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Kelly Iko Jan 26, 2021

As the Washington Wizards were finalizing plans to go finish the 2019-20 NBA season in the Orlando bubble, then-Wizards guard John Wall had plans of his own — but needed to make a phone call and a request first.

Technically, Wall says he could have joined the Wizards in the bubble — and even played — but wanted to make sure his body was better than ever before stepping back on the basketball court.

“Well, I was already ready to come back on the court before the pandemic,” Wall told The Athletic in an exclusive interview. “I could have played last season around the All-Star break or even in the bubble. But I wanted to wait until I felt I was 110 percent to be back where I wanted to be. That’s what I did and that’s why I’m getting off to a good start this season.”

Wall had been sidelined since January 2019, getting surgery on his left heel on Jan. 8 before rupturing his left Achilles tendon three weeks later after a fall at home. As part of his rehab process, Wall worked closely with Wizards assistant coach Alex McClean, with the point guard opting to continue his recovery process in Miami, where he spends his offseasons away from his Potomac home. Although Wall and McClean were part of the same organization, the two have a longstanding close relationship dating to McClean’s playing days at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Beginning during the Las Vegas Summer League in July 2019 and continuing for the next three months, Wall and McClean worked out, starting with some light activities before slowly ramping up their schedule. At first, Wall could only walk. When McClean first got down to Miami, Wall couldn’t run or jump. Doing anything involving putting weight on his toes was painful, so a lot of emphasis was put on his set shot, essentially the only thing he could do. Wall had to tweak his muscle memory just to get the familiar feeling back. Some months later, Wall could jog again. When training camp and the season rolled around and Wall could do more with his legs, he would workout either at the team facility in D.C. when the Wizards were at home or would find gyms when the team went on the road.

Like Wall, McClean had torn his Achilles before — both, in fact. While he didn’t have the sort of career that Wall had, he still knew the pain and process rehabbing that sort of injury entailed.

Right before the world was hit with the coronavirus pandemic, Wall had actually been working out with some of the Wizards players. A rusty Wall wasn’t in game shape but still shone as the best player on the floor — he just needed fine-tuning. So in the summer of 2020, as the Wizards coaching staff was getting ready to make the trip from Washington, D.C. to Orlando, Wall asked the organization if McClean could join him in Miami instead — to which they happily obliged.

“I had been living there before I got injured,” Wall said of Miami. “The year before, I had built a house there, so that’s why I rehabbed there. I had another guy that I trusted with the PT work and weightlifting process. And then I brought a guy, Alex McClean, who works for the Wizards to come and do my basketball workouts (with me). So bringing that all together, that’s a few that were part of my team and helped me put in the work that I did.”

With the duo in South Beach, it was now time to strategize and come up with the best plan to get Wall back to his best, if not better. For Wall, taking a page out of the LeBron James/Russell Wilson playbook was necessary — cultivating the perfect offseason environment with the right blend of people and programs necessary to keep his body in peak physical condition. There would be monthly benchmarks to reach, seeking a steady increase in all facets of gameplay.

“My primary goal was just to stay healthy but get back as strong as possible,” Wall said. I knew that all the hard work that I put in would pay off when I had the opportunity to step back on the court. I took my time and didn’t rush back.

Wall’s plan to perfection was a six-month, carefully-mapped out course involving a number of individuals and locations:

• There was McClean, the Wizards assistant coach who worked side-by-side with Wall on a daily basis, overseeing all operations.

• There was Dr. Zach Colls, his physical therapist, who joined Wall in Miami and was there to support him during the mental journey that rehab takes you on.

• Andy Luaces, the owner and founder of Core Fitness Miami, a strength and conditioning gym.

• And Stanley Remy, the owner of The Miami Perimeter, a sports performance facility and host of Remy Runs.

“I’ve known John since he first got out of college,” Remy said. “One of my main clients, Brandon Knight — obviously he went to Kentucky — they were good friends.

