The shrill sound of squeaking sneakers cut through the air inside a Thousand Oaks, Calif., gym, a soundtrack to one of the best pickup games played anywhere this year. It’s mid-October, days after the end of the NBA’s pandemic-interrupted season, a month and a half before the blockbuster trade that would hit days before training camps opened, and in a gym that until recently bore Kobe Bryant’s nickname—the Mamba Sports Academy—a collection of top players are putting in work. Kevin Durant elevates for jump shots. Kyrie Irving spins a dribble toward the rim. DeAndre Jordan and Thomas Bryant battle for rebounds. Troy Brown and Isaiah Thomas, ex-Wizards teammates, trade buckets. Each has good moments. John Wall has more.
In transition, Wall is a blur. Nearly two years have passed since he played an NBA game, his 2018–19 season cut short after 32 games by surgery to remove inch-long bone spurs from his left heel, his ’19–20 campaign stolen by a ruptured Achilles suffered after slipping and falling at home a month later. Speed can suffer after an Achilles injury, and Wall, who ran a 3.14 in the ¾-court sprint at the draft combine and five years ago declared himself the NBA’s fastest player, is defined by it. In this workout, Wall doesn’t appear to have lost a step. The knee pain that preceded the heel injury has vanished, leaving Wall feeling healthier than he has in years. “He looked amazing,” says Durant, who is returning from an Achilles tear of his own. In quieter moments, Wall and Durant commiserated. About being away from the game. About personal growth. “It was a deep convo,” says Durant. “I’m excited to see John play again.”