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NBA rookies and returns – The 2022-23 debuts of Kawhi Leonard, Zion Williamson, Paolo Banchero, Jabari Smith Jr. and more

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NBA opening week is here, and a lot of players returned after having not played since 2021, while the most recent crop of rookies suited up for his or her first regular-season game.

The return of Kawhi Leonard — off the bench in the interim — immediately made the Los Angeles Clippers contenders for the NBA title. A healthy Zion Williamson rejoined a Latest Orleans Pelicans team on the rise after an unexpected surge into the playoffs. Ben Simmons, after being swapped for James Harden prior to last 12 months’s trade deadline, is back and playing for a Brooklyn Nets team that is attempting to move on from an offseason dominated by trade demands and rumors surrounding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Orlando’s Paolo Banchero, the 2022 No. 1 overall pick, completed a feat in his debut that has been completed by only LeBron James and Lew Alcindor. Houston’s Jabari Smith Jr. had the glory of playing his first NBA game in his hometown of Atlanta. And the Detroit Pistons’ rebuild may very well be ahead of schedule if the rookie duo of Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren play at the extent they flashed Wednesday night.

Our NBA Insiders recap the returns and rookie debuts across the league.

Zion Williamson scored 25 points in half-hour on Wednesday night against Brooklyn. Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Within the words of Brandon Ingram, Williamson picked up where he left off. And while there have been moments Williamson looked like his old self throughout Wednesday night’s season opener against the Nets, he made sure to place an exclamation point on his performance by making his eleventh and final field goal a two-handed slam that left the basket shaking.

This was the Williamson everyone was used to seeing. He forced his solution to the basket, bullying Nets defenders. He wasn’t as efficient as he normally is but still managed to shoot 11-of-22 overall, which speaks more to his history than it does his one-game performance.

Wednesday was profession game No. 86 for Williamson. It was the forty seventh game during which he scored 25 or more points on a minimum of 50% shooting. That is the third-most such games for any player through his first 100 profession games within the shot clock era, trailing only Walt Bellamy (57) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (54).

As Kevin Durant put it following the sport, these kinds of nights are only becoming typical for Williamson.

— Andrew Lopez

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Kawhi Leonard hits a jump shot over LeBron James to place the Clippers ahead by six points late.

Leonard had to attend 1 / 4 and a half before he could finally make his long-awaited return.

In a surprising move, the Clippers brought Leonard off the bench to be as cautious as possible with their star and maximize the limited minutes he played at more impactful times in the sport.

In his first meaningful game since tearing his right ACL in Game 4 of the second round against the Utah Jazz on June 14, 2021, Leonard didn’t waste any time attending to work upon checking in throughout the middle of the second quarter.

Leonard played the ultimate six-plus minutes of the primary half, making his first two shots — each midrange shots. Leonard began the third quarter and played the primary six-plus minutes before returning with 8:01 left within the fourth with the Clippers down two.

Leonard had 14 points and 7 rebounds and shot 6-for-12 in 21 minutes to assist the Clippers beat the Lakers 103-97. But Leonard looked like he was missing a few of his rhythm and timing on his 3-point shot, shooting 1-of-4 from behind the arc.

But he made plays for teammates, reminiscent of finding center Ivica Zubac inside for a simple rating off a lob within the third quarter and chasing down a loose ball off his own miss before hitting Reggie Jackson for a giant 3 midway through the fourth.

Leonard also used the majority he added during his rehab and muscled his way inside to a basket over Russell Westbrook within the paint. The Clippers, though, had trouble getting the ball to Leonard at times in post-ups — something they’ll improve at as they get reacquainted with their star.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

Ben Simmons fouled out in his Brooklyn Nets debut. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

It was a rough Brooklyn debut for Simmons.

He fouled out in only 23 minutes. He scored 4 points on just three field goal attempts, and had five rebounds, five assists and three turnovers. It was the identical form of disjointed play he showed throughout many of the Nets’ 4 preseason games.

