Understanding the Playing Style of Wizards' John Wall

By Jeremy Hartman

Periodically, I will take a look at players across the NBA and break them down using the techniques, teaching points and positional points of emphasis I focus on while training and coaching.

I don’t think there is any better player to start with than the top pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, John Wall.

For point guards our criteria is broken down into three major categories: Offensive Game, Defensive Game, and Intangibles. Each of those three categories have points of emphasis, or sub-categories, that are integral parts of playing the point guard position at a high level. These points of emphasis are also used to help design a personalized skill development training program that allow players to strengthen particular areas of need.

The list of criteria has been formulated through speaking and consulting with various coaches and skill development trainers on each level of play. It is not an exhaustive list but rather a list of what many feel are the most important characteristics necessary to be a successful point guard.

After examining the criteria in a little more detail I will provide a brief breakdown of what I have seen from Wall thus far.

Offensive Game

We typically look at the following aspects in regards to point guard play: ball handling and passing includes dribbling and passing adequately with both hands, bringing the ball up the floor against pressure, delivering passes under pressure, having separation moves off the dribble and out of triple threat, and finding open players in transition.

Shooting looks at the player’s ability to shoot off of pin downs (down screens), making open shots from game spots, being an effective three-point shooter, and finishing around the basket. The pick-and-roll game should probably be a category all to itself as the pick-and-roll is a fundamental part of the game at the next level.

Moving without the ball is defined as being able to get open using a variety of moves, using screens, and playing and cutting off the post.

John Wall’s offensive game is unquestionably his strength. He pushes the ball up the floor so well and has a “gear” that many people can only dream of reaching on the basketball court. However, there are some holes in his game and it’s evident that other NBA teams know that as well.

Wall handles the ball well but still gets sloppy at times with his dribble. There were times when Wall simply dribbled too much. He seemed very tentative at certain points. Quite possibly, he was waiting for teammates to get open off of set plays. Mainly, it looked as if he were thinking too much instead of just playing the game that comes so naturally to him.

Wall also does not appear to have one single go-to move in order to penetrate the lane. He does have a nice hesitation dribble and a spin move going from left to right that allows him to use his speed and quickness to explode by his defender. Both moves are effective in creating separation off the dribble but over the course of an 82-game season he will have to develop another move or two as well as their counter-moves.

One thing of concern early for the Wizards’ coaching staff would have to be Wall’s penchant for forcing passes or trying to thread the needle one too many times. In a few of the summer league games I watched, Wall attempted to make a pass that appeared there (and was there in college) but really was not. The passing window closes much more quickly in the NBA than it does even at the highest levels of college basketball. Wall found that out, often his passes hit a thicket of arms instead of his teammates. The good news in this arena is that the more Wall plays at the NBA level the quicker he will recognize what is open and what is not.

It became obvious rather quickly that the scouting report on John Wall’s shooting ability has made its way around the league at a lightning pace. New Orleans continued to give him room to shoot a jump shot on almost every possession, much like teams do to Boston’s Rajon Rondo. Wall has better form than Rondo and I think he will eventually develop into a better than average shooter. Teams are going to play off of him to keep him from getting into the lane. Shooting will be a continual area of concern for Wall and only time and practice will make it a strength. With his driving ability, Wall’s best option right now might be a mid-range pull-up jumper. It has often been said that shooters are made, not born. I think this will be the case for Wall. He will need to spend the off-season refining his jumper to make it a weapon. If he can do this then he will be virtually impossible to stop in a one-on-one situation.

I was impressed with Wall’s body control and his ability to finish around the basket. His ability to maneuver the ball away from defenders and get it off the glass should pay dividends quickly for he and the Wizards. Wall’s athleticism is the major factor in his ability to finish at the rim. I would like to see him develop a second pivot move in the paint to keep himself out of trouble. He will find that he won’t be able to elevate over everyone in the league so it will become increasingly important for him to have multiple pivot moves around the basket. As I tell the players I coach and train, “Don’t be a number, be a player.” Kobe Bryant understands this concept. That’s why he sought out the wisdom of Hakeem Olajuwon in order to learn his moves around the basket. I would like to see Wall do the same.

As for Wall’s play in the pick-and-roll sets, he was indecisive at times when coming off the screens. There are flashes of greatness at times but you can see that Wall did not play in enough pick-and-roll situations at Kentucky. It will be an area that I’m sure Flip Saunders (and Sam Cassell as well) will focus on because a pick-and-roll set with John Wall and a much-improved JaVale McGee would cause havoc for opposing defenses. With many young guards that are just beginning to play out of pick-and-roll sets, there is the tendency to over-dribble as well as to give up the dribble too soon. Experience will be the key for Wall to develop an effective pick-and-roll game but it will be necessary for him to master.

The few times I saw Wall play off the ball against New Orleans I thought he did an okay job moving and getting open. The fact that Wall has dominated the ball at just about every level he’s ever played at means that he will struggle from time to time if forced to play off another guard (i.e. Gilbert Arenas or Kirk Hinrich). He will have to resist the urge to stand and watch. I do think the Wizards would be wise to run some sets with Wall playing off the ball much like Kentucky did. These were usually set plays that ended with Wall on the receiving end of lob pass for a dunk. I think we will see some of those this season.