“When I first connected with him in the offseason, he had a teammate, Jeff Green, who was in Washington with him at one point. They connected and we all worked out together for about a week or two. We became super cool after that. This summer we reconnected. He had his Washington Wizards coach Alex (McClean), who was down also working with him all summer. Obviously not knowing that he was going to get traded from the Wizards, they wanted to keep eyes on him, make sure he was doing what he was supposed to do because this was a big year for him.”

A typical day in Miami would see Wall wake up around 6 or 7 in the morning. Depending on what Wall wanted to do first, his cardio consisted of either running on the Alter-G machine, an anti-gravity treadmill designed for rehab, or he would opt for a bike ride. The latter was more of the competitive side of him, stemming from a bet he and McClean made in February on who would lose more weight. Because the pandemic had closed most things in the nation’s capital, the two had purchased mountain bikes in D.C. and rode them around the city, tracking their distance.

One time, Wall and McClean actually ended up racing for 30 miles before realizing they still had to go back. “That’s 60 miles, fuck,” Wall said.

Down in South Beach, although restrictions were a bit looser, the bike rides had become a big part of their routine so they purchased two more.

After cardio, Wall would head to CoreFit to work with Luaces. Over the years, CoreFit has become one of Miami’s go-to spots for pros across all sports during their various offseasons. Conditioning-wise, Wall was a long way off from his desired shape but he wanted to focus on his agility, lower leg strength and explosiveness. Luaces coordinated those sessions and McClean would join in on the daily workouts to keep Wall motivated. Wall also started lifting weights and at his peak, he was deadlifting 525 pounds.

“Everything,” Wall said of the areas of his body he wanted to work on. “The most important thing for me was my legs. I had just torn my Achilles so I had to get my calf muscle back stronger and do other things that I probably never worked on before in my career. My main focus was getting my legs back stronger and I think it’s paid off.”

Right after, Wall would grab a shake and head to Remy’s gym for on-court drills and to participate in Remy’s infamous NBA pickup runs. In the evening, Wall would wind down with Peloton classes and massages. A full day’s work, from eight in the morning until eight at night, for weeks.

For someone like Wall, a high-level NBA player with a superior IQ, keeping him engaged during on-court drills was of the utmost importance. McClean had to get creative and came up with games to keep Wall’s mind and reflexes sharp.

For example, in one drill, Wall would have to keep his hands on his waist the entire time. He would lose points if his hands came up, even slightly. Players like Rodney Purvis, Alonzo Gee and Angel Rodriguez were brought in to assist, giving Wall more bodies to work with and preventing him from feeling isolated working out alone.

In a lot of these exercises, Wall wanted to work on his shooting, a part of his game that has been maligned for his entire 11-year career.

“Alex trained him every day and also core fitness, but I watched every day,” Remy said. “You can tell he was working on his ability to shoot the ball. Just getting his explosiveness back, which he did, and he’s gotten better at shooting the basketball. Just being in the best shape possible. Those two things, it looks like they were trying to highlight for sure. “

Of course, the main attraction of the day were those Remy Runs. NBA players playing in some organized form of offseason basketball has become a must-watch staple since the 2011 lockout, and the beauty of it is the ability of high-level games to sprout all over the country.

To mentally prepare himself for these games, Wall would watch his old film. Specifically, he watched footage from two playoff series: the 2017 first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks and the 2017 conference semifinals against the Boston Celtics. In those two series, Wall played at a high level, averaging 29.5 points, 10.3 assists and 1.7 steals against the Hawks and 25.1 points, 10.3 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks against the Celtics.

“Just working on it man,” Wall said. “Working on it and watching basketball. I watch all types of basketball no matter what it is — women’s, men’s, kids — I just love to watch the game.”

It would be unusual for an NBA player to watch film before an offseason pickup game, but because of his competitive drive Wall couldn’t help himself. He wants to win at all times and is a basketball junkie at heart.

