The 2020 NBA preseason moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Either Ferris Bueller or Fennis Dembo said that, we think.
With five nights done and four to go, here are five takeaways from what we’ve seen so far in this truncated run-up to the 2020-21 regular season.
1. The stars are aligning
Not only have we gotten a typical allotment of old faces in new places, a hallmark of NBA training camps annually, we’ve got a considerable sampling of old faces in old places. Taken together, that includes Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, John Wall and Russell Westbrook switching Wizards for Rockets and vice versa, and Steph Curry working back to prominence for both himself and the Warriors.
It was nearly 18 months ago that Durant and Irving rocked NBA free agency by rendezvousing in Brooklyn, but it wasn’t until the Nets’ opener last week that the two hit the floor together. The combination proved electric, seeing both players healthy and creating myriad options and angles for Brooklyn and its new coach Steve Nash. The Nets have to sort out touches and a pecking order, but there’s time for that, and adrenaline to spare.Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving flashed some signs of brilliance in their first game together.
Curry, after playing in only five games last season due to a broken left hand, wasted no time against Sacramento Tuesday. The Warriors sharpshooter scored 29 points in 28 minutes and strained enough at the leash coach Steve Kerr wanted him on to get a few extra minutes. “He focused on getting himself going,” Kerr said. “He was aggressive and looked to score from the outset. He needed it just to find some rhythm, and I think he’s really trending toward being ready for next week.”
Wall missed all of last season and, by the time he got back on a court, had been shipped from Washington to Houston. In his debut against Chicago on Friday, the veteran point guard steered clear of the Rockets’ strained relations with star James Harden. But Wall looked healthy, not too rusty and opened up the Rockets’ offense more than in The Beard’s style of iso ball. DeMarcus Cousins, with another fresh start from injury, showed flashes of his old self, too.
Some coaches are doing the new-places thing as well, with Stan Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau and Tyronn Lue back after, er, sabbaticals while Doc Rivers and Billy Donovan barely missed a beat with new jobs.
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting on the preseason debuts of players such as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who are being eased into the preseason the way they figure to be ramped up in the early regular season. With barely two months of turnaround time from the Lakers’ Finals clincher to the team’s tune-up opener, the two all-NBA selections are expected to face Phoenix on Wednesday night.
2. Rookies get their ‘autumn league’
Boston coach Brad Stevens spoke on the day of the Celtics’ preseason opener on Tuesday about the special circumstances facing rookies Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard. “It’s just every day’s a long class,” Stevens said. “They get there an hour before their scheduled time to do the young guys’ workouts. Those guys are both in the gym shooting and working out with their individual coaches before they even get into their lifting and group work. So they are in every which way in a crash course.”
That goes for the whole Class of 2020. What used to be at least three months from Draft to summer league to individual work to scrimmages to actual veterans camp got scrunched to less than three weeks by this season’s short turnaround.See the best plays from rookies during the opening weekend of preseason.
As hectic as it’s been, though, some rookies have managed to shine.
Three in particular made their debuts Tuesday night when the Sixers and Celtics met. Pritchard, the No. 26 pick, scored 16 points with a pair of assists. Nesmith had eight points and five boards. And Tyrese Maxey got his eight points and three rebounds while playing the entire fourth quarter for Philadelphia.
“He knows how to play,” said Rivers, crediting Maxey’s coach at Kentucky, John Calipari, for preparing Wildcat players for the NBA. “You can’t speed him up. He’s got a plethora of shots. He makes simple plays.”
Sacramento’s top pick at No. 12, Tyrese Haliburton shed some jitters and confusion between his debut Friday and his second game Sunday, both at Portland. The 6-foot-5 guard impressed at both ends in Game 2, scoring 11 points with six rebounds, seven assists, a block and a steal in 30 minutes.
Said Kings coach Luke Walton: “He was much more in attack mode tonight than he was the first night, which I said before the game is something that will come with time and experience.”
Among the top picks, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball had the most interesting initial performances. In the Hornets’ opener, Ball had 10 rebounds and four assists but was scoreless. Two nights later against Toronto again, Ball scored 12 points with three boards and two assists, earning a standing ovation from teammates when he drained a 3-pointer for his first points.
Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 pick overall, took until his second performance to reach double figures. As for No. 2 James Wiseman, he might make his debut for Golden State Thursday night or be held out till a scrimmage Saturday in advance of next week’s season opener.
Just imagine how things will go when they all learn the play calls.
3. Sophomores taking a big step
Just five days into the preseason games, the second-year player who has opened the most eyes has been Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker. With the 2020 champions balancing the rigors of last postseason against the start of this preseason, the 20-year-old who got a taste of things in the bubble seized some opportunity.
Horton-Tucker scored 19 points against the Clippers on Friday and topped that with 33 on Sunday, showing off a variety of scoring moves while grabbing 10 rebounds with four assists and four steals. He immediately mounted a case for minutes consideration even after the Lakers’ deep regular-season rotation kicks in.Lakers guard Talen Horton-Tucker has looked impressive in the preseason.
L.A. did lose some perimeter defense with Rajon Rondo, Danny Green and Avery Bradley missing this season, so that’s a bit of light for Horton-Tucker. “I feel like just coming in with me using my defensive instincts and being able to compete on the defensive end is going to be something that helps me get on the court,” he said.
Last season’s Next Big Thing, Zion Williamson, had his opportunities limited last season by management and coaches. Given his propensity for injuries, the Pelicans allowed him to play only in short spurts. That changed on Monday against Miami, when he put up 26 points with 11 rebounds, and he’s looking forward to a relatively normal workload going forward.
4. The Giannis deal shifts the spotlight
Several NBA teams kept their powder – as in, salary cap space – dry this offseason in anticipation of a more star-studded free agent class in 2021. Except that now, with Giannis Antetokounmpo signing the “super-max” extension to stay in Milwaukee on Tuesday, more of the luster has come off that crew.
In theory, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Paul George, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Antetokounmpo would have been taking calls next summer. But all re-upped with their current teams to thin that talent pool.Are the Bucks still the best team in the East?
That leaves guys such as Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gobert, DeMar DeRozan and Goran Dragic as free agents or players with options on the 2021-22 season.
It might heat up interest in Harden in the coming days, from teams anxious to grab help while they can. The fit of Harden’s personality, work habits and style of play, along with Houston’s asking price, might work just as aggressively against any imminent trade.
5. This quickie preseason isn’t all bad
That could be the conclusion, anyway, of some players, coaches and front offices when all is said and done. The opposite of feeling rushed is the dragged out schedule of traditional NBA preseasons, with more practices, more games, more time ticking slowly until the real deal begins. This is the third time in the past 22 years that the league has had to quicken its preseason pace — counting the 1998 and 2011 labor lockouts – and there was a taste after those first two to tackle camp and tune-up games in a more concentrated way.
Remove the virus as a factor next fall (fingers crossed) and the lessons learned this time about tighter preparation could shorten the grind for everyone.
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