For Zion, Kawhi, Murray and more, the wait is finally over

Sep 26, 2022, 1:04 AM | Updated: 1:06 pm
New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson (1) jokes with David Griffin, executive vice pre...

New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson (1) jokes with David Griffin, executive vice president of basketball operations, during the NBA Pelicans basketball media day in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

(AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

              FILE - Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard stands on the sideline before an NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. Leonard has been cleared for 5-on-5 basketball again, more than a year since his last NBA game, Clippers President Lawrence Frank said Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)
            
              New Orleans Pelicans power forward Zion Williamson (1) jokes with David Griffin, executive vice president of basketball operations, during the NBA Pelicans basketball media day in New Orleans, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

Kawhi Leonard was in the Los Angeles Clippers’ facility on Monday. That wasn’t exactly a surprise development.

The news was his attire. He was wearing a basketball uniform. Finally.

Welcome back, Kawhi. You too, Denver’s Jamal Murray, Brooklyn’s Ben Simmons, New Orleans’ Zion Williamson, the Clippers’ John Wall and plenty of others around the NBA.

As training camps open around the NBA — most teams start practice Tuesday — it marks the long-awaited return to work for some of the league’s biggest names who couldn’t play last season because of injury or other issues.

“I’m blessed to be healthy, blessed to be walking up the stairs and not thinking about it,” said Murray, the Nuggets’ high-scoring guard who tore his left ACL in April 2021. “I’ve come a long way.”

He’s not alone.

Leonard tore his right ACL during a playoff game with the Clippers in June 2021. Williamson missed the entirety of last season while dealing with a foot injury and other setbacks. Wall didn’t play last season for Houston — he wasn’t in the Rockets’ rebuilding plans — and recently revealed that years of battling injuries also adversely affected his mental health. Same goes for Simmons, who didn’t play last year for Philadelphia or Brooklyn following his trade there while dealing with his own mental health issues.

Yet here they are, eager for a new season. Leonard, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, said he’ll be participating in training camp and is hoping to make it through the regular season with no limitations.

“It’s been 14 months of me just trying to better myself and just trying to focus on my overall body,” Leonard said. “Yeah, I’m excited. I’m tired of going through these rehab workouts and listening to doctors and trainers for the most part — even though I’m still going to have to going forward.”

Williamson — an absolute force when he’s healthy — said he’s feeling great, moving faster and jumping higher. Physically, he’s at his best again.

“I’ve never dealt with a (layoff) like this,” said Williamson, who hasn’t seen any NBA action since May 4, 2021. “That’s a long time without playing a game. But my excitement level is through the roof. I’m just ready to get back on the court.”

Leonard, Wall, Williamson and Murray were all among the players listed as inactive for all 82 of their team’s games last season. For Golden State’s James Wiseman, who had a knee injury, it was even more — 82 in the regular season, 22 more in the playoffs. The Warriors had 104 games in their run to the NBA championship.

He, too, sought some mental help to get through not being able to play.

“It was a hard time for me, especially going through that injury because I love basketball so much,” Wiseman said. “I just want to be out there with my team. When I wasn’t out there, it was very hard for me, but I just pushed through. I got that resilience just to keep going. It’s in my DNA, and I’m not going to ever gave up no matter how hard the situation is.”

Simmons was dealing with a disastrous playoff performance with Philadelphia in 2021, then fallout from the widespread belief that he didn’t want to play last season. He said he’s gotten to a better mental place and is set to finally play again with the Nets.

“Everybody has dark days,” Simmons said. “You’re able to address it and work toward getting to a place where you need to be. That’s where I am. For me, I work on myself every day.”

He pronounced himself ready to go. For others, the wait continues.

T.J. Warren — then of Indiana, now of Brooklyn — and Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac were both newsmakers in the restart bubble in 2020. Warren scored 53 points in his bubble debut that season, had three other games where he scored at least 32, but has played in exactly four games since, the last of those on Dec. 29, 2020.

“I’m healed,” Warren said, “but not cleared.”

Isaac is in a similar situation. He hurt his left knee on Jan. 1, 2020 in a game at Washington. He returned and played two games in the bubble seven months later, blew out out his left ACL in the second of those appearances, had other setbacks along the way in recovery and hasn’t played since. Out of Orlando’s last 198 games, Isaac has appeared in exactly two, and he isn’t yet ready for 5-on-5, either.

Isaac relies on his faith, saying Monday it has gotten him through the dark moments of rehab. Isaac also wrote a book in the interim about his faith and his decision to stand for the national anthem in the bubble as a sign of peaceful protest.

“I know I’m supposed to play basketball for a reason,” Isaac said. “At each step, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel getting bigger and bigger. I know I’m going to play this season. It’s just a matter of when.”

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AP Sports Writers Pat Graham in Denver and Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.

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For Zion, Kawhi, Murray and more, the wait is finally over