Is Optimus Dime Still Prime?

As of today, July 23, 2022, it has been 456 days since John Wall last played in the NBA.

It was my birthday. I’d love to say I remember seeing Wall drop 27 points and 15 assists during his best game in years, but I don’t. It’s likely I was flipping through games on League Pass (yes, that’s how I spend my birthdays). I might’ve stopped and watched a bit, admiring Wall’s apparent return to form. I might not have — who was to know this would be Wall’s last game for a year and a half?

Now, after another injury and then a strange exile from the Houston Rockets for the entirety of the 2021-2022 season, Wall is ready to battle for the starting point guard role for a Los Angeles Clippers team that many have as favorites to win the title next year.

A brief refresher: Wall burst onto the scene with force and personality, nae-naeing his way into the public eye with his ferocious dunks, flashy passing, and pregame dances. But there was substance to back up the style, and in his last fully healthy season, he averaged 23 points and nearly 11 assists per game to go with two steals. He made the All-NBA Third Team that year, the best of five All-Star seasons in the mid-2010s.

Unfortunately, that season was all the way back in 2016-2017. Wall then signed the supermax extension that paid him $170 million over four years, an eye-popping number. He received knee surgery, had various soft-tissue injuries, and ruptured an Achilles since signing that contract, and he was a healthy scratch for last season. All told, Wall has played 113 games over the previous five years, missing two entirely.

The 2020-2021 season was Wall’s most recent stint on the court (he strained a hammy at the end of the season and only played 40 games in total for Houston). That is the last time people have seen John Wall play competitive basketball.

Wall clearly had lost some of his vertical athleticism, which was to be expected after his litany of injuries, but he still showed a quick first step. He won’t be participating in dunk contests again, but he still could get past the point-of-attack defender and into the teeth of the defense – he ranked 14th in drives per game, directly behind Donovan Mitchell and Jimmy Butler.

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His finishing at the hoop was down some (he shot 56% at the rim, below average for point guards and his lowest mark since his rookie year), but guys coming back from injuries that severe always struggle in the paint at first. It takes months to catch up to the game’s speed and learn to cope with reduced athleticism.

Wall has never been a great jump shooter, but he’s much better on catch-and-shoot threes than he is off the bounce. Wall is a career 32% marksman from deep, but on the Rockets, he shot over 38% on catch-and-shoots. Keep this number in mind.

It’s hard to judge Wall’s defensive season on a Rockets team trying to lose after James Harden forced his way out of town. Wall was an All-Defensive Team player at his peak, with near-perfect instincts on when to gamble and when to hang back and play solid positional defense. He still showed some of those same playmaking tendencies in Houston. Watch as he initially starts on the weakside corner in the top-right of your screen before realizing a pass was coming from Paul George to the screener. He dives in for an easy steal and dunk:

He’s always been a superb shot blocker for a 6’4” guard (in the 90th percentile or above for his position every year of his career, even in Houston), and he’s strong in the post, adept at bothering bigs with incessant pokes at the ball. Wall also rarely fouls.

Wall’s Houston stint showed a degradation of his lateral quickness, and his rotations and off-ball defense weren’t airtight. Still, it’s possible — likely, even — that he’ll regain much of that for a Clippers team that prides itself on beautifully synchronous defense.

I think he’ll be an average-to-above-average defender for the Clippers at the point guard position, and he’s solid and long enough to fit into their switch-happy scheme perfectly.

Despite subpar efficiency, Wall still showed plenty left in the tank in Houston, even if he’s unlikely to be an All-Star again. The question for the Clippers is whether he’s better suited as a starter or as the first guard off the bench.

His direct competition for the role is Reggie Jackson, who in many ways is a similar player at this point in their careers.

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Wall’s performance on defense in Houston rates shockingly well by most advanced metrics, better than the eye test. Synergy Sports charted him as an elite defender against the pick and roll and spot-up shooters, and Estimated Plus/Minus had him as above-average for overall defensive impact. Jackson last year rated similarly but slightly worse than Wall on these metrics. Wall also is a better defender in the post. However, Jackson has the advantage of knowing the scheme and the personnel better than Wall, and he isn’t as prone to gambling.

