Pelicans' Zion Williamson looks every bit the superstar in NBA debut

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NBC Sports

Pelicans' Zion Williamson looks every bit the superstar in NBA debut

We waited, and then we waited some more. In one of the most highly-anticipated regular-season game in years, Zion Williamson made his debut for the New Orleans Pelicans against the San Antonio Spurs three months after undergoing surgery to address a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee. Though he played for the first three quarters, we didn’t see Zion be Zion until the fourth quarter.

And boy, was it worth the wait. Williamson went nuclear in the fourth quarter, scoring 17 straight points in the final frame on 6-of-8 shooting, including 4-for-4 from 3. He became the first player in NBA history to make more than three 3-pointers without a miss in his NBA debut, per Basketball Reference. It was the most thrilling three-minute stretch of basketball all season and I’m sure there were plenty of well-rested people waking up with regret this morning.

For the game, the 19-year-old finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists in just 18 minutes. This, after coming off a monstrous preseason in which he averaged 23.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game on 75.5 percent shooting on 2s and 25 percent shooting on 3s.

On its own, this was everything the Pelicans and the NBA could have asked for in a debut. The slow build made the fourth quarter that much more enjoyable to witness. But in the bigger picture, there’s a lot to unpack after Wednesday’s explosion.

Here are three takeaways on my mind as I watched Zion’s debut.

Upgraded Blake Griffin is Zion’s real comp

Williamson’s other-worldly combination of skill, strength and springs has generated an endless stream of player comparisons from Charles Barkley to Larry Johnson to Bo Jackson. But the one that stands out to me most these days is Blake Griffin -- an upgraded hybrid of Lob City Griffin and Point Forward Griffin.

Just like Williamson, Griffin faced a litany of knee problems at Williamson’s age. As an electric high-flying teenager at Oklahoma, Griffin suffered a sprained MCL in his freshman season in one knee and months later, tore his meniscus in his other knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery to remove the torn cartilage. That’s nearly a carbon copy of Williamson’s past year. 

But there’s an important difference between the two No. 1 overall picks. When Griffin underwent arthroscopic surgery, he missed less than a week. You read that correctly. In a 2013 interview about Derrick Rose’s torn meniscus, Griffin said that, under the watch of the Oklahoma Sooners, he “had surgery on Sunday and played on Saturday.” 

Williamson, on the other hand, missed just over 13 weeks. 

This distinction is important, because the long timetable was by design. The Pelicans have been extra careful with Williamson. They’ve attempted to re-program how Williamson moves around the floor and protect him as much as possible from serious injury. 

At the direction of the Pelicans’ training staff, led by newly-hired VP of Player Care, Aaron Nelson, Williamson needed to reach a series of biomechanical benchmarks in order to get cleared to play. The regimen was mocked by Barkley on TNT, but Williamson said his body “does feel a lot better” on a revealing episode of the JJ Redick Podcast.

“I think the biggest challenge has been just the challenge of rehab,” Williamson said. “You know how tough it is, for hours, people watching you, how you land, how you bend when you do this motion -- over and over? ‘Make sure that knee doesn’t cave in. Make sure it stays out. Make sure it’s above the third toe. Make sure you’re standing straight. Land like this.’ Even when I’m out on the court, it’s still the same thing.”

This is all part of VP of Basketball Operations David Griffin’s plan. Months before Williamson underwent knee surgery, Griffin (no relation to Blake) said the team would exercise “an abundance of caution” when it came to Williamson’s health. At the behest of Griffin, who was hired in April, the team had already invested in a multi-million-dollar upgrade of its practice facility and pried Nelson away from the Phoenix Suns to oversee their player health department.

"I feel like the whole vibe, the whole attitude in the facility and with the staff has just been different," point guard Jrue Holiday told ESPN recently. "It definitely feels like people are ready and excited. It's been like that ever since Griff has come into place."

Still, executives around the league have been surprised at how guarded the Pelicans have been with their prized rookie. The team shut Williamson down for the entire Vegas Summer League with a bruised knee after just nine minutes of action. Following the meniscus tear, the official six-to-eight week timetable turned into more than three months on the sidelines. And less than two months into rehab, the team had already ruled him out of playing in back-to-backs, at least initially, upon his return. 

David Griffin has said many times this year that he has never seen a player like Zion Williamson, who is 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds. He claims that Williamson has more lateral quickness than any point guard that has played under him. Keep in mind, Griffin has led or been a part of front offices that employed Kyrie Irving, Steve Nash, Stephon Marbury and Jason Kidd. More mobility than those guys? 

