John Wall’s season debut is about more than him slipping on a new pair of Adidas sneakers, sliding on bright red pads to cover his knees and pulling that white No. 2 Washington Wizards jersey over his head for the first time since last April.
For Wall, returning to the court on Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks — regardless if it’s coming off the bench or playing limited minutes — represents an opportunity to take the first steps toward restoring some of the joy that has been taken away through two seasons stuck in lottery misery and a third that has been derailed because of an irksome stress injury in his left patella.
“I’m going to be anxious and super excited, so I’ll probably get tired in probably 30 seconds, because I haven’t played in so long,” Wall said, wiping sweat from his brow after Friday’s practice. “It’s exciting to be out there with my teammates, have fun and play with the team I wanted to play with all season.”
Wall understood the challenges he faced when the Wizards drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010, but he was unprepared for a prolonged rebuilding effort or the backlash that he would receive for the team’s shortcomings. He is also motivated because his name is rarely mentioned among the league’s promising young point guards despite averaging 16.3 points, 8.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds in his first two seasons.
“I think people know who I am, but I think they forgot,” Wall said. “I’m used to that anyway. I feel like ever since I got drafted, I’ve been under the shelf so I’m not worried about none of that. I’m just happy I’m getting the opportunity to play basketball again. I’m not really focused on what anybody is saying or what anybody think about my future or my career.”
Wall’s third season represents a new beginning, stripped down from all of the hype and outsize expectations. He no longer has a signature sneaker after ending his 21 / 2 -year business relationship with Reebok and switching to Adidas. And he has no plans of introducing himself to the home fans with any spirited dance moves.
“Nope. Just chilling. Coming out cool,” Wall said with a grin.
Coach Randy Wittman, whose team is off to the worst start in franchise history (5-28), said Wall’s return would allow the other players to return to their rightful positions on the floor and keep them from assuming roles that exceed their skill sets. But the challenge will also be keeping Wall from being too excited about being back. Wall concluded Friday’s practice by throwing down a windmill dunk.
“The thing he has to temper a little bit is he’s going to be going a 100 miles per hour knowing John,” Wittman said. “I don’t want to pull back on any of that. But hey, it’s a good problem to have.”
Forward-center Nene missed the Wizards’ last-second upset of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday with right knee tendinitis, an injury he blamed on compensating for his sore left foot, but he hopes to play with Wall — if he can keep up.
“That dude fast. He look like a little bull,” Nene said with a laugh. “I’m excited to see him run, to jump and I hope the big men watch out because if they don’t help on him, he going to dunk, he going to [put them in a] poster.”
When asked if he felt the need to remind people what he is all about, Wall said, “I think people will find out . . . I’m not one of those ones that’s going to take 20, 24, 25 shots a night. I’m the type that’s going to take 12, 13 and get my teammates involved. I’m more a team player, if you want to call it that.”
Wall has never been one to hide his emotions on the court, whether from screaming boisterously after a no-look pass that ends with an exciting dunk or frowning bitterly after a poorly executed play. But the expressions of displeasure have been prominent throughout his first two seasons, and his former college coach, Kentucky’s John Calipari, has grown concerned that Wall has allowed the Wizards’ delayed liftoff for success affect him negatively.
“It’s been hard. But if you don’t play with joy, you’ll never be an all-star. You control it,” Calipari said in a recent interview. “If you have fun, you’re going to keep getting better, you’re going to want to be in the gym. Quit putting your head down and acting like you're not having fun.”
When told of Calipari’s comments, Wall nodded his head in agreement. “I think when you’re winning more games, you have more fun,” Wall said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re producing numbers-wise if you’re not winning games in this league, in any position you’re in. You can have all the excitement or all the publicity that you want, but if you’re not winning, it’s not going to take you nowhere. I just care about winning.”
Calipari believes the turnaround will begin for Wall and his team once the smile and unbridled passion that endeared him to one of the nation’s most rabid fan bases returns. “They pile on him: ‘He’s the reason we lose,’ ” he continued. “Then you start picking apart his game. You can do that with every player. There’s no perfect players out there. Not LeBron, not any of them. When you lose, they pick you apart. When you win, they look at your good stuff. So he’s had to deal with that. How has he dealt with it? Sometimes you go in a shell.”
“It was real tough, you know, my first time sitting out for a real long time,” said Wall, who missed 13 games his rookie season and played all 66 games last season. “Just being around my family, being around my teammates and still encouraging those guys and having fun. It was tough not playing, but it was good to be with them, be on the trips with them, let them see that I’m working hard to try to get back to where I want to be and that’s playing with those guys.”
Staff writer Rick Maese contributed to this report.