It’s close, so offensive fit will likely decide the position battle.

Their shooting splits from their most recent seasons show similar accuracies (numbers courtesy of Cleaning The Glass):

However, the way they each get those shots is quite different. Wall has a much better ability to get to the rack than Jackson, who often gets stuck in floater range, and averaged almost twice as large a share of shots at the rim (39% vs. 21%). The Clippers desperately need someone who can collapse the defense to spring their armada of gunners open, and Wall is better suited to that role.

It’s important to remember that the Clippers are overflowing with talent. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are returning from their own injuries, but both players will likely still be top-tier scorers who want the ball in their hands a lot. After them, the Clippers added Norm Powell, a highly-efficient bulldozer of a shooting guard who averaged 20 points per game over the last few seasons, and they have a bevy of shooters like Robert Covington, Nicolas Batum, Luke Kennard, and Terance Mann. There aren’t many offensive weak links on this squad.

All that shooting might be the real reason Wall starts: he was once one of the best passers in the game, the avatar of the drive-and-kick philosophy of the point guards of the 2010s. His stint in Houston showed he still had the same passing eye. Watch as he takes the ball directly to the hoop off an OKC miss before hitting Christian Wood with a beautiful hook pass that just barely avoided Lou Dort’s arms:

The clip above speaks to another central reason the Clippers wanted Wall: not only is he fast, but he makes the team fast. Kawhi, PG13, and even Jackson are guys who like to meander around until they get to their spots, like my cat lazily deciding exactly where on the couch to sit for the afternoon. Wall has one thing on his mind: teleporting to the rim as soon as possible.

Transition and semi-transition opportunities are critical to effective offense, particularly in the regular season, and yet the Clippers haven’t taken advantage during their injury-riddled superteam years. They were 27th in the league in fast-break points in 2020-2021 and 18th last season. The Wall-led Wizards were top-10 in that category every year from 2013-2014 to 2016-2017. If “he who hesitates is lost,” Wall has undoubtedly never needed a map. He’s looking to get to the hoop and either lay it up or kick out to an open shooter every time.

The tools and skills are there for Wall to claim the starting role, but there is also a mental aspect. Leonard and George will hold the ball a lot, and Wall’s decent catch-and-shoot stats will benefit him there. He will play more off-ball than ever before. He’s never been a third option on a team before, and he might well be fourth or lower this season on this stacked squad.

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Wall has always been a central figure on every team he’s played for and has carried himself as such, refusing a lesser role in Houston to sit on the bench in street clothes instead. Previously, he and Wizards co-star Bradley Beal clashed at times. So far, though, he’s saying all the right things about accepting fewer touches and even being willing to come off the bench. Wall claims he’s ready to do the little stuff like screening for the stars, cutting off-ball, and deferring to the big dogs, but we’ve heard other players say similar things without results (Lakers fans, I’m sorry). The Clippers may decide he has too much of an alpha mentality to fit perfectly with George and Leonard, that he would be better off driving the team as the sixth man, with more freedom to initiate the offense and play as he always has.

But I doubt it.

Jackson is a little overtaxed as a starting point guard for a team with title aspirations, not a good enough shooter to space the floor or strong enough driver to initiate offense from the paint. It’s unclear whether Wall will be significantly better, but the ceiling is much higher, and the floor should be no lower. From the Clippers’ perspective, it was an absolute steal to grab Wall on a two-year, $13 million contract (he negotiated a buyout of his albatross $47 million contract with Houston to join this team).

This is it for the Clippers. I’d have to turn off the game’s trade denials to assemble this roster in NBA 2K, and Steve Ballmer is paying the equivalent of Estonia’s GDP to keep this team together for this year and the next. With all of their stars on the wrong side of 30, and injuries piling up every season, they will never have a better chance to finally shake free from the Clippers Curse. But they’ll only be able to summit the top of the NBA mountain if Wall can restyle his form as the ultimate third option.

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Michael Shearer is an NBA obsessive who writes to answer the questions he has about the league. You can follow him @bballispoetry. He also is a contributing writer for Fansided at Hoops Habit and writes a free NBA analytical newsletter at basketballpoetry.com that goes out every Tuesday and Friday.