Zion, Kawhi, Murray and star rookies: What matters most from big NBA debuts


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.

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

Leonard had to wait a quarter and a half before he could finally make his long-awaited return.

In a surprising move, the Clippers brought Leonard off the bench to be as cautious as possible with their star and maximize the limited minutes he played at more impactful times in the game.

In his first meaningful game since tearing his right ACL in Game 4 of the second round against the Utah Jazz on June 14, 2021, Leonard didn’t waste any time getting to work upon checking in during the middle of the second quarter.

Leonard played the final six-plus minutes of the first half, making his first two shots — both midrange shots. Leonard started the third quarter and played the first six-plus minutes before returning with 8:01 left in the fourth with the Clippers down two.

Leonard had 14 points and seven rebounds and shot 6-for-12 in 21 minutes to help the Clippers beat the Lakers 103-97. But Leonard looked like he was missing some of his rhythm and timing on his 3-point shot, shooting 1-of-4 from behind the arc.

But he made plays for teammates, such as finding center Ivica Zubac inside for an easy score off a lob in the third quarter and chasing down a loose ball off his own miss before hitting Reggie Jackson for a big 3 midway through the fourth.

Leonard also used the bulk he added during his rehab and muscled his way inside to a basket over Russell Westbrook in the paint. The Clippers, though, had trouble getting the ball to Leonard at times in post-ups — something they’ll get better at as they get reacquainted with their star.

— Ohm Youngmisuk

It was a rough Brooklyn debut for Simmons.

He fouled out in just 23 minutes. He scored four points on just three field goal attempts, and had five rebounds, five assists and three turnovers. It was the same kind of disjointed play he showed throughout most of the Nets’ four preseason games.

Nets coach Steve Nash said it seems like the 26-year-old is still “rusty” after being away from the game for almost a year and a half.

“The guy hasn’t played in over a year,” Nash said. “He’s still getting used to referees, defense, offense. This is a process for Ben. … He’s shown, obviously, glimpses of the player we know he is and can be, but it’s not easy. We’re here to support him, we’re here to coach him up and try to get him to a place where he can play at the level he’s played at in the past. It’s all there for him.”

The larger issue for the Nets isn’t the rust — it’s that Simmons still looks hesitant at times on the floor, especially on the offensive end. He missed the only two free throws he took and doesn’t look comfortable offensively within the rhythm of his own game. The Nets need that to change quickly as they look forward to a difficult November stretch.

— Nick Friedell

It’s not normal for Murray to be smiling in defeat, but following the Denver Nuggets’ 123-102 loss to the Utah Jazz in their season opener, Murray said he couldn’t stop smiling.

That’s because he played his first regular-season game after an 18-month recovery from an ACL tear suffered in April 2021.

Murray scored his first bucket 90 seconds into the game — a midrange jumper.

He had bursts of his old self but clearly was affected by fatigue. Nikola Jokic went as far as saying Murray will “be bad for the next 20 games.”

Sure, Jokic was joking, yet there’s an element of truth to it. But Murray needing time to work back to his true form isn’t a surprise. He finished Denver’s first game of the season with 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting, including 1-of-4 from 3, two rebounds, two steals and one assist in 25 minutes — the most he’s played in any kind of live game since his injury.

— Kendra Andrews

Despite missing all but nine games last season with a back injury, Porter Jr. played a team-high 35 minutes in Denver’s season opener against the Jazz.

He finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, seven rebounds, one assist and a steal, but what impressed Nuggets coach Michael Malone the most were Porter’s hustle plays — contesting shots and diving for loose balls.

“Great defense is when you do everything you’re supposed to do, and you do it with effort,” Malone said.

Porter’s performance was as good of a starting point as Denver could have hoped for. The Nuggets have been banking on Porter being their third star since he was drafted in 2018. They’ve always seen him as a strong offensive force — he has a big frame that can get in the paint but can also be a prolific shooter. The area of his game that needed work was his willingness to do the little things — the stats that don’t always show on the box score.

