Sunday afternoon, the Houston Rockets held their first full practice ahead of the 2020-21 NBA season. In addition to getting prepared for the grueling 72-game season, it marked the first time the Rockets held their practice inside the comfort of the Toyota Center since March 10. Much like the world forever altered by a global pandemic, a lot has changed since the Rockets’ last workout prior to the league suspension due to COVID-19.
Rather than making adjustments to micro-ball led by Mike D’Antoni, the Rockets spent the day getting accustomed to the coaching philosophy of Stephen Silas with a revamped roster put together by new general manager Rafael Stone.
But despite the number of new players, the most significant change of all was the absence of James Harden.
For the first time since 2012, the Rockets opened training camp without Harden. The relationship between him and the organization has developed an ill nature as of late — headlined by trade demands from the disgruntled star. Silas said Harden’s absence was the result of violating the league’s COVID-19 protocols after he attended Lil’ Baby’s birthday celebration over the weekend.
(At the time of this writing, Harden has yet to arrive at training camp but told management he will report soon, per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon.)
The absence of the league’s former MVP and current three-time scoring champion created a media firestorm that overshadowed the long-awaited return of John Wall. An anticipated comeback Wall originally assumed would take place inside the Capital One Arena as a member of the Washington Wizards.
“My heart and soul was with that organization [Wizards]. The hard work. The dedication. The sacrifices I made were with that organization. My whole mindset this offseason was to get back to D.C. and prepare for a new season. I never thought this would happen. It’s a part of the business, and God throws his toughest battles to His strongest people. This is the next step He has for me, and all I can do is embrace it and move forward.” — Wall
For the first time in his career, Wall stepped into the Toyota Center as a member of the Rockets. Thanks to the courtesy of the team, fans got their first glimpse of Wall draped in Rockets’ red and black — exhibiting the talents that made him a five-time All-Star in Washington.
As the potential new “leader and face of the franchise,” the 32-second video provided hopes that the 30-year-old point guard has not lost a step after recovering from a torn Achilles. He appeared to be just as fast as usual while knocking down a fade-away jumper in the face of his new teammate, Christian Wood. His impressive return to the court continued on Monday, as Silas reminisced on Wall’s buzzer-beating game-winner during a team scrimmage earlier in the day.
After two days worth of action, Wall has already left a great first impression on his new head coach.
“John Wall has looked great. He has looked really good pushing the ball up the floor and hitting guys on time — as a point guard does. He is still a little rusty since he has not played in so long. But he’s a joy to coach. He’s a coach on the floor, but he also allows me to coach him.” — Silas
Other than participating in practices with the Wizards’ G-League team, the Capital City Go-Go, the past 48 hours marked the first time Wall worked out with an NBA ball club since December of 2018. It was then injuries began to take a toll on him, as Wall sustained a heel injury that ruled him out for the remainder of the 2019 season, and later, ruptured his Achilles on the same foot.
Not too many players in league history can relate to Wall’s agony of battling through injuries for two consecutive years. But one just so happens to be his old yet new teammate DeMarcus Cousins — who is trying to re-establish himself as a premier NBA talent after suffering through two horrendous injuries (Achilles & ACL tear) of his own.
Cousins and Wall — close friends since childhood — are reuniting in Houston 10 years after they led the Kentucky Wildcats to the Elite Eight during their lone season together at the University of Kentucky.
“Just walking out there and seeing that he [Cousins] has the same color as I got on and knowing we are on the same team, it brought back memories of when we were in college. I know how hard he has worked and what he has been through the last couple of years to try and get back to the DeMarcus Cousins he once was. We are going to challenge each other so we can have a heck of a season.” — Wall
As a guard who has dealt with a plethora of leg injuries himself — although not as severe as a torn Achilles — Eric Gordon says Wall looks good physically as he continues to regain his explosiveness to play above the rim.
According to Silas, there have been no discussions of minutes restrictions for Wall, but the conversation is likely to take place soon as Houston prepares to open their preseason schedule against the Chicago Bulls on Friday.
It is going to take some time before Wall can play his usual career 36.0 minutes per game — perhaps even a year. But after two days of training camp, Wall wasted no time in helping Houston establish a new culture for a franchise in search of a new identity.
“My main focus is with my new team, the Rockets, and trying to be that All-Star player everyone feels I’m not anymore. The most important thing I was excited about was getting through a training camp practice — I haven’t done that in two years. When you have the opportunity to have a voice from day one, that is what leadership is about. That is something I am going to embrace. And that is something I am trying to bring to this team.” — Wall