John Wall and Rajon Rondo squared off last night, which is more fun for me than it is for the Wizards.
This is not because I’m a Boston guy–I loathe the cradle of U.S. liberty just like any right-thinking American sports fan does. It’s that this is a battle of similar players, expressed through different means.
This is not a matchup of clones so much as it’s a matchup of say, twins who were raised apart from one another. And yes, Wall is a bit larger than Rondo, with better hops. Rondo has a better handle and a better sense of pace and place, for now. They are not exactly the same in innate ability, but both can race with the ball faster than your vision can process, and both are transition assassins that can’t shoot worth half a damn.
So, they share elite skills and this particular, glaring flaw. Wall just shoots incorrectly, objectively. His dominant elbow juts out in the shape of a shark’s nose, and his off hand plants on the back of the ball’s top, like a balding man’s strategically placed yarmulke. This is more the “safety” symbol in football than proper jumper form. I’m thankful it shanks, because if it didn’t my sense of order would be compromised. It would be like watching a juggler juggle his own arms.
Rondo may just have an intrinsic issue to grapple with. His hands are thought to be too large for a normal form, and perhaps that excuses the mess. Rondo’s elbow is jutted even more acutely and the ball is held directly in front of his face. From the back angle, it looks like the least majestic solar eclipse ever.
If both are embarrassed by this, then only Boston’s guard goes through significant measures to avoid embarrassment. And this is the difference, this is where paths diverge. Rondo rarely, if ever, shoots a jumper, slinging two fewer from between 10-23 feet per game than Wall does (both avoid threes like they count for negative points).
Rondo’s “strange” stat lines are as attributable to this reckoning with weakness as they are to his top-level strengths. In a Friday loss to the Sixers, he attempted five shots and had 17 assists. In Sunday’s victory over the Wizards, he again attempted five shots, and this time totaled 11 dimes.
Yesterday, John Wall was content to keep firing. He shot 17 times and missed on all but five tries. Wall might be a hideous shooter, but he’ll shoot when open. Many possessions are sacrificed to the ugly monster known as “John Wall’s jumper.”
So it seems, prima facie, that Rondo’s way is better. He maximizes his points of strength, minimizes his points of weakness. If only it were that simple. Rondo’s unwillingness to hoist makes him—and by extension his team—predictable to play. Even if Wall would have made William Tell’s kid sweat the apple off his head, the defense has to honor a shooter.
With 7:36 left in the third quarter of Wizards, Celtics game, Wall is freed by a Jordan Crawford screen above the arc, as Rondo tries to do something between flop and go “over” the pick. Paul Pierce recovers while leaving Jordan Crawford (his guy), and does a strong contest of the jumper Wall shoots off the dribble. In this moment, Crawford is open and Paul’s lunging contest has opened some floor space. The result is a miss, and a lucky Kevin Seraphin put back.
On the next Celtics possession, Pierce sets a screen near the elbow, hoping to free Rondo from Wall. Wall simply sags under the screen, making it easy for Crawford to quickly “show” and get back on Pierce. Rondo does not shoot the open jumper. No one is open. With his hand forced, Rondo dribbles at Wall, attempts an errant, Ewing-style runner that the Wizards recover.
There are situations in which a team would have played Wall like the Wizards played Rondo, and situations where a team would have played Rondo like the Celtics played Wall. But I cite the consecutive possessions because they demonstrate how “acting as if” can change how a defense addresses you. Wall acts as though he should be shooting and Rondo does not. In part due to this, Wall has 2.8 fewer assists, but defenses often play him differently, in a way that opens up more space for his teammates.
So which point guard is better right now? I’d favor John Wall, though it is difficult to call this one way or the other. Both are going about being the same in a different way.