John Wall and Kyrie Irving are point guards taken first overall in back-to-back drafts by rebuilding teams that enjoyed several fun postseason battles in the years preceding their selection; that they have been compared ad nauseum should not be surprising. Both were big-time recruits with short college careers, and both have a talent level that can take your breath away. While Irving does it with touch and body control that seems unfair, Wall has an athleticism and speed that put him near the level of LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. Irving is coming off an All-Star campaign in his second year, and Wall made a huge jump in production in an injury-shortened season, earning himself a 5 year maximum contract off of his rookie deal.
Kyrie Irving is entering his age-21 season after having a historically great rookie campaign in which he was named Rookie of the Year, and an age-20 season in which he made the All-Star team and won the NBA's 3 point shooting contest. He is 6'2 180 lbs. There is almost no way that Cleveland will not offer him a 5 year maximum contract following this upcoming season. John Wall is a 6'4 195 lb. point guard who put together good but not great seasons in his first two years of the league (Player Efficiency Rating's (PER) of 15.8 and 17.7, respectively) before starting year 3 in street clothes with an injury. Washington was going to have a difficult decision to make on whether or not it was worth investing a maximum contract on Wall following the year. But then Wall came back from injury, ultimately playing 49 games at a high level he had not approached in the NBA before. Washington made the only play they could and gave him the max extension.
How good was John Wall last season?
Really good. He played in 49 games, starting 42, and saw his efficiency numbers skyrocket. In his first two seasons in the NBA Wall compiled a true shooting percentage of 49.8%. It would have been lower than Brandon Jennings this past season, and not in the same area code as the average for point guards, 53.6%. Last season, though, he bumped it up to 52.1%, a big improvement. His free throw percentage has steadily climbed, and his attempts per game have steadily climbed. In 2011-12, Wall took 42 total three pointers, and made three of them. Credit him for taking fewer 3's, but that success rate is horrific. Last season, he again took a small number of three pointers, 45, and raised is percentage to 26.7%.
But credit where credit is due. Wall increased his field goal percentage, TS%, his assist rate, his free throw percentage, and lowered his turnover rate, all while significantly increasing his usage rate. Defensively he is one of the best in the game, and he creates steals and blocks a lot of shots for a point guard. He also plays for one of the best defensive teams in basketball. As a result, his Win Shares/48 went from his career average of .055 to .137. That is an increase of well over 100% from what he had done previously. It honestly blows my mind, and I don't know what to do with it. Basketball-Reference.com projects him to come back down to earth with a Win Shares/48 number of .101, which would still be a huge improvement over his career number taking last season into account.
Was Wall the beneficiary of Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza and Brad Beal playing above their heads for a few fun weeks? Did those guys enjoy wide open looks created by a point guard in his third NBA season who finally had some NBA level players to distribute to? In games that Wall played in, the Wizards shot just under 40% from three, just behind the Golden State Warriors for best in the Association. 19% of his assists were corner three pointers, the most efficient shot in the NBA behind lay-ups and dunks. But again, Ariza has never shot as well as he did in the corners last year. Webster's performance came out of nowhere.
Wall also helps here in another area: because he is so good in transition, and guys like Ariza and Beal can run the floor, the Wizards were excellent at getting transition three point attempts. Martell Webster shot 32-59 (!!) from three point range in transition last season. From Mike Prada at Bulletsforever.com:
This is another area where Wall helps lift his teammates. Webster shot 31-59 (52.5 percent) on transition threes last year; he was 18-43 (41.9 percent) in his last healthy year in Portland in 2009-10. On the flip side, Nick Young shot just under 43 percent (46-107) on transition threes while playing with Wall in Washington and just 18-60 (30 percent) since being traded. The sample sizes are small, but it's clear that wings will get more open looks playing with Wall if they're willing to run, which, in turn, will inflate their own and the team's three-point percentages.
It is good that Wall is able to create three pointers for others, though the sample sizes here still raise questions, because he is incapable of making them himself. Even with John Wall, the Wizards offensive rating was 23rd in the NBA. Part of this is having Nene and Emeka Okafor play together, and part of it is having very little depth. Still, it seems fair to wonder how much higher Wall's ceiling is than what he did last season. His turnover rate is incredibly low, his jump shot appears to have a real limitation, and the shooters that have surrounded him can't perform too much better than they did. His PER of 20.8 was fantastic, but puts him a step below elite in terms of overall NBA players. He is a fascinating player and I don't know if he can keep this up; even if he can't he is almost certainly going to be worth his max contract.
How does he stack up with Irving?
Hopefully it is apparent I am a big John Wall fan by now. But is he on Kyrie Irving's level? I don't think you can make that case in good faith. Kyrie Irving's career Win Shares/48 is .125, nearly double Wall's .72. Irving's career true shooting percentage is better than Wall's was last year by nearly 4%, and he has done it on a higher usage rate. Irving doesn't have the benefit of having solid three point shooters around him, often surrounded by below average shooters Alonzo Gee and Dion Waiters. Tristan Thompson does not help space the floor, and Irving often was forced to run the pick and pop with the likes of Tyler Zeller and Luke Walton. Even though Wall brought his turnover rate down last season, it was still higher than Irving's; most people think Irving's turnover rate is his biggest weakness. Irving is a better free throw shooter, a better mid-range shooter, and has made nearly 40% of his three pointers in his first two seasons.
Wall has a significantly better assist rate but Irving isn't passing it to Webster and Ariza and Beal. Given improved three point shooters, or more time with Anderson Varejao, better shooting from Waiters and the addition of Earl Clark and Anthony Bennett could help Irving both trust his teammates more as well as lead to more makes off of Irving passes. This is speculative, of course, but the simple fact of the matter that Kyrie Irving has played at a level over his first 110 NBA games that Wall has only started to approach in his last 49. Within a half-court offense Irving is a nearly complete player.
Moving forward, this is going to be really fun. John Wall begins his age 23 season hoping to prove that his jump last season wasn't a mirage. Kyrie Irving begins his age 21 season hoping for a third year jump like Wall's that would cement his status in the NBA's elite. Both teams have playoff aspirations. Let's hope for a rivalry renewed.