Projecting how exactly John Wall slots in alongside James Harden is a complicated task. Projecting who the Houston Rockets acquired last week and what caliber of player they have differs, depending on your perspective and optimism (or lack thereof). Understanding how Wall fits next to Harden cannot be achieved without first knowing who he is at this stage, nearly two seasons removed from his most recent NBA game and coming off surgeries to address a ruptured left Achilles and bone spurs in his left heel.
The last time we saw Wall, he labored through 32 games, settled for far too many contested midrange jumpers, looked noticeably less explosive, lacked rhythm as a passer, and showed scant defensive engagement. But Wall dealt with bone spurs the entire season before electing for surgery around the New Year. It’s a skewed lens through which to view him because a season earlier, he was still quite good, earning a fifth consecutive All-Star honor, consistently bolting into the paint, and manipulating defenses with his passing (the defense remained porous).
The problem, however, is expecting a 30-year-old following two surgeries who already owned a lengthy injury history to be the player he was three seasons ago also feels like an ill-advised proposition. I’d lean more toward his 2018-19 effectiveness (minus-0.32 PIPM) over his 2017-18 campaign (plus-2.02), though playing without bone spurs should help reinvigorate him and his offensive approach. The intention is not to reduce his performance to a singular data point, but to establish the contrasts between his previous two seasons and how we should expect him to look.
While predicting who Wall is and how he nestles into his new Southwestern digs is murky regardless of which season you gravitate toward, there are commonalities between each, on both sides of the ball, that should clarify some of the vision. Wall is highly deliberate as a handler. Some of that is slippery craft and deception, particularly as a finisher with ambidexterity and funky-footed or off-beat attempts at the bucket. He leverages his handle to set up screens well, varies his speeds to toy with defenders, and can manipulate defenders as a passer. His patience and savvy, cognizant that he mustn’t operate at full throttle 24/7, are advantages over his predecessor, Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook can function at different speeds, but the linking together of altering paces is where he often falls short. Wall is more adept in this regard and the reps he does receive on the ball should look different than Westbrook’s, which often resulted in slow-cooking pull-ups, post-ups, or hyper-speed forays to the cup. Ushering in a ball-handler who brandishes stylistic diversity and is vastly more advanced as a passer (vision, accuracy, timeliness, manipulation) will represent a change. There’s certainly the possibility Wall’s post-Achilles burst prevents him from maximizing this trickery and that he’s not capable of a sizable creation burden, but the available evidence displays an initiator worth utilizing, albeit one with some prominent warts that we’ll get into.
Despite appearing less dynamic and zippy offensively in 2018-19, an offensive context wired closer toward optimization should aid Wall. Washington’s scheme was rather unimaginative, short on creativity and counters or avenues to simple points. Even though we’ve yet to see Stephen Silas’ plan, it is assuredly going to lean less on Wall commandeering the action and will likely find paths to featuring his standout traits: passing/manipulation, ball-screen craft, and (hopefully) horizontal explosion. Plus, a starting lineup with a quartet of floor-spacers is a boon as well. Wall missed Marcin Gortat’s timely, hulking screens in 2018-19, but new teammate Christian Wood, a big who spaces the floor (38.6 percent from deep) and is an elite finisher (97th percentile around the basket) provides versatility as a pick-and-roll partner, which should amplify Wall’s talents and ease the pressure.
The downside to Wall’s meticulous maneuvering is he doesn’t generate open or efficient shots for himself on a regular basis. His sustenance is a heavy diet of challenging rim finishes and mid-range jumpers, the latter of which it often feels like he seeks out rather than being resigned to by defenses. Off the ball, he doesn’t capitalize on advantages forged for him, bypassing many open catch-and-shoot looks or opportunities to slash downhill, and instead, initiating offense through his own preference. So, while he’s ranked in the 89th percentile (2018-19) and 59th percentile (2017-18) on spot-ups recently, that doesn’t account for all the times his tendencies prevent a spot-up chance to resonate or how his methodical approach enables defenders to play him differently than they would other effective catch-and-shoot guys.
Thriving next to Harden (are they ever going to play together?) necessitates far less of those stalled-out scenarios and excelling with the ball in his hands demands internal growth — a recognition that the play isn’t always there and early clock pull-ups will never be the solution, regardless of result. Wall’s off-ball presence is due for retooling, even beyond the spot-up conundrum. Among 49 guys who averaged 32 minutes per game in 2018-19, Wall finished last in distance traveled offensively. Maybe those bone spurs diminished his vigor, you say? A year earlier, he ranked 56th among 57 qualifiers. Dating back to 2016-17, across 151 regular season games, he’s logged nine cuts, according to Synergy.
