Oh Hell, Root For The Wizards: John Wall's Brave, Stubborn Playoff Run

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If you have watched much Washington Wizards basketball over the past four seasons, first of all, why, and I am so sorry—but also, you have seen John Wall chase down a ballhandler in transition, take off like a fucking F/A-18 off a carrier deck, and swat the absolute shit out of the ball. It's really something.


Just this season, he did it to Iman Shumpert:

And he did it to Marcus Thornton:

He did it to Steph Curry:

And he did it to poor Nate Wolters:

He got Patty Mills with both hands, for good measure:

Fun fact: Every time you click the play button on the following video, Evan Turner retroactively falls another two spots in the 2010 NBA draft:

As of now he's going 489th overall, to Fenerbahçe Ülker of the Turkish Basketball League.

And, back at the end of February, in the final seconds of the first overtime period of what turned into a triple-overtime win for the Wizards—one in which Wall made virtually every play at both ends down the stretch—he wrecked Kyle Lowry's layup attempt so thoroughly that the ball itself had to be euthanized (probably):

There are other examples, from this season and from the previous three. Wall probably isn't the first person you think of when you think of the chasedown block (that'd be LeBron James, of course), but—ludicrous though this may seem, and with all apologies to LeBron, who will probably score 278 points the next time the two teams play, just to make me feel bad—he might be its most spectacular practitioner. After all, John Wall, unlike LeBron, is not 6'9" and built like God's personal trainer; he is a guard, and a fairly skinny-looking one, and so when he does things that seem frankly superhuman, your amazement is that much greater for the fact that the guy doing them is built, more or less, like Clyde Frazier.

Probably nobody shorter than, say, 6-foot-6 becomes an NBA player without possessing either an expansive notion of what is possible, a nigh-psychotic stubbornness in its pursuit, or a blissful naïveté about the dimensions of probability, or all of the above. That is to say, no one who spent much time contemplating the tiny number of NBA jobs available to the not-preposterously-tall, the mountainous task of developing the skillset required to qualify for any one of those jobs, and the bleak prospects faced by anyone who puts in that work and falls short of securing one of those jobs, would bother pursuing one of them. He would learn how to write code instead, like many of our culture's brightest young cowards do.

(This is not to discount the blinkered bravery of pursuing professional basketball as a career for the freakishly tall, of course. Even Kendrick Perkins—who cannot walk from his couch to his refrigerator without committing five illegal screens along the way, and who if he tried to throw himself into the ocean from the wet sand of the shoreline would miss and plummet into deep space from sheer basketball incompetence—is possessed of a combination of searing ambition and benignly insane optimism that you and I, ensconced in the eminently safe choices and wide, well-trod avenues of our lives, can scarcely comprehend. And: He's 6-foot-10, for chrissakes. It's a lot easier to make an NBA team when you're 6-foot-10 and built like a bank vault than it is for the rest of humanity. A genuine by-God seven-footer need only demonstrate that he can touch his nose without biting his entire hand off to get at least a glance from an NBA general manager, and this fact alone is still paying for Jim McIlvaine's dry cleaning, all these years later. Even so. Even Jim friggin' McIlvaine is braver or sillier by orders of magnitude than the average Project Manager.)


Still, even allowing for the reality that irrational personal confidence and lunatic optimism characterize every professional basketball player to some significant degree or another, John Wall's soaring chasedown blocks have the capacity to awe and astonish. This breakaway can be stopped—one audacious thought, which most of us, confronted with the sight of, say, Iman Shumpert exploding downcourt toward an unprotected rim, would not entertain even for a moment—and I can stop it—whoa, simmer down there, buddy—and I am going to stop it—OK now you're just being ridiculous, John Wall, stop being ridiculous.

Except, maybe it's not ridiculous: There, up there, are some of the times when he thought that, and then did it, and changed the outcome of a sequence or a game, because of the ludicrous dimensions of his belief, in what is possible and in his ability to bring it about, and because that belief, at least those times, matched his actual ability, and that ability is, itself, also ludicrous.


I don't want to make too much of this. Every basketball player—every soccer player, every sprinter, every shortstop who flings himself fully extended after some screaming grounder into the hole and then dares attempt the throw to first, and so on—is expressing a dizzyingly large idea of what is possible and of his ability to accomplish the things at the far obscure corners of that idea, and, if you stand in a certain spot and look at this phenomenon from a certain angle, it can stir you to feel good about people and how silly and wonderful we are. But, both the wonder (running down a fast break to swat the ball into the stands) and the occasional maddening frustration (putting his head down in transition and going 1-on-4 at a full sprint) of John Wall, the whole entire picture of John Wall, really, blooms from the belief that these sports-heroic things can be done, and from an admirably unselfconscious willingness to give them a shot, and that makes him, and these playoffs, an opportunity to observe and feel good about this audacity. The old chestnut about the things you fail to do being easier to live with than the things you fail to try, you know? John Wall will try anything, and that, in a certain light, is at least as amazing as the frequency with which he pulls those anythings off.

