Thursday, December 10, 2009
Tyler who? Last May when perhaps the most iconic basketball player of the decade graduated after four years as a media darling at Carolina, people jokingly wondered who would take his place. Well for the answer just go to the College Basketball frontpage of ESPN, SI, Yahoo, Foxsports, or nearly any sports website for that matter. John Wall emerged out of crowd and forced his way into the spotlight, quickly becoming to college ball what LeBron James is the NBA (at least for a year).
Wall has not only lived up to the hype but has surpassed it. He put on a show on national TV against contenders UNC and UConn. Avid college basketball fans who follow the recruiting process knew John Wall would be a ESPN Top 10 mainstay and put together a highlight reel of dunks like he did over Jerry Stackhouse in a summer league game. Statistically Wall is performing as well as expected, averaging 19 points and 7 assists per game. What we did not expect of Wall was his crunch-time clutchness. Wall takes over the last 2 minutes of close games in a way that evokes images of Jordan. With Evan Turner out of the running due to a broken back, Wall has a great chance to win NPOY this season. What is truly scary for all basketball fans outside of Lexington is that Wall can afford to improve. He is not an outside shooting threat at this point and while he's shooting a respectable 35% from 3-point range, Wall has only had one game in which he made more than one trey. Shooting usually improves in between seasons, but if Wall can become more of a threat outside the arc he may become literally indefensible. One area where Wall definitely can improve by March is turnovers. He is turning the ball over almost 4 times a game and will need to limit this number if the Wildcats hope to be able to overcome teams like Kansas. Overall though, Wall is putting together a freshman season that rivals that of Carmelo, Durant, and Rose.
Given the prodigious talent that is John Wall, it came as a surprise to some that Roy Williams chose not to recruit the local high school phenom last May. His decision was clearly not a matter of misjudging talent as Williams has been quoted as saying Wall was the best point guard prospect he had seen since Jason Kidd. As such some have been quick to fault Roy for this decision. Williams stated that he wasn't sure about the fit, which some have interpreted to mean that Roy didn't want to potentially take on a prospect who could be in violation of recruiting regulations. Furthermore it is far from certain that Wall would have ended up at North Carolina, as his handler, Brian Clifton, has some personal vendetta against the Carolina ball coach (though after what happened with Barnes I am never counting UNC out of any recruiting competition).
However, I think there was a much more basketball-related reason for UNC's decision not to recruit Wall. After Ellington and Lawson declared, I think Roy knew UNC would still not be a title favorite even with Wall in the backcourt. Furthermore, he knew Tar Heels already had talented backcourt commits Bullock and Marshall coming in next season and probably also had an inkling that they could get Barnes as well. Wall was a virtual lock to be one-and-done and Roy already had a solid point guard in the perpetually underrated Larry Drew II. I feel Williams decided to plan for a title run in 2010-2011 by letting Drew II gain confidence and experience this season so that next year's squad could have an experienced floor leader, and hoped that this year's squad would be able to put it together under the leadership of Thompson and Ginyard and compete in a bit of a down year. Basically it was like passing up a one night stand with Jessica Alba in favor of seriously dating Rachel McAdams. Yeah you may have missed out on an amazing night with a smoking hot babe, but in the end you go to bed with Rachel McAdams every night.
Ultimately the plan could pay off big time, contingent on a couple things. The first was his faith in Drew II would have to be well placed. So far it seems like it is. Drew II is fifth in the nation in assists averaging 6.6 per game, while also developing confidence in his scoring ability. Drew currently averages 8.7 points per game (a number I expect will break into double digits by season's end) and is shooting nearly 40% from three point range. Drew does not have Wall's athleticism or explosiveness, but is much faster than he gets credit for and is also a good defender. Ultimately Roy chose Drew over Wall, knowing that by doing so he could have an experienced floor leader for next year's championship run.
The second aspect of the plan is that UNC's frontcourt will still be good enough next year for them to compete for a national title. Zeller and the Wear's were pretty much locks to be back. The Wears won't dominate games, but are technically sound and should be able to give quality minutes as reserves next season. Zeller has shown flashes of dominance but he still needs to become more physical if he is to be a starter on a title team. John Henson may have seemed like a one and done prospect before the season started but so far his considerable talent has been undermined by his lack of size and thus lack of a position. He may be most valuable at PF next season with Barnes and Graves at SF, but will have to put on some serious muscle in the offseason. The real X factor will be Ed Davis's decision after this season with regards to the NBA. Davis has shown enough recently to warrant being a legitimate NBA lottery pick next June and many assume this is his final season at UNC. Unlike many college stars debating jumping early, Davis does not feel the same financial pressures as his father is a former NBA player. Likewise, his father probably realizes that while he certainly has NBA skill he could still afford to polish his game (especially offensively) in order to make sure he can come in and contribute as a rookie in the NBA. Finally, if UNC falls short of a national title this season as is expected, Davis may have a hard time turning down the chance to play with a team chock-full of McDonalds All-Americans and win a second national championship.
The final aspect of the plan is that the UNC backcourt will be as good as expected next season. While Henson was the most hyped of the freshmen, Dexter Strickland has the most potential to make an impact this season. He is slowly learning the point guard position that he will likely play at the next level and in recent games his turnovers have gone down while his points have increased. With pure point guard Kendall Marshall coming in next season Strickland will be able to act as a combo guard and will probably start at his natural position of SG, where he will be joined by 6'6 top recruit Reggie Bullock and will have quality backup depth with Leslie McDonald and Justin Watts. At the SF position mega-recruit Harrison Barnes and redshirt senior Will Graves will round out what should be a backcourt loaded with talent.
So UNC fans shouldn't be too dismayed that John Wall is not a Tar Heel. Next season they could be title favorites. For now just enjoy the chance to watch the force of nature that is John Wall.