“Yes,” Griffin told me recently. "Without a doubt.”

It remains to be seen how Williamson will fare with the “abundance of caution” approach. But even if Williamson faces chronic knee issues, the Blake Griffin comparison could prove to be an illuminating one for Williamson’s development.

No knee or body is the same, but in surveying executives around the league about what to expect with Williamson’s injury, Griffin’s name popped more often than any player as a reference point. Dating back to college, here’s a history of Griffin’s knee problems: a sprained MCL in his left knee in 2008; a torn meniscus in his right knee in 2008; a broken kneecap in his left knee in 2010; a torn meniscus in his left knee in 2012; a surgical clean-up in his right knee in 2016; another sprained MCL in his left knee in 2017; another torn meniscus in his left knee in 2019; and finally, earlier this month, season-ending surgery to remove a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Knee injuries are rarely a one-time deal (see: Derrick Rose), but players can overcome them and still play at a high-level. Early in his career after a series of knee issues, Griffin was still a wrecking ball around the rim. In his second season, when Lob City became a national sensation, one out of every five of Griffin’s baskets was a dunk, according to Basketball Reference tracking.

But as knee injuries took their toll, Griffin altered his game to be more grounded, yet no less effective. Last season, Griffin dunked the ball once out of every 33 baskets, but he was still an All-Star averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists at the age of 29. Now, instead of a high-flying trapeze artist, Griffin functioned more as a point forward in the Pistons’ offense and made more 3-pointers (189) than any power forward or center last season.

In Wednesday’s debut, Williamson showed his capacity to be that type of player for New Orleans right now. Though the world wanted to see him fly all over the floor, Williamson spent most of his time on Wednesday facilitating for others (Pels coach Alvin Gentry, in his mid-game interview, noted that a nervous Williamson was playing “so conservative.”). 

A couple possessions stood out above the rest. In the second quarter, while playing nominally as the Pelicans’ center, Williamson grabbed a rebound, dribbled up the floor as the de-facto point guard and drove right into LaMarcus Aldridge in the lane. When the Spurs player collapsed around Williamson, he left his feet and improvised by kicking it out to a wide-open E’Twaun Moore, who clanked an easy 3-pointer. Good process, bad result. 

Williamson’s trust in his teammate would be rewarded later. Early in the fourth quarter, after skying over Jakob Poeltl for a defensive rebound, again as the Pelicans' center, Williamson led a fastbreak in the open court and threw an absolute laser to a slashing Moore. This time, Moore finished at the rim for Williamson’s third assist of the night. While it was obvious Williamson was rusty after missing three-plus months, his feel for the game jumped off the screen. Plays like those Moore setups demonstrate Williamson’s vision and knack for a Griffin-like evolution as a player. 

Like those passes, Williamson’s most insightful moments Wednesday were not the high-flying leaps but rather the things he did in between. The Spurs practically begged him to take 3-pointers and Williamson stepped into them with confidence, splashing all of them through the net. The doubters who think he’s just a dunker? This was a reckoning.

Gentry pulled Williamson amid his supernova run to protect him from overdoing it in his debut, much to the chagrin of many on the broadcast and on Twitter. But medical staffs are there for a reason. With all the hand-wringing about Williamson’s minutes restriction and their comprehensive approach that drew Barkley’s ridicule, I thought about something Doc Rivers told me in 2017. This was right after Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers and invested heavily in sports science and player health following Donald Sterling’s infamous bargain-basement reign. Rivers said the Clippers “were just behind” in the sports science and training staff, noting that Sterling would only pay for one trainer and one physical therapist. (The Pelicans currently have nine such staffers).

Sitting in his Staples Center office, I asked Rivers whether he thought Griffin’s long line of leg injuries were preventable if the franchise had invested real dollars in player health. He stammered for a while.

"With Blake, you know ... you never know. Like, if we ... I don't know. I mean, I actually think Blake's ... you couldn't have ... I think Blake's was probably -- I always say that if you miss games, and he missed with his [broken] hand, then when you come back, everything falls apart next. He had what we call 'one of those years.' And there was nothing you could do about it."

And then Rivers paused.

"But you still wonder, like, if there was ... would we have been ready to do it?"

Hello Zion, the floor-spacer

Williamson’s four triples on Wednesday were a revelation. The Spurs dared him to shoot and he did, splashing every shot as the Smoothie King Center erupted. 