This is what the old-fogey basketball moralists—fucking Jon Barry, sneering from the Tower of Fundamentals—miss in their insistence on Playing The Right Way, in their occasional snide criticism that he can only play at one speed: If John Wall approached the game of basketball with the actuarial conservatism of John Crotty, or Shane Battier—with his notions of what he can do and what he will try willfully circumscribed for all eternity by what basketball orthodoxy says he should do—he would not be John Wall. He would not be in the NBA. He would never make you suck in your breath and go, "Holy shit, he just did that." Man alive, how much poorer basketball would be for that.


Instead, thankfully, he is John Wall, whether by choice or not, and emphatically so, and so even many of his failures have a brilliant, admirable defiance to them: Fuck you, I tried. And, more and more frequently: Fuck you, I succeeded.

Possibly an even better example of this than his out-of-nowhere chasedown blocks is Wall's three-point shooting. Over the first three seasons of his career, in which he played 172 total regular season games, Wall attempted 202 three-pointers and made 49 of them, a 24.2 percent conversion rate. Those last three numbers—the 202 attempts (a measly 1.2 per game), the 49 makes, the 24.2 percent accuracy—are all, frankly, horrendous. Jason Kidd, whom jokesters used to call "Ason" because of his lack of a J, shot threes better than that over any single- or multi-season stretch of his playing career. Wall made three three-pointers in the entire 2011-12 NBA season, a time period during which Steph Curry, by contrast, made 272 of them.


And this became How You Defended The Wizards (similar to how it's now How You Defend The Timberwolves When Ricky Rubio Is On The Court): You sagged back off Wall; you clogged the lane with defenders; you passive-aggressively dared him to shoot long jumpers, and he either obliged with bricks or attempted, stubbornly, again believing in his ability to overrule reality, to cram himself into that swamp of defenders and make the best of it. Maybe that's not the entire reason the Wizards went 72-158 over Wall's first three seasons [stares daggers at Ernie Grunfeld], but it's also not the reason they went 158-72 over that span, because they didn't go 158-72 over that span, because they were terrible and embarrassing instead.

And so, John Wall went and spent an offseason turning himself into a respectable three-point shooter. And not just a respectable three-point shooter, but a fairly frequent three-point shooter, too. In this past regular season, Wall attempted 308 three-pointers (two more than LeBron, 10 fewer than three-point-specialist Danny Green, and over a hundred more than he'd taken in the first three years of his career combined), and made 108 of them (a 35.1 percent rate, solidly middle-of-the-pack for a high-usage guard)—and, not only because of this, but certainly not despite it, the Wizards won 44 games and are in the playoffs for the first time in many years.


That's a phenomenal improvement. Over the course of one offseason, Wall transformed himself from one of the worst perimeter shooters in the entire NBA into a perfectly decent one. It's a transformation that his ancient teammate Andre Miller, for all his competitive fury and sometimes frightening mastery of the court, hasn't managed over 14 years of pro basketball. That's pretty fucking cool.

Not to get all The Secret on your ass, but for as surely as that improvement is a feat of hard work and coaching and a testament to Wall's astounding athletic talent and so on (and it's all of that stuff), it's also an enormous and audacious feat of imagination, and bitter, ferocious, intractable, competitive stubbornness, a refusal to have the terms of success dictated to him by some dipshit opposing coach who can play-act tactical genius just by telling his guy to go under all ball-screens. To imagine that such a dramatic improvement is possible, and attainable, and will reward the effort required to attain it; and then to be stubborn enough to see it through, to eventually punish that tactical disrespect with a barrage of three-pointers. Maybe he's not the first guy to pull off this transformation—but, he did it, and most people don't, and that's not nothing.


And so, here, in the playoffs, preposterous as hell, are the Wizards—their weird-face-making, possibly quite incompetent coach; his determination to scheme the most inefficient possible actions to create the exact same dreadful 20-foot two-pointers the other team wants to give him in the first place; their oft-injured, jerry-rigged assemblage of cagey old assholes; their shameful decades-long history of ineptitude and failure—and John Wall, imagining them and himself into new and surprising shapes like the Twilight Zone kid, only maybe not terrifying, unless you're a Bulls fan. The reward, for the rest of us, is seeing what he will imagine next, and what fearsome manner of anything he'll do to bring it about. Whatever it is, whatever he dreams up and whether he succeeds at hounding it into reality or falls short, the attempt will be brave and bold and ferocious, and fun to watch, and worth rooting for.