Zion Williamson, Kawhi Leonard among stars that made long-awaited return

Several players returned to the court during NBA Opening Week.

The opening days of the season not only gave us a first glimpse this year’s rookie class (including a historic performance by Paolo Banchero, No. 1 overall winner) and veterans making their debuts on new teams this offseason after moving via free agency or trade, but there’s also been returns to the court for a handful All-Stars missed all (or most) of last season.

Some players looked like they hadn’t missed a shot, while others might need to play a couple of games to find their rhythm, shake off the rust of the long break and get back to their pre-injury selves.

Zion Williamson (Wednesday: New Orleans in Brooklyn)

  • Last played: May 4, 2021 (534 days since last NBA game)
  • Game Stats: 25 points, 11-22 FG, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 steals, +13, 30 minutes
  • Game result: Pelicans 130-108 win over Nets

It may have been 534 days since Zion played an NBA game that counted, but it certainly didn’t look like him on Wednesday night 25 points givennine rebounds, three assists and four steals in 30 minutes to lead the Pelicans to a 130-108 win over the Nets in the season opener.

After a truncated rookie season that saw flashes of his brilliance, Zion was nothing short of spectacular as a sophomore, averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and nearly four assists and making his first All-Star appearance. However, a Jones fracture in his foot would cost him the entire 2021-22 season. But as he watched from the sidelines, the Pelicans found their step after a disastrous start to the season. They made the play-in tournament, advanced to the playoffs, and pushed the top-seeded Suns to six games.

Now this team is adding a healthy Zion back into the mix, and if opening night was any indication, the ceiling and expectations for this team are rising fast. Count Charles Barkley as a creditor as he said the Pelicans might be a Top Four Team in the West.

Kawhi Leonard (Thursday: LA Clippers at the Los Angeles Lakers)

  • Last played: June 14, 2021 (494 days since last NBA game)
  • Game Stats: 14 points, 6-12 FG, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, +5, 21 minutes
  • Game result: Clippers 103-97 win over Lakers
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It had been nearly 500 days since NBA fans had a chance to see Kawhi Leonard in an NBA game, and Clippers coach Tyronn Lue made us wait more than 17 minutes of play before bringing Leonard off the bench and on Thursday his season debut came as the Clippers faced the Lakers.

It didn’t take long for Kawhi to put his stamp on the game. After coming on for Robert Covington at 6:25 in the second quarter, Kawhi snagged a rebound from a missed shot by Anthony Davis and took the ball coast-to-coast for a fadeaway jumper that went right-to-left across the lane . It was flushed and repeated on the next possession as Kawhi rebounded another Lakers miss and hit a fadeaway jumper at the other end, this time crossing the lane from left to right.

Leonard played 21 minutes in his second leg but finished the game with 14 points and seven rebounds and was on the court to end the game when the Clippers held off the Lakers with a 103-97 win to end the Clippers’ winning streak in the Fight to extend Los Angeles to eight games from 2020.

John Wall (Thursday: LA Clippers at the Los Angeles Lakers)

  • Last played: April 23, 2021 (546 days since last NBA game)
  • Game Stats: 15 points, 7-15 FG, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal, -3, 25 minutes
  • Game result: Clippers 103-97 win over Lakers

Unlike most players on this list, John Wall did not miss the entire 2021-22 season through injury. Instead, it was a Houston team decision to focus on its young talent that led them to sit Wall. After agreeing to a contract purchase in Houston, Wall signed with the Clippers and was keen to get back on the court.

Recall that Wall had already been absent from Washington for a full two years (December 23, 2018 to December 31, 2020) through injury, playing just 40 games in the last 1,396 days leading up to Thursday’s season opener for the Clippers.

Similar to Leonard, Wall came off the bench for the Clippers. And much like Leonard, he made an immediate impression. Coming into play midway through the first quarter, Wall made his first four shots and finished the first quarter with eight points and an assist. It wasn’t just Wall putting up numbers, it was the fact that he looked like John Wall and displayed the speed and athleticism that made him one of the most dangerous guards in the game. If he can maintain that level of play, the Clippers have a bargain in the free hand.

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Ben Simmons (Wednesday: Brooklyn versus New Orleans)

  • Last played: June 20, 2021 (487 days since last NBA game)
  • Game Stats: 4 points, 2-3 FG, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 fouls, -26, 23 minutes
  • Game result: Nets 130-108 loss to Pelicans

In his first game back after missing all of last season with Philadelphia and Brooklyn and eventually needing back surgery, Ben Simmons made his Nets debut, finishing with four points, five rebounds and five assists in 23 minutes. However, he had the unenviable task of defending Zion Williamson, which led to Simmons also racking up six fouls and fouling for only the seventh time in his 310 career games.

“It takes time,” Simmons said after the game. “After back surgery and a year away from the game, there are little things your mind might be telling you to do but your body doesn’t want to do.”

Simmons will have his next chance to shake off the gridiron on Friday when the Nets host the Raptors.

Jamal Murray (Wednesday: Denver near Utah)

  • Last played: April 12, 2021 (556 days since last NBA game)
  • Game Stats: 12 points, 5-13 FG, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals, -19, 26 minutes
  • Game result: Nugget’s 123-102 loss to Jazz

Expectations are high in Denver this year as the team welcomes back both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. from extended absences this season. After reigning two-time Kia MVP Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets to a 48-34 record and sixth-place finish in the West without Murray and Porter Jr. last season, these returns raise the ceiling in Denver. However, patience is key for the Nuggets as they reintegrate both players into the mix.

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In the season opener against a newly formed Utah roster, Murray finished with 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting but was down 19 in his 26 minutes on the court. “I obviously shook off the rust,” Murray said after his first game in 556 days. “I got some great looks, rushed into them, hoping to just find some rhythm.”

Michael Porter Jr. (Wednesday: Denver near Utah)

  • Last played: November 6, 2021 (348 days since last NBA game)
  • Game Stats: 15 points, 5-10 FG, 7 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, +1, 35 mins
  • Game result: Nugget’s 123-102 loss to Jazz

Porter Jr. led all players in minutes played in the season opener as he finished his first regular-season action in nearly a full calendar year with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting and seven rebounds in 35 minutes on the court.

Porter (+1) and newcomer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (+3) were the only nuggets to finish on a positive plus/minus basis as the nuggets fell 21 points. Things won’t get any easier for the Nuggets when they meet the defending champions Warriors in a first-round rematch on Friday night in San Francisco.

Damian Lillard (Wednesday: Portland near Sacramento)

  • Last played: December 31, 2021 (293 days since last NBA game)
  • Game Stats: 20 points, 5-18 FG, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, -1, 37 minutes
  • Game result: Blazers 115-108 win over Kings

Lillard missed more games last season (53) than in his first nine seasons combined (38). So, seeing him back on the court was a welcome side for NBA fans, but perhaps not so much for Sacramento Kings fans. The Blazers opened the season with a 115-108 away win over the Kings behind a balanced offensive attack while four players finished between 19 and 23 points.

Lillard scored 20 points in his first game of the 2022 calendar year but didn’t shoot the ball well, finishing 5 of 18 (27.8%) from the field and just 1 of 8 from beyond the arc. He pulled off a perfect 9-on-9 from the free-throw line to earn his points and help the Blazers win. Lillard’s next chance to find his shot comes on Friday when Portland host Phoenix in their home opener.

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