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The season begins with Zion Williamson and the Pelicans

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Brooklyn Nets v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been a long time since the Nets played a regulation NBA game. It was late April when the Celtics swept them in the first round of the playoffs. Since then, Nets have gone through a turbulent time but in the end, as Kevin Durant said, “I didn’t miss any games, I didn’t miss any practices, I’m still here.”

This year’s Nets could be called the franchise’s attempt at a “redeem team,” a collection of some of the game’s greatest talents searching for chemistry among the doubters. Another 44-win team will not do.

Facing them will be the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that’s been were the Nets were in 2019, promising but without a superstar to drive them higher. The Pels hope that Zion Williamson will be that after missing a year off.

It’s opening night not just for the season but for what will likely be a drama.

Where to follow the game

It’s all local. YES and the YES App are the place to be on TV. WFAN-FM has the radio call. Game starts at 7:30 p.m. ET at Barclays Center.


For the Nets, Joe Harris (foot soreness), Seth Curry (ankle surgery recovery) and T.J. Warren (foot surgery recovery) are out. Edmond Sumner who had hip strain keep him out of the last preseason game has been cleared to play.

For the Pelicans, Kira Lewis (knee), and E.J. Liddell (knee) are out. Jaxson Hayes is day-to-day.

The game

For the Nets, the game will have some deeper meaning than a normal opener for all the obvious and some not so obvious reasons. It will be the first game for the new “Big Three,” first game for Ben Simmons since June 21, 2021 (and Edmond Sumner’s first since May 16 of that year.) It will be another gauge of how fans feel about KD, Kyrie and Steve Nash after the chaotic summer, and every interaction between the “Big Three” will be scrutinized for deeper and/or hidden meaning.

In the School of X’s and O’s (Matt Brooks, dean), the Nets are going with new offensive and defensive schemes relying on a ball-centric, open look when they have the ball and a more versatile, balanced, less theological defense. So far, it has the look of success, based of course on only two preseason games.

For fans of the moment, the Ben Simmons official debut will be the big deal. After a holdout for mental health reasons, he would up headed up the Turnpike and across some bridges, then experienced back pain and wound up undergoing surgery in early May without putting on a Nets game jersey. No one is more in redeem mode than the 26-year-old from Australia. It is not an exaggeration to say he has felt the wrath of a major American city and yet seems as healthy and happy as he has been in a while.

But the unexpected return of Durant and Irving is a storyline as well. When all seemed lost in July and August, the fan experience was not positive. Fans remember every slight and a lot of fans are going to need some therapy before they renew vows. That and some wins.

For the Pelicans, it’s big game for the most obvious reason: Zion Williamson is back after missing all of last season. The franchise savior has been hurt through much of his three-year career. He’s played only 85 games out of 226 games since being drafted No. 1 in 2019. Then again, he is still only 22 and that combination of athleticism and raw power is exhausting for opposing teams. More on him later.

The game is also a chance for the Pelicans to get a look at their young “Big Three” of Williamson, Brandon Ingram and C.J. McCallum. It will be their first game together just as it will be for KD, Kyrie and Ben10. And we haven’t even spoken of Jonas Valanciunas who has a history of making Nets fans very unhappy.

One fun match-up we expect to see a lot of: New Orleans defensive ace Herb Jones vs. Durant. Ingram will also be the first of many players the Nets face who were mentioned in trade talks for KD.

Player to Watch: Zion Williamson

The game will likely draw as much interest for the players who didn’t play last season as the ones who did. And Zion Williamson, 6’7” and 285 pounds in sneakers, has long been the subject of intense curiosity. Can that combination of raw power and athleticism fulfill its promise?

As Kevin Durant said of him a few days ago, he is unique when healthy.

“You’ve seen guys at that size, 6-7, that can get up and down the floor and move, but not at that level, though,” Durant said after Monday’s practice. “You’ve seen guys like Jason Maxiell, I’m not saying they jump as high as Zion, but they were undersized guys that played bigger. And Zion’s one of those guys. Rodney Rogers — I’m missing so many guys that were that tall at 6-6, Charles Barkley bruiser-type guys but played bigger. But Zion’s athleticism trumps all of theirs by far. And when you add that to the mix, it makes him a one of one.”

In his last healthy season, the Dukie averaged 27.0 points (on 61/29/70 shooting splits) to go along with 7.2 points and 3.7 assists. Pretty good numbers for a kid who was 20 at the time. It’s not just the numbers. Williamson is intimidating like a runaway locomotive with the deadman’s switch off. It’s coming so fast you can’t believe it, then it runs over you and keeps going.

But there have been issues in NOLA. Williamson has seemed overwhelmed by what is required of a superstar, then hurt by a series of injuries. Now, writes Christian Clark of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, he has a new seriousness:

Headed into his fourth season, a fully healthy Williamson has started to take his fitness seriously. He spent eight weeks before training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he focused on slimming down. Williamson’s private chef wrote in an Instagram post that Williamson dropped more than 30 pounds.

We haven’t heard who will get the unenviable job of guarding Zion. In the past, Simmons has guarded Brandon Ingram when the Sixers played the Pelicans but with added strength, it will be interesting to see if Steve Nash uses Simmons as he did vs. Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo: guarding the other team’s biggest star. Otherwise, the job may fall to Royce O’Neale. In any event, it will be intriguing to see if the Nets can slow that locomotive down.

And for those who thought that Zion’s foot rehab might keep him out vs. Brooklyn, he had this response; “I’m playing.”

From the Vault

If you want to go back to the last time the Nets played a game that meant anything, they lost to the Celtics in Game 4 of the first round in last year’s playoffs. Hoping we won’t see another performance like this!

For further reading: The Bird Writes.