The 2016-17 season was the last time the general population considered John Wall as a top-five point guard in the league. He averaged a career-best 23.1 points and 10.7 assists across 78 games and led the Washington Wizards a game within reaching the Eastern Conference Finals with a 49-33 record.
As he exited TD Garden following a Game 7 loss to the Celtics, no one could have foreseen the hardships Wall was about to begin. Injuries would limit the five-time All-Star to 73 games out of a possible 232 over the next three seasons — including missing all of the 2019-20 season.
For the first time since Dec. 2018, Wall will be making his long-awaited return to the NBA court. But instead of reuniting with Bradley Beal in the nation’s capital, Wall will begin a new chapter of his career as a member of the Houston Rockets.
With Wall determined to get back to the player he was in 2017 — and in some cases better — here are three significant questions Wall must answer during his inaugural season in Houston.
Can Wall stay healthy?
Whether or not he continued his career in Washington, the primary concern for Wall heading into the 2020-21 season is his health. Wall’s injury woes begin during the 2017-18 season with discomfort in his left knee, and he has since spent more time on the sideline than on the court.
A year later, he sustained a heel injury that ruled him out for the remainder of the 2019 season and ruptured his Achilles on the same foot.
Throughout history, NBA players have had a successful track record of returning to their previous form following a knee or a foot injury. But a ruptured Achilles has long been considered the worst injury in basketball. It is the reason why Isiah Thomas went into early retirement in 1994 and the pinnacle to Kobe Bryant’s downfall during the twilight of his career. In recent memory, only Dominique Wilkins has been able to regain his All-Star status after he sustained an Achilles injury in 1992.
Can Wall imitate Wilkins’ success and not succumb to the injury like Bryant and Thomas?
The 30-year-old point guard has put together a string of videos showcasing his physical condition. According to Kevin Durant — who is returning from his own torn Achilles — Wall “looked amazing” during their offseason workouts together. However, pick-up basketball during the offseason does not come close to the physical demands of a full NBA season.
Wall’s game relied heavily upon his athleticism, and there is a strong chance the Rockets will not receive the explosive point guard who electrified fans inside Capital One Arena for nearly a decade. But even if it takes a while for Wall to recapture his athleticism, he can still be a top contributor to the Rockets’ success based on his high basketball IQ as a floor general.
For a player worth $132 million over the next three years, Wall’s main goal should be to maintain a full and healthy season. And without the burden of being the face of a franchise, Houston could be the best opportunity for Wall to regain his health.
Can Wall replace Russell Westbrook’s All-NBA production?
Regardless of how his career ended in Houston, Russell Westbrook’s lone season with the Rockets was far from a failure. If not for a global pandemic putting the league on hiatus, perhaps the Rockets could have avoided the events that have taken place since September.
Although Westbrook never “figured it out”, it did not prevent the future Hall-Of-Famer from putting together his ninth career All-NBA performance. He averaged 27.2 points on a career-best 47.2 percent shooting from the field, to go along with 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists in 57 games.
From January through March, Westbrook was arguably playing the best of his career, averaging 31.7 points (54.6% FG, 38.5% 3PT), 8.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists, and 1.9 steals before the league’s suspension due to COVID-19.
Westbrook was a clear upgrade, at least statistically, as the incumbent to Chris Paul at point guard. But can Wall match or surpass the on-court production of Westbrook? Four years ago, the answer would have undoubtedly been yes.
Westbrook has always been the more superior player, but the separation was not by much. Their playstyles were nearly the same for their respective team, but one could make the case that Wall was a better player due to his attribute as a pass-first point guard.
However, in 2020, there are obvious reasons to be conflicted about the exchange.
Everyone knows what the Wizards are getting in the deal for Westbrook. A former league MVP who is still playing close to his best entering the 2020-21 season. A top-15 player who is still a threat every time he steps onto the floor.
For Wall and the Rockets, it’s a bit more complex on what to expect from a former All-Star who has not played professional basketball in over two years. Even if Wall remains healthy throughout the season, his on-court production may never reach half of Westbrook from the year prior.
Can Wall and James Harden coexist together?
For the third time in four years, the Rockets are trying to pair James Harden with another premier point guard. For the third time in four years, the Rockets complied to Harden’s wishes — according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. And for the third time in four years, the Rockets are stuck wondering if Harden can coexist with another ball-dominant guard.
Can the third time be the charm with Wall?
At one point in his career, Wall was one of the better playmakers in the league — perhaps only trailing the likes of Chris Paul. From 2015-2017, Wall had a three-year stretch where he averaged 10.3 assists while posting a usage-rate of 28.4 percent.
But while he may not be as ball-dominate as Harden — who has averaged an absurd 33.4 usage-rate since 2012 — it is not the ideal fit to have Wall play off the ball. He is a more reliable catch and shoot option than Russell Westbrook, but Wall is at his best as a team’s primary facilitator.
Wall’s capability in taking over as Houston’s floor general would make the game easier for Harden — which has been the primary purpose for pairing the three-time scoring champ with a first-class point guard.
But unless Wall can gain the trust and confidence of his new All-Star teammate, the Harden-and-Wall experiment is destined to suffer the same fate as Paul and Westbrook.