“He always participated in my runs,” Remy said. “He was someone who actually made me take those runs seriously because he’s someone that likes to play in the summertime. I think it’s important to play and train, I think they’re equivalent. You don’t want to just lock someone in a gym just do a bunch of drills every single day. Eventually, mentally, they need to see bodies go against people and they need to compete. That’s a big part of their development.”

“We use these runs as a point of development. Being able to utilize a lot of stuff that we’ve been working on, trying to get better at during the summertime. And also the level of competition — we want guys to compete against other NBA guys because it gives you a sense of realness. You get to see yourself against guys that you play against throughout the year. Obviously, guys aren’t going super 100 percent but then James Harden comes in for a week or two, it intensifies everything — everyone’s playing at a high level. They see another superstar in the building and others keep coming. It just creates mentally that competitiveness that you need during the summer. Makes it more serious instead of guys just going through the motions, brings them in and they compete at a high level. It intensifies what they need to be working on. It’s a measuring stick. 

During these games, Wall showed out. Names like Andre Drummond, Iman Shumpert, Harden made appearances at the gym, but Wall met every challenge and steadily raised his game.

With every night, the bounce and lift in his legs slowly returned. One of the memorable moments from those runs was the night Wall recreated his signature slam, the exact same dunk he and McClean had watched in their daily highlights sessions. As the entire gym oohed and aahed, Wall looked at McClean and started laughing.

“He was coming down in transition on the left side and he slowed down and went from fast to slow, and back to fast, and just dunked it so hard,” Remy said, recalling the dunk. “I was like, ‘Okay, he’s back’ and the emotion and the whole gym felt it. Everything, he does it with emotion, but he has so much different motivation, different people writing him off. You could tell every day there’s a chip on his shoulder. Practice, workouts, games, it doesn’t matter what it is.

“We had over 50 NBA players coming to these runs in the summer. Wall was our MVP, absolutely,” Remy added. “This is my second year of giving that award. The first thing I look for in giving this award is consistency and attendance. Every week we’re playing two to three times a week and he’s there. First one there, last to leave. I just watched him continue to get better every single week. Once I saw the athleticism and quickness back, I knew it was over. Just working to make shots, becoming a better shooter. I watched him night in and night out work on it after the runs, staying another hour and a half perfecting it. I saw a level of focus that I haven’t seen and it was tremendous. I knew he would have a great year just because of how locked in he was. This was a different type of locked in.”

For Wall’s 30th birthday in September, he spent the week doing charity work. Wall traveled back to the D.C. area and New York with his foundation, helping children out with over 400 back-to-school packages, his seventh annual program.

Because the gym at the Player’s Association was closed, Wall played at Basketball City in Chelsea Piers. That week, Wall played at any and every gym he could find in the area, desperate to get some sort of work done.

After New York, Wall went down to his hometown in Raleigh, N.C., to visit his old high school, Word of God Christian Academy. Wall was accompanied by Carter Whitt, a collegiate player at Wake Forest who’s also from Raleigh.

In October, with the Lakers crowned as champions and the rest of the NBA world in offseason mode, Wall’s rehab circuit took him to Los Angeles — another popular spot for pickup games.

Wall trained every day at the late Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy, an unofficial training camp for him before linking back up with his Wizards teammates. The Brooklyn Nets were also in Los Angeles at the time and worked out at the same gym.

Wall wanted to scrimmage against the Nets conglomerate, which featured Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Caris Levert and DeAndre Jordan. He put his team together, playing with Isaac Bonga, Shelvin Mack and free agents Isaiah Thomas and De’Andre Bembry.

Games took place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The runs were set in playoff-like fashion, a best-of-seven series. It was during these games where those around the gym saw Wall look like the five-time All-Star that he is. In the first series, Wall’s team swept the Nets. It was a pleasurable experience for Durant and Irving seeing a good friend get back to his best.

“For sure,” Wall said. “It’s been a lot of moments. Even before the bubble and the pandemic, I felt like I was back. I think just having an opportunity to play against guys like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving out in L.A. and seeing me play at a high level, knowing how special those two are. They were letting me know I still have a lot of time left in the league and the ability to do what I do.”

