Zion, Kawhi, Murray and star rookies: What matters most from big NBA debutson October 21, 2022 at 12:58 pm

NBA opening week is here, and a number of players returned after having not played since 2021, while the latest crop of rookies suited up for their first regular-season game.

The return of Kawhi Leonard — off the bench for the time being — immediately made the Los Angeles Clippers contenders for the NBA title. A healthy Zion Williamson rejoined a New Orleans Pelicans team on the rise after an unexpected surge into the playoffs. Ben Simmons, after being swapped for James Harden prior to last year’s trade deadline, is back and playing for a Brooklyn Nets team that’s trying to move on from an offseason dominated by trade demands and rumors surrounding Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Orlando’s Paolo Banchero, the 2022 No. 1 overall pick, accomplished a feat in his debut that has been accomplished by only LeBron James and Lew Alcindor. Houston’s Jabari Smith Jr. had the honor of playing his first NBA game in his hometown of Atlanta. And the Detroit Pistons‘ rebuild could be ahead of schedule if the rookie duo of Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren play at the level they flashed Wednesday night.

Our NBA Insiders recap the returns and rookie debuts across the league.

Zion Williamson scored 25 points in 30 minutes on Wednesday night against Brooklyn. Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

In the words of Brandon Ingram, Williamson picked up where he left off. And while there were moments Williamson looked like his old self throughout Wednesday night’s season opener against the Nets, he made sure to put an exclamation point on his performance by making his 11th and final field goal a two-handed slam that left the basket shaking.

This was the Williamson everyone was used to seeing. He forced his way to the basket, bullying Nets defenders. He wasn’t as efficient as he normally is but still managed to shoot 11-of-22 overall, which speaks more to his history than it does his one-game performance.

Wednesday was career game No. 86 for Williamson. It was the 47th game in which he scored 25 or more points on at least 50% shooting. That’s the third-most such games for any player through his first 100 career games in the shot clock era, trailing only Walt Bellamy (57) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (54).

As Kevin Durant put it following the game, these types of nights are just becoming typical for Williamson.

— Andrew Lopez

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