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The Return(s) – What our NBA insiders saw from Zion, Dame, Kawhi and more as preseason kicks off

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The NBA was without its full slate of stars for much of last season, as plenty of the league’s best players missed extensive time. But the beginning of the 2022-23 season marks a fresh start and return to the court for those stars.

Marquee veterans corresponding to Kawhi Leonard and John Wall, who’re typically counted on to hold their respective teams, didn’t play in 2021-22 and their teams didn’t make the playoffs consequently. Leonard’s return and the addition of a well-rested Wall mechanically make the Clippers a title contender within the West.

Meanwhile, young stars Jamal Murray and Ben Simmons will slide into lineups in Denver and Brooklyn that made the playoffs last season. Neither shall be leaned on to guide their respective squads, but their returns are expected to assist push their contending teams even further when the postseason comes around.

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And all eyes shall be on Zion Williamson this season. Williamson, who signed a five-year $193 million rookie max extension with the Pelicans this offseason, missed all of last season with a foot injury. The 22-year-old big man shall be seeking to shake the concerns over his durability and justify his selection as the primary overall pick within the 2019 NBA draft, all while trying to guide Recent Orleans on a deep postseason run.

With the preseason underway, fans are getting their first have a look at plenty of players stepping on the court for the primary time in months. Our NBA insiders recap what they’ve observed this week.

Zion Williamson scored 13 points in quarter-hour on Tuesday night for the Recent Orleans Pelicans. Kamil Krzaczynski/USA TODAY Sports

Last time he played: May 4, 2021

What we saw: From the primary play of the sport, it was clear the Pelicans desired to get Williamson involved. Off the opening tip, the Pelicans ran a play designed to get Williamson a touch and he was promptly swarmed by Chicago Bulls’ defenders. Williamson’s two biggest plays — perhaps the first indicators that he was going to be the Williamson of old — got here only a minute apart within the second quarter.

First, the play was called a defensive goaltending against Williamson but he showed off his athleticism as he chased down Patrick Williams on a layup attempt and swatted his shot. It showed Williamson’s bounce was back on that end of the ground. One minute later, Williamson caught the ball on the precise wing, faced up, took one hard dribble along with his right hand to blow by Williams and exploded for a two-handed slam. In quarter-hour, Williamson had 13 points and 4 rebounds. He was 4-of-6 from the sphere and 5-of-5 from the road. If his free throw percentage can climb this season (he’s shooting 68% for his profession), Williamson can turn out to be much more dangerous this season.

— Andrew Lopez

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Kawhi Leonard already looks in midseason form, hitting his iconic fadeaway shot on the baseline for the Clippers.

Last time he played: June 14, 2021

What we saw: Leonard scored his first basket in 476 days on Monday, and it didn’t take long once he got on the court. He buried a 3 over Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic 15 seconds into his return.

But not every part got here as easy in his first game back since tearing his right ACL in Game 4 against the Utah Jazz. Leonard shot 3-for-8, including that triple, and finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and two assists in 16 first-half minutes.

“[The timing] goes to return,” Leonard said. “I’m going to be rusty. Legs definitely felt healthy. Quite a lot of lactic acid in them. But as that point goes on, the rhythm will get back, the footwork, the spacing, the timing. Just knowing playcalls, getting used to the group, getting used to T-Lue calling plays on the fly, my teammates yelling, the respiratory, all that’s going to return.”

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Leonard said he “definitely” got stronger after spending 13-plus months within the gym and he looks physically larger. He definitely tried throwing that bulk around on a smaller player like Damian Lillard within the post, drawing fouls by muscling his way inside for 4 free throws. He also made some sharp passes to shooters within the corner. But he missed a couple of midrange shots, a driving attempt in traffic.

Leonard said he doesn’t play five-on-five and even two-on-two within the offseason so his first full run against players got here in camp. Ty Lue said Leonard got just a little drained offensively but that he got the shots he often makes which is a superb sign. With five days before the following preseason game, Leonard said he’ll play on Sunday and proceed to work himself back into form. But the primary test on Monday was successful. Leonard was back and his body felt good after the primary game.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

Ben Simmons scored six points in 19 minutes against his former team, the Philadelphia 76ers. It was Simmons’ first NBA motion in over a 12 months. AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson

Last time he played: June 20, 2021

What we saw: Simmons appeared to maneuver well up and down the ground almost a 12 months and a half after his last NBA game. His length defensively goes to assist a Nets team who’s going to wish him to be a difference maker on that end of the ground every night.