The majority of his time off the ball is spent stationary, watching the action unfold. He does not lift or relocate around the arc to broaden passing angles. He does not slice into creases in the paint. Oftentimes, when he does catch the ball, he’s unprepared to shoot or drive, empowering defenders to aggressively play off of him, knowing they have a long recovery window.
An offensive scheme that requires more activity could alleviate some of this apathy, but there is much Wall must rework, on and off the ball, to discover his niche. Expecting an established star to change his ways a decade into his career is perhaps too optimistic, but he is the sidekick now. In Washington, Bradley Beal, curling around countless screens every night, catered his game to maximize that tandem. Harden, for as long as he’s around, is the sun in Houston, while Wall rotates in his orbit. Refining the shortcomings of his skillset is how this ecosystem can keep spinning and bring success for all parties involved. The Wizards permitted him to play on his terms because he was the offensive engine. That is not the case with the Rockets.
There are a few pathways to extracting value from Wall in a secondary creator role, some of which are scheme-driven, while others have to stem internally. For Wall, being more decisive off the catch, whether it’s priming himself for quick trigger 3s when open or torching hasty closeouts to collapse defenses is vital. Growing into that cutter-faciliator-finisher archetype that Westbrook embodied next to Harden would be wise, though Wall is a better passer and shooter, giving him some leeway.
With Westbrook’s jumper abandoning him the past few seasons, he found his stride in Houston by, essentially, eliminating threes from his profile and relentlessly carving his way inside. Wall, though, has made 40.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot long balls since 2017-18. Over that same span, Westbrook has only made 31.6 percent of his attempts. Wiggle room exists, but decisiveness is key on his end. For the Rockets, running motion-based actions, such as concepts from Delay and Pistol series, deploying Wall’s speed and playmaking to get him downhill against compromised defenses, will likely be how he yields equity as a handler.
Because Washington rarely called stuff like this for Wall and because he largely failed to play with purpose or urgency off the ball, seeing how he might attain success in this scenario is difficult, though a few guiding lines of film exist.
A lot of those examples surface within the flow of the offense, but the third play of that montage stands out most prominently. It leverages his burst and passing, offering a roadmap for usage alongside the ball-dominant Harden. With a well-spaced floor and dominant player finisher in Wood, that should be a popular action for Wall, assuming he sprints into the hand-off to initially puncture defenses and acts expeditiously — because, again, the decision-making cannot simmer slowly and end poorly as it did too frequently two seasons ago. Much of his potential success hinges on how much of his high-end burst still exists, which is tough to project because he’s both coming off a serious injury and looked less explosive in 2018-19, though the bone spurs may have been responsible for that decline.
Truthfully, I’m pretty pessimistic about his outlook. A ruptured Achilles is one of the more damaging injuries you can suffer and often saps athletes of their explosiveness, a hallmark of Wall’s game. If he doesn’t have the burst to collapse defenses and enact advantages, his worrisome habits as a shooter and decision-maker are accentuated.
He’s far removed from his All-Defense level, too, plagued by a litany of issues. He is torched on ball because of declining lateral quickness, switches pretty much any play possible, even when it coaxes suboptimal assignments for he and his teammate, rarely closes out, loses shooters around screens, and general lethargy invites a host of open shots. When he does close out, it is reckless and fails to contain anyone. He overhelps on stunts and rarely recovers back to his man effectively. He loves defending post-ups, but relies too heavily on quick hands for steals and gets out of position. When navigating screens, he is stiff and upright or pursues on-ball steals, taking himself out of the play.
His best defensive asset is playmaking (2.5 stocks per game the last two years), but that is easily overshadowed by his gambling and inactivity. If this all sounds harsh, it’s only because the film is brutal. Being a good offensive player is still possible for Wall — and I hope it arises — but the defense is saturated with possession-crumbling plays like these.
At this juncture, it seems unlikely John Wall and James Harden play many games together, let alone any, though they remain on the same team for now, tasked with leading Houston. If Wall brings the same conventions that defined him in Washington, the fit is fairly precarious, even before baking in concerns over his play post-Achilles. If Wall adjusts, being more ready to play off the catch and lively off the ball, there’s the outline of a workable pairing. Its viability is contingent on a refreshed approach from Wall and his zippy burst prevailing through the injuries. His passing, explosion, and general craft offensively are useful. His defense, though, is going to be problematic no matter where his athleticism lands.
A Wall-Harden partnership could steer the Rockets quite high up the Western Conference ladder. Given what we’ve seen from Wall in recent seasons, consider me quite skeptical of that. The evidence, while flawed, of who Wall is doesn’t convey much optimism for him in a scaled-down role, precisely the mantle he will carry next to his superstar teammate.