For some reason, doesn’t it feel like Damian Lillard and John Wall are always being compared to each other? This argument isn’t ending anytime soon. The two recent Dime Magazine cover boys are both aiming to make the playoffs and the All-Star Game this year. The 23-year-old Lillard is coming off a Rookie Of The Year season that saw him produce some incredible numbers (38.6 minutes, 19.0 points and 6.5 assists per game) while the 23-year-old Wall helped engineer one of the greatest midseason turnarounds in recent NBA history.
Washington is going all in to make the playoffs, as seen in their latest trade with Phoenix that netted them Marcin Gortat, and Portland spent the summer arming their bench to give them a boost once the spring months hit.
Both players are two of the best young point guards in the league. But which guy is better: Damian Lillard or John Wall? We argue. You decide.
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Last season, Damian Lillard was undoubtedly the best rookie in the NBA.
With his unwavering quiet confidence and poise, the Blazers’ first pick in the 2012 NBA Draft added himself to a growing crop of young talented guards in the league. It was one of the most remarkable rookie years in recent memory, full of clutch shots, effortless shooting displays and complete mastery in floor management. There haven’t been many first-year players that looked as polished as Lillard right out of the gate, as he scored 23 points and dished out 11 assists in his first NBA game. Playing at Weber State and ending up as the sixth overall draft pick means you’re really, really good and Lillard showed us just that. In just one season, he’s gone from relative unknown to an NBA enthusiast’s wet dream on the cusp of superstardom.
Still, when discussing a higher potential ceiling, Lillard is rarely mentioned in the first or second tier of great guards. Players like John Wall, who has shown flashes of greatness but is mostly inconsistent, often gets the nod from critics. At 6-4, Wall is blessed with ideal height and his speed and athleticism in the open court is second to none. Now in his fourth year in the NBA, he’s back to full health and looking to show why he was drafted first overall in 2010. And at only 23, he’s still so young that it’s impossible to deny his potential.
However, I’d take Lillard and it’s not really close.
Before divulging into the statistics, let’s look at one of the most crucial aspects in sports – health. Check out Lillard’s durability: he started all 82 games of his NBA rookie campaign and was the leader in total minutes played. It’s not necessarily a skill but a player’s production depends solely on their ability to stay on the floor and the Blazers guard has proven he’s capable of doing so. On the other hand, Wall has never played a full season (the 66-game lockout year doesn’t count either). Of course, Lillard has had a far shorter career thus far and Wall’s relentless attacking style leaves him more susceptible to injury. But Wall has openly admitted to poor eating habits affecting his health, which therefore led to his lingering injuries during his career. You’ll never have to worry about Lillard’s work ethic (see: his Rookie of the Year award acceptance speech) as he’s arguably the best conditioned player in the league.
Though in different circumstances, last season was a great year for comparison because both athletes were 22 years old. While Wall was a one-and done player at Kentucky, Lillard spent four years in college, which explains why his transition to the NBA felt so seamless. His game was already far more mature than his peers and it shows when matching his 2012 statistics with his rookie peers, as well as veterans such as Wall.
After one full season, Lillard is already a better all-around scorer and probably has been since high school. He had a higher shooting percentage on his two-pointers even though he had less attempts, shot more efficiently from the charity stripe and was far superior from three-point land – 37 percent to Wall’s 27 percent – all while playing 1,500 more minutes. Wall makes his living in transition and inside the arc, as 15 of his 16 averaged shots per game in 2012 were twos. However, he’s still struggling from the perimeter – a woeful 11 percent from behind the arc this preseason – and in today’s game where the three-point shot is becoming an essential, Wall may never reach his potential if he can’t threaten opponents with an outside jumper.
Wall is the taller player so he trumps in the rebounding and assist totals, and that’s impressive seeing how the Wizards needed him as their primary scorer. But the Blazers also leaned on their young guard to be aggressive and score the rock in pivotal moments instead of looking to distribute. And for all of his assertiveness, Lillard still maintained his poise, averaging only 3.0 turnovers to Wall’s 3.5 while rarely being called for fouls, averaging only two per game. With draft picks C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe on board and veteran Mo Williams teaming up with Wesley Matthews, Lillard now has proven perimeter shooters at his disposal so his dimes should increase while he maintains his overall tenacity.
Speaking of defense, Lillard was woeful last season and contributed to the Blazers being the fifth-worst defense in the league. He allowed 1.01 points per possession during one-on-one matchups and opponents shot over 45 percent when he guarded them. However, I’ll chalk that up as tired legs from playing a full 82 games and a lack of quality depth in the backcourt which forced him to play Gladiator-esque minutes. Wall played 49 games and had fresh legs after the All-Star break and we therefore saw what he could do when healthy. Yet, Lillard has the speed and reach to become a great defender this season, especially with the acquisition of center Robin Lopez.
This season, Wall already seems frustrated and it’s due to his lack of improvement on offense. He stated recently that he was upset with his preseason performance – shooting under 35 percent from the field – and his offensive deficiencies have affected his on-ball defense, one of his pivotal strengths that often trigger his near-unstoppable transition game. Maybe it’s the pressure of receiving a max contract, but too often Wall lets a few mistakes affect his entire game and it sets the wrong tone for his teammates.
Lillard, who led the Blazers to a 5-2 preseason record and averaged over 20 points, is a less gifted athlete but doesn’t let his defensive woes alter his overall style of play.
Both players are 23, but one seems to improve with every game while the other regresses. And it’s not the one you’d expect. Lillard has been doubted his entire basketball career while Wall was heralded as a surefire lottery pick since early high school. Lillard doesn’t take anything for granted, and plays with a killer instinct seldom seen from players his age. And though Wall is healthy, he’s looked subpar thus far and in three NBA seasons, we’ve seen minimal progression coupled with frequent moments of stagnancy.
Meanwhile, I’ll put money down now that Lillard will improve in multiple statistical categories in 2013.
Though he has the numbers to back him up, Lillard’s complete brilliance isn’t necessarily quantifiable which makes his ceiling sky high. Look past the stats and you’ll see a guard with moxie, enormous talent and a will to win.
And that’s why he gets my nod.