John Wall's new role with Clippers: He could be a 'nightmare'

Los Angeles Clippers' John Wall drives past Portland Trailblazers' Jerami Grant.
Clippers guard John Wall drives past Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant during a preseason game Monday in Seattle. (John Froschauer / Associated Press)

Before shootarounds, practice days and games, John Wall likes to enter gyms wearing dark sunglasses.

Before the former No. 1 overall draft pick begins his first season as a Clipper — and after playing only 113 games since 2017 — Wall has described a clear vision of his long-in-the-making return.

At 32, he is no longer a franchise’s best player, and he has made peace with no longer being a team’s self-described “Batman,” with wins and losses hinging on his ability to provide nightly superheroic production. There is no guarantee the five-time All-Star will be a starter, either, and coming off the bench would “be different,” he acknowledged, for someone who has started all but 12 of his 613 career games.

Yet after knee, wrist, heel and Achilles injuries, the deaths of his mother and grandmother and thoughts of taking his own life, Wall says he is healthy, happy to be back in the league and prepared to be what he wants most — a difference-maker at point guard, a position at which the Clippers have experimented since Kawhi Leonard's and Paul George’s first season in 2019.

“They told me just be myself, be John Wall no matter what, and I think for me it’s easy,” Wall said after Monday’s exhibition victory in Seattle in which he played off the bench. Wall will start Sunday’s preseason game at Crypto.com Arena as the team evaluates how he and Reggie Jackson pair with starters.

“I know how to be myself. For me it’s to push the pace, I think I’m one of the best two-way guard defenders in the league at my position so that helps them out a lot with a lot of the switching they do. … Like I told [George] and Kawhi when I came here, my job is to make the game easier for them so when the fourth quarter comes around they not having to waste all that energy to make all the plays.

“My job is to knock down open shots if I want to be out there with them in crunch-time situations. We know who [Leonard and George] are and what they do in closing moments, so for me it’s been kind of a cakewalk.”

Wall has practiced with teammates since July, when he secured a buyout with Houston and signed a two-year contract as a free agent — including scrimmages at UCLA alongside George and younger Clipper players — but this week marked the first time he played in five-on-five settings with both Leonard and George. For coach Tyronn Lue, it was a first chance to evaluate his criteria in determining the starting job between Wall and Jackson.

“It’s not about who’s the best player,” Lue said, “it’s about the best fit for our team to win.”

For Wall, it's a question of fit in two senses: how he blends his talents to fit the team’s needs, to know when to push and when to pull back, and how he assimilates into a locker room with an established hierarchy.

“The guy who can play defense, distribute the ball, who can make everybody better around him, can fit on any team,” said Marcin Gortat, a former Clippers center who played with Wall in Washington.

Said Lue: “I just think when he came into our locker room, it was instant respect and guys respect him for what he’s done and how he plays,” Lue said. "That was pretty easy for him.”

For his career, Wall has averaged 9.07 assists, seventh highest in NBA history, and his speed into the paint can make life easier for his big men. If Wall plays with the starters, that would be center Ivica Zubac. If he runs with what Lue thinks could be a higher-octane, smaller second unit, Wall probably wouldn’t be dumping off to a traditional big man but a 6-foot-9 forward such as Robert Covington in the corner.

“We talking about healthy John Wall?” Gortat said. “Dude, he’s a f—ing nightmare.

“I understand there’s Kawhi, I understand there’s PG and they are huge leaders, huge superstars, too, but I promise you John in this situation is going to be a very, very important piece because he’s going to be probably the person handling the ball most of the time, assuming he is starting.”

George, one of Wall’s close friends since they trained together more than a decade ago, has said that Wall shot the ball better than he had ever seen during offseason workouts. At the rim, Wall had shot 61% for his career but between 32% and 36% the farther away he gets.

Gortat freely acknowledges that he and Wall butted heads with the Wizards and that earning Wall’s respect and playing up to his standard “is not easy." Playing alongside Wall, at the peak of his career with Washington, required teammates, particularly big men, to know how to read his emotions and how to approach him with either kindness or force. Despite all of that, Gortat was recently sitting with Wizards star Bradley Beal at a Washington practice and said each wished Wall nothing but a strong return.

“I would give everything to play with John again, I promise you that,” Gortat said.

The Clippers are now playing with Wall. They will hold him out of certain back-to-back situations and monitor his minutes early in the season, Lue said, to keep him fresh. Wall, for his part, sees no need to hold him back.

“I just got one motto, if I’m out there I’m playing,” Wall said. “I like to complete, like to go at it, I like to guard the best player. You see me some days I’m guarding Kawhi and PG when we split teams up and that’s just my nature as a competitor, that’s always willing to go out there and fight.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.