areas for improvement rather than glaring flaws, but Washington could soon be committing a good purse to the notion that Wall will either improve on those deficits or succeed in spite of them. With a potential max extension under consideration, that's a tough bet to make.
Plus, Wall's offensive game is still unfinished even in terms of his driving ability, as he's still learning to manipulate defenders with hesitation and changes in direction while keeping his handle secure. He can sprint to the hoop and has developed a solid spin move, but Wall lacks that next-level grasp of how those tools could really exploit a defender's expectations. What's needed is a dose of reactivity so that Wall wouldn't be so reliant on overwhelming opponents with a fast first step. That level of awareness takes time and repetition to cultivate properly, though neither guarantees progress.
Wall faces a far steeper learning curve on the defensive end, where he has the ability to stay in front of his man, the physical gifts to (theoretically) be a terrific help defender and a staggering lack of discipline that otherwise complicates his play. Straying from a defensive assignment can be completely manageable in the right circumstances, and in Wall's case he is able to snag plenty of steals to help justify his decision-making. But teams and players need to be on the same page when it comes to freelancing in the passing lanes, and the Wizards' defense has never quite given me the impression that Wall's gambles are calculated risks. Perhaps those very plays are ones that Washington can come to live with as Wall improves the rest of his coverage, but for the moment they simply offer another reason to be uncertain about his defensive future.
This kind of criticism isn't meant to harp on the skill set of a productive player (frankly, Wall isn't given enough credit for being one of just three players to average at least 18 points and eight assists per 36 minutes this season), but merely to help highlight some of the discrepancies between Wall and the max-extension standard. Blake Griffin and James Harden, two top picks from 2009, had shown enough through their first three seasons (two in the case of Griffin after he missed his rookie year) to validate such an investment, while with Wall we're left to gauge his weaknesses and career trajectory based on slim evidence and hypotheticals. He may well sharpen his game to the point that these discussions seem silly in retrospect, just as he could underwhelm to the point of making a max extension feel burdensome.