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The All-Brand Name Final Four

People of Interest: John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins

Trying to make sense of two enigmatic, forever entwined prodigies

Here’s a question I’ve been kicking around for the past couple of weeks: Would you rather build a franchise around DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins or John Wall? Both went to Kentucky. Both possess elite skills (speed for Wall, rebounding for Cousins). Both had erratic rookie seasons. Both play for bad teams. Wall, for the most part, has soldiered on through chronic losing, coaching changes, and teammates (some recently departed) best known for starring in the blogosphere’s NBA blooper reel. Boogie, on the other hand, has completed the “troubled player” trifecta in record time: In a career spanning 125 games, he has fought with a teammate, demanded a trade (allegedly), and gotten a coach fired.

Most basketball people would say that Wall has a bigger upside than Cousins, especially in an era that rewards point guards, but Cousins has been the better player to date. As Wall has tried to figure out exactly how much he should score and how much he should be looking to throw passes off Andray Blatche’s forearms, forehead, and shoulders, Cousins has quietly established himself as the third best rebounder in the league. Wall, meanwhile, has been a study in erratic, occasionally thrilling, volume. He averages eight assists per game — a number that certainly would be higher if he played on a better team — but has also turned the ball over at an alarmingly high rate. His jump shot, a minor area of concern coming out of Kentucky, has gotten significantly worse. He plays entire quarters without displaying a glimpse of his once-hyped court vision. But then he snaps off a couple of passes that make you remember his high school highlight reels. Despite the occasional flashes of greatness and improved numbers, Wall’s play has fallen short of expectations. As such, legitimate questions have started to arise about his viability as the centerpiece of a winning franchise.

Boogie, is, well, Boogie. You don’t have to go much past the headlines to find the very real questions about his viability as a franchise player. At the same time, nearly every player who has been able to combine quick feet, elite rebounding, great hands, and a soft touch has gone on to wild success in the NBA. On a purely physical level, Cousins, at the age of 21, has pretty much everything you want out of a big man. But when it comes to Boogie, the details, as they say, lie elsewhere.

The Case for Wall

The John Wall project in Washington started when the Wizards won the lottery. Nearly two years in, the team has rebooted again. JaVale McGee and Nick Young are no longer with the team. Nene and his five-year, $65 million contract have arrived. Wall has finally been paired with a legitimate NBA big man who has played his entire career in an up-tempo offensive system. In Cleveland, another point guard picked no. 1 in the draft has dragged a similarly terrible supporting cast to 17 victories. Kyrie Irving’s success this year has provided evidence that a young, wildly talented point guard can be successful while playing with washed-up and/or untalented teammates. Nene is significantly better than anyone on the Cavaliers roster. Although the Wizards can’t really commit to rebuilding around Wall and Nene until Rashard Lewis’s $20+ million annual salary comes off the books in 2014, the organization can finally start to get some very real answers about Wall’s potential.

Wall doesn’t quite have the vertical explosiveness of Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose, and he might not be as flat-out fast as Ty Lawson. But there’s a kinetic quality to Wall in the open court that’s amplified when you see him in person. More than any player in the league, he runs through defenses with an instinctive recklessness. He still looks like the best athlete on the court, the kid from your high school who could pick up a set of golf clubs on Monday and shoot 80 by week’s end. This type of athleticism shades a bit differently than basketball’s usual calculus of length and vertical leap. Wall is a great athlete in the mold of Steve Nash — he processes the game faster than his teammates, gets to his spots before even he seems ready to be there, and passes the most visceral of eye tests: When John Wall is playing, you’re watching John Wall. Only T.J. Ford at Texas has ever run the court in a comparable style.

I know it’s ridiculous to say about a no. 1 NBA draft pick who went to Kentucky as the no. 1 high school recruit in the country, but I don’t think John Wall quite knows how John Wall should play. Like T.J. Ford, his value comes almost entirely from his ability to push the ball up the court. Like Ford, he hasn’t developed a reliable jumper and seems to struggle when the game slogs down in the half-court. Unlike Ford, Wall is taller than your average sports blogger and isn’t saddled with the back of a 60-year-old piano mover.