His performance on opening night was the first example that he can do that. — Andrews

After LeBron James stormed down the court late in the third quarter for a thunderous dunk to cut the LA Clippers‘ lead from to eight points on Thursday, Wall responded on the other end with the confidence of a guy in command of his game, not a player who hasn’t recorded an NBA minute in 18 months.

Wall weaved around the Lakers’ feeble perimeter defense, stopped on a dime and pulled up for a midrange jumper that snapped the net, pushing the Clippers’ lead back into double-digits.

As he backpedaled down on defense, Wall pushed his palms down towards the hardwood as if to signal, “Calm down, I’ve got this.”

Playing in his first game since April 2021 after a series of injuries stemming from a torn Achilles in 2018 derailed his All-Star career, Wall was up to his old tricks all night in the Clippers’ opening night win. He finished with 15 points on 7-for-15 shooting, four rebounds, three assists and a steal in 25 minutes off the bench. He even outscored Leonard (14 points), who also made his return as a substitute for coach Tyronn Lue.

— Dave McMenamin

Wiseman had a mixed batch of showings through the preseason — the first he’s participated in since he was drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in 2020.

And on opening night, that trend continued, showing his immense upside while also having moments that made it clear he was still learning the NBA game.

Wiseman could do better setting screens — an aspect of the game he will be asked to do a lot this season — and missed some defensive rotations, as well.

Wiseman scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in 16 minutes. He rolled to the rim with purpose and did well in pick-and-rolls. His mobility and agility were high points, forcing LeBron James to foul him in transition to stop a fast break.

Through the early parts of the season, the Warriors have established a strong two-man game between Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga that is giving a glimpse into what could be a big part of the Warriors’ future.

— Andrews

It’s only one game, but Banchero’s debut lived up to the hype worthy of being the top overall pick in last summer’s NBA draft. With 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists, Banchero became just the third No.1 overall pick since 1969 to record 25-5-5 in his debut.

The others? LeBron James and Lew Alcindor.

Banchero’s got a long way to go before he matches the impressive scoring resumes of those decorated players, but scoring at this level already seems natural. He started the game on the attack, knocking down his first three shots and scoring six of Orlando’s first eight points on his way to shattering the franchise scoring record for a player in their first career game. Banchero flashed all the skills of his offensive arsenal — a posterizing dunk over Cory Joseph attempting to take a charge, posted up and got to the foul line and even knocked down a few midrange jumpers.

He finished 11-of-18 shooting, the most made field goals by a rookie in his debut since James in 2003, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“It’s crazy,” Banchero said. “I feel like I left a lot of points on the board.”

And, perhaps, even more impressive was the fact that Banchero may have been right. — Jamal Collier

Smith’s NBA debut didn’t unfold in the storybook fashion he imagined when he learned that the Rockets would open the season in his hometown.

Smith was solid in the Rockets’ loss to the Atlanta Hawks, where he had dozens of friends and family members in the crowd.

Smith, the No. 3 overall pick, displayed the defensive potential that helped him shoot up draft boards. He grabbed seven rebounds. He flashed the sweet shooting form that’s so rare from an athletic, 6-foot-11 forward, such as when Smith confidently swished his first career 3-pointer from a few feet behind the arc.

“I was proud of him. He was aggressive,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas told reporters. “He didn’t seem scared at all. It was his first opportunity to be in an NBA game, at home. He went out there and played well.”

Smith, however, didn’t shoot well overall. He was 6-of-17 from the floor and 3-of-11 from 3-point range.

“Oh my God, I got so many looks; I just didn’t knock them down,” Smith told reporters. “But I know that’s going to come. With me being a shooter, that’s not my first time missing shots. I’m not tripping about it at all. I saw the open shots and saw where they were coming from. It makes the game a little easier when I’ve got guards that make that pass, who believe in me.” — Tim MacMahon

Ivey pulled up to his first NBA game in his grandfather’s No. 28 Detroit Lions jersey, an ode to the connections his family has with the city, and gave Pistons fans the full experience as advertised on draft night.

He scored 10 of his 19 points in the third quarter where the Pistons took the lead — flashing his blazing speed going coast-to-coast for a layup after a steal, knocking down 3-pointers off the dribble and putting pressure on the rim to help set up veteran sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanovic, who knocked down four 3s in the quarter.

