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Player mental health the focus of the NBA as league heads to restart bubble

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NEW ORLEANS — Jrue Holiday expects basketball to be the easy part.

The Pelicans guard will be living in the NBA’s “bubble” when 22 teams gather near Orlando, Florida, this month to resume their suspended season.

Holiday’s wife, Lauren, a former U.S. national team soccer player, is pregnant with the couple’s second child at a time when much of society has been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. The veteran New Orleans player might be away from home for more than a month.

Meanwhile, Memphis rookie Ja Morant expects to miss his daughter’s first birthday next month. Boston’s Gordon Hayward may leave the team when his fourth child is born in September. And players like Washington’s Bradley Beal and Portland’s Damian Lillard wonder how intense NBA restrictions on player movement will be received.

These are but a few examples of why the NBA, its teams and the players’ union are making mental health and wellness resources available to players now and once they arrive at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.

“It is going to leave the guys with a lot of time on their own, and challenges with families, newborns and whatever else they have going on in their personal lives are going to be magnified because they’re going to be in confined spaces for prolonged periods of time,” said William Parham, a Loyola Marymount psychology professor and director of the National Basketball Players Association’s mental health and wellness program. “There’s no way around it, so I would anticipate some increased anxiety, some increased tension, some increased restlessness.”

There will be no fans at Disney. There also will be restrictions on where players can go, plus rules keeping families away until at least the second round of the playoffs. The hope is to significantly limit exposure to COVID-19 inside the bubble.

Even under normal circumstances, Holiday sees family time as a cherished respite. Life at Disney will clearly complicate that.

“This is one of the mental parts about it that guys have to adjust to, where someone like me, I go home and it’s where I kind of relax,” Holiday said. “I try my best not to bring my work home with me so I can hang out with my wife, my dog, and my daughter and I can do things like that. … I think that’s going to be a little bit of a challenge, especially after like seven to 10 days.”

Likewise, Beal said living in the bubble will hardly be “a walk in the park.”

“We can’t just leave. We can’t just order whatever food we want. We can’t just do activities we want to do. We can’t go to our teammates’ rooms,” Beal said. “You’re restricted, and you can’t do the things that you’re normally used to doing.”

The Pelicans’ mental health and wellness program is led by team psychologist Jenna Rosen, and New Orleans general manager David Griffin calls it “critical.”

“Let’s not kid ourselves. This quarantine situation is going to be very difficult,” Griffin said. “We will work through mindfulness training with Jenna literally every day. … It’s going to be about who can keep themselves in the best frame of mind, quite frankly.”

Mental health has been a priority for the NBA and the NBPA, especially after players like Cleveland’s Kevin Love and San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan opened up about their inner struggles.

DeRozan knows it won’t be easy at Disney.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You’re taking guys who’ve been with their families every single day for the last few months and all of a sudden separating everybody into this one confined space and taking away a lot of joyful things that we do outside of basketball.”

Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has played for Greece’s national team, said being away for three weeks during international tournaments was challenging. This trip to Disney could last three months if the Bucks make the NBA Finals.

“Not being able to see your family, being there for three months, playing games with no fans, it’s going to be mental,” Antetokounmpo said. “You’ve got to push yourself through this.”

Daniel Medina, the Wizards’ chief of athletic care and performance, said some players are concerned that an interrupted season might make them more prone to injury, which could be career-altering to players with expiring contracts. Some have decided not to play, notably Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.

Parham, who helped launch the NBPA’s mental health program in 2018, expects many players to handle the resumption well. He noted that after three months of relative isolation at home, they’ll be eager to satisfy their appetite for competition.

Still, the unprecedented nature of the bubble, born out of a pandemic blamed for about a half-million deaths worldwide, will present challenges. Another issue, Parham said, is how the restart coincides with the political and social upheaval spawned by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in police custody.

“Prior to COVID, and prior to these social justice demonstrations, there were sufficient daily distractions for people to not really even think about their stuff. They were just sort of on automatic pilot,” Parham said. “You know what they say: A person will never see their reflection in running water. It is only when the water is still that their reflected image begins to emerge.”

NBA to name All-Seeding Games Teams, Player of the Seeding Games

Pacers forward T.J. Warren and Suns guard Devin Booker
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The NBA already held voting for its main awards, retroactively ending the regular season March 11 and defining the eight games for each of the 22 teams continuing at Disney World as “seeding games.”

So, the league found a new way to honor standout players from this portion of the season.

NBA release:

The NBA announced today that it will name the … NBA All-Seeding Games Team and the … NBA Player of the Seeding Games to honor top performers for games played July 30 – Aug. 14 during the 2019-20 season restart at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

A panel of sportswriters and broadcasters who have been on site covering the season restart will select the … NBA All-Seeding Games Team and the … NBA Player of the Seeding Games.  The media panel will vote for five players for the All-Seeding Games First Team and five players for the All-Seeding Games Second Team, choosing a total of 10 players at any position from either conference.

The … NBA All-Seeding Games Team and the …. NBA Player of the Seeding Games will be announced Saturday, Aug. 15 before Game 1 of the Western Conference Play-In, which tips off at 2:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

Is it silly to to give awards for such a small sample of what effectively amount to regular-season games? Yes.

Is it also fun? Heck yes.

