With the first few workouts and walkthroughs of training camp now in the books, every NBA team’s feeling bullish about the present and future, in better shape than ever, healthier than it’s been in years, and in shape to really make some noise this season. (I’m paraphrasing.) As we begin to pick through all the praiseworthy comments and developments, here are a few that caught our eyes in the early days of the 2019-20 NBA season, starting with everybody’s favorite up-and-coming group in the Big Easy ...
Lonzo’s goods might not be so damaged anymore.
It appears that, when he wasn’t engaging in dramatic conversations with his dad over the relative health of Big Baller Brand, Lonzo Ball was spending his summer trying to work out the kinks in his famously janky jump shot:
I’m not a certified shot doctor, and I’ve never even played one on TV, but it looks here like the new Pelicans guard starts off these shots by bringing the ball straight up and releasing it in front of his face, rather than swinging it over toward his left shoulder and catapulting it back across his body. The motion looks a bit more, y’know, normal than it did at this time last year, when Magic Johnson gushed over Ball’s slightly tightened form, calling it “beautiful” and predicting a “breakout season” for the Lakers’ former no. 2 draft pick. It didn’t quite work out that way: Injuries again cost Ball a significant chunk of the season, limiting him to only 47 appearances, and he once again struggled to find the bottom of the net, posting the eighth-worst true shooting percentage of any player to take at least 450 shots. That’s an improvement over his rookie season, when he finished second worst, but still: not exactly a breakout.
Now, though, Ball’s got a chance at a fresh start in New Orleans. He told reporters at Pelicans media day that he’s fully healthy after the Grade 3 ankle sprain that submarined his sophomore season. And if he can stay that way after missing 65 games over his first two seasons, he could form a dynamite defensive backcourt with veteran star Jrue Holiday, and prove a hand-in-glove fit in Alvin Gentry’s scheme, which prioritizes early offense. But while Lonzo can be a positive contributor even without a reliable jumper, finding a form that allows him to improve on his across-the-board dismal percentages—44.9 percent inside the arc, 31.5 percent beyond it, and just 43.7 percent from the free throw line—could unlock the star potential that so many saw for him during his time at UCLA.
The value of a curated clip of standstill warm-up jumpers is very much in the eye of the beholder—have you placed that “Markelle Fultz for MVP” bet yet?—and it remains to be seen not only whether Ball’s tweaks will meaningfully improve his accuracy, but also whether he’ll be able to consistently replicate any adjustments to his form in the heat of live action against NBA defenders. (The release also still looks a little methodical, but that could well be for the purpose of really hammering the motion to get it down.) Every journey’s got to start somewhere, though, and in the optimism-soaked days of early October, Not Slingshotting The Ball From Your Left Ear constitutes progress.
Could less be more for Joel Embiid?
The start of training camp is typically a time for players to brag about how much muscle mass they’ve put on. For Joel Embiid, though, 76ers media day was an opportunity to show off how much weight he’d dropped—20 pounds’ worth, he says, prompted by the lingering pain of one miraculous shot ending their chance at advancing to the Eastern Conference finals.
Just saw an Under Armour ad with Joel Embiid and he looks huge. Looks like he lost fat but somehow put on even more muscle pic.twitter.com/QT4rF0f2yS— SimmonsSZN (@MVPSimmons) September 20, 2019
Embiid was a monster last season, averaging 27.5 points, 13.6 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.9 blocks per game en route to a seventh-place finish in MVP voting and a fourth-place spot on the Defensive Player of the Year ballot. He had an uneven postseason, though, with his scoring, efficiency, and overall minutes load taking a hit. Persistent knee tendinitis and other illnesses had him in and out of the lineup in both of Philly’s playoff series, and he struggled, posting just 17.6 points per game on 37 percent shooting in the seven-game loss to the Raptors.
