The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Wall’s basketball exile ends with a genuine second chance

John Wall returned to the court for the first time in nearly 18 months during the Los Angeles Clippers’ 103-97 victory over the crosstown Lakers on Thursday. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

LOS ANGELES — Mere seconds after Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James revved up the home crowd Thursday night with a transition dunk late in the third quarter, John Wall dragged Arena back into silence.

Wall, who in his previous basketball life served as the Washington Wizards’ franchise player for nine seasons, plays a decidedly different role these days, coming off the bench for a Los Angeles Clippers team with championship aspirations. At 32 and with several major injuries in his past, the 2010 No. 1 overall pick no longer bears the burden of producing like a star or leading a playoff run. The Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for that.

But the ball found Wall after James’s thunderous slam, and he freed himself for a midrange jumper with a sharply executed crossover and behind-the-back combination. When his shot found the net, pushing the Clippers’ lead back to double digits, Wall pushed the palms of his hands toward the floor for emphasis. Everything was under control, and Lakers fans could return to their seats.

The Clippers held on for a 103-97 win in their season opener, beating their crosstown rivals for the eighth straight time. The victory was Wall’s first NBA action since April 23, 2021, an exile that lasted nearly 18 months in the aftermath of his 2020 trade from the Wizards to the Houston Rockets.

“I was geeked,” Wall said when asked about appearing in his first game in 545 days. “I’m not going to lie. I was turned up, for sure. It felt great.”

From September: John Wall provides haunting details of his mental health struggles

In a sign of Wall’s new lot in life, his stellar return Thursday wasn’t even the Clippers’ most important comeback. Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP, played for the first time since tearing his ACL during the 2021 playoffs, scoring 14 points in 21 minutes off the bench as the Clippers eased him back into the lineup.

Though the long-awaited revival of Wall’s career was relegated to subplot status, it was still entertaining, productive and emotional. The five-time all-star point guard finished with 15 points, four rebounds and three assists in 25 minutes with the second unit — the first time he wasn’t a part of his team’s starting lineup since January 2013. When the Lakers rallied in the fourth quarter, Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue turned to Wall, instead of starter Reggie Jackson, to close the game. Wall responded by drilling a key jumper to give the Clippers a six-point lead with just over three minutes remaining.

Thursday was a long time coming for Wall, who signed a four-year, $170 million contract extension with the Wizards in 2017, missed the entire 2019-20 season with an Achilles’ injury and was traded to the Rockets for Russell Westbrook in December 2020. In Houston, Wall initially expected to pair with James Harden on a playoff-bound team, but the organization entered a deep rebuilding effort when it traded a disgruntled Harden to the Brooklyn Nets in January 2021.

While Wall averaged 20.6 points and 6.9 rebounds in 40 appearances in 2020-21, the Rockets sat him out for all of last season to create greater opportunities for their young backcourt of Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. With Wall on the books for $44 million last year and $47 million this year, Houston was unable to generate traction in trade scenarios, leaving Wall as a helpless bystander.

The Rockets finally reached a buyout agreement with Wall this past summer, and he quickly inked a two-year, $13 million deal with the Clippers. The move to Los Angeles reunited Wall with George, his longtime friend, and set him up to play a meaningful role on one of the Western Conference’s top teams. The Clippers have reached the playoffs in nine of the past 10 seasons, including a first trip to the Western Conference finals in 2021. If things go as planned, Wall will be a part of a 50-win team for the first time in his career.

Clippers executives value Wall’s ballhandling, open-court speed and ability to collapse defenses by driving hard into the paint. Leonard and George have had to initiate offense in recent years, and Wall’s extensive experience as a floor general should ease that burden. The Clippers can lapse into a deliberative style when they play through Leonard, and the front office envisions Wall providing a change of pace with his transition instincts.

Meanwhile, Wall should enjoy plenty of space to attack off the dribble in an offense that often uses spread lineups. It’s no coincidence the Clippers have paired him in the second unit with Luke Kennard, a sharpshooter who hit a league-best 44.9 percent of his three-point attempts last year.

“The pace [Wall] plays at, getting downhill, getting into the paint and making plays for other guys and himself, it’s huge for us,” Lue said. “He does a great job of getting guys to their spots and slowing the game down. A natural point guard.”

A new fit won’t materialize overnight. Wall admitted he is “used to being the guy with the ball all the time” and that he is still adjusting to playing off Leonard and George when they are running the show. The reliability of Wall’s jumper also remains an issue: He missed all four of his three-point attempts against the Lakers.

However, Wall didn’t look tentative after so much time off, finishing 7 for 15 from the field. He knocked down a jumper on his first possession and then hit a second just a minute later.

“I kind of got to my patented spot, the midrange, and my [hesitation] pull-up went in for the first one,” he said. “When you see your first basket go in, everything feels easy.”

In a recent essay, Wall said he battled suicidal thoughts following his mother’s 2019 death after a fight with breast cancer and he felt “devastated” by his trade from the Wizards to the Rockets. At media day last month, he pledged to be a “dog” in his new role with the Clippers. Given that Wall hasn’t appeared in more than 41 games since 2016-17, Lue will keep him on a minutes restriction in hopes of maximizing his contributions.

Wall’s first act in Washington ended in unfulfilling fashion for all parties, and his second act in Houston was over before it started for reasons largely beyond his control. But he wore a wide smile Thursday, knowing this third act with the Clippers amounts to a genuine second chance.

“My job is to just push the pace and get easy shots for us,” Wall said. “Playing with a guy like [Leonard] that’s won championships, I just try to find him. Get him to his sweet spots. I asked him and [George], ‘What are your four or five favorite plays you want to run?’ When I get into the game and we don’t have a fast break and get into a half-court set, I get those guys the ball where they want it.”

Sign up for our weekly NBA newsletter to get the best basketball coverage in your inbox