John Wall upgraded from a Washington Wizards T-shirt to his No. 2 practice jersey on Thursday, a significant development during a season in which his absence has contributed to expectations being downgraded from reaching the playoffs to simply escaping the NBA cellar.
For the first time since a stress injury was diagnosed in his left patella in late September, Wall participated in limited-contact drills, sped up and down the court, and traded trash talk with his teammates after making baskets.
With the injured Trevor Ariza, Trevor Booker and A.J. Price also participating in some capacity, the practice also served as the first in which all 15 players on the Wizards’ roster were involved, something that didn’t even happen in training camp, when Wall and Nene were both sidelined. But Wall’s presence on the main court at Verizon Center raised the energy level for a rare practice following games on back-to-back nights.
“This is Christmas all over for him, I'm sure, to finally reach this point,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Wall. “You could see the spark in his eyes — finally. So we just got to be patient. He’s got to be itching to push this as fast as he can. We got to be careful with that.”
Possibly because the team has waited more than five months to see Wall in action, or because he won’t be available when the Wizards host the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, Wittman spoke with cautious tones when talking about the third-year point guard. Wittman mentioned the need for Wall to regain his conditioning and strength, but Wall’s teammates were much more encouraged by what they saw from the former No. 1 overall pick.
“He’s still the same player. Fast. Aggressive. He looked good. Looked like his old self,” said Price, who has been out since Dec. 8 with a broken hand but participated in five-on-none, non-contact drills on Thursday. “He was extremely active. Just talking. You could see that he really wanted it. He wanted it. And that’s always good to see, especially from your franchise player, coming back off injury, to show how enthused he was to be back out there and how aggressive he approached the situation.”
Wall was cleared to begin “ramping up” his basketball-related activities on Dec. 14 after receiving a third Synvisc shot — to lubricate and cushion the knee — while visiting orthopedic surgeon David Altchek in New York. He was back participating in non-contact drills less than two weeks later and has already targeted a return for “some time” this month.
“I know it’s definitely tough for him. We’ve been talking, and he wants to be out there just as much as I do,” said Booker, who has been out since Nov. 19 with a strained right patella tendon. “It’ll be a while. We’re going to have to develop chemistry with the guys that’s coming back. But at the same time, I still believe that we’ll be a better team.”
Booker plans to come back on Jan. 12 against Atlanta, but the Wizards won’t set a specific date for Wall, who declined to talk with reporters after practice.
Wall’s return should help the Wizards improve, but Wittman does not want to rush him back and risk any possible setbacks for the primary block of the team’s rebuilding efforts. Wall has averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 assists in his first two seasons and was the fastest player in the past 42 years to reach 2,200 points, 1,000 assists, 600 rebounds, 200 steals and 90 blocked shots, needing just 134 games.
“It was good. That’s a positive, trust me,” Wittman said of having Wall back on the floor. “He’s moving good. He looked fine. A little rusty, breathing hard, but good. We’ve got to get him in shape. That’s the main thing now.”
Ariza is closest to returning after straining his left calf on Dec. 4 in the Wizards’ win over Miami. Wittman was optimistic before practice that Ariza would be available against the Nets but set the chances at “slim.”
Ariza said doesn’t “really have any explosion” in his leg just yet but he would attempt to play and make decision on how he feels before the game. But he was ecstatic to finally share the floor with Wall, something he hasn’t been able to do since arriving in a trade from New Orleans last June.
“He looked good to me. But this is my first time actually seeing him in a practice setting,” Ariza said. “He’s passionate about the game. He wants to win. He wants to be a good leader. He’s doing the things that he needs to do to help this team try to get over the hump.”
The Wizards (4-26) are off to their worst 30-game start in franchise history and have lost 11 of 12. Wittman usually gives his players the day off after playing back-to-back games, but he said having Wall and Ariza for full-contact drills was not a factor in putting his team back to work.
“No, we needed practice. We need to get better,” Wittman said with a laugh. “This had nothing to do with those guys.”
And Ariza said the players weren’t complaining about the extra work. “Everybody wanted to be here. Everybody was excited to practice so that’s a good thing.”