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5 biggest takeaways from preseason play before regular season begins

From star players returning from injury to familiar faces in new places, the preseason showed there's plenty to look forward to.

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard returns in 2022-23 after missing the entirety of last season with a knee injury.

Sixty-eight games, 30 teams, 14 days, and it’s a wrap. The NBA’s 2022-23 preseason ended with nine games Friday night and now a gap of a few days for all those reps and all that tinkering to produce something special.

The bright lights come on Tuesday with the two NBA Finalists hosting arch-rivals in a TNT doubleheader (Sixers at Celtics at 7:30 p.m. ET, then the Lakers at Warriors at 10 ET). Twelve games follow on Wednesday, and from there it’s on, the marathon grinding across six months.

Before they go, though, it’s worth identifying some key takeaways from the two weeks just completed, beyond the Adelaide 36ers’ cheeky upset of the Phoenix Suns on Oct. 2. Here are five of them:

1. Bright stars are back

Not to take for granted any of the marvelous players who competed and entertained us last season – somehow the voters came up with 15 worthy All-NBA selections and a few notable snubs. Still, that “absence makes the heart grow fonder” saying explains some of the most intriguing storylines for 2022-23, many of which took shape in the preseason.

When you talk about the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson, the Lakers’ Anthony Davis, the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard and the Nets’ Ben Simmons, you’re talking about 23 All-Star berths, 16 All-NBA nods and three championship rings. Add Denver’s Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., wingmen for the league’s two-time reigning Kia MVP in Nikola Jokic, and there’s some real royalty on the comeback trail this season.

All of their layoffs lasted not weeks but months, in a few cases more than a year. For instance, Leonard last played 16 months ago, partially tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the 2021 playoffs. His return has the Clippers and their fans thinking Larry O’Brien trophy, though the two-way star is 31 now, hasn’t played more than 60 games since 2016-17 and was load-managing back-to-back games even before his latest injury.

He participated in two preseason games, averaging 16.5 minutes while shooting 25% from the arc. But L.A. was a plus-8.5 while he was on the court, so there’s that.

What does Zion's return bring to the Pelicans?

Williamson has been one of the league’s Next Big Things since he arrived in 2019 and still qualifies, having played only 85 games in three seasons (none since May 2021). When healthy, he’s a terror at the rim and on the glass, and given his defensive-lineman size, he’s said to be in the best shape of his life. His return could jolt New Orleans into a top-six playoff seed but few will be exhaling before spring – Williamson turned his left ankle Wednesday, promoting the Pelicans brass to assure everyone it was nothing major.

One of Davis’ goals is to play 82 games this season, admirable considering he has averaged 60 in 10 seasons, never has topped 75 and has totaled only 76 the past two years combined. He appeared in three preseason games, averaging 19.3 points in 21.4 minutes while seeming amped to both new coach Darvin Ham’s and his own durability challenges. A cornerstone of the Lakers’ defense, he also is trying to stretch his scoring range to the arc.

“You can ask guys around here, I’m really shooting the ball,” he said during camp.

Lillard, 32, is at a crossroads. Portland hopes he can return to the overachieving performances he displayed prior to last season, when he was limited to 29 games by an abdominal injury that required surgery. In the preseason, he shot 39% and 33% on 3s, pretty much where he left off in January. He’s under contract through 2026-27, with more than $258 million due.

Simmons is the wild card in Brooklyn’s hand, a ball-handling, Defensive Player of the Year contender whose shooting limitations get much of the attention. He hasn’t played since the infamous Game 7 against Atlanta in 2021 when he passed on a scoring chance in Philadelphia’s elimination, starting his spiral of holdouts, mental-health issue, back ailment and trade to the Nets.

Simmons averaged 4.8 points and 6.3 assists in four October games without attempting a 3-pointer. He fouled out in Minnesota Friday in barely 12 minutes. But the Nets have been thrilled with his defense thus far, while committed to developing his scoring in an attack driven by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving anyway.

2. Strange start to a title defense

Can Warriors rebuild their trust with Draymond Green?

Given the Golden State Warriors’ ambitions to repeat as NBA champions, they have to be hoping their 1-2 punch on the basketball court is more impactful than Draymond Green’s one-and-done dusting of teammate Jordan Poole Oct. 5 in a now notorious preseason practice.

It’s not how any team wants to begin a season, particularly the accomplished and self-styled “light years ahead” Warriors. But Green’s unfiltered emotions, so welcome as an igniter of Golden State’s best times, sometimes can spill over in unwanted ways.

