If anyone can relate to John Wall’s current predicament, Gilbert Arenas can. The parallels between the Washington Wizards guards, past and present, are obvious: all-star selections, big-dollar contracts and immense popularity followed by a succession of injuries in their mid- to late 20s that altered their promising career arcs and prompted criticism.
Arenas is now 37 years old, nearly a decade removed from his infamous locker room gun incident and almost seven years into his NBA retirement. Despite a series of knee injuries, “Agent Zero” hasn’t left basketball, playing in men’s leagues in California, training young players such as Bronny James and signing on as a captain in Ice Cube’s Big3 three-on-three league. His team’s name is the Enemies, and he made a point to stock it with fellow players who left the NBA in less-than-ideal circumstances such as Lamar Odom and Royce White.
From a distance, Arenas watched as Wall endured multiple knee surgeries and, now, a pair of Achilles’ tendon surgeries that ended his 2018-19 season and could end his 2019-20 season before it begins. He knows Wall. He knows the franchise. He knows the fans. And he knows the media pressure and inevitable story lines. His message to Wall, who inherited the Wizards from him as the top pick in the 2010 draft, is this: The prospect of another long-term rehabilitation might be excruciating and the injuries might require adjustments, but your career isn’t over.
“John Wall is still going to be a valuable point guard,” Arenas said by phone from Las Vegas, where he attended the Big3 draft Wednesday. “He will still have his IQ. His speed is going to be there. He might lose some jumping ability. He’s still going to be better than above average, better than Ricky Rubio and Lonzo Ball. Why do people want to get rid of him? For what? A lesser player? Because that’s what you’re going to get.”
Wall, 28, underwent season-ending surgery on his left heel in January. Then, in February, he slipped and ruptured his Achilles', requiring a second surgery. The five-time all-star is set to begin a four-year, $170 million supermax contract that numerous observers have pegged as the league’s most onerous deal.
Of course, Arenas has been there, too. He signed a six-year contract worth $111 million in 2008, then proceeded to play just 34 games over the next two seasons combined. His contract was widely viewed as “untradeable” before he was dealt in 2010 to the Orlando Magic, which used the amnesty clause to waive him a year later.
“Don’t get discouraged because someone says you’re overpaid,” Arenas said, adding that it was “unfortunate” that media and fans have brought up the prospect of trading Wall simply to be free of his contract. “There’s no such thing as overpaid. You got what they thought you were worth. You can’t fault a player because he got injured. His contract is paying for the past and the future. When he had the rookie deal and averaged 20 [points per game], he was underpaid.”
Nevertheless, Wall’s supermax deal has loomed over the Wizards in numerous ways. It played a role in the decision to trade Otto Porter Jr. in a salary dump at the deadline. It complicates efforts to retool the roster around Bradley Beal. And it was surely was a factor in the April firing of Ernie Grunfeld, the longtime team president and general manager.
Wall’s contract is so significant that Washington’s next regime must decide whether it can assemble a winner around Beal with limited salary cap flexibility. If the conclusion is no, the Wizards might be best off trading Beal to pursue a larger-scale rebuilding effort as Wall’s deal runs down.
Those are painful facts for the Wizards and their fans, but Arenas cautioned against overlooking Wall’s own anguish.
“Fans saying a player is overpaid doesn’t bother a player,” he said. “What bothers an injured player is watching your competitors grow. Watching a guy who was behind him, like Kemba Walker, playing in the All-Star Game. [Wall] was trying to establish himself with Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard, but now you’re hurt and all you can do is sit there. When you finally get healthy, you’re playing catch-up. The people behind you are getting closer, and the people in front of you are getting further way.”
Arenas said that he has stayed in touch with Wall throughout his career, exchanging thoughts on play calls, coaching styles and long-term rehabilitation. On that last front, his chief advice was to be patient — “stop your engine” — and to avoid the temptation to rush back to prove one’s toughness.
While his NBA career ended abruptly when he was 30, Arenas pointed to Derrick Rose as an example of a high-profile guard who has successfully reinvented himself after a string of health problems. The former Chicago Bulls star missed significant portions of multiple seasons because of knee injuries before bouncing from the New York Knicks to the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Minnesota Timberwolves. This year, at 30, Rose averaged 18 points and 4.3 assists while garnering sixth man of the year buzz.
“Derrick Rose was damn near an all-star this year,” Arenas said. He has had to learn “how to stay away from instinctual moves, the kind you don’t think about it. Rose doesn’t just blast off and jump anymore. [Wall] has to understand that he can’t do that anymore and learn what his new attributes are. He’s got to get better at something else, whether it’s looking at the game differently, understanding your teammates or seeing what makes other players great without you. When you come back, you don’t want to take away from their greatness.”
As for his own time with the Wizards, Arenas said he harbors no major regrets. His mind sometimes thinks back to April 4, 2007, the night he tore the meniscus in his left knee. He remembers “having words” with then-coach Eddie Jordan before the game and being removed from the starting lineup for the first time that season.
Arenas’s initial reaction was to sit out to protest what he believed was a “BS” decision by a coach playing “mind games” and interfering with a “hot team” just weeks before the playoffs. Teammate Caron Butler talked him into playing, but Arenas fell to the court clutching his knee within minutes of starting his second-unit shift. The injury required multiple surgeries and effectively ended his time as a star.
“Caron told me that it’s not even about [Jordan]; we have to worry about us,” Arenas recalled. “Fine, f--- it. I came off the bench, and I got hurt. Do I regret playing that day? No, I don’t. I made the right decision to play, and I got hurt. Even if I could have [looked in the future], I wouldn’t have changed it. We have to go through the process that we go through.”
That night changed the course of Arenas’s life, spawned countless “what if” scenarios for fans and ultimately laid the groundwork for Wall’s ascendance. Although Arenas reveled in disclosing that he “still never passes” in his men’s league games, he was eager to defer to his successor.
“I have always said Wall had the better Wizards career,” said Arenas, who made three all-star teams and four straight playoff trips in Washington. “I had great years, but it was short-lived. I was on my way to becoming a Hall of Famer and having my name in the rafters, but three surgeries in 14 months, that is not good. I wasn’t the same player. The same thing is true with Wall. His game is going to change, and he has to understand that.”
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