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Nets coach Steve Nash said it looks as if the 26-year-old continues to be “rusty” after being away from the sport for nearly a 12 months and a half.

“The guy hasn’t played in over a 12 months,” Nash said. “He’s still getting used to referees, defense, offense. This can be a process for Ben. … He’s shown, obviously, glimpses of the player we all know he’s and could be, but it surely’s difficult. We’re here to support him, we’re here to educate him up and check out to get him to a spot where he can play at the extent he’s played at prior to now. It’s all there for him.”

The larger issue for the Nets is not the rust — it’s that Simmons still looks hesitant at times on the ground, especially on the offensive end. He missed the one two free throws he took and doesn’t look comfortable offensively inside the rhythm of his own game. The Nets need that to alter quickly as they give the impression of being forward to a difficult November stretch.

— Nick Friedell

It isn’t normal for Murray to be smiling in defeat, but following the Denver Nuggets’ 123-102 loss to the Utah Jazz of their season opener, Murray said he couldn’t stop smiling.

That is because he played his first regular-season game after an 18-month recovery from an ACL tear suffered in April 2021.

Murray scored his first bucket 90 seconds into the sport — a midrange jumper.

He had bursts of his old self but clearly was affected by fatigue. Nikola Jokic went so far as saying Murray will “be bad for the subsequent 20 games.”

Sure, Jokic was joking, yet there’s a component of truth to it. But Murray needing time to work back to his true form is no surprise. He finished Denver’s first game of the season with 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting, including 1-of-4 from 3, two rebounds, two steals and one assist in 25 minutes — probably the most he’s played in any form of live game since his injury.

— Kendra Andrews

Despite missing all but nine games last season with a back injury, Porter Jr. played a team-high 35 minutes in Denver’s season opener against the Jazz.

He finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, seven rebounds, one assist and a steal, but what impressed Nuggets coach Michael Malone probably the most were Porter’s hustle plays — contesting shots and diving for loose balls.

“Great defense is once you do every little thing you are alleged to do, and also you do it with effort,” Malone said.

Porter’s performance was nearly as good of a place to begin as Denver could have hoped for. The Nuggets have been banking on Porter being their third star since he was drafted in 2018. They’ve all the time seen him as a robust offensive force — he has a giant frame that may get within the paint but may also be a prolific shooter. The world of his game that needed work was his willingness to do the little things — the stats that do not all the time show on the box rating.

His performance on opening night was the primary example that he can try this. — Andrews

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After sitting out all of last season, John Wall connects on his first shot with the Clippers.

After LeBron James stormed down the court late within the third quarter for a thunderous dunk to chop the LA Clippers’ lead from to eight points on Thursday, Wall responded on the opposite end with the arrogance of a man answerable for his game, not a player who hasn’t recorded an NBA minute in 18 months.

Wall weaved across the Lakers’ feeble perimeter defense, stopped on a dime and pulled up for a midrange jumper that snapped the web, pushing the Clippers’ lead back into double-digits.

As he backpedaled down on defense, Wall pushed his palms down towards the hardwood as if to signal, “Calm down, I’ve got this.”

Playing in his first game since April 2021 after a series of injuries stemming from a torn Achilles in 2018 derailed his All-Star profession, Wall was as much as his old tricks all night within the Clippers’ opening night win. He finished with 15 points on 7-for-15 shooting, 4 rebounds, three assists and a steal in 25 minutes off the bench. He even outscored Leonard (14 points), who also made his return as an alternative to coach Tyronn Lue.

— Dave McMenamin

Wiseman had a mixed batch of showings through the preseason — the primary he’s participated in since he was drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in 2020.

And on opening night, that trend continued, showing his immense upside while also having moments that made it clear he was still learning the NBA game.

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Wiseman could do higher setting screens — a facet of the sport he might be asked to do so much this season — and missed some defensive rotations, as well.