The four-time champs (2015, 2017, 2018, 2022) aren’t exactly Team Turmoil now. But they will be watched closely for any signs that the righthanded rift and subsequent mild punishment of Green (fine only, no suspension) lingers, if at all. Paychecks and victories can soothe a lot of jaws, knuckles and feelings.

3. Top rookie ready for his close-up

Rookie Paolo Banchero put up 17 points in the Magic’s preseason finale.

In the days leading up to the 2022 draft, there was no consensus on the No. 1 pick. Paolo Banchero? Chet Holmgren? Jabari Smith Jr.? But as of Friday night, when he scored 17 points against Cleveland with five rebounds and two assists, Banchero looks legit for having earned that spot.

The talented Duke big man started the preseason slowly, and with the rest of his team lost a couple work days to Hurricane Ian. But he played five games (after sticking around for only two in Las Vegas in July), averaged 14 points in 24 minutes and already looks to have adjusted to the speed of the NBA game.

“His ability to read the game and slow down,” Magic coach Jamahl Mosley noted of Banchero. “He is recognizing those reads and as he sees different coverages and different ways teams are playing him, he is able to pick his spots when he can go and not go and where he can find the open pass.”

Banchero’s dutiful work habits suggest, too, that he can become the pivotal guy around whom other promising Magic players – Franz Wagner, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Wendell Carter Jr. – can coalesce as a future contender.

Other rookies made their teams feel good about their draft decisions, too, including Smith and Tari Eason in Houston, Keegan Murray in Sacramento, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren in Detroit, Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard in Indiana, and Jalen Williams and Jaylin Williams in Oklahoma City.

4. Injuries, yes, already

What would an NBA season be without sports writers having to portray orthopedists and fans sitting by certain players’ virtual bedsides to encourage their recoveries from boo-boos big and small? The preseason is no different, and several key contributors either got hurt or suffered setbacks in their anticipated returns.

Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball suffered a Grade 2 left ankle sprain on Oct. 10 against Washington. One of the league’s most entertaining young players hasn’t played since, and his rehab could push past the Hornets’ opener Wednesday.

Meanwhile, his brother Lonzo had another surgery on his left knee, the joint that ended his 2021-22 season in January. The Chicago Bulls are looking at second-year Ayo Dosunmu as their starting point guard because Ball might still might be out for months.

Other unfortunate preseason injuries included Detroit’s Marvin Bagley III, who suffered a bone bruise and sprained right knee and Orlando’s Suggs, whose rookie season was hampered by injuries and who will start Year 2 in similar fashion. The Magic guard suffered a bone bruise and sprain to his left knee and won’t be available for the early season either.

5. Familiar faces in new places

Expectations are high for guard Donovan Mitchell (right) and his team in Cleveland this season.

This is where the biggest moves of the offseason start to become reality, the players who generate the biggest headlines when they relocate via free agency or trades. Some of the most notable heading into the 2022-23 season: Rudy Gobert to Minnesota, Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland, Dejounte Murray to Atlanta and John Wall to the L.A. Clippers.

Murray was a bright spot in a dull season for San Antonio, earning an All-Star nod and flexing real defensive chops. He now can cover for Trae Young in the Hawks’ backcourt, while allowing his compulsive-scoring teammate to work more off the ball.

Wall could be a Halloween costume, his career coming back from the relative dead after the five-time All-Star got derailed by injuries and inactivity. The former Wizards and Rockets point guard has played only 113 games since 2017 and none at all in 2019-20 and 2021-22, but now Wall has a deep and talented team at his disposal in L.A. He’s 32 but he doesn’t face the scoring chores he had previously in his career, and his odometer certainly is low after five years of rehab and warehousing.

The Cavaliers snagged Mitchell in Utah’s close-out sale with the idea he’ll be their tent-pole guy leading a strong ensemble cast. The three-time All-Star didn’t jack up shots quite like in his Jazz days, while averaging 17 points in 27 minutes and hitting 47% of his 3-pointers in three tuneup games.

As for Mitchell’s old mate Gobert, he and Karl-Anthony Towns finally – in the Timberwolves’ preseason finale – got on the court together. It wasn’t pretty, this first dance of King Kong and Godzilla, but this venti-sized experiment won’t be over anytime soon. Towns lost weight from an infection, though it might help his mobility. Gobert has to adjust to actually getting attention in the Wolves’ offense. So patience, Prudence.

“I really felt it would be clunky like that,” coach Chris Finch said after the loss to Brooklyn Friday. “I told the guys the best thing about that game is that we got a lot on film.”

First the reel deal, next the real deal.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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