Frustrated by the feeling that he’d “let [his] team down” by being unable to stay on the floor and consistently perform at his peak at the most important time of year, Embiid told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst he spent his summer thinking about “what can I do to make sure I don’t let my teammates down again or my team. Or the whole city basically. That was to take better of my body. To work on the stuff I never really paid attention to, and it’s been going well the whole summer.” The 25-year-old All-Star believes cutting weight will enable him to “play like a guard,” one who can move through the typically claustrophobia-inducing confines of a Sixers half-court set. Don’t expect one of the league’s premier interior maulers to suddenly migrate to Stephen Curry/James Harden range, but the idea of a player already equipped with enough firepower to finish in the top five in points per game adding even more ways to punish defenders is probably enough to keep opposing coaches up at night.
After the offseason coup of turning Jimmy Butler into the combination of Al Horford and Josh Richardson via sign-and-trade, the Sixers look poised to contend for Eastern Conference supremacy and the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals since 2001. But while many factors will dictate just how far Philly can go—Ben Simmons’s growth as a shooter, how Horford fits in as both a twin-towers complement to Embiid and his backup at center, whether there’s enough shooting to space the floor after the exit of JJ Redick, if any of the 76ers’ young wings will pop—nothing matters as much as Embiid’s health and availability. The hope is that carrying less weight on those knees makes it easier to carry the fate of the franchise on his broad shoulders.
Draymond’s already on a postseason diet.
Whether you attribute his slow and sluggish start to the 2018-19 season to the roiling Kevin Durant–related drama in Golden State, to injuries that limited him in training camp and knocked him out of 14 games before Christmas, or to just plain coming into camp in something less than the Best Shape Of His Life, it’s inarguable that Draymond Green didn’t really flip the switch on his season until after the All-Star break. The man himself admitted that he didn’t plan to start a “strenuous regimen” until early March. He did just that, reportedly shedding more than 20 pounds in about six weeks; sure enough, he once again started resembling the do-it-all game-changer who’d soared from second-round obscurity to superstar orchestrator as the beating heart of the Warriors’ dynasty.
Golden State fell short in the Finals, but in the process, Green—who averaged 13.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.5 steals per game in the playoffs, posting five triple-doubles in 22 games—reminded us all just how vital he is to the Warriors. This season, though, Durant’s in Brooklyn; Klay Thompson’s out until at least the All-Star break; Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and DeMarcus Cousins are all gone; and Golden State’s roster is teeming with young, unproven players not yet schooled in the Warriors’ way. This season, Draymond doesn’t have until March to crank things up. So, he says, he’s starting early.
After a two-and-a-half-hour practice to open training camp on Tuesday, Green “darted from the court to a nearby elliptical machine” for 20 minutes of cardio, then grabbed “a smoothie filled with bananas, whey protein, and tart cherry juice,” proclaiming himself “back on my playoff diet” in an interview with Mark Medina of USA Today. The hope in the Bay is that taking a postseason approach all season long will result in playoff-caliber results for Green.
For the Warriors to have any hope of extending their dynastic window with a sixth straight deep playoff run, Green and Stephen Curry will have to lead the way. That’s going to mean heavier-than-normal workloads for the two superstars right from the start as coach Steve Kerr leans on his decorated veterans to show all of Golden State’s newcomers how things are done. The Warriors invested heavily in Green to play that big-brother role this summer, signing him to a four-year, $100 million contract extension; now it’s on him to provide the on- and off-court leadership and elite two-way play for which Golden State backed up the Brink’s truck. But Green will need to do that without burning himself out too early and having nothing in the tank come springtime. It’s a delicate balance, and a different one for Green to strike.
“[The coaches] are telling me to be mindful and not run myself into the ground,” he told Medina. “But at the same time, they tell me to do whatever I feel my body needs. You know what your body can handle.”
And, perhaps more importantly, what it can’t. So, out go the sweets and the booze, and in, Kerr and Co. hope, comes a leaner, meaner, and even better Draymond Green.