Shirtless, John Wall crouched down and dribbled a basketball above his head with his right hand and another low to the ground with his left hand. Unable to keep the routine together as he reached half court, Wall grunted as he lost control, started over, and tried the exercise once again.
With Washington Wizards assistant coach Ryan Saunders looking on, Wall has concluded nearly every practice with ball-handling drills, something he had not done before a stress injury to his left knee produced his longest absence from playing the game he loves dearly.
His shimmying crossover dribble and other deceptive, tricky moves all came naturally and instinctually for Wall, with no prior practice involved. The injury, however, has forced him to find other ways to expand his game and improve without running and jumping being a part of the equation yet.
“Not playing basketball, period, is tough,” Wall said this week. “This is my first time really being out for a long time and not being able to come back. But it’s something you’ve got to deal with and take your time and come back healthy.”
Wall appears to be on course for a return by the end of the month after visiting with a doctor and receiving what Coach Randy Wittman said was a “positive report.”
“Everything is looking [good], going in the right direction,” Wittman said of Wall’s MRI exam. “Big difference from the last one, showing the healing and everything.”
Wall discovered the problem in late September, when he visited orthopedic specialist David Altchek in New York. The Wizards projected that he would miss at least eight weeks. While those close to him have hoped that he could return by Nov. 30 in New York, Wall said he doesn’t have a scheduled return in his mind.
“No target at all,” Wall said, shaking his head. “No. I wish I did.”
Wittman stressed that it is important to remain cautious with Wall, especially with so much of the season, and the franchise’s future for that matter, hinging on his contributions. Wall, the top overall pick in 2010, has averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 assists in his first two seasons.
“Even though I want him back, it doesn’t do him any good or us any good if it’s not the right time,” Wittman said as the Wizards (0-3) prepare to host the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday. “You’ve got to make sure he’s right before we ever think about that.”
Wall played all 66 games last season but missed 13 games as a rookie after developing foot problems and a bone bruise under his right kneecap.
Looking back, Wall said he probably should’ve taken longer before coming back in his first season, since he didn’t play at the level he expected and finished a distant runner-up to Blake Griffin for rookie of the year. He doesn’t want to rush back and aggravate the injury, especially with Altchek warning him during the diagnosis of the risk of a stress fracture without the appropriate rest.
“I learned my first year listen to my body more than my heart,” Wall said. “I came back injured but I still came back okay, but I didn’t come back the way I wanted to. I know to take my time this time.”
But Kevin Seraphin, who has averaged 17.5 points in two games since returning from a strained right calf, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Wall came back sooner than expected.
“During my rehab he was with me every day, every time,” Seraphin said. “I know he put some hard work in it, too. Because he’s trying to come back fast, like I did. I was supposed to come back in five weeks and I come back in three weeks. He has to keep going. I know he’s working hard.”
Wittman has kept Wall and Nene — who has been out since August with plantar fasciitis in his left foot — around the team throughout the preseason and regular season. Wall has been offering support for his teammates on the bench, serving as a pseudo assistant coach.
He has also been in rookie Bradley Beal’s ear, advising him on how to be assertive and finding better shots. During the Wizards’ 100-94 overtime loss at the Boston Celtics, Wall told Beal that he would have an open shot if he kept his dribble as he comes off screens.
“Soon after, I hit a shot off a re-screen,” Beal said. “It’s all those little things. He’s helping me see the floor, so to speak, from his perspective and what he would do in certain situations. Him and [assistant coach] Sam [Cassell] always tell me to keep surveying the floor and always looking for me to be in attack mode.”
Wall had taken the initiative to assume more of a leadership role this offseason, asking his teammates to arrive in Washington no later than Sept. 17, so that they could play pickup games, get acclimated to Wittman’s system and develop some chemistry before training camp. Now, he has to patiently wait for his chance to contribute on the floor with them. He still maintains high expectations for what he and the Wizards can accomplish this season.
“I don’t like to tell my goals. I like to kind of keep them to myself,” Wall said. “I think we are a very deep team. We got a lot of veteran guys and a lot of young guys that grew up and understand what it takes to win and lose in this game, and how hard you got to compete every night. We’ve been competing. . . . We’ve been giving ourselves a chance to win.”