What’s interesting about Zion’s 3-pointer spree is that it came when he was playing the center spot with the second unit. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. When playing next to the starting unit of Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Derrick Favors, Williams looked like he was in second gear for much of the night.

As the focal point with the reserves, Williamson broke out. He’ll need to find his spots next to the starters, but I’m not worried about that, considering what we saw in the preseason. Even if he doesn’t consistently hit those 3-pointers yet, he can still be a terror on the perimeter.

Back in 2014, cutting-edge numbers from fancy new player-tracking cameras revealed that Dwyane Wade was an elite floor-spacer. At first blush, this didn’t make sense. Wade wasn’t a great 3-point shooter -- not even a good one. And yet, Wade was treated with the same respect as sharpshooters Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson and J.J. Redick. 

What was happening? Well, Wade was spacing the floor, but not as a 3-pointer. Instead, Wade was causing havoc as a devastating cutter to the rim. Fall asleep even for a second and Wade would dart to the rim for a soaring bucket. If defenders didn’t pay him appropriate attention at the 3-point line, he burned them so often that over time, those sagging defenders adjusted and stuck to him like glue. 

And it drove Wade crazy.

“I’m just like, ‘Damn, did I just start shooting 3s and I didn’t know about it?’,” he told me at the time.

Just like Wade, Williamson will soon have the gravitational pull of the sun. The Pelicans suspect it already. Watch their actions off the ball and you’ll see how Williamson’s cutting abilities will transform him into a devastating floor-spacer -- even if he doesn’t hit a 3-point shot.

When defenders shaded off of Williamson in the corner in his preseason slate of four games, the Pelicans liked to have their center, whether it was Favors or Jahlil Okafor, screen Williamson’s sagging defender. The result was almost always a bucket, because it gave Williamson a runway to play downhill. And if you give Williamson a runway, he will launch himself above the defense.

In the preseason, on five off-ball screens for Williamson where he started beyond the 3-point line, the rookie generated five layups, totaling eight points in all, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Flat-footed defenders in his way posed as mere traffic cones. The alternative is defenders stick to Williamson and hope that he can’t break free as easily. 

You may be able to give Williamson the Rajon Rondo treatment on the ball and dare him to shoot. The Spurs did it four times on Wednesday and paid dearly before Williamson checked out (thanks, minutes restriction!).

But off the ball? He can be a nightmare for opponents, even without a knockdown 3-point shot at his disposal. Just ask Dwyane Wade.

Will Zion push the Pelicans into the playoffs?

After Wednesday’s loss, the Pelicans are now 4.5 games behind the Spurs, who sit in sole possession of the No. 8 seed in the West. That’s a noteworthy gap, but Williamson was good enough in his debut to give New Orleans reason to believe that it can make up the deficit by April. 

Buckle in because there is still a very real chance that we’ll be gifted an Anthony Davis Bowl playoff, with New Orleans facing Davis’ top-seeded Los Angeles Lakers in the first-round. 

To get into the playoffs, the Pelicans would have to leapfrog four other teams: Memphis, Phoenix, Portland and San Antonio, just to get there. And yet, FiveThirtyEight.com’s projections have the Pelicans as 53-percent favorites to get into the postseason. 

It all has to do with the schedule. 

Expecting to have box-office-superstar Williamson healthy, the NBA heavily scheduled the Pelicans against marquee teams in their early primetime slate. The result was a brutally-difficult schedule in the opening months without one of the Pelicans’ best players. But that also means the Pelicans are facing the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in the NBA.

The Pelicans have already said that they’re planning to rest Williamson during back-to-backs, but they only have three of those sets left on the schedule, with the next one not until early March. If Williamson sits the second night of those three back-to-backs and plays 34 of the Pelicans’ final 37 games, they should be doing backflips. 

Integrating a star midseason is always tricky without the ramp up of training camp and preseason. Paul George didn’t make his Clippers debut until a month into the season due to shoulder rehab and is now nursing a nagging hamstring injury that has sidelined him for seven of the last eight games. Kyrie Irving is also dealing with a sore hamstring after playing four games following a two-month layoff with a hurt shoulder.

Soft-tissue injuries like a strained hamstring are the things that keep trainers up at night, because those are usually caused by overuse. The Pelicans can certainly make a playoff push if Williamson plays like he did on Wednesday. But Griffin’s revamped staff will certainly be monitoring Williamson’s workload going forward -- and with good reason.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Steph Curry, NBA world facing harsh reality of coronavirus lockdown

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NBC Sports

Steph Curry, NBA world facing harsh reality of coronavirus lockdown

Brandon Payne is looking at RV rentals. Daily rates, weekly rates -- anything to help him get through the NBA’s COVID-19 hiatus. 

