No wall for these five NBA rookies as league restart tips-off

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Forget hitting a rookie wall or stumbling into the playoffs exhausted and banged-up.

The NBA’s break because of the coronavirus pandemic gave rookies an offseason within a season. They’ve had the chance to heal up, study film and gain some much-needed pounds to better handle the grueling season in a league filled with savvy veterans.

Some rookies will resume play a bit smarter and stronger, giving them a chance to finish off their debut seasons in style.

“I took the time off really to … focus on my body, do the right things to continue to get better,” said Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, the likely NBA rookie of the year. “Studied a lot of film. Kind of like I had an offseason but still preparing to come back and play.”

Improving during a pandemic had its challenges.

Some rookies filled garages with weights. Those living in apartments or condos had to be very creative to even find a basket to get up shots.

“It was challenging for everyone. No one has ever been through this,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, whose club has three first-round picks in the rotation this season, led by first overall draft choice Zion Williamson.

“The younger players, I think the thing with them is that they tried to stay in shape and tried to keep themselves in a conditioning situation that they felt like, when they came back, they wouldn’t be behind. … We’ll have to see how it works out, but I think those guys did put in work during the hiatus.”

Perfecting 3-point shots were also was a major focus.

Heat guard Tyler Herro spent a day putting together a portable hoop sent to him by teammate Jimmy Butler.

“I definitely put it to use outside getting some shots up,” Herro said. “I’m happy we can finally get back into a gym. Working in the driveway wasn’t necessarily the best time.”

Not all rookies will be playing as the NBA wraps up the season. Coby White and his Chicago Bulls missed the cut to keep playing in Florida. So too did RJ Barrett and the Knicks, and Golden State’s Eric Paschall.

Rookies to watch when the NBA’s resumes its season:

JA MORANT

Morant worked with trainers at his Memphis home and put on 12 pounds of mostly muscle. That’s what the Grizzlies have wanted since the moment they drafted him at No. 2 overall last June behind top pick Zion Williamson.

The point guard also watched a lot of film, looking to improve after averaging 17.6 points a game and 6.9 assists a game.

“He’s a great student of the game,” Grizzlies first-year coach Taylor Jenkins said. “So I think he put a lot of time over the break doing those things, and I think we’re already seeing that right now.”

ZION WILLIAMSON

Williamson’s weight was an issue when he arrived at training camp back in September. Less so now. His extended rehab from knee surgery involved a focus on losing weight and flexibility, and it was apparent he stuck to his new workout regimen during the past few months.

Williamson is listed at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds. The team has declined to specify how much weight he has lost, but teammates noted how much leaner he looked when the Pelicans got back together a few weeks ago.

“He looks amazing. He looks fully healthy. He looks even stronger than he was before, if that’s even possible,” Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball said. “I was happy to see him, happy to see that he’s in shape.”

Williamson’s status when the Pelicans resume play Thursday is unclear because he left the club July 16 to attend to a family medical matter and did not return to the Orlando area until Friday, when he was required to begin a four-day quarantine. The team says he’s tested daily while away should be able to practice by Tuesday night if all goes well during his quarantine.

“I think there are going to be parts of my game that y’all didn’t see before that you all are going to see in the future when we start playing,” Williamson said.

RIU HACHIMURA

The first Japanese-born player drafted in the first round, Hachimura also spent the break getting bigger. The 6-8 Hachimura added about 10 pounds, up from 230. He worked on his 3-point shot and ball handling and now is trying to improve his defensive skills.

The Wizards will need Hachimura more too with Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal opting out of the NBA’s restart. That leaves Hachimura as the Wizards’ leading returning scorer with 13.4 points a game. He also ranked second with six rebounds despite playing only 41 games before the break.

Brandon Clarke

It would be easy to overlook the 6-8 power forward on a Grizzlies’ roster led by Morant and second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. But the 21st pick overall last June has played a key role for Memphis and is averaging 12 points and 5.8 points a game.

For Clarke, working on his 3-pointer has been a big key. Jenkins said he and some of his assistants also talked with Clarke a few times each week breaking down on film to help the rookie hone his game.

HEAT’S ROOKIE DUO

Technically a rookie, Kendrick Nunn went from unknown to starting point guard for the Heat, and he could be ready for the seeding games even after missing the first couple weeks of practices at Disney. Only Williamson and Morant score more than Nunn among rookies.

Herro has shown an ability to rise to moments: his pull-up, go-ahead, transition 3-pointer in the final seconds of a win against Philadelphia earlier this season is among Miami’s top highlights of the year. He’s recovered from an ankle injury that cost him 15 games.

