The only game John Wall is allowed to play these days is the waiting game, because of a left knee injury that has become more problematic than he or anyone associated with the Washington Wizards had anticipated.
Wall wants to be on the court helping his team win games, but when the risk of playing includes the possibility of ruining his career, there really is no other alternative than to keep sitting out until he’s fully healthy.
During his visit with orthopedic surgeon David Altchek last Friday in New York, Wall received a third Synvisc injection to alleviate some of the discomfort in his left knee and was told that he can begin “ramping up” his basketball-related activity.
“I got more like a smile on my face, a little bit,” Wall said, expressing the appropriate amount of optimism and caution for a situation that doesn’t appear close to being resolved.
In his first interview in more than a month, Wall admitted Monday he has developed cartilage damage underneath his left patella. His continued absence three months after the diagnosis of a non-traumatic stress injury has opened the door for more speculation about when — or if — he’ll return this season.
He mistakenly referred to the injury that has kept him sidelined since September as a “fracture” several times, but there would be much less mystery surrounding his condition had he simply suffered a clean break. In that case, he would be done for the season, no questions asked.
“I’m not thinking like that,” Wall said, when asked if it would be better for him to sit out the entire season. “Hopefully the time I’ve taken off and the shots I got and the treatment I’ve been getting is helping me get healthy so I can play basketball this season. You don’t want to miss a whole season. If it comes to it, you have to, but I’m trying not to think that far ahead.”
Wall, who hasn’t been cleared to practice, won’t begin to increase his physical workload until the swelling and pain in the knee comes down after his injection. The former No. 1 overall pick said he hopes to have a better sense of what he can do by Wednesday or Thursday, but at least he was able to elevate about two inches off the ground on his jumper while shooting three-pointers with his teammates after practice.
“That must be a good sign,” Wall said, cracking a rare smile. “Before there was so much pain you couldn’t even run on it. I couldn’t stretch my leg out at one point. It’s been getting better. I just got to take my time and see where it goes from there.”
Without Wall, the Wizards (3-18) are off to the worst 21-game start in franchise history as they prepare to host the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday — and that is no small accomplishment for a woebegone organization that has opened five other seasons at 4-17, including last season with a healthy Wall.
The team is losing games and players at a staggering rate, with three other players out because of serious injuries — Trevor Ariza (strained left calf), Trevor Booker (strained right knee) and Wall’s backup, A.J. Price (broken right hand) — and Nene reduced to a part-time player because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
“If anybody knows an exorcist that can come into this building . . . ,” Coach Randy Wittman said, half-jokingly, when asked about the recent spell of injuries.
But the Wizards’ primary concern is for Wall, the centerpiece of the rebuilding efforts whose health will have a great influence on the success of the franchise going forward. Wall has averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 assists in his first two seasons and was hoping to have a true breakout campaign after working on his shooting, training with Rob McClanaghan and practicing with the U.S. Olympic team as a member of the select team in Las Vegas.
“I did everything the same way,” Wall said of his offseason regimen. “I switched to different people, but it wasn’t a different type of workout: just playing basketball on the court and lifting weights, not really too much lower body. I think it just came from wear and tear.”
The Wizards are down to just one healthy point guard on the roster in Shaun Livingston, and have forced shooting guard Jordan Crawford to take on the primary playmaking duties. They scored a season-low 72 points on Saturday in Miami and are the only team in the NBA that doesn’t average at least 90 points.
“We’re going to keep our options open, looking at different scenarios, keep observing how we feel this is going and in what direction and make our decision based on that,” Wittman said. “Nobody really thought at the time that, even when [Wall] had a little discomfort in there, that it was going to be middle of December and he still hasn’t been able to do anything.”
Wall missed 13 games as a rookie, dealing with a bone bruise his right knee and sore left foot, but he played all 66 games during the lockout-shortened campaign last season. Though he believes the Wizards wouldn’t be at the bottom of the standings if he were healthy, Wall tempered expectations for his return with the understanding that he would likely be limited.
“I don’t think I have to be heroic,” Wall said. “I think just being out there and lifting the spirits of my teammates, having one of their leaders out there playing and just having another point guard there, makes the job a lot easier.”
Seeing his teammates struggle has made the time away more frustrating for Wall. “Nothing’s been going the right way for us this year,” Wall said. “It’s very disappointing. I just feel like God is challenging me mentally, giving me a course like this to see if I can get through it. I have to sit back and wait.”