Wiseman scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in 16 minutes. He rolled to the rim with purpose and did well in pick-and-rolls. His mobility and agility were high points, forcing LeBron James to foul him in transition to stop a quick break.

Through the early parts of the season, the Warriors have established a robust two-man game between Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga that’s giving a glimpse into what may very well be a giant a part of the Warriors’ future.

— Andrews

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Paolo Banchero is the primary No. 1 pick since LeBron James to total over 25 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in his NBA debut.

It’s just one game, but Banchero’s debut lived as much as the hype worthy of being the highest overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft. With 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists, Banchero became just the third No.1 overall pick since 1969 to record 25-5-5 in his debut.

The others? LeBron James and Lew Alcindor.

Banchero’s got an extended solution to go before he matches the impressive scoring resumes of those decorated players, but scoring at this level already seems natural. He began the sport on the attack, pulling down his first three shots and scoring six of Orlando’s first eight points on his solution to shattering the franchise scoring record for a player of their first profession game. Banchero flashed all the abilities of his offensive arsenal — a posterizing dunk over Cory Joseph attempting to take a charge, posted up and got to the foul line and even knocked down a couple of midrange jumpers.

He finished 11-of-18 shooting, probably the most made field goals by a rookie in his debut since James in 2003, based on ESPN Stats & Information.

“It’s crazy,” Banchero said. “I feel like I left a variety of points on the board.”

And, perhaps, much more impressive was the undeniable fact that Banchero can have been right. — Jamal Collier

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Jabari Smith Jr. drains one from beyond the arc for his first NBA 3-pointer.

Smith’s NBA debut didn’t unfold within the storybook fashion he imagined when he learned that the Rockets would open the season in his hometown.

Smith was solid within the Rockets’ loss to the Atlanta Hawks, where he had dozens of friends and relations in the group.

Smith, the No. 3 overall pick, displayed the defensive potential that helped him shoot up draft boards. He grabbed seven rebounds. He flashed the sweet shooting form that is so rare from an athletic, 6-foot-11 forward, reminiscent of when Smith confidently swished his first profession 3-pointer from a couple of feet behind the arc.

“I used to be happy with him. He was aggressive,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas told reporters. “He didn’t seem scared in any respect. It was his first opportunity to be in an NBA game, at home. He went on the market and played well.”

Smith, nevertheless, didn’t shoot well overall. He was 6-of-17 from the ground and 3-of-11 from 3-point range.

“Oh my God, I got so many looks; I just didn’t knock them down,” Smith told reporters. “But I do know that is going to return. With me being a shooter, that is not my first time missing shots. I’m not tripping about it in any respect. I saw the open shots and saw where they were coming from. It makes the sport slightly easier once I’ve got guards that make that pass, who imagine in me.” — Tim MacMahon

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Jaden Ivey hauls within the dime from Cade Cunningham and drains his first skilled basket to place the Pistons on the board.

Ivey pulled as much as his first NBA game in his grandfather’s No. 28 Detroit Lions jersey, an ode to the connections his family has with town, and gave Pistons fans the total experience as advertised on draft night.

He scored 10 of his 19 points within the third quarter where the Pistons took the lead — flashing his blazing speed going coast-to-coast for a layup after a steal, pulling down 3-pointers off the dribble and putting pressure on the rim to assist arrange veteran sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, who knocked down 4 3s within the quarter.

Ivey, the 2022 No. 5 overall pick, added 4 assists, three rebounds and three steals to round out an exciting victory for Detroit.

“I just attempt to, every night, use my burst,” Ivey said after the sport. “I feel like I can get past a few of the quickest guys. Once I beat the defender, I’ve got to start out in search of another guys. It should take some games to get used to that, but I feel I used my speed to one of the best of my ability tonight.” — Collier

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Rookie Jalen Duren gathers the rock and unloads a large dunk over his defender for the Pistons.

