The last time John Wall played a professional basketball game wasn’t that long ago — it was just over a year ago, after all. But it feels like eons have passed since his last outing. Consider this: during the week of April 23, 2021, the song “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo was No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. “Rapstar” by Polo G was atop the charts; I had and still have never heard of this song.
A second attempt at adapting the video game “Mortal Kombat” into a feature film was just hitting theaters — and arriving immediately on HBO Max, a big deal for cinephiles in the heat of the pandemic. A month prior, that big boat got stuck in the Suez Canal. Not a major event in April, but doesn’t that feel like the distant past?
Also on that date: Wall dropped a team-high 27 points and 13 assists in 39 minutes of action in a Houston Rockets uniform against, fittingly enough, the Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets lost, 109-104; Paul George paced the Clips with 33 points and 14 rebounds. But it was a competitive outing in which Wall shined.
After spending as much time on the injury report as he had in and around that season, it felt like a return to form. (Until, of course, he was shelved the following season. More on that later.)
It probably didn’t garner as many viewers as “Mortal Kombat” did on its first night on HBO Max, but it should have. It was as close to a vintage John Wall performance as we’ve seen in years, a buffet-style offering of his best attributes, from sneaking into passing lanes and starting fastbreaks or weaving his way through the defense for a tough, contested finish at the rim. And it’s worth reconsidering now that Wall is set to suit up for the Clippers this coming fall.
Foremost among the many questions swirling about Wall — from where he stands healthwise to where he stands in terms of his ability to play at a level even remotely close to his last All-Star season — is how exactly he’ll fit with the Clippers.
Without debate, this group will boast the most talent Wall has ever been around in his NBA career. Despite the riches that came with having Bradley Beal as a longtime running mate, having Marcin Gortat and Kelly Oubre Jr. as your other sidekicks doesn’t exactly compare to having Ivica Zubac and Reggie Jackson as passing options.
And the stars by his side in L.A., Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, are far and away superior to Beal in all-around play, as well as postseason pedigree. If they can stay healthy and available for the majority of the season, Wall should be able to flourish.
The wonder remains what Wall’s role will look like alongside that wealth of talent. He has spent the majority of his career as his team’s primary ball-handler and scorer; even before being shelved in Houston for the duration of last season for the sake of the team’s tanking efforts, he was its best scorer, distributor, and player. Now, he finds himself on a team that doesn’t need him to be that, and shouldn’t want him to, either. Wall, thankfully, appears to be on the same page.
“I don’t have to do it every night, I don’t have to be Batman every night for us to win,” Wall said last Saturday at Las Vegas Summer League. “That’s the ultimate goal for me at this part of my career, I don’t want to have to be the Batman every night to try to win. On our team that we have, I think anyone can be Batman.”
Some might feel as though that implies that Wall plans on being Batman some of the time. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst recently balked at that concept, saying on NBA Today that Wall “hasn’t been Batman in a few years” and should look to perhaps fill the role of Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family’s invaluable butler.
You might chuckle, but consider how vital Alfred really is to Batman’s success. He’s his main confidant; he guards Wayne Manor with his life, day in and day out, remaining in the shadows all the while. Frankly, there is no Batman without Alfred. Perhaps the key to the Clippers matching their already-lofty expectations is Wall being exactly that.
He’s prepared to alter his game in some ways, specifically noting that he expects to be shooting “a lot of catch-and-shoot 3s” and “a lot of floaters,” as well as creating more from a post-up position. He knows that with the Clippers, “I probably won’t have the ball in my hands as much as I had it in my career and that’s kinda the reason why I made the decision.”
When Wall does get the ball in his hands, though, it might be best to emphasize those catch-and-shoot 3-point opportunities. He’s made 36.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes since 2013-14, according to NBA Advanced Stats, and shot 38.4 percent on those shots in 2020-21. That’s a good clip for a player who hasn’t always been considered the best shooter. With the Clippers, Wall will be far from the team’s premier marksman; being a capable one is what matters.
On many of those attempts, you’ll see Wall coming off of screens and being able (or electing, even) to take a bit more time to launch a triple than most shooters might. But that’s exactly how the Clippers are likely to use him in those sets. Whether he’s receiving a hand-off from Marcus Morris or catching a rifling pass in the corner from a driving George, Wall will have a green light and a golden opportunity to cash in. He has always had a measured, consistent release that allows him to be a passable shooter, if not an elite one. The Clippers don’t need that. They just need a good shooter taking good shots, a tendency Wall seemed to be striding toward back in 2020-21.
The upside with Wall exists primarily (and perhaps entirely) in the Clippers' half-court offense. Not that Wall isn’t a good defender, particularly in passing lanes, where he has been a bandit for much of his career. But he’s a significant upgrade at the guard position, at least in terms of an on-ball creator, both in tight coverage for himself and on kick-outs for others.
There’s a competition to be had for the starting point guard job — head coach Ty Lue said so himself — and Reggie Jackson has the upper hand in terms of experience with this team. At a minimum, Wall is a nice addition to the rotation, a 15-18 point per game scorer who doles out a handful of assists while he’s out there, too. Best case scenario, however, sees Wall become the best starting point guard to play for the Clippers since Chris Paul.
Kawhi and PG organizing workouts, John Wall and Reggie Jackson slated for a starting point guard competition and how Wall fits… talking the latest on the Clippers with @malika_andrews @mcten @KendrickPerkins on NBA Today pic.twitter.com/oLAd6Th0S4— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) July 7, 2022
Of course, there are caveats to Wall succeeding in this rotation beyond the fact that we haven’t seen him in action in over a year. That wasn’t his choice alone, nor was it due to injury; “Last year wasn’t my fault or my choice, and I couldn’t control that,” Wall said Saturday. But his injury history is well-documented and is a huge part of why the uncertainties surrounding his ability to stay on the floor at this point in his career continue to multiply.
Wall has only played a total of 40 games in the past three seasons, all coming in the 2020-21 season with the Rockets. He missed the entire 2019-20 season after falling at his home and rupturing his Achilles. He appeared in a total of 73 games combined over the 2017-18 and 2018-2019 seasons due to various injuries. He’s spent a lot of time rehabbing, given how much time he’s had to rehab, so optimism is warranted.
But that optimism has to remain guarded; Wall is 31, beyond the peak of his powers, and there’s always the chance that he takes one wrong step and ends up back in a boot and on the bench, a far too familiar sight of late.
However, Wall is resilient, in more ways than one. On Saturday, he told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk that over the course of his last three years, he was “in the darkest place I have ever been. I don’t think a lot of people could have gotten through what I went through — losing my mom, losing my grandma, tearing my Achilles’, going through all that adversity, and just trying to find myself and then getting some of that love more than anything taken away from me.” And yet he has.
He’s emerged with a new opportunity — the best chance at a championship he’s had since entering the league in 2010 — and a new role. What that looks like remains to be seen. But he’s eager to strut his stuff from the opening tip, whether he’s coming off the bench or receiving the tip from Zubac.
“I still got all the stuff I had in 2016,” Wall said. “It is going to be harder for [opponents] to defend. For me, I’m happy because I don’t have to have the best player guarding me every night like I have had my whole career.
“You tell me the third-best defender is going to have to guard me? Good luck.”