Offensively, it’ll take a while for Simmons to seek out a rhythm alongside Brooklyn stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — however the glimpses of promise are already easy to see. The talented trio should have the ability to play well off one another, especially with Simmons running the purpose at times.

The problem for Simmons is that the identical offensive issues that were apparent in Philadelphia have not appeared to change. He wasn’t on the lookout for any type of jump shot and he missed two free throw attempts. After the sport, Simmons appeared to be enthused by his progression and his teammates can see the potential — especially when he gets some minutes on the five spot — but it’ll be interesting to see if he becomes more aggressive on the offensive end throughout the season.

— Nick Friedell

John Wall | LA Clippers

Last time he played: April 23, 2021

What we saw: Wall had to attend a couple of more minutes before making his long-awaited return to the court after sitting out all of last season. Wall got here off the bench behind Reggie Jackson and logged 14 minutes, ending with five points and three assists. There wasn’t much opportunity to see Wall show if he still has that blazing speed and he very likely still has to work his way back into form.

Wall only played in 40 games while also coping with the deaths of his mother and grandmother over the past three years. But Wall flashed glimpses of what he can bring to the Clippers in his return to the ground on Monday. He drove and hit center Moses Brown, who might’ve had a simple rating on the rim but fumbled the pass. Wall also passed up on a corner 3 off a pass from a driving Norman Powell and decided to seek out Robert Covington for an open 3 at the highest of the important thing. His only basket got here on a 3 late in the primary half.

Jackson said Wall still was aggressive and attacking in half-court play. The Clippers, though, didn’t get many opportunities to see Wall push the pace and run within the open floor. That is a component they hope Wall, who was once the fastest player within the league with the ball in his hands, can bring.

Lue’s team finished nineteenth in pace of play last season in order that they can use Wall’s tempo-pushing speed.

“I could have shown off [the speed] within the halfcourt,” Wall said when asked about not having many opportunities to run. “But I used to be just attempting to run the sets and get used to being within the moment with certain guys but just attempting to push the pace and keep the pace into the sport. … It should all come to me, it’s all easy, like I do know I still got the stuff I would like but now I believe for us it’s just attempting to determine different lineups.”

Lue says point guard is the one starting spot up for grabs between Jackson and Wall, but Wall will start the following preseason game on Sunday.

— Youngmisuk

Damian Lillard | Portland Trail Blazers

Last time he played: Dec. 31, 2021

What we saw: Lillard played for the primary time in 2022 after surgery to repair an abdominal injury, which he’d played through for years, ended his 2021-22 campaign on Recent Yr’s Eve. Lillard took some time to get on the scoreboard but looked like his All-Star self thereafter.

Lillard missed his first 4 shots during Monday’s preseason game, but broke the drought with a 3-pointer in transition late in the primary quarter and ended up because the evening’s leading scorer with 16 points on 5-of-13 shooting, partially since the Clippers’ starters didn’t return for the second half.

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“I did not have anything on my mind apart from just playing,” Lillard said afterward. “I settled into the sport pretty quickly.”

Perhaps essentially the most interesting aspect of Lillard’s return was how Portland coach Chauncey Billups deployed him. With Anfernee Simons now within the backcourt alongside Lillard, and newcomer Jerami Grant at forward, the Blazers have more ballhandling options. This lets Billups use Lillard in an off-ball role coming off screens.

One in every of Lillard’s highlight plays was an and-1 finish over former teammate Moses Brown. It got here off an early screen to get him on the move toward the basket with a bonus over defender Amir Coffey.

— Kevin Pelton

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Your complete Nuggets’ team celebrates with Jamal Murray as he scores his first bucket since suffering an ACL tear in 2021.

Last time he played: April 4, 2021

What we saw: If anyone wondered if Murray had been counting the times until he could make his return to the court, don’t be concerned, he was. Prior to his preseason debut on Monday night, Murray tweeted “539 days later… BOUT THAT TIME!!”

It’s rare once you see the complete bench arise for a shot in a preseason game, but that is exactly what happened for Murray’s first make. Murray missed his first two shots, a step-back 18-footer and a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer, however the third one was the charm. Murray spotted up within the left corner and after it went in, the smile across his face and his teammates told the entire story. He was pleased to be back.

