- The Washington Times - Monday, January 25, 2021

John Wall plans to keep his emotions in check.

The former Wizards guard faces his old team Tuesday when the Houston Rockets host Washington at the Toyota Center. But the fact that the game is in Houston — and not the District — makes it easier for Wall to just go out and play basketball, he said. 

“I think that’s when it will be the most emotions when I have the opportunity to walk back into Capital One Arena,” Wall said. “See a city and be where I’ve been the last 10 years.”

In the meantime, Wall said it’ll be great to catch up with former teammates and coaches. But once the game tips, the 30-year-old will be focused on showing Washington the fierce competitor the team witnessed firsthand over his decade in the city. 

Since he was traded to Houston last month in exchange for Russell Westbrook, Wall has played with the same edge that dazzled fans in Washington — even as he works his way back from the Achilles injury that sidelined him for two years. In eight appearances, Wall is averaging 17.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. On Saturday, Wall made his return from a five-game absence because of a swollen knee. 

Wall might not be putting up All-Star numbers, but his signature speed still appears to a crucial part of his game. For those close to him, that’s a relief given all the time off.

“I’m proud of him the way he came back the way he came back,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s had a great career already and had some tough luck with his injuries. A lot of guys could have just shut it down and said it wasn’t meant for them. … He’s fought and he’s fought and he’s fought. I’m looking forward to seeing him.” 

Wall’s first few weeks with Houston have been tumultuous, though largely due to factors out of the guard’s control. That’s because the Rockets had to deal with disgruntled star James Harden, who was eventually traded to the Brooklyn Nets.

But before Harden was dealt, drama ensued. Harden showed up late for camp as he was seen partying in clubs around the country. He appeared to gain weight and his effort was criticized. The situation became so uncomfortable that Wall was openly comparing it to his first five years with the Wizards — when he played with players who were “all about me, me, me, me, not about the team and it hurts and it brings everybody down,” Wall said. 

The Rockets, though, have settled in and are now 6-9 on the season — 3-3 since trading Harden. 

As for Washington, the Wizards have also experienced a nightmarish start — albeit for different reasons. The team finally returned Sunday after a nearly two-week absence due to a coronavirus outbreak, but lost 121-101 to the San Antonio Spurs. Washington is just 3-9, faces the challenge of being short-handed for the time being and has to incorporate new players such as forward Jordan Bell and center Alex Len.

Washington’s replacement for Wall — Westbrook — has yet to have the full impact the Wizards envisioned. The 32-year-old’s statistics look mostly better than Wall as he’s averaging 18-9-10, but he’s shooting a career-low 37%. Most concerning, Westbrook has been hampered with a left quad injury that appears to have limited his usual burst and explosiveness. 

Westbrook has only played in eight of Washington’s 11 games. He returned for Sunday’s loss, though scored just nine points on 3-of-11 shooting. Brooks said Westbrook is “healthy, but not 100%, basketball-wise.”  

Westbrook played just 25 minutes and is on a minutes restriction.

“I don’t make excuses,” Westbrook said. “You step on the floor, you gotta be ready to go. I’m definitely not where I need to be on all aspects, so I just gotta be better and get my (stuff) together.”

Wizards star Bradley Beal, meanwhile, said the Rockets are more than just Wall. He noted how Washington must be mindful of players like Eric Gordon, DeMarcus Cousins and Christian Wood, the latter of whom is Houston’s leading scorer with 23.8 points per game. 

But Beal, Wall’s longtime backcourt partner, said he’s waiting to see what it will be like to face Wall for the first time. 

“I’m sure we’re going to expect the energetic John Wall,” Beal said. “I think we all know that.”

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