When running from baseline to baseline, Wall is the most dynamic point guard in the league. The question, of course, is how much this skill really matters. Especially when the rest of Wall’s game lags far behind his vaunted foot speed.

Let’s start with some positives. Wall has established himself as a decent isolation player. In this era of the NBA, a point guard needs to be able to go one-on-one and get to the basket when his team’s offense breaks down. For example, Chris Paul isolates more than any player in the league — more than Tyreke Evans, Carmelo Anthony, and Kobe Bryant — but given the Clippers’ offensive troubles, especially late in games, Paul’s one-man show has been the only thing keeping his team in the happy half of the Western Conference playoff race.

For players with more than 100 isolation possessions, Wall’s rate of 18.3 percent ranks 21st in the league, behind fellow “point guards” Ty Lawson, Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday, Russell Westbrook, Monta Ellis, Tyreke Evans, and Paul. None of those players, with the exception of Lawson and Paul, are pure point guards. But then again, John Wall might not be a pure point guard, either. Considering that every other part of his offensive game rates out somewhere between mediocre and average, it’s worth wondering whether John Wall’s best future might be as a combo guard who scores 20+ points per game while playing off a solid, pass-first guy who can run the floor with him. Unfortunately, nobody on the Wizards roster even approaches that description. And that’s not what the team signed up for when they picked him no. 1 overall.

Compounding the problem are Wall’s well-documented shooting woes. Of players who have shot more than 200 jump shots this year, only Shannon Brown (30.7 percent) and Tyreke Evans (23.3 percent) have shot at a lower percentage than Wall (31.2 percent). From beyond the arc, Wall has shot an almost comical 8.7 percent this season. In recent history, the only All-Star-caliber point guards to significantly improve on their shooting numbers were Jason Kidd and Chauncey Billups. Kidd shot 38 percent from the floor during his first two seasons as a pro, mostly on account of taking way too many 3-pointers. Billups, on the other hand, just became a better shooter as his career went along.

Simple regression should help Wall’s shooting numbers. He’s not a 9 percent 3-point shooter. He’s not the third-worst jump shooter in the league. Despite the rough start, Wall is still shooting 44 percent from the floor this season. That’s better than Monta Ellis, Jrue Holiday, Kyle Lowry, Mo Williams, Jason Terry, and Deron Williams. The high number, of course, can be attributed almost entirely to Wall’s ability to get to the rim. Unlike the early Dwyane Wade or the very early Stephon Marbury, when Wall launches himself at the basket he has the ability to draw contact without taking too much of a beating. He has that Monta ability to twist himself into a very small ball, draw minimal contact, and then finish on the other side of the rim. (Also known as “Impossible Shotability.”) This skill has put Wall on the free-throw line more than any point guard in the league. Only Dwight Howard, Kobe, LeBron, Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, and Blake Griffin have shot more free throws.

It’s certainly possible that John Wall could be the first player in recent basketball history to build an entire NBA career on his ability to take the ball hard to the rack. Unlike Marbury, the last point guard who could have scored 20 a game without taking a jumper, Wall doesn’t have a 3-point shot to fall in love with. There should be at least three possessions over the course of a game where Wall grabs a rebound and beats the defense down the court for an easy layup. Before injuries slowed him down, Ford did this both on the collegiate and professional levels. Between being the only legitimate one-man fast break in the league and getting to the line six times a game, Wall should average somewhere between 20 and 22 points per game. And unlike recently departed teammate Nick Young, those points wouldn’t just be the result of playing on a very bad team. Rather, John Wall going to the basket is probably one of the better scoring plays available in the entire NBA.

Of course, none of this tells us much about Wall’s abilities as a point guard. Speed alone can create opportunities, especially in transition, but Wall still hasn’t shown the court vision that made him the no. 1 high school player in the country. The numbers can only tell us so much — Wall is currently ninth in the league in assists per game and leads the league in turnovers, but those stats don’t account for the volatility and fluctuation in the Wizards roster and coaching staff. That being said, court vision is one of those skills that’s almost always immediately apparent — it doesn’t take more than a couple quarters of watching Ricky Rubio, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, or even the young T.J. Ford to see how the ball travels differently when they’re in the game. Wall has not displayed the same playmaking ability. Ball-dominant point guards will get their assists — Marbury finished in the top 10 in assists per game a shocking nine times in his career — but that doesn’t mean they can effectively run a team.

