By Mike Piellucci
Generally speaking, the matriculation of a franchise player into his first All-Star Game is treated as an exultant, organization-empowering moment. It's a time for talking heads to spit out laudatory words with panoramic implications, urgently sculpting the game into something even loftier than the already significant milestone it is. The event isn't allowed to exist on its own: It has to be the first of many or a coronation, maybe even a turning point for Team X. Rarely does anything go undersold. Granted, it's probably expecting too much for the weekend that gave us a man dunking over a car to the tune of a gospel choir to do subtle, but that doesn't make the unerring shrillness any less tiresome.
So it comes as a mild surprise that relatively little has been made of John Wall's inaugural appearance at the NBA's midseason spectacular. There's some of the typical unbridled enthusiasm, sure, but there's also a toe-tapping impatience with the whole thing, a sense that, at age 23, Wall is somehow behind schedule.
It's been four years since he headlined the second of two particularly resplendent drafts in the point guard's gilded age, the 2010 crop saw him and Eric Bledsoe, his backup at Kentucky, join 2008 draftees Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook to form what is likely the most athletic quartet of floor generals in league history. Each one was spliced from the same mutated double helix, their games separated from one another by mere chromosomes. Their strengths are rooted in jarring, almost violent athleticism, the kind that spawns unassailable forays to the basket and a lateral quickness that disrupts defenses on their worst days and short circuits them entirely on better ones. It also unhinges them as they wield it, causing rolling blackouts in their court vision and artificially stunting their jumpers. Juxtaposed alongside their contemporaries, they seem like an entirely different species. For a spell after Wall and Bledsoe were drafted, there was a quixotic line of thought that this would mark the reinvention of the position as a whole, except four years later, we're still awaiting the next model to drift down the assembly line. At least for the time being, they remain a confederacy unto themselves.
It is only this season that all four have reached a comparable plateau of effectiveness -- and have legitimately competed with one another for All-Star berths. Rose and Westbrook are annual shoe-ins, of course, game-breakers with the bona fides to anchor championship teams. Bledsoe is the anomaly, the one drafted outside of the top five (he was picked 18th) and subjected to backup duties (albeit for Chris Paul's Clippers) to start his career. But he's explosive enough to be nicknamed after the greatest athlete to ever play the sport. The early returns on Bledsoe's first season as a starter in Phoenix -- 18 points, 5.8 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game on 48.6 percent shooting and a 20.01 PER -- were impressive enough to spark trade rumors that backcourt mate Goran Dragic, currently incinerating NBA defenses, would be shipped out to give him further room.
But Wall will be the only one of the four playing Sunday, a development that owes itself to a series of knee injuries seen by some as bad luck and others as penance for physical gifts too nuclear for even their own bodies to harness. And so, for at least one weekend, Wall will be the inadvertent standard bearer of their archetype, the lone bipedal member of a would-be revolution.
Accidental and unfortunate as those circumstances are, they double as a roundabout way of getting to what was supposed to happen in the first place. It's often scrubbed over now in the wake of Rose being an MVP and Westbrook the second-best player on a Finals runner-up, but Wall was tabbed to become the very best of the bunch, the one who fused that boundless natural talent with more developed defensive instincts and panoptic awareness of the floor. ESPN draft guru Chad Ford's blog entries in the months leading up to the 2010 draft bordered on hagiography; at different points, Wall is described as "extraterrestrially athletic," a better prospect than Rose (according to scouts), "[maybe] the best athlete I've ever seen" and "Derrick Rose meets Jason Kidd." Given that Rose and Westbrook each made their first All-Star game inside of three seasons, it appeared a formality Wall would do the same in half the time.
Instead, he struggled more visibly than all of them. There were external factors at work, of course; Rose and Westbrook enjoyed dramatically better supporting casts, while Bledsoe's flaws were better disguised in short shifts off the bench. There was too much talent and polish for Wall to look awful, but it took a blistering second half in 2012-13 for the results to approach the level of his ability, prompting an inevitable recoil from skeptics claiming it was an outlier borne of a small sample size. His work this season -- career bests in points, assists, steals, free-throw percentage, effective field-goal percentage and win shares -- defines him as much as validates him; as Hardwood Paroxysm's Seerat Sohi notes, he's stabilized the strain more effectively than Rose or Westbrook, reigning in some of their shared athleticism to buttress playmaking chops that vastly trump either of theirs. If Wall, who is two years their junior, is not on that level as a singular weapon just yet, he's close enough to caulk that gap entirely sooner than later.
At a minimum, Sunday will serve as an interesting snapshot of a unique moment in the NBA's point guard boom, the night when John Wall finally corrected onto the course so many had charted for him. Unlike so many other trumped-up All-Star narratives, though, here is a rare case that truly could portend something larger. Although meniscus surgery could force Bledsoe out for the remainder of the season, the biggest long-term implication at this juncture is the further distance it places between him and his contemporaries he was already striving to catch. Rose's prognosis, meanwhile, is murky at best in regard to both his short-term return date and the longer-term stability of his knees. Though Westbrook is expected back shortly after the break, three surgeries inside of a year on his right knee goes a long way toward undermining the Thunder's feigned confidence that nothing is seriously wrong. The surface-level questions about the implications -- When will they return? Can they be as effective? What if they get hurt again? -- have all been asked and been begrudgingly resigned to uncertainty as a sort of blanket response.
Wall is the implicit answer to the second-level question that nobody wants to consider: Who will be the exciting, hyper-athletic point guard that the league will gravitate to if those other guys aren't the same? Whether by his own merits, outside circumstances, or some combination of both, there is a chance he never surrenders the mantle he has only now seized and this weekend is the prologue to his era atop his cohort, perhaps even more. There will be players with more immediate stakes and certainly more tantalizing playoff storylines than any one Wall will enjoy in woebegone Washington. But arguably none will have a bigger hand in how the league's signature position takes form over the next several seasons. That's something which ought to provide ample material for the pundits to croon about. For once, it might be worthwhile to pay attention.
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Mike Piellucci is a freelance writer from Dallas based in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter at@MikeLikesSports.