John Wall: Numbers Don't Tell The Whole Story

March 12th, 2010
Numbers sure are convenient.  As a math teacher, I use them everyday to make comparisons, draw conclusions, and make decisions.   Numbers can be useful to analyze individuals and teams in basketball as well– from comparing points scored and rebounds grabbed, to considering percentages of success.  Numbers, however, remain the default factor in making many important basketball decisions, like choosing All-Conference players, making draft picks, and debating which player is “better.”  While numbers may be symptomatic of a player’s effectiveness, they are rarely the cause.  It is the qualities that contribute to a player’s effectiveness – his influence on his team, his will to win, his unselfishness – coupled with his basketball talents, that truly distinguish a great basketball player.  It is therefore essential that we look at the right numbers before jumping to any conclusions.

Case in point:  Let’s take a closer look at Kentucky freshman point guard, John Wall.  He has been widely regarded as the best point guard in college basketball and the consensus #1 pick in this June’s NBA draft, yet his most commonly considered numbers  - 16 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds (and 4 turnovers) per game – do not garner such praise alone.

But if we take a look at some of Walls’ more important numbers, his value becomes more apparent:  Heading into last Sunday’s game against Florida, Wall had played in 70 minutes of basketball that accounted for the last two minutes of regulation and overtime for his team.  In those 70 minutes, he had scored 66 points, shot 62% from the field, and committed just six turnovers.  If we averaged these numbers over a 40-minute game (assuming he played the whole game), Wall would have averaged 38 points and three turnovers per contest.  Given the fact that Wall’s Wildcats have lost only two games all season, it is fair to say that these numbers are pretty significant.

Wall’s freshman season begs comparison to the first and only season of another precocious point guard who did not have outlandish college numbers, but who proved to be enormously effective.   In 2007-08, Derrick Rose averaged under 15 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds per game for Memphis, while quietly being hailed as the best talent in college basketball.  Sure enough, he led Memphis to within seconds of a national Championship, was drafted #1 overall in the NBA draft, and led the Chicago Bulls to an essential first-round playoff stalemate with the defending NBA-champion Boston Celtics while being named NBA Rookie of the Year.

This year, Rose is averaging over 20 points per game for the first time since high school.  Couple this with his 5.8 assists per contest, and you have pretty impressive numbers for an NBA point guard.

On the other hand, Rose lost just two games in high school, two more in college, and succeeded in his first year in reaching the playoffs with his original NBA lottery franchise.  To me, these numbers are even more impressive.