Some Thoughts on the Productivity of John Wall

Kyle Weidie — at Truth About It (ESPN’s Wizards blog for the True Hoop network) — recently expressed some unhappiness with what I have said about John Wall (you need to scroll down a bit to get to Kyle’s comments in the post).

To summarize Kyle thoughts (about my thoughts)…

  • I have it in for John Wall (so it is not just analysis on my part, it is somehow personal?)
  • According to Kyle, Wall has become a “better leader, a better point guard, and better shooter”.
  • Data has to be used “wisely and with context”

As Kyle notes, this is not the first time he has been unhappy with something I said.  And as was the case before, the “something I said” was about John Wall.

After Kyle’s comments appeared I mentioned to my teenage daughters that someone was unhappy with something I said about John Wall.  My oldest immediately asked “is this person John Wall?”  And when I said this was not the case, she wondered why anyone else would care.

Of course she has a point.  But such is the nature of sports fans.    Clearly Kyle is a big fan of John Wall.  And he thinks there is a problem with my comments.

In response, let me look at the following:

  • what I said about Wall before he was drafted
  • what Wall has done in the NBA regular season
  • what I think we  should all be saying about Wall after that playoffs

Looking Back at the 2010 Draft

Back in 2010, the consensus was that Wall was the player the Wizards should take with the number one pick in the 2010 NBA draft.  And for many, this point was obvious.

At the time, though, I expressed some skepticism.  Here is what I said:

We should emphasize that college numbers do not forecast future NBA performance perfectly (in other words, the numbers won’t guarantee that a decision-maker will be “correct”).  There is, though, a link between what we see in college and what we will see in the future.  And that link – which we will illustrate with PAWS40 [Position Adjusted Win Score per 40 minutes] – suggests the following order:

  1. DeMarcus Cousins: 15.61
  2. Evan Turner: 14.37
  3. Wesley Johnson: 13.40
  4. Derrick Favors: 11.20
  5. John Wall: 9.97

Average PAWS40 is 10.17.  So of these five players, Wall was the only below average performer last year.  Yes, he was a just a freshman.  Then again, so was Cousins.  And yes, there have been below average point guards – like Deron Williams and Steve Nash – who became great NBA players.  Bu then again, there have been many, many below average point guards in college who did not become great NBA players.

So what I am I saying?  This really is not an easy decision. The Wizards need to ask themselves: Why did Wall play relatively poorly last year?  Can these weaknesses be corrected?  And would it be a better idea to take a player – like DeMarcus Cousins or Evan Turner – who already projects to be a more productive NBA performer?

The good news is that the Wizards have several weeks to think about this.  This process should involve more than just collecting information.  As we note in the book, the information needs to be sorted in terms of what matters (i.e. some college numbers) and what doesn’t matter (i.e. Final Four appearances, relative height).  And no decision should be made until the process in completing.

A few weeks later I offered more comments on Wall.

… on Monday, David Aldridge at NBA.com stated the following:

“I like the Wages of Wins guys; they do strong work and can make compelling arguments. But in this case we will have to agree to disagree. Numbers in a vacuum, without any context (the Wizards, coming off of their disastrous, star-player-is-indicted season, cannot afford to take any kind of gamble with the first pick) are as meaningless as “gut feelings” without any empirical data” (bolded words in the original).

Okay, I guess my post didn’t resonate well with everyone. 

Here is what I noted two weeks ago: John Wall – relative to the other players considered top choices in 2010 – was not an outstanding college player.  Specifically, his performance at point guard was roughly equivalent to what an average point guard selected out of college since 1995 has offered.  That suggests – and it is only a suggestion – that we should not simply assume Wall will be an elite NBA player.

… Just to be clear, here is what I am NOT saying: Wall will never be an outstanding point guard in the NBA.

My sense is that this is what people, though, are reading.   The argument, though, is more subtle.  All I am saying is that the Wizards need to figure out why Wall under-performed (relative to expectations) last year. Perhaps there is a perfectly logical explanation.  Then again, perhaps there is not. 

Just to review (what I hope you just read):

In 2010, people thought Wall was the obvious choice to be the number one pick in the draft.  I argued that his failure to perform at an elite level in college suggested this shouldn’t be so obvious.  And I emphasized (and I will do so again) that those relatively poor numbers did not mean that Wall could never be a productive NBA player.

Once again, college numbers are related to NBA performance.  But the relationship — as we see with Evan Turner, Wesley Johnson, and DeMarcus Cousins — is not perfect.   That being said, if a player doesn’t play well in college maybe it shouldn’t be so obvious that this player is the number one choice in the draft.

A Few Years Later…

Three years after this selection, Wall was given a maximum contract by the Wizards.  One might think that was because Wall had justified the Wizards faith in him in 2010.  But that is not exactly what the Ted Leonsis said in 2013 (and yes, as I noted at the time, his reasoning was not entirely clear).

Now four years have passed.  And perhaps it is time to offer some “context”; a term, I will note, that is often used by not often defined (neither Aldridge or Weddie defined what they meant when they used this term).   I am going to argue that one proper context needed to evaluate Wall’s contribution is what an average point guard offers.

