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John Wall Is Once Again A Basketball Player

HOUSTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 02: John Wall #1 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball during the fourth quarter of a game against the Sacramento Kings at Toyota Center on January 02, 2021 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Photo: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Late in the second half of the Houston Rockets’ easy eight-point win over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday, John Wall had the rock in isolation against De’Aaron Fox. At this point in the game, Wall had punished defenders who ducked under screens by nailing a few pull-ups, so Fox got right in Wall’s chest despite all the open space around him. Wall turned the corner on Fox, who herded him towards the help, but Wall got to the spot first and finished with spectacular flair.

This was the sort of defense-busting play John Wall would make as a matter of routine during his heyday with the Wizards, when he was unquestionably the fastest player in the league. The end of said heyday, however, is two devastating injuries and one trade ago, and this past weekend’s doubleheader against the Kings marked the first time Wall has played NBA basketball in two full calendar years. The Kings are nobody’s idea of a qualitative measuring stick (unless the quality you seek is “butt”), though Fox is as close to a foil as Wall could possibly have, and given the outrageous slings and arrows Wall’s suffered, it seems fair to be heartily encouraged by two outstanding performances.

Wall put up 50 points, 15 assists, four steals, and three blocks in the doubleheader against Sacramento. Only one of those games featured James Harden, but Houston won both. Wall was far from perfect, and he also turned the ball over 10 times and finished both contests with a +/- of minus-4. Two games is a tiny sample size.

But when you watch a 30-year-old jitterbug point guard coming off an Achilles tear—not to mention the other lower body maladies he dealt with in Washington—what you should be looking for is the athleticism and the shot creation process. Eating Fox’s lunch in isolation ticks both boxes, and over the course of his 74 minutes, Wall was the best point guard on the floor. Though his volume of work is tiny, there’s still real value in seeing how a guard coming back from a devastating injury moves on the court.

I do not want to compare how he looks now to his athletic peak because that ship sailed years ago, but whatever percentage of his zippiness has eroded has not been enough to kill his spark. Fox is either the quickest or second-quickest player in the league, and Wall bested him over two games. He showed that old All-Defense form with this thievery.

Unfortunately, discussion of Wall’s form must inevitably be framed by both his large contract and by the Rockets’ precarious standing with a clearly disgruntled James Harden. If you look at his two good games through the lens of value, you would see a starting-caliber player, but you would not see a player who is objectively worth $47 million in 2022-23. You would also see a hurdle in front of a James Harden trade, if the Rockets get back a package designed to keep them in contention this season and in the immediate future.

The good news is, you are not Houston Rockets owner Tillman Fertitta (if you are: Fuck you buddy!) and therefore you do not have to pay John Wall for a few more seasons. You can enjoy Wall for the player he is and the highlights he produces, and he looks like he’ll be able to keep doing his thing with or without James Harden. After the mud he’s slogged through, it rules that he can finally be discussed once again not as a bad contract or trade fodder, but as a basketball player.