As our summer mainstay, Aaron was writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. As the summer dies down and the leaves turn, this quixotic quest of a series has happily reached the last third. But it's certainly not done yet! Today we continue with John Wall, Andrei Kirilenko, and Iman Shumpert.
John Wall had decent numbers last year, in the vacuum of the traditional box score. He posted averages of 16-5-8, which are downright excellent for a point guard, in 36 minutes a night. He started in all 66 games, which isn't actually as common as you think for points -- most tend to miss a few games here and there. Last season, only four guys did it! He put up excellent passing numbers (which is all the more impressive given the awful players he was passing to), showed positive signs defensively (watch him on defense when you get a chance -- promise you'll be happily surprised, he's a far better defender than anyone seems to realize), and showed the same electric energy he did his rookie year despite suffering through a lingering injury to his left patella. When healthy, he changed the game for a dismal Wizards team. When injured, he still changed the game for a dismal Wizards team, because he was just that good.
Except, well, his shooting.
The one flaw in Wall's game -- and yes, it's a really huge one -- is that he can't shoot to save his life. John Wall shot 62% at the rim last season, which was well above average for point guards. He took almost 45% of his shots at the rim, which was (again) well above average. So all that is very good. But Wall shot 42% overall because he was utterly horrible from every other area of the court. He made 3-of-42 threes -- 7%! He made 72 of 252 long two pointers -- 29%! He shouldn't have taken that many, but that's what the defense gave the Wizards -- if you played off Wall in the pick and roll and goaded him into a wide open long two, the general strategy of 90% of teams last season, he'd inevitably shank it. If he got caught on an island outside the arc with no defenders within 7 feet, he'd miss the three. Badly. When he gets to the rim, Wall's athleticism and skill take over, and he destroys anyone who tries to block it. But when he's trying to take a shot, he has a strange hitch and a bad penchant for fadeaways-where-unnecessary that completely destroys his angle. He can't get a consistent arc and he can't get anything to go down consistently. If he could develop even a remotely passable jump shot, a la Derrick Rose in his third year, Wall could be a perennial all-star. But he needs to develop that shot to do it -- his passing, defense, fast break talents, leadership, and at-rim mastery are fantastic, but none of those things are Rondo-level transcendent. They don't make up for his poor shooting, they just bring him from a poor player to a decent one -- to take that next step, he needs a shot.
We all blame John Wall for his own shooting struggles, and to some extent, the criticism rings true -- he's got a way's to go until he's a "true" superstar, and he's clearly not a transcendent talent to the level of Kyrie Irving or Chris Paul. But I'd stop short of a lot of the criticism after watching the follies and foibles of this year's Wizards team. The kid's shooting was, evidently, a bit above par for what this Wizards team could produce in the first place -- just look at their shooting percentages without him this season, which are worse from almost every area of the court. Apparently a terrible (but open) John Wall long two pointer really WAS the best option. Who knew? Watching this team struggle to produce any offense whatsoever without Wall on the court makes me wonder just how unfair our treatment of Wall has been. If John Wall has been carrying these guys to anything BUT an 82-loss record, how is he considered to be 'underperforming'? He's a 22 year old point guard who, at least right now, looks like he's provided the difference between a team that's among the worst to ever play the game and a team that's a garden variety poor unit. That's about the distance between, say, a semi-contender with playoff aspirations and a low seeded team bound for a first round exit. We've exalted and built legends out of players for far the second -- so why is Wall's accomplishment in making that dismal roster look even remotely passable ignored?
I'm not sure he's a max player, and I'm not sure he's even got the potential to be one of the great ones -- but this abhorrent start by the Wizards has to inspire some searching on our parts to determine why, exactly, so many people are so prone to jump on Wall as part of the problem rather than the only realistic road to a solution. Off the court, many people decry his "immaturity" and put him down with the fact that his Kentucky roots make him one of those "wink wink nudge nudge" pay-to-play types. Even disregarding my belief that athletes should get paid if they're making their team money, I have absolutely no idea how this image of Wall has maintained for so long. I know that there are some disgusting sleazebags who perpetuate ridiculous things about Wall's father, and I know there are some people who simply will not let the pay-to-play thing go. But after two years in the NBA with absolutely no incidents whatsoever, wouldn't one think that Wall would be off the hook? Especially given the quality of his interviews and warmth towards fans and the press -- watching Wall give pre-draft and camp interviews coming into his rookie season was extremely entertaining, because he simply wasn't at all the person I'd expected.
