In some ways, the flaws in John Wall’s contract extension are strange to contemplate and discuss. Unlike many large deals, the single biggest issue is not whether the player could be worth the money he signed for. The bigger problem comes in the form of timing.
Before Wednesday, only one path existed where John Wall could leave the Wizards without their involvement (trade, etc): Playing the 13-14 season under his rookie deal without an extension, signing his large one-year qualifying offer next summer, and then taking less money/years to go somewhere else in 2015. That’s it. The soonest Wall could leave would be 2015 and that would be after taking gigantic financial risks and/or sacrifices three summers in a row (2013, 2014 and 2015).
While it would be possible, Wall and his agent would have been treading on new ground in terms of young high level players in the league. This decision gets compounded with the fact that his injury history makes the downside risk of those choices even larger than for most players of his caliber. Despite playing a full season in the lockout year, Wall has missed 20 percent of his NBA games entirely and came off the bench in 12 more games. Like Stephen Curry last summer, the bigger question marks for Wall stem from whether he can stay on the court rather than his play on it.
John Wall the Player
In a strange twist, the first Wizards' game I covered after moving to D.C. was Wall’s first start of the 12-13 season after missing the first 33 games due to a knee injury. Even though he had some rust and fatigue issues early on which are commonplace for a player returning from an injury that limits his physical activity, Wall quickly turned it on and became a truly remarkable player to watch.
Just two seasons ago, Wall shot 30.5 percent on shots 3-9 feet from the hoop and followed that up with 28.3 percent from the same spot the next year. He had plenty of trouble with mid-range shots as well-his overall shooting in the lockout season was comparable to notorious non-shooter Rajon Rondo. Last season, the time he spent on his shot paid dividends early and often. He nearly doubled his success rate from 3-9 feet with a 52.2 percent that led the team and that figure would have led key contributors to the team (sorry Hilton Armstrong and Brian Cook) in both of his other years with the team. The mid-range shot become more reliable as well and the improvement forced defenses to play both Wall and the Wizards as a whole differently.
Fast point guards with more reliable jump shots put defenses in awkward situations because they cannot play back to prevent the drive, as so many teams do with Rajon Rondo now. Over the course of the second half of the season, Wall used that to his advantage and became an even better creator for his teammates. In the games he started, Wall averaged 19.2 points on 44.4 percent shooting (and 80 percent from the line) along with 7.7 assists on 3.3 turnovers along with 4.2 rebounds. Only five players averaged 7.7 or more APG for the season and Wall’s assist to turnover rate was solid though not spectacular.
Moreover, what made last season stand out was Wall becoming the first of the high-ceiling point guard prospects to make a big dent in his biggest weakness as a player. Ricky Rubio’s jumper has been coming along and Kyrie Irving’s defense should improve under Mike Brown but both of those guys and the rest of the young stud point guard morass still have plenty of work to do to reduce their flaws. If Wall can turn that weakness into something resembling a strength, he could become an elite player in the league regardless of position. He stands out from his peers as a player who uses his prodigious athletic gifts to be a passer first and showed a great understanding on and off the court of a primary ballhandler’s responsibility to his teammates. Players like Bradley Beal and Emeka Okafor got much better as Wall shined.
John Wall the Contract
While reading the preceding paragraph may make signing Wall to a max contract a clear call, the Wizards had very little incentive to make that big an offer right now. Comparisons have been made to Stephen Curry’s contract extension last summer since he gave up meaningful money in order to lock in a quality contract after a shaky injury history. Knowing what we know now, Curry would have generated a max offer this summer. That same uncertainty could have worked on Wall, likely to a lesser degree because of leverage. The Wizards probably got scared because Wall has become the face of a franchise looking their time as a laughingstock the rearview mirror while moving closer to postseason relevance. I saw the organization’s momentum firsthand this spring and conservative steps like drafting Otto Porter and re-signing Martell Webster show this understanding as well. One concept of risk aversion would say that rocking the boat could be more costly than playing out the game a little while longer and reducing some uncertainty. Furthermore, there was a downside risk of Wall becoming frustrated with Washington’s offers and taking the Eric Gordon Special of a four-year max where the final season comes in the form of a player option. A deal like that one would have only given Washington two additional controlled years over Wall taking the QO and leaving in 2015. That potential future could scare a franchise so close to relevance and the revenues that come from it.
However, the larger issue is this: the team eliminated their flexibility with this move. Where the Wizards would have had a little wiggle room between Wall’s cap hold and a max salary next summer, the team now has the full salary on the books for the entirety of the summer. Combining that with the generous deal for Martell Webster and you have a team pretty locked in for the future regardless of what Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza choose to do next summer. It would have been nice to retain some flexibility beyond expiring contracts to try and woo a player intrigued by what the Wizards are putting together.
Most importantly, signing this now puts a massive amount of risk and pressure on the team for the duration of the deal. In order to earn his contract and role, Wall must both stay on the floor and continue to improve- max players on non-elite teams at any position have these responsibilities. Being so dependent on a single player (20-22 with and 9-31 without Wall in the starting lineup last season) puts the Wizards in a perilous position each and every season. Ignoring the risk of alienating their best player and derailing their momentum carries some weight but not enough to justify making this big of a commitment with so much uncertainty and unnecessary risk out there.
Grade for the Wizards: C-
Grade for John Wall: A+