John Wall made his long-awaited return to the NBA on Thursday night after 735 days away from the game. The five-time All-Star made his Rockets debut as he put up 22 points, nine assists and six rebounds in Houston’s first win of the season.
It’s been a long road for Wall, who underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his left heel, and while he was rehabbing from that procedure, he tore his Achilles tendon which required him to miss a full season. Then, when it was finally time for him to make his return to the Washington Wizards after returning to full health, he was traded to the Houston Rockets just two and a half weeks before the 2020-21 season was set to start. On top of all that, his debut with the Rockets was delayed a week after he and several other Rockets players were required to quarantine due to league COVID-19 protocols. Needless to say, there’s been plenty of anticipation surrounding his return.
When he took the court against the Kings, it was clear he was shaking off two years of rust, as he missed his first two shots of the game, the first a mid-range jumper that clanked off the right side of the rim, and the second shot a missed 3-point shot that rimmed out.
Then, about four minutes into the game, PJ Tucker came up with a steal and dished it to James Harden who delivered it to Wall who was leaking out for the transition bucket and dunked it home.
The second quarter is when he really came alive, scoring 10 of his 22 points in the second frame of action, including a sequence that showed off his skills on both ends of the floor. Wall came away with a steal when rookie Tyrese Haliburton tried to get off a skip pass to Buddy Hield, but Wall intercepted it and proceeded to split two defenders in transition to get an easy layup.
After the game, Wall talked about how happy he was to finally get back to doing what he loves.
“It was great, man, just to get out there and have fun,” Wall said to reporters, via ESPN. “When I get between those four lines and once the ball touches my hands after the jump ball, I was fine. I was happy to be able to compete with some of the best guys in this league and [demonstrate] that I have the ability to be one of the best point guards in this league.”
Throughout the game, Wall flashed the elite athleticism and explosiveness that made him so special before injuries stalled his career. He showed no fear in attacking the rim, where 12 of his points came from either layups or dunks.
“He was extremely aggressive, making plays, defensively getting after it,” Harden said after Wall’s performance. “He looked really, really good, especially for not playing in two years.”
As good as he looked, though, there are clearly areas where he stands to improve, as evidenced from his five turnovers against the Kings. Most of that, though, has to do with him getting a better feel for his teammates as he’s getting acclimated to a new team. Many of his turnovers came because he misread where his teammates were, like an errant alley-oop pass to Christian Wood, or a miscommunication with Eric Gordon when he tried to deliver a pass to him on the wing. Over time, as he becomes more comfortable with his new team, those mistakes will subside as will the shooting woes from deep, where he went two of eight against the Kings.
All in all, though, Wall looked great for someone who hasn’t played in two years, and as the season progresses he’ll only improve. The next big question is if Wall and Harden will be a duo long-term, as the latter has expressed his interest in a trade in the past couple months after Houston’s tumultuous offseason that saw the exit of coach Mike D’Antoni and general manager Daryl Morey as well as the trade that brought Wall to Houston in exchange for Russell Westbrook.
The Rockets have insisted that they are in no hurry to trade Harden, and are likely hoping that he may have a change of heart and can see himself playing alongside Wall. However, if Harden is insistent on moving on, at least the Rockets will have Wall who is on the path to get back to his All-Star form.