We’re fast-approaching the 10-game mark of the NBA season, and as exciting as the action has already been, it gets decidedly better when the league is operating with its best players on the floor. Here, we take a quick look at the anticipated season debuts of three key players, as well as the returns of three others, and what we can expect once they return to their respective teams’ lineups:
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3 anticipated debuts
1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans: He lit up the preseason with averages of 23.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 71.4%. But a torn right meniscus led to a mid-October surgery the team says will take Williamson out of action for six to eight weeks.
The Pelicans are 1-6, which isn’t indicative of the talent permeating this team’s roster. In addition to struggling through Williamson’s absence, New Orleans has dealt with point guard Jrue Holiday missing time with a sprained left knee. In the hotly-contested Western Conference, teams need to have all their weapons available for as many nights as possible, and Williamson has the skillset and potential to be New Orleans’ most powerful force. His presence is needed.
He spent enough time working with the starters throughout the preseason that there won’t have to be much of an adjustment period once he returns to the lineup. The offense can continue to run through Holiday with Williamson serving as the complementary piece once he’s back.
Having already suffered a minor knee bruise back in the opening game of NBA Summer League, Williamson is said to be in good spirits as he attacks the rehabilitation process the way he goes at hapless defenders in the paint. Pelicans executive vice president of basketball David Griffin has said he expects Williamson to make his debut before the end of 2019, and given the team’s already-stated timeframe, the expectation is he comes back sometime in December.
2. Paul George, LA Clippers: The team’s brass declines to commit to an official timetable for George’s return. Positive vibes definitely emanated over the weekend, though, when the six-time All-Star participated in a full-court, three-on-three scrimmage after practice. George’s three-on-three work serves as a signal the team might be ramping up the veteran’s workload for a return to the floor.
That’s a scary proposition, considering the defensive-minded Clippers began the week 5-2 with George spending that time as a spectator. The Clippers haven't passed on much information regarding George’s potential return from the two shoulder surgeries he had over the summer, Clippers coach Doc Rivers has mentioned the 10-game mark as a reference point and perhaps a hint for when he'll rejoin the team.
L.A. hosts Toronto on Nov. 11, which serves as Game No. 10, before it faces Houston and New Orleans in back-to-back road outings on Nov. 13 and 14, respectively. The Clippers entered Week 3 averaging 15.9 deflections per game, good for No. 14 in the NBA thanks to Patrick Beverley (23 total deflections), Kawhi Leonard (22) and Maurice Harkless (21). Those numbers jump even more with George on the floor, and that’s not even taking into account the offensive boost the Clippers can expect. George averaged 28 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 4.1 apg last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
3. Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons: Left knee and hamstring soreness continue to sideline Griffin, and his absence has certainly been felt as the Pistons have struggled offensively. Those struggles are in part because of turnovers and slow starts exacerbated by point guard Reggie Jackson (stress reaction in lower back) missing time now, too.
The Pistons entered Week 3 ranked No. 18 in scoring (107.1 ppg), and could use the boost provided by Griffin’s offensive output from last season (career-high 24.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 5.4 apg). The team has said the plan is to re-evaluate Griffin during the first week of November, and the power forward himself has said he intended to miss the first seven games.
Griffin’s debut could come as early as this week. Detroit hosts the New York Knicks on Wednesday and then visits the Indiana Pacers on Friday. A six-time All-Star, Griffin played in 75 games last season for the Pistons, which ranked as his most games since the 2013-14 season. He also played in Detroit’s first two preseason games before the team decided to shut him down to recover. The Pistons need their best player to inject life into their struggling offense.
3 anticipated returns
1. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns: He made his 2019-20 debut on Oct. 23, logging 18 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in a 124-95 season-opening win against the Sacramento Kings. Two days later, the league announced Ayton had been suspended for 25 games for violating the NBA-NBPA’s anti-drug policy due to a positive test for a diuretic.
Phoenix is currently 5-2 without Ayton, riding the talents of their young star Devin Booker, with Aron Baynes (15 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.6 apg) holding down the interior.
Ayton has been allowed to practice with the team during his suspension but is required to leave the arena -- home or away -- two hours before a game. According to coach Monty Williams, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft has been one of the team’s most engaged players despite the suspension. Williams expects Ayton, who averaged 18 ppg and 11 rpg as a rookie, to be highly-motivated upon his return. If Ayton ends up serving his entire suspension, he won’t return until Dec. 17 (when Phoenix visits the LA Clippers).
2. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks: The guard suffered a sprained ankle in a 112-97 loss to the Miami Heat on Oct. 29, but will reportedly return Tuesday night vs. the San Antonio Spurs. Young scored just five points in 11 minutes before suffering his injury, halting a start to the season that saw him average 34 ppg and 9 apg (on 52% shooting from 3-point range) to open 2019-20.
Young faces a stiff test against the Spurs, as he’ll likely be matched up against Dejounte Murray (who was an NBA All-Defensive second team in 2018 before missing all of last season with a knee injury). Murray has been on a minutes restriction so far this season, but the team has gradually ramped up the guard’s workload as the season has progressed.
3. Marvin Bagley, Sacramento Kings: The second-year forward suffered a nondisplaced fracture in his right thumb in the team’s season-opening loss to the Phoenix Suns, and the team announced he’s expected to miss four to six weeks.
Bagley scored 14 points in 28 minutes in the opener coming off a rookie season in which he averaged 14.9 ppg and 7.6 rpg. The second overall pick of the 2018 Draft, Bagley is the future in Sacramento alongside young guard De’Aaron Fox. The Kings (2-5) are struggling and have so far failed to live up to expectations after a promising 2018-19 campaign, with part of it being to Bagley’s absence. (Last season, the Kings were 9-11 in games Bagley missed.) Sacramento needs Bagley back soon as possible so he can resume building chemistry with Fox. The team is working to develop continuity in a new system with a new staff and new rotational pieces. But the club will also exercise caution and not rush Bagley’s return to the lineup.
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