Since 2011, Payne has been Stephen Curry’s personal trainer and coach for Curry’s Underrated international tour, staying by the star’s side and coaching him through the highs and lows of his storied career. When Payne can’t be with Curry in person, the 40-year-old father of two sons, Carson, 12, and Collin, 9, uses text messages to stay connected from across the country. 

Payne doesn’t know when he’s going to be with Curry again. Payne’s company, Accelerate Basketball, is based in the Charlotte suburbs of Fort Mill, S.C., where Payne and his family live, just outside where Curry grew up and attended college at Davidson. Curry is currently following California’s stay-at-home order at his Bay Area home, a mandate that will likely last beyond April, according to California governor Gavin Newsom.

It’s a rainy Monday night in Charlotte and Payne can’t believe how quickly things have deteriorated. Less than four weeks ago, Payne had flown out to San Francisco to help prepare Curry for his return from a broken hand and then to Dallas for Curry’s next Underrated tour stop. 

Now, Payne is thinking about how to keep the lights on at Accelerate. 

Over the years, with Payne having to spend more and more time in Oakland and San Francisco working with Curry, hotel stays stopped making financial sense. In 2016, Payne signed a lease on a no-frills, one-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek, Calif., that costs him about $3,000 a month -- a relative steal in the Bay Area, home to some of the priciest rental markets in the country.

With the NBA season in jeopardy and money getting tighter, Payne is trying to break that month-to-month lease and recover his belongings, a transaction that must be done in person. Months ago, that task seemed simple and straightforward. Get in an Uber, go to Charlotte International Airport, hop on a cross-country flight, snag a hotel. 

But in this climate, each stop on that itinerary makes Payne’s skin crawl. How do I get across the country without potentially exposing myself to the pandemic? 

To Payne, airports, planes and hotels are out of the question, so he’s researching RV rental rates so he can have a place to sleep on the 2,700-mile trek from Charlotte to the Bay Area. 

“I’ve learned very quickly, it’s not a cheap venture,” Payne says of the RV option.

The economic realities of the coronavirus pandemic are setting in. Curry is just one of Payne’s clients, ranging from six-year-olds to NBA draft prospects to NBA superstars. On a typical week, he and his staff will train hundreds of local young athletes at the small halfcourt gym housed inside a nondescript warehouse district. But with coronavirus spreading around the country, Payne had to take precautions to protect his clients from getting sick.

Normally, Payne supplies jump ropes, basketballs and tennis balls for his athletes. But on Monday, he texted, emailed and made phone calls to parents about an updated protocol. If anyone in a client’s household had traveled in the past 14 days or gotten sick in any way, Payne kindly asked them to stay home. He assured them that their paid sessions and packages would be honored in full at a later date.

If they were able to come, he wrote to them, be prepared for a different environment.

“We had a staffer standing at the door with hand sanitizer so that every person that walked in was hit with hand sanitizer,” Payne says.

The athletes were instructed to bring their own basketball, their own jump rope and be ready to do drills in a socially-distant manner, separated 6-to-10 feet from other athletes and receiving hands-off instruction from trainers standing across the room. Under normal circumstances, the players would train with two basketballs, dribbling with each hand. 

These weren’t normal circumstances. Only one ball, your own, to be safe. After each training session, Payne closed the gym and his staff wiped down every inch of the place to disinfect it. Then, they opened up the doors and repeated the process for the next round of workouts.

That was Monday night.

On Tuesday morning, after seeing the coronavirus spread in his county and news of a shelter-in-place rule being enforced in 48 hours, Payne closed his doors. He laid off four of his six staffers. Temporarily, he assured them. He’d reassess every two weeks.

“Very tough, emotional day,” Payne texted me.

The Walnut Creek apartment never seemed so far.

* * * 

Ask NBA athletes and coaches about whether they’ve experienced anything quite like this and most will point to the 2011 lockout. For months, players waited in limbo as the league and the NBA Players Association negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. 

During the lockout, players were free to engage in grassroots pick-up games, train with personal coaches and work on their craft as long as they weren’t using NBA facilities. They stayed in shape by playing in regular five-on-five charity games around the country. At one point, LeBron James and Kevin Durant faced off in a “Team LeBron vs. Team Durant” flag football game at the University of Akron that was streamed online.

That’s actually when Curry and Payne first met at Accelerate, introduced by one of Payne’s clients and former NBA player Gerald Henderson, who was a member of the Charlotte Bobcats at the time. Curry has been with Payne ever since.

