Portland Trail Blazers, The Whiteboard

Damian Lillard and 3 other impressive comeback seasons

Damian Lillard has been nearly unstoppable but he’s not the only player off to an impressive start in their comeback seasons.

One of the most fascinating storylines coming into this season was the abnormally large number of players returning from injuries or other circumstances that caused them to miss all or most of last season. Players like Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson have all shown flashes of their former selves but are still struggling to find rhythm and consistency.

But today we’re going to focus on four others who have been surprisingly fantastic to start the season, impressing with old skill sets we thought were gone or new ones they’d never really had a chance to show before.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

If the league was picking an MVP after just the first week of the season, Lillard might be the unanimous selection. He’s averaged 33.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game on a 66.6 true shooting percentage and has led the Trail Blazers to a perfect 4-0 start.

Lillard only played 29 games last season because of an abdominal injury and was fairly ineffective when he was on the court. At age 32 it seemed far to wonder if his best days were behind him but he’s setting the pace for what could be a career season. There isn’t a whole lot new in Lillard’s game so far this season but he’s been a bit more aggressive attacking the basket, with a free throw rate that would be the highest of his career.

He’s also shown a lot of trust in the young shooters around him, Anfernee Simons and Shaedon Sharpe in particular, seemingly having no problem deferring to them in big spots the way he would when necessary with CJ McCollum. If he’s capable of once again operating as an elite offensive engine in the middle of this improved defensive roster, the Blazers could keep themselves near the top of the Western Conference.

John Wall, Los Angeles Clippers

Wall has been fantastic in two games for the Clippers, giving them everything they could have hoped from a player who had played just 40 games (not particularly well), over the past three seasons. In his 40-game stint with the Rockets in 2020-21, Wall made a career-low 56.8 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket as declining athleticism appeared to be robbing him of his most consistent advantage.

Through his first two games with the Clippers, Wall has been more selective attacking the basket but is averaging about 9.4 drives per 36 minutes and has shot 85.7 percent on those drives. He’s shown some of his trademark burst in transition but has also done a nice job of reading the defensive attention focused on Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to find openings.

Wall is playing in a much more constrained role with the Clippers and his outside shooting will still be a limiting factor. But he’s a savvy creator with fresh legs and it’s great to see him healthy and working in a complementary role around the rest of the Clippers’ stars.

Bol Bol, Orlando Magic

Injuries aren’t the only reason Bol Bol had played just 328 NBA minutes across his first three seasons, but a foot injury last year voided an agreed-upon trade that would have sent him to the Pistons. He eventually had surgery that kept him out for the rest of the season and landed with the Orlando Magic on a two-year deal for just over $4 million.

Bol has already racked up 11 blocks in just 64 minutes, in an absurd rate of 8.3 per 100 possessions. But he’s also contributed at the other end, flashing some of the tantalizing versatility that made him such an intriguing prospect as his size.

He’s probably better suited as a backup long-term, and the Magic have a crowded frontcourt already with Paolo Banchero, Wendell Carter Jr., Mo Bamba and Mo Wagner. But if he keeps playing like this, he’s going to be hard to keep off the floor.

Zach Collins, San Antonio Spurs

Collins is still just 25 years old but has only played 39 games over the past three seasons, dealing with a variety of injuries. Four games and just 56 minutes is an extremely small sample but Collins has been incredibly productive in those minutes, with averages that work out to 16.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 4.5 blocks per 36 minutes.

The appeal of Collins was always his mobility and defensive upside as a big man and he’s demonstrated that perhaps as impressively as at any other point in his brief career. He’s been very sharp finding cutters from the elbows and the top of the key and has flashed a few eye-popping assists.

And his interior defense has been fantastic, stonewalling bigs with power and agility.

Collins is under contract next year for a very reasonable $7.5 million and is two years younger than Jakob Poeltl. If the Spurs do end up exploring trade packages for Poeltl later in the season, Collins could be ready to take his minutes and give the team another solid, two-way big to keep building around.

— Ian Levy

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Brittney Griner appeal rejected, legal proceedings finished in Russia

WNBA star Brittney Griner appealed a nine-year jail sentence she received after being convicted of smuggling and possessing cannabis oil. That appeal has been denied. Here is what you need to know:

  • When initially sentenced, Griner admitted to the charges, calling it an “honest mistake.”
  • What’s next for Griner’s case? As far as judicial proceedings go, there is no further recourse for Griner’s jail sentence.
  • How can the US get Griner home? The Kremlin has previously proposed non-judicial recourse: A prisoner swap where the United States would give a Russian Arms Dealer — Viktor Bout, who is nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” to Russia in exchange for Griner.
  • How long has Griner been in custody? Griner has been detained since February, just before the Russia-Ukraine conflict began. She was caught with cannabis oil in a Russian airport.
  • Why was Griner in Russia? Griner was in Russia playing during the WNBA offseason. Plenty of WNBA players play overseas during the offseason because the wages they can earn in Russia and European countries are often higher than what they earn in the WNBA.
  • What has the US government said? President Joe Biden has called for Griner’s release and has said that Griner is being wrongfully detained.

Ben Simmons has a new issue: Fouling

Ben Simmons has fouled out twice already this season.

  • Other Simmons issues: Simmons has been highly criticized throughout his career. Previously, his jump shot and free-throw shooting have been the focus of heavy criticism previously.
  • What Simmons said about the fouling: according to ESPN “It wasn’t a foul. [Orr] called it a foul, made a mistake, it is what it is … it’s really frustrating … it’s not a foul, but it was bulls—. It’s frustrating because it’s late game, fourth quarter, it’s a physical, close game. It’s the NBA. It’s not college. It’s not high school. Some people are going to get hit, some people bleed; it’s basketball,”.
  • Ja Morant game-planned to get Simmons to foul him: Morant said that in his rookie year, Simmons caught Morant sleeping when he was looking to the bench to get a play call, stealing the ball and getting a fast-break dunk. Morant knew he might try again and this time decided to, “force the ref to make the call.”
  • Statistics: Ben Simmons is averaging 4.7 fouls per game so far this season. He’s averaging just 5.7 points.

Cody Martin apologized to Christian Koloko

Miami Heat guard Cody Martin called Toronto Raptors rookie Christian Koloko to apologize for tackling him during a game over the weekend and offered him dinner. We talked about the incident in yesterday’s iteration of The Whiteboard.

  • Why it matters: The incident was initially praised by subsets of the Heat fanbase as an example of the team’s “culture.” Other parts of the fanbase condemned such a statement since the scuffle was off-court and a non-basketball play.
  • Why Martin backed down: Martin went so far as to say that Koloko should not have gotten thrown out of the game in which the incident occurred, saying his retaliation was only because of Martin’s actions.
  • Koloko’s punishment: Koloko was fined $15,000 and ejected on Saturday.

— Josh Wilson

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