After a short college career of getting endlessly slammed by people at my university and under the dripping tendrils of the Coach Calipari machine, I did expect some sleaze -- but I was wrong and I'd readily admit that. There was nothing there except an earnest, honest guy with a great sense of humor and a great sense of perspective. John Wall is about as mature as anyone in the whole league. He composes himself and acts far older than his age, and he's one of the few NBA interview subjects I go out of my way to watch. So why does that incredibly flawed portrayal of Wall still exist at all? The only real reason I can think of is the general idea that Wall's critics simply haven't taken the time to watch him actually give interviews or relate to people/the press. At all. They're working off an image that's entirely created and perpetuated by its own momentum rather than any basis in reality. That's all I can think of. Which is a bit depressing -- when I'm critical of something, I try to give it extra focus to make sure my critique is actually grounded in reality.
I don't really get why critics of Wall's person can't do that too. But I'm an idealist, I suppose.
Follow Andrei Kirilenko by buying an AK-47 and then throwing it away because WHY DID YOU BUY AN AK-47.
There was -- and, to some extent, remains -- no real way to properly isolate what Andrei Kirilenko will bring this Timberwolves team. Even when healthy, Kirilenko is something of a mystery -- there's no telling what one year out of the league was going to do for his NBA conditioning, his general command of the NBA court, and his aggressiveness on an NBA level. More importantly than his year in the wilderness, he's a year older -- while players can be productive after the age of 30, they rarely get more productive. And Kirilenko's last season in the league left quite a bit to be desired. His shooting fell off, his tertiaries all came back to earth, he turned the ball over more than he'd done in years, and he looked a step or two slow on defense. He wasn't bad, per se, but he certainly wasn't the Andrei Kirilenko we'd come to expect. The Utah defense actually was worse with Kirilenko on the court in Utah's lost 2011 season, and although he helped grease the skids on the Utah offense, it wasn't enough to bring his usual and expected impact. He was good but not great, and there was no real reason to expect he'd come back at a level beyond that.
But never fear, Timberwolves fans. He has! In international play, Kirilenko has always shown tastes of what life would be like if he was a dominant, superstar-type talent in the NBA. He showed the same in the NBA, early in Deron Williams' career, but it's been quite a while since AK-47 has been the best player on an NBA team. Evidently, his Euroleague MVP season for CSKA Moscow and his solid Olympic jaunt reminded him exactly how to do that -- he's been Minnesota's best player in their shockingly strong start, and it isn't really close. With Kirilenko on the floor, the Wolves have an efficiency differential of +6.9 -- with Kirilenko off, they have an efficiency differential of -7.6. The distance last year's Spurs to last year's Wizards, essentially. He's played 75% of all possible minutes for the Timberwolves, and he's looked absolutely phenomenal. He's shot 6-12 from three thus far this season, put up his highest assist rate in 7 years (seriously! Look it up!), connected on 62.5% of his two point shots, and put up the best per-possession rebounding numbers of his entire career. He's combined all this with a general return to form on the defensive end -- he hasn't been up to his gaudy mid-career standard, but he's been good, and his defense has been eons ahead of anything the Timberwolves have gotten defensively out of the large wing in years. It's been great to watch.
How likely is it that he continues? I'm honestly pretty unsure. While Kirilenko is a great player, the reasons I outlined for concern in the first paragraph haven't vanished. He's still old, his conditioning may not be quite up to snuff, and he isn't used to playing this role on an NBA level -- at least not in the last 5 or 6 years. Which isn't to say this isn't fantastic for the Wolves. It is. If the Wolves could play God and get the big guy to pick a stretch of the season to plop down a Kreedence Kirilenko Revival tour, now would be the time -- even if he does fall off later, it's quite a bit better in a competitive conference like the West to eke out wins now and let Rubio/Love take the reins on their return than to struggle out the gate and then suddenly dominate all comers for a few fleeting months. In a playoff race as close as what we're expecting, a game or two could make a world of difference. There are a few signs for concern as well, beneath his excellent season-starting tear. Such as his sky-high turnover rate and his perhaps-too-low usage rate. As the season goes on, his shooting may regress to the mean and he may lose a bit on his efficiency and legs. But to say he's done anything but impress in this most recent stretch would be a mistake. If he stays at this level, and this Wolves team adds a fully-healthy Rubio and Love within a month or two? This is a seriously dangerous team. One that could make some noise in a higher-than-expected playoff seed, and at the very least, provide some of the most entertaining league pass fodder for the next few months.