Of course, “social distancing” wasn’t exactly part of the cultural lexicon in 2011.

Players these days can only dream about such gatherings. Late last week, after several NBA players and staffers tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA sent a league memo to its 30 teams ordering them to close their training and practice facilities to all players and staff. The league also prohibited players from using public facilities like high school or college gyms to train. 

The NBA is not a social-distance friendly sport. As such, the basketball world has been in the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic. For at least one epidemiologist, the NBA’s decision to suspend its season on March 11 became a pivotal moment in the United States’ battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, signaling the severity of the crisis. NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s decision at least partially inspired other leagues, including the NHL and MLB, to put their seasons on hold, while the NCAA canceled March Madness entirely.

On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke at a press conference and urged New Yorkers to exercise outside in solitude rather than participating in team sports.

“You want to go for a walk? God bless you. You want to go for a run? God bless you,” Cuomo said. “There (should be) no group activity in parks. All sorts of kids playing basketball (on Saturday). I play basketball; there is no concept of social distancing while playing basketball. It doesn’t exist. You can’t stay six feet away from people playing basketball. You can, but then you’re a lousy basketball player and you’re going to lose.”

How do basketball players stay in shape when the simple act of playing basketball violates nearly all social distancing rules?

It’s a riddle that Payne is trying to solve for his NBA clients, most notably Curry. 

* * *

Inside the confines of a reported $31 million home he purchased last summer, Curry is keeping busy. 

Alongside his wife Ayesha and three young kids home from school, Curry is using his platform for philanthropic and civic causes. On Thursday, he hosted an Instagram Live Q&A with NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who may be the most sought-after doctor in the country (Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, Andre Iguodala and Common were just some of the names who dropped by). Two days after the NBA suspended the season, Curry and his wife Ayesha posted a video announcing their donation through their Eat Learn Play foundation to help ensure 18,000 Oakland children would have meals after schools were shut down. 

But Curry’s athletic pursuits have been minimal. Last Friday, while wearing a hoodie, sweat shorts and house slippers, Curry holed a trick shot with a wedge, ricocheting a golf ball off the inside of his front door and into a clear, plastic cup -- a video that generated almost 2 million views. Basketball hasn’t been on his mind much, according to Payne.

“To be honest with you, we’ve talked more about the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback situation than we’ve talked about anything else,” Payne says with a laugh. “We talked a little bit about workouts and what he can do, but it’s not a whole lot right now.”

Curry does have a workout-friendly basement that rivals a luxury hotel fitness center, but he doesn’t have an indoor court on which he can do basketball-specific training. Contrary to popular belief, almost no NBA players do. 

According to league sources, players are scrambling to find private indoor gyms in their cities during the lockdown. One NBA team, multiple league sources say, had to reprimand one of its players after seeing a social media post of him working out with several athletes in a private gym over the weekend, a violation of the league’s and public health officials’ social-distancing guidelines.

“Stephen is fortunate because he’s got a larger home with a workout area with some pretty nice equipment in it,” Payne says. “He’ll be able to maintain things physically pretty well because he’s got the tools to do so. Some of the other guys I’ve been talking to? They’re a little bit more challenged.”

Most of Payne’s NBA clients are younger and live in luxury apartment complexes or condo buildings in their team’s city, not in spacious homes in the suburbs. Payne has asked his clients to send photos and videos of their living areas in order to customize workout programs for their limited space. 

One young NBA player sent him a video of his apartment complex’s fitness room. Not an option, Payne told him, strongly discouraging him from using that space due to concerns of infection. To try to compensate, Payne has been on the phone with players’ agents working to get his clients the athletic equipment they need during the layoff. At the top of the list are home-friendly TRX resistance bands and stationary bikes “where they’re able to get some hard cardio in without disturbing the people under them.”

“Even if you have a common area where you can get shots up, we’re learning that this thing can live on surfaces, sometimes days at a time depending on the type of surface,” Payne says. “You don’t know who’s been in there and who they’ve been around. It’s just very uncertain.”

Across the NBA, it’s becoming clear that the biggest obstacle -- beyond being limited to the space in your own home -- is uncertainty. Not just in the nature of the virus, but also the NBA’s undetermined schedule. 

As the coronavirus crisis unfolds across the country, players have no idea when the season will restart -- if at all. Silver said last Wednesday it was too early to speculate on a return date. Looking at other top basketball leagues around the world dealing with the pandemic, prospects of a quick return aren’t good. 