Wall’s eyes were watching De’Aaron Fox the entire possession and he had a point to prove.

It was Jan. 2, just the second game of Wall’s new career with the Rockets since a December trade, but he didn’t need any longer to show the Sacramento Kings and the world that he was back.

Wall drove on Kings guard Buddy Hield and put him in the post, backing him down before a quick turn and one-handed hook shot. Swish. Coming down the floor, Wall motioned to the ground, indicating that Hield was too small to guard him. The old, fiery Wall was coming back.

On the next defensive possession, Fox’s pump fake had sent Danuel House flying out of the picture and he was met with his old friend Wall defending him on the left wing. Fox attempted a crossover but Wall’s quick hands beat him to the spot, knocking the ball away from Fox momentarily. Both players immediately dove for the ball on the ground, but Wall’s quickness saw him win the battle, knocking the ball off of Fox and out of bounds.

As the sideline official signaled Rockets ball, Wall jumped up, flexed his arms and screamed to the heavens. It was a moment that would have truly resonated with Houston fans had there been the normal 20,000 instead of a few thousand scattered around Toyota Center, but Wall didn’t care.

Never mind the fact that Wall finished the game with an impressive line of 28 points, six assists, four rebounds, two blocks and three steals. It was a message to the doubters and naysayers. Wall never doubted his ability to return to a high level of play for a second.

“No. Hell no,” Wall said when asked if he’s surprised at his start to the season, which has seen him average 17.1 points, 5.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds per game along with a career best 82.1 percent from the free throw line. “No I’m not surprised. I know how much work I’ve put in and I’ll say the NBA is a lot easier than what it was before. It’s a lot of switching one through four, one through five. And it’s a lot of spacing, all shooters out there and guys that can make one-on-one plays. That’s what I pride myself on being able to make, one-on-one plays, create shots for myself and for my teammates. I knew it would be a lot easier at least compared to when I came in the league where the paint used to be packed and you might have one shooter out there.”

It was the culmination of a journey that has been filled with its triumphs and tragedies. The birth of his sons and the loss of his mother are two things he constantly refers to because those are situations that drive and push him.

“Just my two sons, the passing of my mother, that was more motivation for me,” Wall said. “All the doubters saying I couldn’t be back to my old self and that I was done. That’s all I really need. I don’t need too much, man. I motivate myself because I love to play this game at a high level. Doesn’t matter if we get paid for this or not, I’m just happy to be able to play the game I love. You see me even without fans in the crowd, I play with a lot of passion.”

Wall was put in an awkward situation as soon as he arrived in Houston, forced to become a part of the Harden saga that consumed the franchise for months. However, he wasn’t going to let that serve as a distraction from what he was sent to Houston to do — win basketball games.

“Just sticking to it,” Wall said. “Even though we knew the bubble was going on and we didn’t know when this (next) season would start. I was like, ‘I hope it’s not gonna be another year until I get to play in front of fans or even see me on TV!’ I’m glad we came to an agreement where I have the opportunity to play and fans get to see me and see all the hard work I’ve put into this. A lot of people said it’s only pickup I’m playing against and can’t do it in the NBA anymore, and I’m still finding myself. It’s good to see real pros every time you step on the floor.”

Wall isn’t the only new face in town, as Stephen Silas was hired in late October to be the next Rockets head coach. It’s a relationship that has become incredibly strong from Day 1. The bond between a head coach and point guard is important, but Silas speaks to Wall more than anyone on the team. Whether it’s bouncing ideas off of one another, working through the offense, or taking the lead on defense, those two are in constant communication.

Wall has also become the leader of this team as it heads into a new era. During film sessions, Wall speaks up and points out things that the team is doing on the floor, both positive and what teammates need to improve on. In the games Wall wasn’t playing, he could still be seen on the bench walking around the sidelines having talks with players and coaches.

“I’m a big leader,” Wall said. “I’m very vocal. I like to talk. When I first came in the league, I used to lead by example but now I have years in and I like to speak up on certain things.”

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