In the following table, all the numbers are per 48 minutes.   Wall’s below average marks are shaded in red.

Statistic

Average

Point Guard

Career 2013-14

Playoffs

Field Goals Made

6.9

8.4

9.3

6.9

Field Goals Attempted

16.0

19.7

21.5

18.7

Three Point Field Goals Made

1.6

0.8

1.7

0.8

Three Point Field Goals Attempted

4.5

2.6

5.0

3.7

Free Throws Made

3.5

5.9

5.1

5.9

Free Throws Attempt

4.4

7.5

6.3

7.8

Offensive Rebounds

1.0

0.8

0.6

0.6

Defensive Rebounds

3.8

5.0

4.8

4.5

Assists

8.4

11.0

11.6

8.9

Steals

1.9

2.2

2.4

2.1

Blocked Shots

0.3

0.8

0.6

0.9

Turnovers

3.4

4.9

4.8

4.1

Personal Fouls

3.6

3.2

3.5

3.3

Points Scored

18.8

23.5

25.5

20.5

Effective Field Goal Percentage

0.478

0.446

0.473

0.387

Free Throw Percentage

0.797

0.790

0.805

0.765

Turnover Percentage

15.8

17.4

16.3

15.7

Wins Produced per 48 minutes

0.100

0.110

0.137

“not good”*

 * – I haven’t bothered to calculate WP48 for the playoffs.  But if you shoot 38.7%, your WP48 ain’t going to be good.

Before we get to Wall’s overall contribution to wins, let’s talk about his strengths and weaknesses. Relative to an average point guard, Wall is “good” at taking shots from the field and line, scoring points, grabbing rebounds, getting assists and steals, and even blocking shots.  Offsetting the “good”, we see that Wall is below average at getting those shots to go in.  He is also not good at getting offensive rebounds and is somewhat turnover prone.  So he is good at getting possession of the ball on the defensive end and setting up his teammates.  But when it comes to converting offensive possessions into points by himself… well, he’s not as good.   And again, that is relative to what an average point guard does in the NBA.

Although looking at the numbers alone is helpful, it is also useful to translate each of these box score numbers into wins.  After all, winning is what the game is all about . Given that obvious observation, we now turn to Wins Produced (a measure that summarizes the link between those numbers and team wins).  And this summary measure tells what I think is an important story.

Across Wall’s first four seasons he is a little bit above average.  To put those numbers in perspective, had Wall been only “average”, he would have produced 19.95 wins in his career (he has produced 22.01).  And this past year, had he been average he would have produced 6.21 wins (he produced 8.48).   So relative to average, Wall has produced about two more wins across his entire career (and those two wins showed up this past season).

All this leads me to ask the following questions:

  • Is this what fans had in mind when Wall was taken with the first pick?
  • Or when Wall was given a maximum contract?
  • What about Wall’s improved leadership skills?
  • And do I have it in for Wall?

The answer to these questions are…

  • Again, I was not sure Wall would be an above average performer back in 2010. Others, though, were very sure he was the right choice.  I think the evidence says that people were just a bit too confident on draft night.
  • I also don’t think Wall is worth a maximum contract.  Yes, he is still young.  But after four years, I don’t think he is likely to become an amazingly productive NBA player.
  • I have no way of measuring leadership skills.  Then again, I have not seen anyone else with this ability.  So when we use “leadership” in our evaluation of players, I am not sure what we are really saying.
  • And of course, the idea that I have it for John Wall is silly.   In my research I look at the productivity of NBA players (a useful project for a number of different research questions).  When the numbers say a player is “below average”, “average” , or “above average”; well, that’s just what they say.  If Wall suddenly became above average next year, then that is what I would report.  This was the story when Kevin Durant changed his performance after his unproductive rookie season.  And this is certainly what has happened as DeMarcus Cousins has gone from an above average college player, to a below average NBA player, and now to a somewhat above average player (although certainly not amazingly productive).

The 2014 Playoffs

All of this brings us to the 2014 playoffs.  As the playoffs unfolded I sent out a series of tweets (Kyle captured many of these) on the performance of Wall.  To put it simply, in the playoffs Wall did not play well.  An effective field goal percentage of 38.7% is awful.  But as I watched the Wizards and Pacers, Wall’s shooting efficiency (or lack of efficiency) was not often mentioned.   If Wall did something positive, though, the announcers seemed inclined to tell us that Wall was a star.

This strikes me as a very different approach to what we see in baseball.  It is not uncommon for a star player in baseball do perform poorly in the playoffs.  And when that happens, people will note that that star is playing badly.  In other words, in baseball people can recognize when a player’s performance deviates from expectation.

In basketball, though, the issue of shooting efficiency is often underplayed.  This strikes me as odd.  If you cannot get your shots to go in consistently, I do not think you are helping your team (the basic story told by Wins Produced).  And it seems to me that any objective observer of basketball should be able to understand this point (even if it is made about their favorite player).

Let me close by noting that just because Wall did not shoot well in the playoffs it does not mean he won’t shoot better next year.  And again, if that happens, we will note that Wall is shooting better.  Of course, if he shoots poorly… well, fans of Wall might just be unhappy with me.

- DJ

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