Overall, John Wall has an offensive game that is tailor-made for isolation plays. If he continues to improve on his decision-making in the pick-and-roll sets then we could be looking at one of the next great NBA point guards. I have no doubt that Wall will also continue to work on his jump shot. Factor in his astounding athleticism along with his growing offensive skills and I think Wall will more than hold his own this winter.

Defensive Game

The Defensive Game category incorporates both team and individual defensive skills and concepts. There are fundamental defensive skills for the individual defense we look for out of the point guard position. One of those fundamental skills is guarding in the open court. An effective point guard can apply defensive pressure in the open court on a ball handler in order to disrupt an offense’s rhythm.

Footwork is one of the most overlooked areas of the game both offensively and defensively. A player’s feet are weapons defensively. If you can move your feet quickly then you are one step closer to being a good defender.

Recognition involves being able to recognize key opponents and their tendencies, proper help-side defensive adjustments and recovery, and preventing the opposing team’s point guard from getting his team into their offensive sets.

While watching Wall play defense you can tell he has the natural instincts to cause havoc on that end of the floor. What is evident is that he is still learning the NBA defensive game and its rotations. There were not many times that I was able to see Wall guard his man in the open court for an extended period of time. There were moments during the game against New Orleans in which the Wizards did pick up full court but Lester Hudson, not Wall, guarded the main ball handler.

In regards to his footwork, I was impressed by the effort Wall was making to get over top of screens. Going “belly up” on screens takes effort and desire. It also requires proper footwork. To properly go over top of a screen the defender is in what we sometimes call a “foot fight.” The defender’s feet are “fighting” the offensive player’s feet to beat them to the outside foot of the screener. If a defender can do this then he can effectively limit the options of the offensive player. Wall did a good job of this in spurts. However, too often he would take an easy way out and go underneath a screen, which created mismatches.

Several times Wall found himself switched onto a much bigger post player. He was fortunate that the Hornets never really exploited the match-ups.

Recognition-wise I thought Wall did a decent job of trying to stop the opposing guards from getting into offensive sets. Again, this was summer league so it wasn’t exactly Chris Paul he was trying to stop but it does show some defensive awareness on John Wall’s part. His performance in relation to defensive recognition was probably about what you could expect at this point. He was not familiar with his opponents and their tendencies but that will change during the season. Once he sits through film sessions and scouting reports then we will truly be able to see if Wall’s basketball IQ and recognition catch up with his obvious talents.


The Intangibles section looks at key qualities that aren’t necessarily physical basketball skills: Coachability is basically asking if the player is coachable? Does he respond well to coaching and constructive criticism? Is he a sponge, soaking up the coach’s knowledge as well as his playbook? Those are all questions that we look at regarding a player’s coachability.

Leadership requires making teammates better, working hard on and off the court (being the hardest worker), being selfless, and being respectful to others. Teams are looking for their point guards to be leaders.

Mental Toughness is committing to getting better and training outside of one’s comfort zone. It also means doing what is supposed to be done every week. A mentally tough player does not get rattled.

Proper strength and conditioning is of utmost importance to a point guard. Point guards often play the most minutes of any player on a team thus; need to be in the best shape. Younger players often underestimate the physical demands of the NBA game so proper strength training is essential.

It has been mentioned over and over again on various websites that John Wall was a sponge and was trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible during his summer league experience. That is a key component in the coachability category as well as the leadership category. ESPN made it a point to show Wall sitting with Wizards’ assistant coach, Sam Cassell, who was coaching the team in Las Vegas. Wall was trying to absorb the wily veteran’s knowledge about playing the point in the NBA. Smart move for him.

Wall scored major points in the leadership category by deferring to teammates down the stretch of the game against New Orleans. It would have been easy for him to demand the ball with the Wizards trailing and only seconds remaining. Instead, he accepted the role the coaching staff put him in and made the right pass in getting the ball to Hudson for the game-winning shot.

Wall has an aura about him and it’s easy to see why teammates gravitate toward him. This will allow him to be vocal to veteran players when necessary. Add to the fact that he stayed afterwards to sign autographs long after he should have and you have the beginnings of a consummate leader.

I think it is too early to tell about Wall’s mental toughness. A summer league game is not the same as playing against the Celtics on the road in a game that must be won in order to make the playoffs. I do think Wall battled fatigue a little bit but he seemed to fight through it, which is a combination of training as well as mental toughness. This is an area that I believe we will have a chance to watch develop on a nightly basis, especially as the so-called dreaded “Rookie Wall” (no pun intended) hits.

One of the first things to jump out at me when watching John Wall play this summer was his body. His arms look much bigger than they did while at Kentucky. Part of this could be natural physical maturity but I see Wall as dedicating time to perfect that area of his game. Many people will argue that too much size will negatively impact Wall’s other natural gifts. That could be true but if he works with a basketball-specific strength coach then we will see his natural gifts enhanced, not suppressed.

Make no mistake about it; John Wall is a phenomenal talent. I do believe that he was unquestionably the top pick in the draft. Traditionally, successful teams and franchises are built around dominant big men; however, as the game changes it is becoming increasingly important to have a dominant guard. Wall appears to have that “It” quality that scouts, coaches and general managers are looking for in their star players.

If early performances in the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League are any indication, John Wall is a guard that the Washington Wizards can build their franchise around.


Popular Video