For now, Wall seems to be closer to Marbury than to Nash. This doesn’t mean that he’s a useless player who will never win a championship or whatever other terrible fates seem to always be attached to scoring point guards. It does not mean that John Wall can’t make his teammates better.

All it means, really, is that John Wall is a scoring point guard. Unfortunately, the history of teams built around scoring point guards hasn’t been all that great.

The Case for Cousins

After a well-publicized fight with then-coach Paul Westphal, rumors began to circulate that Cousins wanted out of Sacramento. The team responded by firing Westphal and installing Keith Smart as the interim coach. It takes a hell of a coach to win a showdown with a talented, young big man, and although it’s ugly to admit, Sacramento made the right choice by getting rid of Westphal in the hopes that Cousins would start living up to his potential.

And what potential! Assuming he develops at a reasonable rate, Boogie should be good for 18 points and 14 boards a game. He should lead the league every year in offensive rebounds. He should shoot somewhere around 50 percent from the floor and present a matchup nightmare for nearly every team in the league. He can already face up in the post and shoot over defenders. (He doesn’t do this particularly well, but just the ability to do this without turning over the ball is a testament to his body control and his feet.) He can score over either shoulder. He can spin to the basket and dunk. He’s one of the best offensive rebounders in the league. At the age of 21, he already has the offensive skill set of Zach Randolph and one of three best rebounding noses in the league.

Which brings up the most puzzling part about Boogie in the NBA. After shooting 56 percent from the floor during his one season at Kentucky, Cousins has become a remarkably poor shooter in the pros. This, for the most part, isn’t a result of the sometimes unfortunate freedom the pros bestow on big men eager to showcase their outside shooting prowess. Yes, Cousins is shooting almost three times as many jumpers as a pro than he did as a freshman at Kentucky, but that’s not too abnormal of an adjustment for a big man who no longer can just dunk over his collegiate competition.

What’s actually troubling is that Cousins’s offensive woes seem to come from a lack of effort. He doesn’t work as hard as he should to establish deep post position. When he catches the ball, he’s usually too far from the basket to unleash his very effective, borderline-patented one-handed jump hook. When he’s motivated — as he was in last week’s win against Kevin Garnett and the Celtics — Cousins can bull through the chest of his defender and finish. His problems, then, lie mostly in effort and the fact that he cannot seem to run up and down the court without fouling somebody. Last year, Cousins led the league with a mind-boggling 332 personal fouls, the highest number since Kurt Thomas was hacking everyone who walked into Madison Square Garden. Cousins is on the same exact 4.1 fouls per game pace this year and should easily lead the league again. This foul trouble has limited his minutes and his productivity. Cousins plays between five and 10 minutes less per game than everyone else on the leading rebounders list. If he could just figure out how to stay on the court, his offensive rebounding skills would give the Kings a few more possessions per game.

But all that is just noise. Nobody really doubts Cousins’s skills, his potential, or his ability to learn the nuances of the game. He will eventually figure out how to get down in the block. He will eventually stop fouling everything that moves. He will eventually improve his jumper to the point where he doesn’t have to fight for position every time down the court.

The real question about Boogie Cousins is a bit more obvious — can you build a franchise around a player who has had the same off- and on-court problems at every single level of basketball? Cousins has not been found with a gun at a nightclub. He has never been arrested. But the weird truth about the NBA is that either one of those offenses would be preferable to Cousins’s attitude on the court. At Kentucky, he played exactly as hard as he felt like playing. I’ve watched college basketball my entire life and have never seen a player quit on his team with such finality and visible anger. He seemed to have catastrophically misunderstood something about playing with passion and toughness — where Kevin Garnett, albeit annoyingly, externalizes his anxiety and desire to win into an angry mask, a frustrated Cousins just sort of sulks and lashes out at teammates, coaches, and opponent’s heads. There should never be a game in which Cousins grabs fewer than 10 rebounds. But too often, he finds himself with stat lines resembling the one he put up this past week against the Timberwolves — 20 minutes played, 2-8 from the field. Two rebounds. Four personal fouls. Yes, he’s young, and yes, there are conflicting reports about his attitude and personality. But guys with conflicting reports about their personalities have come and gone in the NBA, and the ones who have succeeded have always been able to compartmentalize their crazy and bust their asses on the court.

