In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.
With the Washington Wizards hosting the Philadelphia 76ers in their home opener on Tuesday, the storyline wrote itself: For the first time as professionals, No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks John Wall and Evan Turner would square off against each other. Though the matchup was an ideal chance to check in on how both rookies are adjusting to the NBA, it almost felt cruel when the Wizards' TV broadcast compared the two players' statistics during the fourth quarter. After a rough debut at Orlando, Wall has quickly resumed course as one of the league's most promising young players. Meanwhile, Turner is still finding his way in a reserve role.
Wall's full arsenal--the good and some bad--was on display during Washington's 116-115 overtime victory. He was unstoppable at times and controlled the game for stretches at both ends of the floor. What Wall continues to make clear is that his remarkable athleticism is what separates him from peers like Derrick Rose. During the third quarter, Wall made one play that I'm not sure anyone else in the league is capable of completing in total. He leaped to deflect a Jrue Holiday pass near half court, managed to secure the loose ball and then darted to the rim to finish with a powerful slam dunk. Cue the "Where Amazing Happens" commercial.
With Gilbert Arenas out of the lineup, Wall is in complete control of the Wizards' offense--and rightfully so. His ability to drive makes him dangerous off the ball despite his limited shooting range, but putting Wall on the weak side is like using a sports car to run errands. Even after Arenas returns, Washington coach Flip Saunders must and presumably will continue to make Wall the team's go-to player.
One of the surprising things I noticed while paying close attention to Wall's performance is that he might be better in isolation situations rather than out of the pick-and-roll. Bringing a second defender over makes it easier for opponents to direct Wall away from the basket and render him strictly a playmaker. The problem isn't that Wall struggles in this role, as he successfully found open teammates. No, the issue is that Wall is so much more talented than his Wizards teammates right now that any time he has to give the ball up to a player who is not in immediate position to score, the defense has won the battle.
In one-on-one situations, Wall found plenty of open space to operate after beating his man off the dribble. Granted, help defense isn't exactly a strength for the Sixers and the defensively sound Magic had more success keeping Wall at bay. Still, Wall's ability to penetrate forces defenses to be perfect in their rotations or get beaten for a layup, either by Wall or by a teammate he finds at the rim. Even when they do trap Wall in pick-and-roll situations, opponents have to be careful to keep him from splitting the two defenders and attacking the basket.
What stood out against NBA opposition was Wall's uncanny knack for changing directions on the dribble to negotiate his way around defenders. At Kentucky, Wall simply overwhelmed opponents with his quickness. Now, his ability to change pace and take the right angles is coming to the forefront.
Wall came within a theft of his first career triple-double, finishing with 29 points, 13 assists and nine steals. However, he was also two turnovers away from a more dubious incarnation of a triple-double. I can't remember questioning Wall's decision-making more than a couple of times during the game. The turnovers he racked up Tuesday--and will throughout the season--seem to be the kind of "good" turnovers that are a positive indicator for young players because of the things they are trying to do. One Wall giveaway saw him misfire on a lob to Andray Blatche. The intention was good, and seeing the play at all was an example of Wall's terrific court vision. The execution was off, however. A year or two down the line, Wall will complete the play.
I saw more room for improvement at the defensive end of the floor. Wall's quick hands make up for a lot of mistakes, and he practically took Philadelphia out of its offense during the third quarter, when he registered six of his nine steals. However, he needs more experience defending against pick-and-rolls and tended to get beaten by screens too easily. This too should come in time.
Wall's immense confidence and importance to the Wizards stood in contrast to Turner's uncertain position with the 76ers. The No. 2 overall pick played limited minutes during the first half and barely touched the basketball in an offense that reduced him to standing in the corner like a neo-Bruce Bowen. Doug Collins got Turner more involved during the second half as part of a smaller four-out, one-in lineup that allowed Philadelphia to rally in the fourth quarter and nearly win in regulation. Turner played with far more energy at both ends of the floor when he was given the chance to be part of the offense.
Four games into the season, the winless Sixers still seem to be searching for their identity. Collins has too many similar pieces on the perimeter. The obvious conundrum involves pairing Turner and Iguodala, two multifaceted wings who are far more effective with the ball in their hands. In addition, Philadelphia has two more creators in point guards Jrue Holiday and Louis Williams. There is no way to get all of them the touches they need. Surprisingly, it was Iguodala who was the odd man out in the fourth quarter before he replaced Thaddeus Young as the 76ers' smallball four for the extra session. Jason Kapono and Andres Nocioni offer skill sets that are more complementary on the wing, but with a fatal catch--neither is nearly as useful overall as Philadelphia's other options.
What makes matters worse for Turner is that Iguodala, Williams and to a lesser extent Holiday have already proven how they can contribute in the league. Turner is still attempting to figure that out. When he was on the ball, Turner was relatively passive and did not look to attack the basket. Since his lack of range limits him in catch-and-shoot situations, Turner will need to create off the dribble. About the only reliable source of offense he found on Tuesday were shots from the short corner on the baselines from 12-15 feet out.
The rest of Turner's game has translated. He is rebounding the ball well from the wing and looked solid at the defensive end of the floor. Collins even tried to utilize Turner's experience as a 6'7" point guard at Ohio State by putting him on Wall for a stretch during the second half. Turner made a great instinctive play to disrupt a dribble handoff for Wall and come up with a steal, but he had trouble keeping Wall in front of him on the perimeter. (Though, in fairness, who doesn't?)
It is far too early to judge Turner, a self-described slow starter who wasn't seriously considered a lottery pick until his third and final year in college. Still, Turner can be forgiven if he is not looking forward to the rematch between these two teams at the Verizon Center later this month. Right now, the comparison between the top two picks is not very flattering to the second selection.
The 2010-11 Pro Basketball Prospectus is now available in paperback form on Amazon.com. For sample chapters and more information, see our book page.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.