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What NBA Players Are Expecting Ahead of the Season’s Restart

As teams prepare to travel to Orlando later this week, players are expressing excitement, frustration, and concern over what they’ll be walking into

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C.J. McCollum is healthy. He has no children to worry about, and he has spent time during the break taking care of his grandmother in Ohio. In Portland, it’s just him, his fiancée, and his dog—neither of whom will be able to accompany him when he leaves this week for Orlando, where the NBA is slated to restart its season on July 30. And yet, when Blazers players voted internally in May about whether they wanted to play, McCollum voted no.

“Personal preference,” he said Monday morning on a Zoom call with reporters. “I love the game of basketball. I would love to go out there and compete. I understand all of those things, but at the time I felt like I didn’t want to play.”

Almost two months later, McCollum has changed his tune. He says more information from the NBA has helped (such as the fact that, according to him, all Disney employees who come into contact with the players will be routinely tested for the coronavirus), as has the players’ ability to advocate for social justice issues (the league is allowing players to put messages on the backs of their jerseys; McCollum has chosen “Education Reform”). But you can still hear the hesitancy in his voice when he talks about the risk for players with families, when he says he’s been taking his dog on more walks lately since he won’t be able to for a while, and when he explains that, as of Monday, he hadn’t started packing.

“I’m looking around like, ‘How many days do I even pack for?’” McCollum said. “Do you just take clothes for 20 or 30 days and wash them? How do you strategically plan for this, because I’m not trying to carry around a bunch of suitcases.”

The question of packing, though mundane, underlines the uncertainty that some players feel about what the bubble and the quarantine process will be like. As players have returned to their facilities in the past week, they’ve started voicing their thoughts publicly—and they’ve made it clear that even though most will be participating, there’s still a variety of opinions surrounding the restart.

Take Lonzo Ball, who on Monday expressed doubt about whether resuming play was the right thing to do. “I really don’t know how I feel about it, going over there and kind of taking away from everything that’s going on,” he said. “Right now, it’s bigger than basketball.”

Meanwhile, the Sixers’ Josh Richardson touted the setup as “The AAU tournament of the century.” And he’s not the only one who’s been pro-restart.

Most players have expressed a desire to play, including LeBron James. Luka Doncic also said last week, “I never hesitated. I missed basketball a lot, so I just wanted to play. There was no question about me. I always wanted to play.”

Likewise, Brandon Ingram said Monday that sitting out wasn’t “even a question.” He believes the experience will bring the Pelicans closer together, which, without fans in the stands, may be an essential part of creating energy to feed off of. “I didn’t look at it as if I had a choice of going or not,” Ingram said. “I just wanted to play basketball at the end of the day.”

For J.R. Smith, this unprecedented situation has been a lifeline. He spoke to the media on Monday for the first time since being signed by the Lakers and admitted that he was depressed during his time out of the league, even eschewing playing NBA 2K because he didn’t want to be reminded of the state of his career. Now, though, thanks to the transaction window the league opened up for the restart, Smith could be a valuable cog on a team with title aspirations. “More than anything, I just want to appreciate the moment for what it is,” he said. “I just want to enjoy every possible moment that I get.”

Even with leaders like LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo pushing to resume play, though, some players are sitting out the rest of the season. Family concerns caused Avery Bradley and Trevor Ariza to say they wouldn’t play. And on Tuesday morning, the Wizards announced that Bradley Beal will sit out because of a shoulder injury. Beal had been undecided up to that point, saying he was primarily concerned about injuries. Plus, with a big contract likely looming in the near future and the Wizards not playing for anything but the chance to get swept by the Bucks in the first round, there was little upside to his suiting up.

Regardless of what players think, though, the situation is ever evolving. COVID-19 cases in Florida continue to rise, players continue to test positive for the virus, seven practice facilities have had to shut down, and despite the league’s 113-page collection of protocols about how it will handle health and safety at Disney, commissioner Adam Silver can only offer so many assurances.

It’s that kind of volatility that can undercut the confidence a player may have in the league’s plan, or maybe even their desire to play basketball again. And it’s why even a player like Ingram, who is looking forward to playing again, acknowledges that complications are likely. “I’m not very confident in [the league pulling it off],” he said.

Damian Lillard echoed that sentiment last week, saying there was no way all the players on the 22 teams are going to follow the rules to a tee. “I think it is a safer situation,” Lillard said. “But I don’t think it’s possible for them to protect us 100 percent. I think everybody’s going there understanding that.”

As teams begin flying into Orlando this week, the only sentiment that seems to be shared across the league and the hundreds of players and staffers involved is that everyone is hoping for the best—but bracing for whatever the unknown turns out to be.