We knew that John Wall had been out for a while. In fact, it felt like longer than it actually was given the particular span of time he missed. Hobbled by a bum heel, he shut down operations a couple days after Christmas 2018. We don’t need to get into the specifics of how that season-ending injury turned into a two-year saga, but he missed all of 2019, which was 12 months, 15 tops, and then in 2020, children were born into the world, matriculated through high school, and put down the security deposit on their third apartment sometime around October. Wall remained on the sidelines throughout all of this, returning to NBA action on the very last day of the year.
He looks good for age 59, or whatever number this joke requires. Wall is a Rocket now, because nothing is where you left it two years ago, but putting the strange aesthetics to one side, he’s doing John Wall Things again. If his top speed isn’t what it once was, he still moves with the same unique fluidity, like a sea bird diving and gliding out over a lake. He can still find the open man, still finish at the tin, still takes shots that you’d rather he didn’t. (Though not nearly as many as Russell Westbrook, piling the masonry high in our nation’s capital.) This is what you might have expected from Wall at this point in his career even if he hadn’t torn his achilles: a game built around superior athleticism now slightly diminished, his smarts, skills, and understanding of angles becoming more apparent as he becomes a slightly less overwhelming physical talent.
He’s been up and down, missed a stretch with knee soreness, but on his day Wall is productive, as was the case on Tuesday night in his first game against the Wizards since they traded him away in December: 24 points on 21 shots and five assists in a blowout win. He even wound up Russ late in the contest, the way that you can wind up Russ. You make one cutting remark while he’s down double-digits and he’ll get off on a rant that won’t wrap up ‘till three games later, Trae Young wondering what he did to deserve this. It’s not exactly difficult to get one over on the Wizards these days—if James Harden got fat to force his way out of Houston, he would have started showing up for games in Danny DeVito’s ovoid Penguin costume were he stuck in Washington—but Wall has ticked Mild Revenge off his to-do list.
He said something interesting after the game, which is that “the NBA is a lot easier than what it was before. It’s a lot of switching one through four, one through five. And it’s a lot of spacing, all shooters out there and guys that can make one-on-one plays.” The guy missed so much time that, while he was out, he believes that the sport fundamentally changed. His assessment is pretty much correct. In 2017-18, Wall’s last full season, the Rockets were leading the league with 42.5 three-point attempts per game. The Nets were second, averaging 35.7 triples a night. This year, that would put them 14th. Scoring is up, pace is up, the switch-everything defense the circa 2018 Rockets employed is now common practice. A younger John Wall could have done some serious damage in a league like this. As it stands, the increased spacing and rapid action are helping him do a decent impression of his old self.
Houston seems as good a place as any for him to rehab his game. The Rockets haven’t been altogether bad, and Wall is sharing a backcourt with Victor Oladipo, who’s also trying to get his legs back after multiple seasons in the wilderness. Maybe the two of them can relate to each other, though I’m not sure anyone responds well to Oladipo’s smarm offensive. The team they’ve been exiled to doesn’t make any sense, and it’s unclear what the front office’s plan will be going forward given that they don’t have much control over their own draft picks but do have a bunch of Brooklyn’s future selections. As it stands, they’re a truly weird squad: Wall, Oladipo, Christian Wood, an unhappy P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon on negative one-and-a-half legs, the excellently named Jae’Sean Tate, Kenyon Martin—[frantically googles own age]–Jr.
In a way they’re perfect for this zombified NBA season, which carries an air of crushing inconsequentiality. Flipping around League Pass feels like a grim insomniac scroll through your phone. You’re searching for meaning and finding only Content. We should probably just throw the best eight or so teams in a bracket, find out if anybody can beat the Lakers, and call it a year. (Or better yet, pull the plug entirely.) But if we’re not doing that, if the broadcast partners and the fine folks at State Farm need blood, then a John Wall redemption tour on a team whose journey to nowhere is at least winding and wild inspires something like emotion. Our friend is back, in colors that have us whacking the top of the TV. This is one of the least disconcerting things about basketball in 2021. Perhaps it even qualifies as a comfort, the kind of thing that’s in extremely short supply.