Ivey, the 2022 No. 5 overall pick, added four assists, three rebounds and three steals to round out an exciting victory for Detroit.

“I just try to, every night, use my burst,” Ivey said after the game. “I feel like I can get past some of the quickest guys. Once I beat the defender, I’ve got to start looking for some other guys. It’s going to take some games to get used to that, but I feel I used my speed to the best of my ability tonight.” — Collier

Duren put the exclamation point on an overall impressive debut in the second quarter when he delivered an emphatic dunk over Orlando’s Chuma Okeke while running the floor in transition, bringing the players on his own bench out of their seats and sending a near sold-out crowd at Little Caesars Arena into a frenzy.

Duren, who doesn’t turn 19 until November, doesn’t look the part of the youngest player in the league. In 22 minutes off the bench, he scored 14 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots, providing the inside presence the Pistons coveted when they acquired the No. 13 pick on draft night.

The Pistons were plus-7 with Duren on the floor Wednesday night, the best mark on the team, and his coach Dwayne Casey trusted the rookie enough to play him until the final two minutes of the game. Together, Duren and Ivey provided a glimpse of what the Pistons have been building and why they believe the core they have in place will make the past few seasons of losing pay off.

“Those young kids are going to be our future,” said Casey. — Collier

Mathurin had a strong debut, coming off the bench and posting 19 points, seven rebounds and two assists while physically looking the part. He led the Pacers in preseason scoring — 20 points in 23.5 minutes per game — and continued right where he left off in a home loss to the Washington Wizards. Mathurin showed his scoring instincts, confidence and fearlessness immediately, rejecting a screen with his off hand, challenging 7-3 Kristaps Porzingis at the rim and scoring over the top of him with a tough floater off the glass for a memorable first NBA basket.

He attacked the rim aggressively in the open floor, crashed the offensive glass with his muscular frame, drew five free throw attempts and hit several open jumpers and one impressive pull-up 3-pointer rising up sharply in transition to keep the game interesting late. Mathurin also showed some of the things he has to improve to become a complete all-around player, notably on the defensive end where he looked lost off the ball, got backcut several times, showed poor awareness running into or being late chasing his opponent around screens, and overhelped or gambled unnecessarily demonstrating his lack of experience dealing with NBA spacing.

Mathurin wasn’t known for his defense at Arizona and has work to do, along with his ball-handling, creating offense in the half-court and passing up on a few open spot-up jumpers he probably will learn to take. As the Pacers immerse themselves in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes and attempt to offload Buddy Hield, expect Mathurin to continue to find his footing and emerge as one of the best scorers in this rookie class with the green light he’ll be offered. — Jonathan Givony

Sharpe’s debut went about as well as can be expected, knocking down all three of his 3-point attempts and scoring 12 points in 16 minutes while helping the Trail Blazers to a road win over Sacramento. After not playing a single game in college and getting hurt five minutes into his summer league opener, few knew what to expect from the 19-year-old Canadian rookie, especially with Portland in win-now mode.

Sharpe made an immediate impact attacking a closeout powerfully off a pump-fake and drawing contact for free throws after skying in the lane. He wasn’t bashful in the slightest early, stepping into a corner-3 confidently, hitting a gorgeous 3-pointer running and turning off a screen off an inbounds play, and making a difficult stepback 3 relocating beyond the arc after being run off the line. His shot-making prowess looks as good as advertised, and everything he does seems effortless thanks to his exceptional talent.

Defensively, Sharpe was a mixed bag as expected, gambling, getting lost off the ball and being out of position showing his lack of experience and improvable technique. He did show potential in this area with his quick feet, strong frame and solid effort level, coming up with a couple of strong possessions to indicate he’s a little further ahead in this area than you might expect.

While it will be years until we fully know what the Trail Blazers have in Sharpe, it’s hard not to be encouraged by what we saw in terms of the role he’s carved out early on and especially the production he brought. There will surely be plenty of ups and downs as the season moves on, but the fact that Sharpe is already in the rotation and contributing to winning is certainly notable projecting forward. — Givony

Jonathan Givony is an NBA Draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and International teams.

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