Q&A: John Wall on Elite Point Guards, the Wizards’ Season, and Whether He’s a Max Contract Player

Ned Dishman/Getty Images John Wall

The NBA is funny this way: We still don’t know all that much about John Wall, but from now until the end of October, the Wizards will already have to wrestle with the idea of giving Wall an extension as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Wall missed a chunk of his rookie season with knee and foot issues. His second season was the lockout-shortened mess in which he dealt with lingering knee pain, and he missed the first 33 games of this season after doctors discovered the early signs of a stress fracture in his left knee.

But the clock on Wall’s rookie contract hasn’t stopped ticking. And as a no. 1 overall pick, Wall may well demand both a maximum extension and the extra fifth year Washington can tack on if it names Wall its “designated player.” Washington can choose only one such player among its current roster, and given what Bradley Beal has shown in the past six weeks, it will at least have to kick around the idea of saving the honor for him. Minnesota’s desire to keep the “designated player” tag in reserve for Ricky Rubio influenced its negotiations with Kevin Love and played a role in Love insisting on an opt-out after just three seasons on his new deal.

The Wizards are 15-13 since Wall returned, and they’ve been better on both ends with him on the floor. He has meshed nicely with Beal and Nene, and the Wiz have maintained a top-10 defense all season. Wall is on pace to shatter his career-best assist rate, and though he’s still a below-average shooter even from the midrange, his accuracy on those shots — which he’s taking more than ever — is beginning to creep within sniffing distance of the league average.

But he’s still shooting just 41 percent with five 3-pointers combined over the past two seasons and has a borderline-alarming turnover rate. The Wizards, dead last in points per possession, are indeed scoring more efficiently with Wall, but their scoring mark with him on the floor would still rank only 25th overall.

In other words: This is a strange, unproven player entering a very important phase of his career and financial life. During Washington’s visit to Brooklyn on Friday, Wall sat down with Grantland for a one-on-one about his game, his team, and his future.

How’s your health?

I’m good. I’m still getting my legs stronger and stronger, but I’m doing pretty good.

How close are we to really seeing peak John Wall?

I can’t really say exactly, and put a number on it. But I think I’m good enough to be out there helping my team and not hurting myself.

That much is clear from the numbers and your record since you got back. Your jumper will obviously be a key issue going forward. What’s the state of it, mechanically? What do the coaches have you working on, in terms of form?

Nothing much. Just making sure I’m staying on balance, jumping straight up and down. Things like that.

Can you do what they are asking for with consistency? Have they basically remade your jumper since you left college?

No, not really. It’s the same form. It’s just making sure that I don’t hold onto the ball as long as I used to, that I follow through, don’t fade away. Things like that.

Yeah, that Tyreke Evans leg kick, right?

Yeah, something like that. That’s something I used to do a lot, and they don’t want me doing that.

It sounds like you feel a bit better about your shot.

For me, it was just little things, and it’s about confidence. So for me, once I got my confidence, I’m cool. I don’t mind taking them. If I miss a couple, I’m still shooting it, and I’m not scared to take that type of shot in the fourth quarter.

People have noticed lately that you’re shooting about 50 percent from the right elbow and below 30 percent, or worse, from most other midrange locations. But I checked this morning, and you only hit 31 percent or so from that spot last season, meaning it wasn’t really much better than any other spot — and it was worse than one or two.

So is this just random? Or is that spot really becoming a sweet spot for you, since you’re right-handed and can dribble right into that part of the floor?

It’s not a random thing. You know when it’s the fourth quarter, and you need a basket in an isolation situation, and you need to score, that’s where I’m comfortable. Everybody has a sweet spot where they want to get to.

So you’re officially calling that your sweet spot?

Everywhere is my sweet spot, but right now, the right elbow is my best elbow.

Teams are going to look harder at that shot now, especially in crunch time. And you can get to the rim against anyone. How do you decide on the spot whether to pull up or attack the basket in late-game situations?

At the end of the game, you don’t get too many calls, no matter who you are. The refs just aren’t really gonna call it with like 10 seconds to go. You gotta be able to finish through all that contact. Sometimes you can. It depends if you’re going against a shot-blocker or not. You just gotta get to your sweet spot, trust in your jump shot, and trust what you’ve been working on.

Do you ever feel ripped off as a point guard running a lot of high pick-and-roll at the top of the floor — that you’ll never really get a lot of chances to take the corner 3, which is shorter and easier? I mean, that’s basically Bradley Beal’s shot. But if he can take some of the ball-handling duties from you eventually, can you see the corner 3 being a shot you can use?

It’s funny — that’s one of the things we were just talking about today. My jump shot was on last game, and he was all like, “See, I taught you!” And I was all like, “Well, you get my ball handling and you’ll be unstoppable.” So, yeah, we’re gonna work out together this summer and do a lot of things together. But we all know — the 3-pointer is not my strength right now, and it wasn’t for a lot of young point guards just coming into the league, unless they were a shooter throughout college. I like midrangers, and I like getting to the basket.

