As John Wall ripped off his warmups and made his first stroll from the Washington Wizards’ bench to the scorers’ table, a loud roar overtook the Verizon Center as fans were oblivious to the action unfolding on the court.
Wall received a standing ovation as he stepped onto the court for the first time this season — the first time since last April — because of a nagging left knee injury that sidelined him for the longest stretch of his life. He tapped his forehead to acknowledge the support, then went about tying his short strings and commencing his third season with the organization that he was drafted to lead back to respectability.
The Wizards have failed to launch since he arrived, but his long-awaited unveiling signaled a new start for Wall and his team. After using the first three quarters to get his “jiggly” legs under him, Wall gave the Wizards — and the fans — a reminder of the speed, excitement and flash that they’ve been missing. It added up to a 93-83 victory over the Atlanta Hawks.
“I hadn’t played in so long, four months, so it felt like we was miserable, but I kept fighting for my team,” Wall said after scoring 14 points with a team-high four assists and two rebounds. “Just excited to get back out there with my teammates, play in front of the D.C. crowd and help our team get a win.”
Using that breakneck speed to break down the defense and unleashing several months of pent-up passion, Wall didn’t appear to miss a step in the fourth quarter, when he took the suspense out of a close game with back-to-back layups. Then, after forward Kevin Seraphin made a jumper to force Hawks Coach Larry Drew to call a timeout, Wall marched back to the bench, nodding and shouting to the fans as they applauded what would end up being the first two-game win streak of the season.
“Obviously, it’s a long time sitting there,” Coach Randy Wittman said. “He’s been looking forward to this since the end of last year, of this day; not expecting it was going to be January 12. But the work that he put in this summer. . . . I think it had to give us a big lift.”
Wall was the difference in helping the Wizards (6-28) finally knock off a Hawks team that had won the previous six meetings, including two overtime games this season. He closed out the game with a nifty, behind-the-back pass to Trevor Ariza for a two-handed dunk, then talked some more trash to the Hawks as he made it down the floor on defense. He shouted to anyone who would listen, “I’m back.”
“I was just happy to be playing basketball, so anybody that was in my way, that’s what I was saying,” Wall said with a smile after the game.
Wall appears to have picked a good time to return, with several of his teammates starting to round into shape. He was in position to close out the game because point guard A.J. Price had a season-high 16 points after getting his first start since breaking his hand on Dec. 8 in a loss to Golden State; and because Martell Webster, who moved into a starting spot with Ariza out because of injury, scored 15 points and had an impressive dunk over former Wizard DeShawn Stevenson that led him to celebrate with a shoulder bounce.
Emeka Okafor had a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Rookie Bradley Beal had begun to come on before Wall made his debut and delivered an upset win over Oklahoma City on Monday with a one-handed jumper with three-tenths of a second remaining. But Beal certainly benefited from playing with Wall for the first time, as he scored 16 points and was on the receiving end of Wall’s first three assists.
Near the end of the first quarter, Wall sped up the floor, slowed down, then found Beal trailing for an emphatic jam that put the Wizards ahead 27-17 to end the first quarter. Wall later whipped a crosscourt pass to Beal in the third quarter that gave the Wizards a 68-57 lead.
“That’s what I expected. From the jump, he was enthusiastic. He was hyped,” Beal said.
Wall had been sidelined since being diagnosed on Sept. 28 with a stress injury in his left knee. He had a seat next to the Wizards bench for nearly every game but longed for the opportunity to finally don his red, white and blue No. 2 jersey once again. He struggled to contain his emotions from the time he woke up until he touched the ball for the first time.
“I was nervous seeing how I would feel, and how I would go throughout a game, just only going through practice and my homeboys-slash-brothers at home, was joking, happy the whole day and I’m just trying to stay calm and take a nap,” Wall said.
Wall understood that he would likely be rusty in his first game after a long layoff. His first shot attempt hit the front of rim badly and he scored his first three points from the foul line after missing two layups after getting fouled. He also wasn’t completely in sync with all of his teammates, throwing a lob to Jan Vesely that was a tad too low for him to dunk.
But with the game in doubt after Hawks center Al Horford (16 points, 12 rebounds) made a jumper with 5 minutes 7 seconds remaining to bring his team within 83-77, Wall took over. He broke down Hawks point guard Jeff Teague and blew by him for a layup, then after Josh Smith missed two free throws, Wall again blew past Teague and converted a left-handed layup that put his team up by 10 points.
“It completely changes the dynamics of this team,” Webster said of Wall’s return. “I was telling him, ‘You know man, you kind of just got back. Take it easy.’ He was like, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ The kid is bred to go and he does that.”
Wall was back and he brought a victory along with him, leaving the floor by saluting the crowd once again. “Happy to be back,” Wall said. “It was big day for me.”