Cousins doesn’t do that. At least not often enough. If properly motivated, he could be one of the best power forwards in the league, make multiple All-Star games, and own Sacramento. (For chrissake, Greg Monroe, drafted two spots behind Cousins, has half the ability and has turned himself into one of the NBA’s best young big men.)

The good news for Kings fans is that there are rarely big men with Cousins’s skill set who do not go on to have very productive, All-Star careers. The bad news, of course, is that there are very few players with Cousins’s rap sheet for bad basketball behavior who last more than a few seasons on the same team. Nobody roots for NBA head cases more vociferously than I do, but I can’t think of a single player who endured this much criticism at the start of his career without self-destructing. Zach Randolph is the closest comparable, but Z-Bo played hard in college, where he was motivated by draft position and his very good Michigan State team’s fate in the NCAA tournament. And although he’s been reborn as the lovable hero for the buzz-worthy Grizzlies, it’s still not a great idea to give Zach Randolph a long-term contract.

Cousins’s very visible and public motivation problems at Kentucky, where he was auditioning for the no. 2 pick and playing for a possible national championship, still cast more doubt on his future than any advanced stat or metric. It’s true that young players in the NBA oftentimes get distracted and/or tired and their effort starts to slack off, but the fact that Cousins’s array of problems has radiated out in the professional ranks might mean that he doesn’t have the right temperament to be a night-in, night-out star. Yes, the Kings were right to double down on their talented big man and fire their coach, but that doesn’t mean the Boogie Cousins era is a great gamble.

As part of his explanation for the trade that sent Monta Ellis to the Bucks, Warriors GM Larry Riley said that it’s rare to have the opportunity to trade a small for a big. (This, of course, probably should have tipped the Warriors to the fact that they were being ripped off, but I digress ….) I don’t know if that sort of thinking — similar to the reasoning that Kevin Pritchard used when he selected Greg Oden over Kevin Durant — really holds as much sway as it once did. But it’s a good rule in this one way: Rebounding seems to be at a premium in the NBA right now. Point guards, on the other hand, seem to be showing up pretty much everywhere. It’s telling that at the trade deadline, Lakers fans were rejoicing because their team had landed Ramon Sessions, Cleveland’s former backup point guard. Cousins, even with his noted effort problems and his inability to stay on the court, has mastered the league’s most uncommon skill.1

Which is strange and a bit counterintuitive. Rebounding is mostly about effort and positioning. Nearly any properly motivated NBA player over the height of 6-foot-6 could go out onto the court and grab a decent number of boards. And yet, as big men have become more skilled and moved farther out toward the perimeter, the true post player has become increasingly rare. Not because their games are irrelevant and outdated, but because there just aren’t that many of them around. Cousins is a true post player and should be eating up soft power forwards who aren’t used to guarding bigger, physical guys who park themselves underneath the basket.

To answer the question posed at the start of this column, then: I’d take Cousins over Wall. As noted before, nobody looks prettier running up and down the court than John Wall, but I’m not convinced that there’s all that much basketball value in the spectacle of a very fast, coordinated man dribbling a basketball with unparalleled grace and abandon. I don’t think either could be the best player on a team that makes the Finals, but the right general manager could build a very good team around a motivated Cousins’s rebounding and consistent play in the post. I don’t know if the same holds true for Wall. The Wizards have surrounded Wall with players who range from terrible to bizarre, but some of the responsibility for JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche’s ineptitude has to be placed on their point guard for the past two seasons. He just hasn’t really improved anyone on that team, and there’s no amount of JaVale McGee YouTube clips that can really cover up that truth. I don’t think John Wall cares about his numbers or his “brand” or much outside of winning basketball games, but it’s very hard to engineer a ball distributor, especially when you’re dealing with a player whose physical gifts can get him enough stats to resemble a very good, max-contract-worthy point guard.

Then again, what guarantees are there, really, when you’re dealing with Boogie Cousins?

Filed Under: John Wall, People

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Jay Caspian Kang is a Grantland contributor. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, is on sale now.

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