But like you said, the 3 in the corner is a lot easier than it is from the top of the key. It reminds me of a college 3.

The Wizards are one of the teams that have those fancy data-tracking cameras in the arena — the cameras that can track basically everything. Do the coaches ever come to you with funky numbers, like how high you’re jumping or how you’re moving around the court?

Sometimes, but mostly just to tell me that I’m not shooting the way we worked on, and to go back and work on it again. Just little things.

Do you prefer to shoot jumpers off the catch or off the dribble?

Off the dribble, off the dribble. But I do like spot-up 3. I can make spot up 3.

Really? We haven’t seen much of that.

Yeah. It’s just bad when I hesitate. When I don’t hesitate, I’m more comfortable. When I hesitate, it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

I’ve noticed lately you’ve been getting the ball poked away from behind a lot, especially when you’re dribbling it up in transition. Any idea what’s behind that?

I don’t know. When I try to do it, the refs call a foul.

That’s funny. Is that true? That you can’t get away with it?

I first started doing that in eighth grade. When guys get by me and you can’t catch up, just reach in there and try to poke it away. But what I’ve got to do [on offense] is probably switch the ball to the other hand and maybe dribble a little lower. It also depends how the refs are calling it that day. Sometimes they do call it.

What about on fast breaks, or even in that sort of in-between transition? Guys seem to be sneaking up on you and stealing the ball from behind in those situations, right?

Definitely. Sometimes I think I might have an advantage even if there’s two people back, and then someone just makes a hustle play on me. And you have to give credit when someone is doing a hustle play. It’s tough. I know those are the kind of turnovers coach [Randy Wittman] told me really wants me to cut down, and most of those happen in transition, when someone is chasing me down or making a nice play on the ball.

The best point guards in the half-court really know how to slow down, hesitate, pause and change their pace as the dribble. Those guys — Chris Paul, Steve Nash, for instance — they are fast, but they play slow, and you know CP is always stopping to use his ass to create space. You’re one of the fastest guys in the league — maybe the fastest. How do you learn to slow down like that? Do you watch film on those guys?

It’s hard, it’s hard. But I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better at that this season at adding that to my game.

Speaking of those guys: It feels like your name has kind of fallen out of the “elite point guards” conversation a bit, given the time you’ve missed with injuries this season. Do you notice that? Do you care?

Nah, I can’t pay attention to that. I don’t think like that.

Have you started thinking about your contract extension talks yet?

I haven’t started thinking about that.

Really? The deadline isn’t that far away.

That’s true. Look, I’m just enjoying D.C. This hasn’t been going the way we wanted it to, in terms of winning, but I think we are building something here.

Do you feel like you deserve a max contract? That you’re a max guy?

I feel like I am. I do, definitely.

There are some games where I watch you, and you’re flying all over the place on defense — helping out way far from your guy, and then trying to close out hard if the ball swings to him. Is that OK in your scheme, or are you operating outside your scheme sometimes, the way guys like Dwyane Wade or Tony Allen do to get steals and disrupt things?

Man, when you’re trying to close out on great shooters like Steph Curry or someone like that, it’s tough to close out in a way that you stop them from taking a jump shot and stop them from driving.

You mean when you help on penetration in the middle, or help somewhere else, and then have to run back to your guy when he gets the ball?

Yeah, when a teammate gets beat, it can be very tough.

Those situations are exactly the ones I find interesting — when you crash down toward the foul line to cut off a driver, and then you have to run back out to your guy when the driver passes there. Sometimes you run in a straight line back to your man. But a lot of times, you try to leap into the passing lane for a steal. Do you have permission to do that? Is it a spur-of-the-moment thing?

That’s always tricky. It just depends on how much leeway you have, and who you’re guarding. When you’re a quick person, you know you can get steals. But you also have to know the right time to do those things.

Is Coach Wittman OK with it? Has he talked to you about gambling less — or maybe even more? Has that conversation happened?

It has happened, to some extent. There are definitely some games where he’s not happy with it, but there are some games where he is. Those are the games where you get the steals. When you don’t get the steals, they aren’t going to be happy.

Your team’s offense has been really good when you play with both Beal and Martell Webster on the wing, but it has sunk when you replace one of those guys with Trevor Ariza. Are players even aware of those kinds of numbers? And is that just a spacing thing — with Nene and Emeka Okafor down low, you need all the shooting you can get out there?

I didn’t know that, really. I mean, Trevor is a more defensive guy. He’s out there to play defense and make those kinds of plays. Whatever shot he makes, that’s great, that’s like a bonus for us. But he’s more a defensive kind of player.

You’re 6-foot-4. Can you guard shooting guards? It’s always helpful to have a point guard who can switch or slide to a wing player on defense.

Some nights, yeah, but it’s just really hard for me if we’re facing a bigger guy like Kobe or Joe Johnson, a guy who can post me up. Then it gets really hard.

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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