My early picks:

Player of the Seeding Games

All-Seeding Games First Team

All-Seeding Games Second Team

Kyle Kuzma: ‘Jesus could be in front of me, and I’d probably still shoot’

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Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma hit a game-winner over the Nuggets’ Bol Bol, who’s 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-7 wingspan.

Bill Oram of The Athletic:

Kuzma has overcome so much to reach this point. Of course, he’s confident.

Would Kuzma start on some teams that don’t have LeBron James and Anthony Davis at forward? Yes. Most teams? That’s a stretch.

Regardless, Kuzma doesn’t want to find out what his role would be on a lower-profile team. And the Lakers are happy to have him, too.

LeBron, via Oram:

“In order for us to win a championship, he has to be our third-best player,” James said. “And if I’m struggling or A.D.’s struggling, he has to be our second-best player on any given night. We can’t win a championship if Kuz doesn’t play well.”

It’d work well if Danny Green is the Lakers’ third-best player. His perimeter defense and spot-up 3-point shooting complement stars like LeBron and Davis.

Kuzma creates his own shots in a way Green can’t, and Kuzma’s size makes him an effective defender at times. But he doesn’t mesh quite as neatly with stars. Kuzma can better provide a boost when LeBron or Davis is having an off night. There’s value in that. But how often will the Lakers want to have the ball in Kuzma’s hands rather than LeBron’s or Davis’ – even as much as Kuzma believes in himself?

Donald Trump: NBA ‘in big trouble, bigger trouble than they understand’

President Donald Trump
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In an interview on Fox Sports Radio, President Donald Trump played all his greatest hits on the NBA – teams kneeling for the national anthem, the league’s involvement in China.

Trump on NBA teams kneeling for the national anthem:

I think it’s been horrible for basketball. Look at the basketball ratings. They’re down. They’re down to very low numbers – very, very low. People are angry about it. They don’t realize. They don’t want – they have enough politics with guys like me. They don’t need more as they’re driving down, going up for the shot. They don’t need it. And there was a nastiness about the NBA, the way it was done too. So I think that they –   the NBA is in trouble. I think it’s in big trouble, bigger trouble than they understand.

And frankly, ice hockey which is doing very well, they didn’t do that. They respected the mores. They respected what they’re supposed to be doing. And they’re actually doing very well, as I understand it.

You have to stand for your flag, and you have to respect your flag and your country. You’re making millions of dollars a year to be playing a sport you’d be playing anyway if you didn’t make – they’d be playing it on the weekends. And they have to respect their country.

Kneeling during the national anthem is a patriotic gesture that calls attention to serious problems plaguing our country – racism, particularly through police brutality. The United States would become an even better country by addressing those issues.

In a United States that values freedom, the president should not be saying “you have to stand for your flag.” That runs toward authoritarianism.

NBA ratings are down because [insert a reason that fits your agenda here]. It’s a complicated situation with numerous factors.

Are some people turned off by the NBA’s increasingly visible political actions? Yes. Would some people lose interest in the NBA if the league shut down players and coaches who kneeled during the national anthem and spoke about the most important issues confronting the country? Yes.

NHL players did kneel during the national anthem. Not like the mass demonstrations by NBA teams. But some NHL players have kneeled.

Yet, Trump and many of his followers give more credence to some protesters than to others.

Which gets to China.

Trump on NBA players and coaches criticizing him:

I haven’t noticed them sending things back at me but I will say that I wouldn’t be that surprised. Some are very nasty – very, very nasty – and frankly, very dumb. But I haven’t noticed that. But I will say this: The way they cater to China, the way they bow to China, it’s a disgrace frankly. And they make a lot more money here than they do from China. But we have a system that allows you to disrespect your system, and that’s too bad for them. Too bad for them. They don’t appreciate what they have here.

The NBA has been complicit in abuses in China. It is disgraceful. The way otherwise-outspoken NBA people have been silent on China and Hong Kong – given the financial incentives – has been suspect.

But the NBA is far from the only American entity with business interests entangled in China. The league shouldn’t become a punching bag that distracts from a far wider issue.

The next two questions Trump faced in the interview practically begged him to denounce China for reducing freedom in Hong Kong. He did not.

Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell Tweets he’s back inside NBA bubble

Clippers big Montrezl Harrell
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The Clippers, who have coasted to a 3-3 record at the restart, are about to get a burst of energy off the bench.

Montrezl Harrell is back in the bubble. He Tweeted this out Monday:

Harrell was granted leave from the bubble to help take care of his grandmother — who he was very close to — when she fell ill. She eventually died, and Harrell poured out his emotions on social media for fans. The Clippers told Harrell to take as much time as he needed before coming back.

Harrell is back now, and if he tested negative the last seven days outside he bubble he will be in quarantine on the Walt Disney World Resort property for four days, then he can rejoin his team — possibly for Friday’s seeding game against Oklahoma City, but certainly in time for the playoffs.

Harrell is a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate who averaged 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for the Clippers this season. More than the numbers, he brought an improved defense and relentless energy off the bench that lifted the Clippers nightly. The Harrell/Lou Williams pick-and-roll remains one of the smoothest and most dangerous in the league.

Harrell also gives Doc Rivers a lot of versatility and options on how to close games — the Clippers can go big, go small, and do either well. It’s that versatility that makes them a dangerous playoff team.

The Clippers needed Harrell back to unleash all of it, and now he is there and ready to go.