News Analysis: John Wall reportedly to join Clippers after buyout from Rockets

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Houston Rockets' John Wall, right, works against Los Angeles Clippers' Paul George
Rockets guard John Wall looks to drive against Clippers forward Paul George during the last game Wall played in Houston. (Carmen Mandato / Associated Press)

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 the former No. 1 draft pick's run of five All-Star Game appearances before heel and Achilles tendon injuries.

After the game was over, he received an appreciation from a friend and an opponent, the kind of sentiment 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 as Houston began a rebuild by prioritizing its younger guards while paying the 31-year-old Wall his $44-million salary not to play. That exile is now reportedly on the verge of ending, with both sides close to reaching a buyout, according to multiple reports. And it’s worth remembering the relationships, track record and needs of the last opponent he played against that April night in Houston when considering why Wall plans on signing with the Clippers once free agency opens Thursday, according to ESPN.

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 ever surveyed their stars about the prospect of a Wall addition, history suggests what George’s answer would have been.

They became close after working out at the same facility before each became first-round picks in 2010. They’ve trained for Team USA together. In 2017, the then-Wizard Wall openly tried recruiting George, then in Indiana, to become teammates in Washington.

Five years later, they appear days away from becoming teammates in Los Angeles after Wall becomes an unrestricted free agent.

“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.”

As part of his buyout Wall will reportedly give back between $6.5 million and $7 million of the $47 million he is due next season, a number significant as it nearly matches the projected taxpayer midlevel exception of $6.4 million. Should Wall indeed seek the taxpayer midlevel, it could be difficult to retain free agent backup center Isaiah Hartenstein, a popular locker-room addition coming off a career-best year, if his market value exceeds that midlevel. A Wall signing wouldn’t affect keeping wing Nicolas Batum, whose reunion with the team is expected because the Clippers have his early Bird rights and can exceed the salary cap for a re-signing.

Whether exaggerated or unfounded, concerns about the team’s lack of a point guard have dogged the Clippers for the last three seasons. 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 high-usage offensive needs of Leonard and George, who operate best with the ball in their hands. League observers had long expected the team would attempt to bolster a lead ballhandler role in some way this offseason, and the idea of Wall, even after 14 months away from the NBA, had drawn strong interest from some within the Clippers. Even during his prolonged NBA absence, it was always Wall’s prohibitive salary that was seen as the impediment than concerns about his remaining ability.

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 Larrañaga tweeted a picture with Wall, thanking him for using the Hurricanes’ practice facility. Larrañaga’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 on a discount after injuries interrupted his career.

Since joining the Clippers, Batum and Jackson have gone from castoffs to indispensable. That track record of recovering value from veterans, and Wall’s potential comfort in a locker room with familiar faces, would be initial starting points for confidence in Wall’s next chapter. Or, as George once put it, “continuing to make those plays that everyone loves him for.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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