BROOKLYN — Two of the league’s more intriguing young players, both of whom missed all of last season, finally had the chance to reintroduce themselves — in case you forgot. And, almost on cue, Zion Williamson and Ben Simmons picked up exactly where they left us.
In their own distinct and separate way, of course.
With that said, here are five takeaways from New Orleans Pelicans’ 130-108 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, starting with the two most obvious:
1. Zion remains a handful, and an armful, for defenders
It was his first game in 533 days, and the restlessness and hunger and desire were all evident in a 25-point, nine-rebound, four-steal performance. Zion went bully-ball and sent Brooklyn defenders scattering like bowling pins, including Simmons, one of the league’s ace 1-on-1 stoppers. The force and rim-attacking and gentle touch around the basket all resurfaced and rekindled the image of Zion as a dominant player, which he was during most of the 85 games played in his short and injury-interrupted career.
What was most apparent in his 30-minute night (no restrictions) was how Zion stayed exclusively in his comfort zone. He went mainly to his natural left hand and confined his shots to the paint. And the Nets still had no answers. Other than missing a few bunny shots — which were all he took, actually — Zion showed little rust from last season’s complete wash. In the weeks leading up to the opener, Zion hinted that he’d show a bit more variety, but when the bread and butter is working, why try another recipe? He also showed a very solid cohesion with Brandon Ingram and the two Pelicans had a 1-2 inside-outside punch all night, with Ingram dropping 28 points. For much of the night, they were the two best players on a floor shared with Brooklyn stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. If this keeps up, they’re going to be a problem.
2. Simmons looked sheepish and timid, except for the fouls
It wasn’t quite the debut he had in mind with his new team. And yet, Simmons in Brooklyn looked suspiciously like the last time we saw Simmons in Philly. He was mainly vapor Wednesday, never was forceful with the ball, passed up shots and never really made an impact in the blowout loss. Making matters worse, he fouled out with 9:01 left, trying to contain Trey Murphy, who’s primarily a shooter, along the baseline. The Barclays Center crowd expected a bit more and there were scattered boos when he sat for good.
And so, the stat line read 23 minutes, three attempted shots (one on an alley-oop), five points, five rebounds, five assists and six fouls. He was a minus-26 for the night. That said, the level of disappointment needs to be placed in the proper context: It wasn’t anything like his playoff game finish in Philly two years ago when he bypassed a layup over the Hawks’ Trae Young, and there won’t be any dreadful fallout from this game. It’s the first of 82, and the Nets have clearly stated a desire to remain patient with Simmons … mainly because there’s no other choice.
3. The Pelicans are bringing some pop
The suspicion that New Orleans will get buckets was realized on opening night when they dropped 130 on the Nets and didn’t even play their regulars for the entire fourth quarter (not that there was any need for it). Reasonable projections have Zion on pace to average 22 to 25 points, the same range for Ingram, with CJ McCollum at 16 to 18 range. And those might be conservative numbers; the trio combined for 74 on Wednesday. It’s partly why the Pelicans are among the more exciting teams, if not a must-see team.
What makes them dangerous is the variety of ways they score: Ingram and McCollum can shoot from long distance and mid range, while Zion rules near the rim. They feed off each other and seldom collide. It gives coach Willie Green plenty of options and the chance to run multiple sets and plays to take advantage of those skills. The success and failure of the Pelicans this season, therefore, will rest with what they can muster defensively. Because scoring won’t be an issue.
4. Kyrie will have better shooting nights
An inefficient 15-point performance was a shaky way for Kyrie to start his contract drive. Remember, Irving exercised his one-year player option because the Nets were unwilling to offer a large extension, and Irving had a (good) hunch that opting out and signing elsewhere this summer wouldn’t be a smart financial decision. Therefore, he comes into 2022-23 with plenty of incentive to (a) put aside his quirks, especially if they interfere with his play or threaten the team’s success, and (b) deliver a star-quality season.
The good news for the Nets is Kyrie is actually eligible to play at home, which wasn’t always the case last season because of his vaccination status. The so-so news? Kyrie misfired all night and therefore let Durant go solo against the Pelicans. Kyrie shot just 6-for-19, missed all six of his 3-pointers, and when the Nets needed a second option, he couldn’t fulfill the role. He was outscored by second-year forward Trey Murphy.
Unrestricted free agency awaits Kyrie next summer; in the meantime, Irving has that much time to put opening night in the rearview and prove that it was a fluke. Which it was … right?
5. The Nets are still not whole
Question: When was the last time the Nets were at full strength since Durant and Irving teamed up in the summer of 2019? How about … never? Remember, Durant missed a full season while recovering from achilles surgery. Then both Irving and James Harden battled injuries. Then Harden bailed last season, and his replacement, Simmons, never suited up.
Nobody has really seen the Nets yet. And while Durant, Irving and Simmons are all in uniform, the Nets can’t be accurately judged one way or another until Seth Curry and Joe Harris return to the rotation. Both players missed the opener with injuries, although none are considered serious enough to be long-term issues, and in fact, they did light pregame work before the season opener. More of a concern is T.J. Warren, who hasn’t broken a sweat since the bubble in Orlando; his status remains undetermined and anything he gives the Nets this season will likely be classified as a bonus, considering all the time he’s missed. The Nets fancy themselves as title contenders — Steve Nash’s job might depend on that — but in truth, they defy a designation until their rotation gets a clean bill of health.
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