After holding out for the primary 4 months of the season, the All-Star guard is on his method to Brooklyn.

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His next shot showed more about being back than the rest. This one was about trusting the surgically-repaired ACL in his left knee. Murray went one-on-one with Thunder defender Tre Mann. Murray drove baseline, was forced back, took a tough dribble into Mann’s chest, gave a small shot fake, then leapt up for a small floater within the lane with contact.

To cap off his short night of 10 points in 14 minutes, Murray ended the second half with a crowd pleaser as hit a fadeaway jumper off the left leg. At the top of it, Murray checked out the group and said, “That is what I do.”

— Lopez

Last time he played: April 10, 2021

What we saw: When the Warriors left for Tokyo last week, it had been a couple of 12 months and a half since Wiseman had played in an NBA game. Wiseman made his preseason debut Sept. 30 in a sold-out Saitama Super Arena in Japan and had a performance that warranted coach Steve Kerr calling him the “player of the sport.”

Kerr noted that Wiseman simply has a greater feel for the NBA game now than he did just several years ago despite not playing, and that comfort level was evident in his 20-point performance.

Wiseman finished the night on 8-of-11 shooting — five of which were dunks. And that gives an accurate have a look at how the Warriors wish to use him: at and above the rim. Before his injury, Wiseman often looked overwhelmed and lost within the Warriors’ free-flowing, fast-moving system.

This season, the Warriors are emphasizing a simplified role for Wiseman centered around ending on the rim and crashing the boards. Wiseman’s first game showed how well he can move for a man his size, in order his comfort level with the Warriors’ system improves, he should fit nicely.

— Kendra Andrews

Last time he played: Nov. 6, 2021

What we saw: In 2021-22, Porter Jr. didn’t appear like the player he was the season prior as a back injury limited him to only nine games. He didn’t appear like someone bothered by anything in Denver’s preseason opener.

Porter played just 14 minutes nevertheless it was enough to see a healthy-looking wing that might help lift the Nuggets. Porter was an efficient 5-of-7, scoring 12 points and flattening all three of his attempts contained in the perimeter with a mixture of face-up jumper, a dunk and a step-back from along the baseline. He showed confidence towards the top of the second quarter, flattening each 3-pointers, including entering into one in a two-for-one situation late within the half.

During his rookie season, Porter was considered one of the higher rebounding wings within the league and his one rebound on Monday showed why. Jamal Murray missed a shot within the lane and Porter dove in from his spot within the corner and managed to snag the board between 4 Thunder defenders.

He lost the ball within the scrum to Josh Giddey but Denver still ended up with possession after it deflected off Giddey and went out of bounds. Nevertheless, Porter using that aggressiveness to his advantage is a superb sign for Denver moving forward.

— Lopez

Last time he played: Oct. 10, 2021

What we saw: Just greater than a minute into Nunn’s first NBA game motion in 358 days, the Los Angeles Lakers guard relied on a man he’s known for years to set him up. Nunn drove the left lane and hit Anthony Davis with a pocket pass on the elbow. Davis collected the feed and began his shooting motion before zipping a pass back to Nunn, who spotted up for a corner 3.

Nunn, who appeared in 4 preseason games for the Lakers last fall before missing the complete season with a bone bruise in his right knee, made the shot with ease.

“It’s that Chicago connection. He was capable of knock it down,” Davis said, alluding to their shared Windy City roots. “I believe we’re all proud. He got here an extended ways. And to play with that rhythm and to make your first shot type of takes away the butterflies, especially here … and everybody anticipating, ‘We would like to see K-Nunn.'”

Recent Lakers coach Darvin Ham saw enough of Nunn’s dedication to training within the offseason and shot-making during training camp to make him the starting shooting guard for the preseason opener. That role could change when Lonnie Walker IV’s ankle fully heals and Dennis Schroder reports to the team, as Ham said his starters are “totally fluid” with the regular-season opener two weeks away, but Nunn figures to be an element whether he’s starting or not.

“It felt real good,” Nunn said after going 2-for-2 in the primary quarter and helping L.A.’s starters outscore the Sacramento Kings by five points within the six minutes he was on the court. “I’m getting my legs back under me, my speed, my strength. I felt real good on the market.”

— Dave McMenamin

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