Fourteen months ago John Wall had 27 points and 13 assists to offset a poor three-point shooting night in Houston with nine free-throw attempts. He finished two pickpocket steals with dunks by flashing the open-court burst that defined his run of perennial All-Star Game appearances before heel and Achilles tendon injuries.
Afterward, in the words of a friend and opponent, he received the kind of appreciation that few around the league had offered after playing just 113 games in his four previous seasons combined.
“He’s somebody I’m always going to root for,” Clippers wing Paul George said that night. “He’s a brother to me, and I couldn’t be more happy to see him back on the floor and doing what he loves to do, and continuing to make those plays that everyone loves him for.”
Wall hasn’t been back on an NBA court since, with Houston so committed to creating backcourt opportunities for its younger guards that it paid the 31-year-old Wall his $44-million salary not to play last season. That exile is now reportedly on the verge of ending. Ahead of Thursday’s free agency, Wall and the Rockets are reportedly negotiating a buyout of the $47 million Wall would earn if he exercises his player option for next season.
The buyout total on such a deal could be staggering, and there is a wait-and-see approach to whether it will actually materialize. Should Wall become available, it’s worth remembering the relationships, track record and needs of the last opponent he faced when considering the next team Wall might join.
It was last week when Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, described George and co-star Kawhi Leonard as eager participants in roster-building discussions with executives, with Frank describing their opinions as passionate and “very, very valuable.”
If the front office approaches those stars about Wall, history suggests what George’s answer might be.
Wall and George worked out at the same facility before each became first-round draft picks in 2010. They’ve trained for Team USA together. In 2017, Wall openly tried recruiting George, then in Indiana, to Washington.
“We both had similar paths, started out leading our organizations and took big injuries and had setbacks,” George said in April 2021. “But I love John. Me and John go way back to when we first started in the league. I saw him work out, he saw me work out, and we just had a mutual respect and bond from the get-go.”
Any decision on Wall could have a ripple effect on retaining the Clippers’ own free agents, what Frank called his highest priority. The team’s early Bird rights on Nicolas Batum allow the team to exceed the salary cap to re-sign him, whereas they do not have Bird rights for backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, a popular addition to last year’s locker room whose market value could exceed the taxpayer midlevel exception projected to be worth around $6.4 million.
Frank has noted that the NBA has moved toward offense initiated as much by skilled wings as traditional point guards, a shift that fits the abilities of Leonard and George. Still, league observers expect the team will attempt to bolster their lead ballhandler role in some way. The question is how high the current version of Wall, after 14 months away, would sit on any list of targets. If available on a buyout discount, Wall becomes a topic of much more serious discussion around the league, because even amid his prolonged NBA absence, the bigger knock against Wall has always centered on the prohibitive cost of his maximum salary than his play.
That isn’t to say questions about his physical readiness to contribute consistently at 32 next season don’t exist. Wall’s end-to-end speed and first-step quickness put defenses in a bind by creating either shots at the rim for himself or shots for teammates around the arc, and would seemingly fit coach Tyronn Lue’s drive-and-kick offensive philosophy — if that burst remains.
On June 21, University of Miami coach Jim Larranaga tweeted a picture with Wall, thanking him for using the Hurricanes’ practice facility. Larranaga’s son, Jay, is a member of Lue’s coaching staff that, over the last two seasons has taken on distressed, discounted assets and earned considerable dividends through sparking the late-career revivals of previous buyout additions Batum and Reggie Jackson, who arrived as a longtime friend of George waylaid by injuries.
How strongly the Clippers would ultimately court Wall, how favorably he views them in turn, and how long suitors will be willing to wait should his buyout conversations drag on after free agency’s start remain more muddled than clear. But if there is a pursuit, the coaching staff’s track record would be a strong factor for any confidence Wall could become, as George once approvingly said, a player “continuing to make those plays that everyone loves him for.”