John Wall: The Best Freshman in College Basketball History?

It is perhaps the ultimate compliment to say that an athlete is “worth the price of admission.” It can get thrown around too often, but with certain players it is true: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Johan Santana, Adrian Peterson. There are others, of course; they are usually professional athletes. John Wall, however, is a 19-year-old college freshman. But if you don’t think Wall’s worth the price of admission, you haven’t seen him play.

Simply put, Wall is too good for college basketball. He knew it, NBA scouts knew it, and John Calipari knew it when he offered him a scholarship, first at Memphis and then once he was hired at Kentucky. But the NBA’s age requirement prevented Wall from making the leap from high school to the pros that James, Bryant, and so many others have done. Folks, we are seeing what LeBron James would have been like in college.

Despite his ball-handling, passing, and shooting skills, James has the body of a power forward, which allows him to dominate the game in an unprecedented way. But offensively, Wall can take over just the same, even though he is only 6’4 and 195 pounds. His speed with the ball in his hands has drawn comparisons to Ty Lawson, yet Wall has five inches on the former North Carolina point guard.

Wall hasn’t even played 10 college games yet, but is it wrong to say he’s the best freshman in the last 20 years? Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant were both spectacular in their one (and only) year in college, no question. Perhaps the player most similar to Wall is Derrick Rose, who also played for Calipari just two seasons ago. Rose was selected first overall in last year’s NBA draft and won the Rookie of the Year award.

Dan Wolken is in his third year covering Memphis basketball for The Commercial Appeal, so he witnessed Rose’s lone college season up close. He also saw Wall play several times in the AAU circuit two summers ago. “My basic impression of (Wall) at that time was that he had the chance to be better than Rose because he’s bigger and is probably quicker end-to-end,” Wolken wrote in an e-mail last week. “The only question was the intangibles. Rose’s teams always won, and Wall didn’t have that same kind of success in AAU or in high school. But Wall has pretty quickly answered the questions about his intangibles, so there’s no reason he can’t be better in college.”

Jerry Tipton of the Lexington Herald-Leader has covered Kentucky basketball for nearly 30 years, so it means something when he declares, “I can’t think of another college basketball player to get off to the start John Wall has,” as he did via e-mail last week. I found it a bit surprising that he made such strong comparisons to a Kentucky player who spent two seasons with the Wildcats before leaving in 2006: Rajon Rondo. I guess Tipton saw what many NBA scouts didn’t: Rondo was a great talent who deserved to be selected higher than 21st in the draft.

Tipton reminds us of the time when freshmen were ineligible, so dominant forces like Lew Alcindor (as he was known then) didn’t get a chance to showcase their skills right away. While Tipton would not say Wall is the greatest freshman of all time — he’d have a hard time overlooking Anthony, Shaquille O’Neal, and Chris Jackson, among others — just considering a player only nine games into his career speaks to Wall’s impact. “If Wall keeps making pull-up jump shots, he’s unguardable,” wrote Tipton.

Regardless of where you might rank Wall amongst the all-time greats or amongst all freshman, you’d have no chance of convincing me he isn’t the most exciting and entertaining player in college basketball. Nobody is more fun to watch than Wall when he’s got the ball. He is a “don’t blink” guy. He is a “change to the channel he’s on” guy. He’s been hyped up and talked about so much — but he has delivered.

Players like Wall are the reason I’m against the NBA’s age requirement. Sure, for every player like James, Bryant, or Kevin Garnett there are a handful like Lenny Cooke (who?), but I think it’s best to let these players and their families make the decisions. But that is a different argument for another day. For now, I’m just going to sit back and enjoy watching Wall, one of the greatest college players I’ve ever seen.

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