NBA general managers will say a lot of things to hype up or defend or justify a personnel move. Every player who changes teams suddenly becomes a hard worker, a true professional, and a locker-room leader, if only during that initial flush of excitement. But this might be a new one: Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard says he signed the diminutive and deeply diminished Isaiah Thomas in part to help an injured John Wall proceed successfully through his long, long injury recovery process.
Wall is currently working his way back from a ruptured left Achilles tendon, suffered in February when he slipped and fell at home while recovering from an earlier heel surgery. Achilles tendon injuries are disasters for NBA players, especially for NBA players whose productivity relies heavily on athleticism. Even if Wall makes it all the way back to pre-injury form, it will be a long and grueling recovery process, one that is expected to cost him all of next season.
Thomas has plenty of recent experience with devastating injuries and long and grueling recoveries. He aggravated a hip injury during the 2017 playoffs, and has spent the last 26 months trying and mostly failing to work his way back to the form that made him an MVP candidate pre-injury. So, sure, fair to say Thomas knows a thing or two about the misery and tedium and frustration of a long injury recovery process, the kind of first-hand experience Sheppard thought would be good to put around Wall. From Ben Standig of The Athletic:
“There’s a difference between sympathy and empathy,” Sheppard said.
The Wizards sought a voice capable of relating to Wall’s rehab world and off-stage challenges. Thomas’ injury and sidelined experiences since leading Boston to the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals make him distinctly qualified.
“For someone like John Wall, Isaiah really helps us,” Sheppard said. “He has felt exactly what John is going through.”
“(Isaiah) has been there,” Sheppard said. “It’s a lot different coming from him, his story, his way of explaining, ‘Hey, John, this is what you need to do’ comes from a totally different angle than us. I think that’s valuable.”
Thomas reportedly views this role as helping Wall manage the mental struggle of staying focused through what can be some pretty dark and despairing days of rehab work and physical therapy and all the rest.
“It’s really a slow grind. I think you have to be more mentally sharp than physically when you’re going through it,” Thomas said. “It’s tough. It’s a long road ahead. At times, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you just have to keep going.”
It sucks that this is true, but the worst thing that could happen for the Wizards would be Wall’s recovery proceeding on the same timeline and with the same results as Thomas’s. It’s not necessarily Thomas’s fault that he has not been remotely the player he was back in 2017, but it seems bad omen-ish to hire a guy whose career was basically ruined by an injury to mentor a guy whose $171 million supermax contract could become the worst in NBA history if he doesn’t return in something like his pre-injury form. Take the empathy, sure, but be wary of any advice!