Elliott: John Wall is ready to be the Clippers’ ‘big dog’

Elliott: John Wall is ready to be the Clippers' 'big dog'

John Wall was saying the world will see a dog when he makes his Clippers debut this season, that being the way he describes his defiant, chip-on-his-shoulder nature, when teammate Reggie Jackson started cheering from the back of the gym where the Clippers were holding their media day activities Monday.

“I’m just excited we got John,” Jackson said, and he wasn’t alone in welcoming the five-time All-Star to a team that has an opportunity to be a force in the NBA‘s Western Conference.

Wall’s upside is tremendous: He has career averages of 19.1 points, 9.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game, and he’s capable of dictating the pace. Playing alongside Clippers teammate Paul George this summer in pickup games known as Rico Hines runs, he sliced through defenders and proclaimed, “I’m back,” in videos widely viewed on social media.

He was back to being a dog but he’s a different person, stronger for having acknowledged he needed therapy after an Achilles injury, foot infection and his mother’s death from breast cancer late in 2019 led him to consider suicide. He recently recounted his struggles in a searingly frank essay in The Players Tribune, proud to have made it through the darkness and eager to help anyone still finding their way to the light.

“Basketball is my sanctuary, when I step between those four lines,” he said Monday. “I think I’m a better man, a better person, I’m a better father and whatever my role is on this team, I’m just trying to come over here and help them win.”

Best-case scenario for the Clippers, who signed him to a two-year, $13.281-million contract as a free agent: His bark and his bite are as fierce as they were before he missed two of the past three NBA seasons. He sat out all of 2019-20 because of heel and Achilles injuries and missed all of last season after the Houston Rockets went to a younger backcourt and told him to stay home.

“He’s definitely a piece that was needed, and I’m excited,” George said. “I think what he brings and where the value is so huge for us is his transition game. That was like one of the things teams did against us was crash the boards, because there was — really there was no transition game from us. They wasn’t worried about that.

“I think with John, his ability to play and sprint up and down and get going in transition I think kind of keeps teams honest. They can’t crash everybody. He rebounds as well as any guard.”

For coach Tyronn Lue, that means updating his playbook. “I think with John, adding John, his pace is tremendous. That’s going to allow us to get easy baskets,” Lue said. “Guys get open threes, easy shots, him getting downhill, getting to the basket changes our team dramatically. His pace, the way he plays, brings a different dimension to our team.”

As with any discussion concerning the Clippers, the phrase “if healthy” applies to Wall and the overall fate of a team that always seems close to something big but hasn’t turned promise into reality.

Robert Covington and John Wall greet Paul George during media day for the Clippers.

Robert Covington, left, and John Wall greet Paul George during media day for the Clippers at the Honey Training Center in Playa Vista.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Wall hasn’t played an NBA game since April 23, 2021, before the Rockets exiled him. Because of that and his injuries, he has played only 113 games over the last five NBA seasons. Earlier in his career, he underwent procedures on both knees and dealt with bone spurs.

Just what the Clippers don’t need: another injury concern. Kawhi Leonard, who missed last season after tearing his ACL during the 2021 playoffs, said he will be “gradually building up” as training camp proceeds based on how his knee responds each day. George missed most 51 games last season because of an elbow injury but has fully recovered.

For now, at least, everyone is fit and ready to go. The Clippers haven’t lost a game yet and they haven’t lost a player to injury yet, and they’re looking on the bright side.

“Very excited for what’s to come this year. Since I’ve been here, I think we have yet to put a full healthy season with everybody in uniform. A lot of optimism there of what we can accomplish when we’re all full strength,” said George, who is starting his fourth season with the Clippers.

“I think this year is definitely a great opportunity to win and win big, and I think everybody feels and senses that. You know, Day One, we’re going to get after it.”

Wall ended his Players Tribune essay with the words, “I’m still here,” a short phrase that packs a wallop. He’s here in the sense that he put aside his thoughts of suicide and found he had reasons to go on. And he’s emotionally here for the Clippers, who need a big dog.

“I just feel like for my whole career a lot of people don’t give me my respect. I don’t know why. It is what it is. Like I say, I’ve got a chip on my shoulder,” he said. “But that’s not the reason why I’m happy to be back. I put in a lot of work. Everything I’ve been through the last two, three years, I don’t think a lot of people could have got through that.”

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