Top NBA rookies poised to close out debut seasons in style
Published 1:42 pm Wednesday, July 29, 2020
BY TERESA M. WALKER AND BRETT MARTEL
AP SPORTS WRITERS
Forget hitting a rookie wall or stumbling into the playoffs exhausted and banged-up.
The NBA’s break because of the coronavirus pandemic gave rookies an offseason within a season. They’ve had the chance to heal up, study film, and gain some much-needed pounds to better handle the grueling season in a league filled with savvy veterans.
Some rookies will resume play a bit smarter and stronger, giving them a chance to finish off their debut seasons in style.
“I took the time off really to … focus on my body, do the right things to continue to get better,” said Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, the likely NBA rookie of the year. “Studied a lot of film. Kind of like I had an offseason but still preparing to come back and play.”
Improving during a pandemic had its challenges.
Some rookies filled garages with weights. Those living in apartments or condos had to be very creative to even find a basket to get up shots.
“It was challenging for everyone. No one has ever been through this,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, whose club has three first-round picks in the rotation this season, led by first overall draft choice Zion Williamson.
“The younger players, I think the thing with them is that they tried to stay in shape and tried to keep themselves in a conditioning situation that they felt like, when they came back, they wouldn’t be behind. … We’ll have to see how it works out, but I think those guys did put in work during the hiatus.”
Perfecting 3-point shots was also a major focus.
Heat guard Tyler Herro spent a day putting together a portable hoop sent to him by teammate Jimmy Butler.
“I definitely put it to use outside getting some shots up,” Herro said. “I’m happy we can finally get back into a gym. Working in the driveway wasn’t necessarily the best time.”
Not all rookies will be playing as the NBA wraps up the season. Coby White and his Chicago Bulls missed the cut to keep playing in Florida. So too did RJ Barrett and the Knicks, and Golden State’s Eric Paschall.
Rookies to watch when the NBA’s resumes its season:
Morant worked with trainers at his Memphis home and put on 12 pounds of mostly muscle. That’s what the Grizzlies have wanted since the moment they drafted him at No. 2 overall last June behind top pick Zion Williamson.
The point guard also watched a lot of film, looking to improve after averaging 17.6 points a game and 6.9 assists a game.
“He’s a great student of the game,” Grizzlies first-year coach Taylor Jenkins said. “So I think he put a lot of time over the break doing those things, and I think we’re already seeing that right now.”
Williamson’s weight was an issue when he arrived at training camp back in September. Less so now. His extended rehab from knee surgery involved a focus on losing weight and flexibility, and it was apparent he stuck to his new workout regimen during the past few months.
Williamson is listed at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds. The team has declined to specify how much weight he has lost, but teammates noted how much leaner he looked when the Pelicans got back together a few weeks ago.
“He looks amazing. He looks fully healthy. He looks even stronger than he was before if that’s even possible,” Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball said. “I was happy to see him, happy to see that he’s in shape.”
Williamson’s status when the Pelicans resume play Thursday is unclear because he left the club on July 16 to attend to a family medical matter and did not return to the Orlando area until Friday, when he was required to begin a four-day quarantine.
The team says he’s tested daily while away should be able to practice by Tuesday night if all goes well during his quarantine.
“I think there are going to be parts of my game that y’all didn’t see before that you all are going to see in the future when we start playing,” Williamson said.
The first Japanese-born player drafted in the first round, Hachimura also spent the break getting bigger. The 6-8 Hachimura added about 10 pounds, up from 230. He worked on his 3-point shot and ball-handling and now is trying to improve his defensive skills.
That leaves Hachimura as the Wizards’ leading returning scorer with 13.4 points a game. He also ranked second with six rebounds despite playing only 41 games before the break.
It would be easy to overlook the 6-8 power forward on a Grizzlies’ roster led by Morant and second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. But the 21st pick overall last June has played a key role for Memphis and is averaging 12 points and 5.8 points a game.
For Clarke, working on his 3-pointer has been a big key. Jenkins said he and some of his assistants also talked with Clarke a few times each week breaking down on film to help the rookie hone his game.
HEAT’S ROOKIE DUO
Technically a rookie, Kendrick Nunn went from unknown to starting point guard for the Heat, and he could be ready for the seeding games even after missing the first couple weeks of practices at Disney. Only Williamson and Morant score more than Nunn among rookies.
Herro has shown an ability to rise to moments: his pull-up, go-ahead, transition 3-pointer in the final seconds of a win against Philadelphia earlier this season is among Miami’s top highlights of the year. He’s recovered from an ankle injury that cost him 15 games.
He watched video of shooters like Klay Thompson and Ray Allen, focusing on how they catch the ball and shoot during the break.
“I’m excited to get back out there,” Herro said.