Wall flashes ‘All-Star mode’ in long-awaited return

  • Joined ESPNDallas.com in September 2009
  • Covers the Dallas Cowboys and Dallas Mavericks
  • Appears regularly on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM

John Wall had problems sleeping the night before, as his heart and mind raced in anticipation of his Houston Rockets debut, a comeback from a two-year injury layoff that was delayed another week by an NBA-mandated quarantine because of COVID-19 protocols.

It had been 735 days, as Wall precisely pointed out after the Rockets’ 122-119 win over the Sacramento Kings on Thursday night in Houston, since he had last played in an NBA game that counted. He had since underwent surgery to remove the bone spurs in his left heel that had bothered him for years, then another operation to repair the Achilles tendon he tore while recovering from that operation, then been traded from the Washington Wizards along with a protected first-round pick for Russell Westbrook.

“It was great, man, just to get out there and have fun,” Wall said after his 22-point, 6-rebound, 9-assist performance in the win. “When I get between those four lines and once the ball touches my hands after the jump ball, I was fine. I was happy to be able to compete with some of the best guys in this league and [demonstrate] that I have the ability to be one of the best point guards in this league.”

Wall said that he feels “amazing” physically. He displayed the elite speed and explosiveness that were key factors in Wall making five straight All-Star appearances before injuries interrupted his career, scoring six of his eight baskets against the Kings on dunks or layups, including a couple on one-man fast breaks.

“He looks like he’s back in his All-Star mode,” said Rockets center Christian Wood, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds.

“He was extremely aggressive, making plays, defensively getting after it,” said Rockets superstar James Harden, who had 16 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter. “He looked really, really good, especially for not playing in two years.”

Wall, however, readily acknowledged that there was also plenty of room for improvement after his Rockets debut. He specifically pointed to his five turnovers and poor 3-point shooting (2-of-8).

“Having 22, 9 and 6 is not bad for my first game in two years,” said Wall, who averaged 19.0 points and 9.2 assists during his decade-long tenure with the Wizards. “I can pat myself on the back for that, and I know that I’ll be even better for the next game.”

Wall is early in the process of developing a rapport with fellow ball-dominant guard Harden, who missed time in the preseason after his brief holdout that was related to his request to be traded. Wall had to sit out a week — including the Rockets’ two-game road trip — because he was a close contact of rookie Kenyon Martin Jr., who tested positive for the coronavirus the day after getting a haircut at Wall’s apartment.

“They haven’t been together, and we’re still trying to figure it out — who has it and who’s playing off the ball some,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said of Wall and Harden. “They’re kind of figuring it out on their own with my help. That relationship has to grow and get better and better.”

Wall presented the game ball to Silas in the locker room to celebrate his first win as a head coach, but he admitted that he considered keeping it for himself given the personal meaning of the game.

“His first time being a head coach, I think he deserved it,” Wall said. “But I got an opportunity to keep my jersey. That’s definitely going in my trophy room.”

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