Shirtless, John Wall crouched and dribbled a basketball above his head with his right hand and another low to the ground with his left hand. Unable to keep the routine together as he reached half-court, Wall grunted as he lost control, started over, and tried the exercise once again.
With Washington Wizards assistant coach Ryan Saunders looking on, Wall has concluded nearly every practice with ballhandling drills, something he had never done before a stress injury to his left knee produced his longest absence from playing the game he loves dearly.
His shimmying crossover dribble and other deceptive, tricky moves all came naturally and instinctually for Wall, with no prior practice involved. The injury, however, has forced him to find other ways to expand his game and improve, with running and jumping not a part of the equation just yet.
"Not playing basketball, period, is tough," Wall said this week. "This is my first time really being out for a long time and not being able to come back. But it's something you've got to deal with and take your time and come back healthy."
Wall appears to be on course to a return by the end of the month after visiting with a doctor and receiving what coach Randy Wittman called a "positive report."
"Everything is looking [good], going in the right direction," Wittman said of Wall's MRI. "Big difference from the last one, showing the healing and everything."
Wall discovered the problem in late September, when he visited orthopedic specialist David Altchek in New York. The Wizards projected that he would miss at least eight weeks. While those close to him have hoped that he could return by Nov. 30 in New York, Wall said he doesn't have a scheduled return in his mind.
"No target at all," Wall said, shaking his head. "No. I wish I did."
Wittman stressed that it is important to remain cautious with Wall, especially with so much of the season, and the franchise's future, hinging on his contributions. Wall, the top overall pick in 2010, has averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 assists in his first two seasons with the Wizards.
"Even though I want him back, it doesn't do him any good or us any good if it's not the right time," Wittman said as the Wizards (0-3) prepare to host the Milwaukee Bucks tonight at Verizon Center. "You've got to make sure he's right before we ever think about that."
Wall played all 66 games last season, but he missed 13 games as a rookie after developing foot problems and a bone bruise under his right kneecap.
Looking back, Wall said, he probably should have taken longer before coming back in his first season, since he didn't play as well as he expected and finished a distant-runner up to Blake Griffin for rookie of the year. He doesn't want to rush back and aggravate the injury, especially with Altchek warning him during the diagnosis of the risk of a stress fracture without the appropriate rest.
"I learned my first year listen to my body more than my heart," Wall said. "I came back injured but I still came back O.K., but I didn't come back the way I wanted to. I know to take my time this time."
But Kevin Seraphin, who has averaged 17.5 points in two games since returning from a strained right calf, said he wouldn't be surprised if Wall came back sooner than expected.
"During my rehab he was with me every day, every time," Seraphin said. "I know he put some hard work in it, too. Because he's trying to come back fast, like I did. I was supposed to come back in five weeks and I come back in three weeks. He has to keep going. I know he's working hard."
Wittman has kept Wall and Nene — who has been out since August with plantar fasciitis in his left foot — around the team throughout the preseason and regular season. Wall has been offering support for his teammates on the bench, serving as a pseudo-assistant coach.
He has also been in rookie Bradley Beal's ear, advising him on how to be assertive and find finding better shots. During the Wizards' 100-94 overtime loss in Boston, Wall told Beal that he would have an open shot if he kept his dribble as he comes off screen.
"Soon after, I hit a shot off a re-screen," Beal said. "It's all those little things. He's helping me see the floor, so to speak, from his perspective and what he would do in certain situations. Him and Sam [Cassell] always tell me to keep surveying the floor and always looking for me to be in attack mode."
Wall had taken the initiative to assume more of a leadership role this offseason, asking his teammates to arrive in Washington no later than Sept. 17, so that they could play pickup games, get used to Wittman's system and develop some chemistry before training camp. Now, he has to patiently wait for his chance to contribute on the floor with them. He still maintains high expectations for himself and the Wizards this season.
"I don't like to tell my goals. I like to kind of keep them to myself," Wall said. "I think we are very deep team. We got a lot of veteran guys, and a lot of young guys that grew up and understand what it takes to win and lose in this game and how hard you got to compete every night. We've been competing. … We've been giving ourselves a chance to win."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun