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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.”

Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan: NBA protocols ‘so frustrating and overwhelming’

Spurs wing DeMar DeRozan
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The NBA produced a 113-page manual on health and safety protocols for the league’s resumption at Disney World. The multi-bullet-pointed section on ping pong includes:

No Doubles

Until directed otherwise by the NBA, players should play singles only so that they can maintain six feet of distance from each other.

Spurs wing DeMar DeRozan, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“The ping pong thing is ridiculous. To be honest,” San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan said on Thursday. “Guys can’t do this, but we can do this and battle over each other. That part just don’t make no sense to me. I got through 10 lines of the handbook and just put it down because it became so frustrating and overwhelming at times because you just never thought you’d be in a situation of something like this. So it’s hard to process at times.”

DeRozan’s exasperation is completely understandable. The manual is long and full of scientific jargon in addition to rules that seem trivial.

But the NBA’s plan is logical.

Both basketball games and doubles ping pong are generally unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic. The big difference: NBA basketball games produce a lot of money. So, the league and players are willing to risk playing them.

The goal is to isolate players from the outside world and test them frequently, minimizing the chances of them playing basketball with coronavirus. There’s a risk someone gets infected anyway, so limiting opportunities for someone to spread coronavirus – like doubles ping pong or, more importantly, getting close to someone outside the bubble – are being minimized.

Is that enjoyable for players? Heck no. That’s why Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has doubts about players maintaining a strict bubble.

But hopefully, players abide by the rules designed keep them safe… and highly paid. Whether or not they read all 113 pages, participating players are signing up for this.

Report: Portland to sign point guard Jaylen Adams for Orlando restart

Jaylen Adams Portland
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Portland doesn’t have a lot of minutes available at point guard: Damian Lillard gets the bulk of them (as an All-NBA player should) with Anfernee Simons backing him up.

Now add Jaylen Adams to the mix for the restart in Orlando. Portland is signing the former Atlanta Hawk, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Adams averaged 20.9 points a game with an impressive 63.1 true shooting percentage this past season for Wisconsin. The season before that, the 6’2″ point guard out of St. Bonaventure had a two-way contract with Atlanta that he parlayed into a deal for the rest of the season.

Adams is being signed as a “substitute player,” meaning because he has less than three years of experience in the league and will be a free agent this coming offseason.

Portland enters the restart in Orlando just 3.5 games behind Memphis for the eighth seed, tied with New Orleans and Sacramento, and looking to get into a play-in series with the eighth seed (most likely Memphis, they will be hard to catch). The race is for the nine seed and the Trail Blazers’ challenge is the Pelicans have a much easier schedule (Portland has one of the tougher schedules in the West), which will make it difficult for Portland to keep pace. They need wins from day one. If the Trail Blazers were to fade from the playoff picture, Adams might get more time on the court as coach Terry Stotts and the Blazers will start to think about how many minutes they want to run their stars out there and risk injury.

NBA releases new social justice video: ‘The Truth Is #BlackLivesMatter’

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Numerous NBA players have taken part in — and in some cases led — Black Lives Matter protests around the nation.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, Karl-Anthony Towns, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Tobias Harris, Mattise Thybulle, Damian Lillard, and many other NBA players took to the streets as part of the protests of police brutality that rose up in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by a Minneapolis Police officer. NBA owners — Mark Cuban and Vivek Ranadive — as well as front office people such as Elton Brand were at protests as well.

The NBA weaved footage of a lot of those players together in a new social justice brand video focusing on the social justice movement and the league’s commitment to it.

Portland’s Zach Collins cleared by doctors, will play in Orlando restart

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Zach Collins is back.

Portland is one of the most interesting teams heading down to Orlando. The Trail Blazers won 53 games and reached the conference finals a season ago, only to follow it up with a painful 29-37 campaign this season with a 27th ranked defense. Orlando is a chance a redemption — the Trail Blazers are just 3.5 games back of eighth-seeded Memphis heading into the eight seeding games, and the Trail Blazers have a percentage-points advantage over their West rivals that could matter.

Most importantly, Portland got healthy and look like the 53-win team from a season ago on paper. They got Jusuf Nurkic back as their center, a critical part for them on both ends of the court.

And they got a healthy Zach Collins along the front line, too. He has been medically cleared from the surgery to repair his separated shoulder, he told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. He’s able to fully join in practices down in Orlando.

“When my doc came in and said my shoulder feels like a normal shoulder, that I was good to go, it was like a weight was lifted,” Collins said. “I tell people all the time that he whole rehab process isn’t difficult. It’s just very long and boring. The worst part is not being on the road with the team, not being around them every day, feeling disconnected. It’s weird. Odd. So, mentally, it’s a big struggle. I’m just super excited to be back and know that I can do everything again.”

And Portland’s chances?

“We’re healthy,” Collins said. “Well, we’re not fully healthy — we don’t have Rodney (Hood) — but we have Nurk and me and a lot of guys that had to step up and play more minutes than expected during the season. Put all that together, combined with guys coming back and the time off and everybody’s body being ready and recovered, and I think we have as good a shot as anyone.”

Even healthy, even with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Portland has a tough task to make the playoffs. They have to beat out New Orleans and Sacramento (and technically San Antonio and Phoenix, but those are much longer shots) to earn the nine seed, then beat Memphis in back-to-back games. Not impossible, but not easy either.

But with Collins and Nurkic back and the roster healthy, Portland has the best shot of anyone in the West of pulling it off.