Duren put the exclamation point on an overall impressive debut within the second quarter when he delivered an emphatic dunk over Orlando’s Chuma Okeke while running the ground in transition, bringing the players on his own bench out of their seats and sending a near sold-out crowd at Little Caesars Arena right into a frenzy.

Duren, who doesn’t turn 19 until November, doesn’t look the a part of the youngest player within the league. In 22 minutes off the bench, he scored 14 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots, providing the within presence the Pistons coveted once they acquired the No. 13 pick on draft night.

The Pistons were plus-7 with Duren on the ground Wednesday night, one of the best mark on the team, and his coach Dwayne Casey trusted the rookie enough to play him until the ultimate two minutes of the sport. Together, Duren and Ivey provided a glimpse of what the Pistons have been constructing and why they imagine the core they’ve in place will make the past few seasons of losing repay.

“Those young kids are going to be our future,” said Casey. — Collier

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Bennedict Mathurin drills shot vs. Washington Wizards

Mathurin had a robust debut, coming off the bench and posting 19 points, seven rebounds and two assists while physically looking the part. He led the Pacers in preseason scoring — 20 points in 23.5 minutes per game — and continued right where he left off in a house loss to the Washington Wizards. Mathurin showed his scoring instincts, confidence and fearlessness immediately, rejecting a screen along with his off hand, difficult 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis on the rim and scoring excessive of him with a troublesome floater off the glass for a memorable first NBA basket.

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He attacked the rim aggressively within the open floor, crashed the offensive glass along with his muscular frame, drew five free throw attempts and hit several open jumpers and one impressive pull-up 3-pointer rising up sharply in transition to maintain the sport interesting late. Mathurin also showed a few of the things he has to enhance to grow to be a whole all-around player, notably on the defensive end where he looked lost off the ball, got backcut several times, showed poor awareness running into or being late chasing his opponent around screens, and overhelped or gambled unnecessarily demonstrating his lack of experience coping with NBA spacing.

Mathurin wasn’t known for his defense at Arizona and has work to do, along along with his ball-handling, creating offense within the half-court and passing up on a couple of open spot-up jumpers he probably will learn to take. Because the Pacers immerse themselves within the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes and try to offload Buddy Hield, expect Mathurin to proceed to search out his footing and emerge as probably the greatest scorers on this rookie class with the green light he’ll be offered. — Jonathan Givony

Canadian rookie Shaedon Sharpe scored 12 points off the bench for Portland. Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

Sharpe’s debut went about in addition to could be expected, pulling down all three of his 3-point attempts and scoring 12 points in 16 minutes while helping the Trail Blazers to a road win over Sacramento. After not playing a single game in college and getting hurt five minutes into his summer league opener, few knew what to anticipate from the 19-year-old Canadian rookie, especially with Portland in win-now mode.

Sharpe made a right away impact attacking a closeout powerfully off a pump-fake and drawing contact without cost throws after skying within the lane. He wasn’t bashful within the slightest early, entering into a corner-3 confidently, hitting a stunning 3-pointer running and turning off a screen off an inbounds play, and making a difficult stepback 3 relocating beyond the arc after being run off the road. His shot-making prowess looks nearly as good as advertised, and every little thing he does seems effortless because of his exceptional talent.

Defensively, Sharpe was a mixed bag as expected, gambling, getting lost off the ball and being out of position showing his lack of experience and improvable technique. He did show potential on this area along with his quick feet, strong frame and solid effort level, coming up with a few strong possessions to point he’s slightly further ahead on this area than you would possibly expect.

While it would be years until we fully know what the Trail Blazers have in Sharpe, it’s hard to not be encouraged by what we saw by way of the role he’s carved out early on and particularly the production he brought. There will certainly be loads of ups and downs because the season moves on, however the undeniable fact that Sharpe is already within the rotation and contributing to winning is definitely notable projecting forward. — Givony

Jonathan Givony is an NBA Draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a non-public scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and International teams.

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