During the first quarter of a Dec. 27 regular season game against the Boston Celtics, John Wall did something amazing. The Washington Wizards point guard took a pass from teammate Bradley Beal, dribbled the basketball, and then in one fluid motion exploded off the ground, rotated his body 360 degrees and laid the ball in the hoop as helpless Celtics defenders looked onward.
It was an extemporaneous display of physical ability and creative vision, one of those rare moments when basketball more closely resembles artistic athletic competitions like figure skating or rhythmic gymnastics than competitive team sports. What made Wall’s impromptu move so astounding was that he had made an almost identical play two days earlier during a Christmas Day game against the New York Knicks. In the span of 72 hours, Wall had twice done something on a basketball court few other players have the foresight or ability to attempt, much less execute.
In his fifth year as a pro, Wall is enjoying the finest season of his still-nascent career. He’s leading the league in assists per game and is the best player on a Wizards team that has at times looked like a legitimate threat to win the NBA’s Eastern Conference. He was recently named the starting point guard for the East’s 2015 All-Star team, having received more fan votes than any other guard in the conference. These accolades indicate Wall, who spent the first three seasons of his career vacillating between moments of sheer brilliance and long stretches of good but unexceptional play, is capitalizing on the talent that convinced the Wizards to select him with the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft.* He has morphed from an unreliable athletic phenom into a polished NBA point guard, a player Grantland’s Zach Lowe labeled “a hoops intellectual” on account of his ability to see the floor and set up teammates for easy baskets.
While Wall’s evolution into a first-rate floor general is interesting in and of itself to hardcore hoops enthusiasts, what makes Wall a special entity within the current NBA landscape has nothing to do with his statistical accomplishments or the number of wins his team records. Wall commands attention because he is perhaps the most stylistically expressive player in the NBA today. His penchant for playing basketball with extreme flair places his game in the same tradition as past stylistic innovators like Allen Iverson, Pete Maravich, and George Gervin.
Basketball is the most expressive team sport because it is the only one in which players consistently choose to embellish certain movements for the sole purpose of increasing the game’s aesthetic appeal. All sports feature moments of staggering physical beauty, but these moments tend to arise from functional necessity: A wide receiver makes a one-handed catch because his other hand cannot reach the ball, or a soccer player executes a bicycle kick because he can’t turn toward the goal without exposing the ball to defenders. In basketball, players consciously choose the superfluous over the routine. The sport obligates a level of deliberate showmanship that other team sports do not—if LeBron James receives the ball with a wide-open path to the basket and executes an ordinary layup, a sense of disappointment hangs over the play. There’s an unspoken expectation that within normal game play, players like James will go above and beyond what’s needed to reach the desired objective (i.e. to put the ball through the hoop for two points) for the sake of creating additional entertainment value. This is why players routinely perpetrate creative physical motions, like windmill dunks and extreme crossover dribbles. As Magic Johnson once said, “You definitely come to give [the fans] a show.”
The artistry inherent to this show puts basketball on a plane of its own within the pantheon of team sports. It is why art critic Dave Hickey can spend more than a thousand words waxing poetic about a famous Julius Erving layup.* It’s why the sport’s signature skills competition, the slam-dunk contest (which, by the way, Wall won in 2014) is qualitative rather than quantitative in nature. Basketball history is littered with players renowned for their capacity to fill highlight reels—Connie Hawkins, Vince Carter, Dominique Wilkins, to name a few—and one could argue that these players’ contributions to the sport are as important as those of the players who hoisted multiple championship trophies.
Since entering the league in 2010, Wall has been capable of making artistic, jaw-dropping plays. But over the past two seasons he has distinguished himself as a showman of exceptional prowess by exhibiting a rare talent for combining his physical gifts with the creative vision necessary to imagine new and entertaining ways to score the basketball. In addition to the aforementioned 360-degree layups—a play Wall has used to devastating effect in other instances as well—he’s become particularly adept at going behind his back in the open court, a play that’s both effective and beautiful to watch. He’s also patented a unique move that he refers to as a “cut dribble” (others refer to it as the “yo-yo dribble”). It’s a hybrid of a fake pass and in-and-out move, and requires Wall to shake his body like a samba dancer while putting enough sidespin on the basketball to ensure it ends up in the intended location.
Like Iverson’s crossover, Wall’s cut dribble is both potent and purposefully showy; it allows him to shake a defender in a humiliating way that invites the crowd to marvel at the physical virtuosity on display.
The NBA is not short on players who can leave spectators in awe of the beauty that results from top-tier athletes in motion. The point guard position is particularly replete with stylistically expressive players, each of whom has a lengthy personal highlight reel. Damian Lillard has made a habit of throwing down vicious dunks over less aerially inclined opponents. Steph Curry may lack the end-to-end speed and leaping ability of some of his contemporaries, but his exemplary ball-handling skills and preternatural economy of movement allow him to humiliate defenders with savvy dribbling displays.
Yet Wall stands above his peers as the player most likely to give fans their money’s worth in entertainment value. This is because on any given night there is a good chance he will do something amazing or semioriginal (or both). Wall is certainly not the first player to execute a 360 layup or go behind his back on a fast break, and his cut dribble is reminiscent of some of Maravich’s more creative ball-handling inventions. But the frequency with which he employs these moves during game play, as well as his proclivity for simply outrunning opponents, makes him the kind of must-see TV most players can only aspire to become. His singular physical expressiveness may explain why fans voted Wall to the starting lineup of the Eastern Conference All-Star team, even though that conference is replete with talented point guards like Jeff Teague, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, and Kyle Lowry. The NBA All-Star game is the ultimate exhibition game; it amplifies players’ normal impulse to engage in showmanship to the maximum possible degree.
In addition to starting for the Eastern Conference, Wall will have one additional opportunity to exhibit his creative elegance during All-Star weekend. On Saturday, he will square off against Curry in a shot-for-shot competition at Madison Square Garden. Curry is considered to be one of the best, if not the best, pure shooters in the NBA. The two players should make for an interesting contrast in style and athletic grace.
While the competition should be hotly contested, I’ll put my money on Wall. Some players possess extraordinary athletic gifts. Others extreme creativity. Wall is one of the rare players who has both. Just sit back and enjoy the show.
*Correction, Feb. 12, 2015: This article originally misstated that John Wall was the No. 1 pick of the 2011 draft. This article also misspelled Julius Erving's last name.