Assuming, of course, that they don't lose every single player on the roster to injury. (Not a given, apparently.)
Iman Shumpert is a good defender. He isn't a great defender... yet. Hm. Okay, wait a second.
Sorry, had to shoot a few rounds at the rampaging, semi-zombified hordes of Knicks fans descending upon my apartment. I kind of expected that this would happen, but I thought I'd actually have to publish the capsule first. I didn't realize that the second you wrote something even remotely negative about Iman Shumpert, they perk up and start clamoring out of the hipster bars in a death-shuffle towards your present location. Really didn't realize this. It's a good thing I still had that AK-47 I bought for the stupid Kirilenko joke in my bedside trashcan, or I'd be screwed. Anyway. Iman Shumpert is an interesting player. His defense is really fun to watch, and there's obviously a lot of potential there. There's a lot of covering for the mistakes of others in his defense, which doesn't necessarily show up in the box score. Excellent help rotations that don't compromise his own man, passing-lane troubleshooting that doesn't put him too far out of his coverage, et cetera. And he does a good job shutting down his man, although he's significantly worse than the league's best shutdown wizards, like Andre Iguodala, Tony Allen, Avery Bradley, and Ronnie Brewer. He's not awful or anything, but he's nowhere near the level of any of those guys. Yet. Just a second, sorry.
I really hope these fans stop coming at some point. I'm going to run out of ammo eventually. Anyhow, it's not really worrying that he hadn't developed into that kind of a guy yet -- after all, Shumpert is a rookie, and rookies usually are abjectly terrible on the defensive end. For Shumpert to be decent at all is a good start, and he was well above average. The problem with Shumpert is the problem that plagues most defensive stoppers -- he isn't quite good enough on defense to offset how sincerely awful he is offensively. He shot well below average from every single shot distance, he turned over the ball more than 80% of his fellow shooting guards, and he was seriously awful on the boards, even relative to most guards. He's a nice guy, and he seems totally awesome off the court. But his offense is pretty woeful, and until he develops any above average offensive talents -- seriously, ANYTHING -- he's going to have some problems.
Net and net? Shumpert has promise. A lot of it. But things are going to depend pretty heavily on how he comes back from his varied injuries -- it generally takes several months for a player coming off a knee injury as bad as his to come back to full form, and even then, it often takes a full season to fully return to their defensive highs. And with Ronnie Brewer in the fold, it's not essential that he's back on-time. In fact, it could actually hurt the Knicks a bit -- if they force minutes for Shumpert and Amare solely due to reputation when both are coming off medical woes and could be punching well below their weight upon their return, it could really mess with their chemistry and threaten their health to begin with. Woodson really needs to manage their minutes carefully. For the Knicks to continue to contend going forward, they're going to need Shumpert to continue developing and Amare to improve, if only just. But that's for the future -- for now, Shumpert is a good player, not a great one, with several massive flaws to work on and several prominent places for improvement. He'll probably get there, at some point, but coming off the injury it'll likely be a season or two until Shumpert really comes back str--...
Wait, what's that sound? ... Oh my God! Dubin got inside!
CRAP! HE'S ON MY BACK AUGH SOMEBODY HELP AUUUUUUUUGHHHHHH
WHY DO ZOMBIES HAVE SUCH STRONG JAW MUSCLES HOW IS THIS EVEN PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE
• • •
At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. Der_K and Mike L got 3/3 with this last set, with Mike L aptly noting that Kirilenko couldn't possibly be an answer because he didn't play NBA minutes last season. Mike L is correct, except that I tried to make sure to put in 1 or 2 of the returning-vets when they had NBA footage I could watch. So he's one of three players to get added to the list despite not having played a minute of NBA ball last year. Good eye, though.
- Player #280 hasn't been terrible, and he certainly was one of the better amnestied players. But he's going to need to figure out defense at some point if he wants to REALLY contribute to his new squad.
- Player #281 has been atrocious so far this year. And it hurts me. Will be a Capsule (Plus).
- Player #282 can't pass the ball particularly well, which makes him a pretty awful backup point guard. He's entertaining, though, and even at his old-for-the-league age he's still got a lot of that speed that made him so dazzling in his prime.
Assuming I get over this gigantic bitten hole in my back, capsules will return on Monday. See you then.
• • •