He watched video of shooters like Klay Thompson and Ray Allen, focusing on how they catch the ball and shoot during the break.

“I’m excited to get back out there,” Herro said.

Steven Adams inks two-year, $25.2 million extension with Grizzlies

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Steven Adams signed a two-year, $25.2 million contract extension with Memphis, which will keep him tied to the team through the 2024-25 season. ESPN’s Adrian Wojanrowski broke the news on Saturday.

Adams has been crucial to the Grizzlies’ recent success. He’s coming off his first season with the team, where he averaged career-highs in rebounds (10.0) and assists (3.4). He also helped them lock up the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference and make it to the Conference Semifinals, where they lost to the eventual-champion Warriors 4-2. Despite the improved numbers, a lot of his value is from intangibles that don’t show up in the box score.

Adams spent the first seven years of his career with the Thunder before being traded to New Orleans in the four-team deal that sent Jrue Holiday to Milwaukee. Adams was moved again to Memphis in a package for Jonas Valanciunas.

Adams has found a new home with a young Grizzlies team that is looking to win a championship. The team is built around Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, but Jackson Jr. is expected to miss time after being diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot. Memphis will rely on Adams more than ever to begin the season.

Watch Curry, Klay in 3-point shooting contest in Japan. Yeah, they’re good at this.

NBA Japan Games Saturday Night
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The NBA went to Japan to promote the brand, play a few games in a huge market — Japan specifically but Asia as a whole — and put on a show.

Is there a better show than Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson draining 3s? Here they are in a 3-point contest during a basketball exhibition (there were some pro dunkers) in Tokyo on Saturday.

Stephen Curry, was there any other possible outcome?

It’s preseason and they are the defending champs — they should be having fun, playing with some joy.

Thompson took part in the shooting contest but is not playing in either of the exhibition games in Japan as the Warriors ease him back into play this season. It’s a marathon of a season and the Warriors need the best version of Klay starting in April, not October.

Report: Pelicans, Nance agree to two-year, $21.6 million extension

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Larry Nance has been a stabilizing influence in New Orleans since coming over mid-season as part of the trade for CJ McCollum. Nance is a versatile player who can play the four or the five, knocks down his threes, is very strong on the glass, can be a disruptive defender in passing lanes, and fits in — and he has the veteran attitude of work this team needs.

So the Pelicans have reached an extension to keep the 29-year-old around for two years past this coming season, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a signing that should make Pelicans fans happy. Importantly, it makes CJ McCollum happy — they are tight and this is something McCollum wanted to see. The money on this deal seems fair, about the league average for a solid rotation player.

Nance is the kind of veteran this team needs considering its young core of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram (just turned 25), Herb Jones, and guys like Trey Murphy III, Jose Alvarado, and others. Nance compared it to the young Lakers teams he was on, but noted that team lacked the same level of veteran leadership this Pelicans team has.

We may see more Nance at the five lineups — small ball with Zion at the four — to close games this season in New Orleans, that could be their best lineup because Nance can defend but also spaces the floor for Zion on offense. Coach Willie Green has a lot of different players and matchups to experiment with.

And now he has the stability of Nance for a few more years.

Durant tired of talking Nets dramatic offseason: ‘I didn’t miss any games’

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No team had an offseason quite like the Brooklyn Nets. First, they would not give a long-term extension to Kyrie Irving, which sent the star guard looking for a new team (but there were no offers that worked for everyone, so he opted in with Brooklyn). Then Kevin Durant asked for a trade, and to gain a little leverage reportedly threw down an ultimatum of him or the coach and GM. No trade could be found — how much the Nets wanted one is up for debate — so he is back in Brooklyn. And all that is not even getting into the return of Ben Simmons, a trade for Royce O’Neal, or anything else.

The Nets drama and how they move past it has been the talk of training camp. The only talk at training camp, it feels like.

When asked Friday if there were any inaccuracies in the reporting of the Nets summer he would like to clear up, Durant sounded weary of rehashing the summer.

The only thing that will start to move the conversation in a new direction is the Nets playing and winning games (they open the preseason Monday against the 76ers). And even those wins will have the shadow of the offseason cast over them. Durant and Irving made this bed.

Part of the fascination is the Nets remain the team hardest to predict in the league. They arguably have the most talented roster in the league and, if everything comes together just right, they can contend for a title. It’s also possible the wheels fall off early and by Christmas the Nets are looking to trade Durant again. Both things feel possible (even if reality most likely lands somewhere in the middle).

That uncertainty about the Nets’ future is the drama that will keep eyeballs on them — which also means more questions about this past offseason. Durant can choose not to answer them, but the questions aren’t going away.