The Korean Basketball League canceled the rest of its season and the Chinese Basketball Association has pushed back its possible return date again to May 15, which would make for a four-month hiatus from play. For perspective, such a layoff would mean a mid-July return for the NBA. 

It could also be sooner. ESPN recently reported that NBA owners and executives viewed a possible mid-to-late June return “as a best-case scenario.” One such owner, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, said on Tuesday he was hopeful the NBA season would resume in mid-May based on his conversations with the CDC. 

Without a hard return date in mind, players trying to stay in shape are essentially shooting in the dark.

“The target date is what sets everything,” Payne says. “It’s your North Star. It’s what you base everything off of. You set your work schedule, your rest periods, how heavily you load, how lightly you load, how many days off you get. Everything is based off that date.”

* * * 

There was speculation that Curry wanted to return during the regular season so he could prepare for the Summer Olympics, but Payne insists that wasn’t a factor. Curry has never participated in the marquee global event, which was set to take place in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9, but has since been postponed to 2021. Curry did win gold medals with two World Cup teams in 2010 and 2014 but sat out in 2016 Olympics in Rio to fully recover from ankle and knee issues.

This time around, Curry is rehabbing back from a different kind of injury, luckily not to his ankle and knee joints. In October, Curry broke his hand and required surgery and an additional procedure to make sure his bones were in place. He has since experienced mild numbness as a result of some lingering nerve damage.

It was hard to tell that it affected him at all in his Mar. 5 return from a 58-game absence. Curry tallied 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in just 27 minutes of action against the Toronto Raptors.

“For Stephen, the silver lining for him is that that hand gets a little bit longer (time) to round back into form and get that thing feeling exactly how he wants it to feel before he gets back out there,” Payne says. “And he gets more time with his family. That’s what we all really need to be thinking about.”

Payne has been splitting his time between taking care of his sons and getting to the Accelerate office, where he’s working to digitize his business. 

Last Friday, he gave a 75-minute Powerpoint talk on a virtual basketball coaches clinic site detailing Curry’s workout regimen, focusing on neuromuscular development, proprioception and strategies to game-ify workouts. Beyond virtual clinics, Payne is putting together workout video breakdowns on social media of Curry’s past training sessions with Luka Doncic and other star players. Everything is going online.
 
“As a coach, you’ve never had this amount of time to sit down and improve,” Payne says. “For most (coaches and trainers), this is going to be a really difficult time. It’s going to be extremely difficult. The hard point is, there’s going to be the temptation (to hold workouts and practices) because there’s going to be some players that are going to want to work out no matter what. And you have to balance the responsible decision with the decision that most affects your pockets.”

On Thursday morning, Charlotte-Mecklenburg county implemented a stay-at-home order, ensuring that most of Payne’s Charlotte-bound clients would be limited to virtual sessions, none at Accelerate. It’s not certain when they’ll be allowed to return to the gym or when Payne can re-hire his staff. Or when he can get to Walnut Creek to retrieve his things.  

Or when he can train Curry again in person.

“There’s so much uncertainty right now, not only with my business, but are NBA players going to get paid past this next pay period? What does that look like? What do my clients have (in their savings)? Will they continue to pay me? Those are the questions I have. If I can save that money for the next three to six months, then that’s what I need to do.

“For the foreseeable future, with what’s in front of us right now, money coming in is going to be pretty tight. That’s reality.”

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Why the NBA cancelled Kings-Pelicans amid coronavirus chaos

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NBC Sports

Why the NBA cancelled Kings-Pelicans amid coronavirus chaos

When the sun rose over Sacramento last Wednesday, thousands of local residents woke up with little idea that the NBA world was about to change. 

For Kings fans, the date had been circled on their calendars for months. NBA sensation Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans were in town to play the hometown team, and on national TV no less -- the only time this season the small-market Kings would be broadcast to the entire country. And then there’s this: With only a month left in the regular season, the Pelicans and the Kings were both jockeying for a playoff spot. The winner of the game would move into ninth place, just three games back of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies.

This game was big, but something way bigger was happening all around them. 

At roughly 9:15 a.m. local time Wednesday morning, news began to break on a global scale. World Health Organization chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held a press conference at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, announcing that the global COVID-19 outbreak, also referred to as the coronavirus, was officially a pandemic. The WHO announced that, in the previous two weeks, the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold.

In Sacramento, the WHO’s statement suddenly put the state of that very important Kings-Pelicans game into a different focus. Would the game -- scheduled to tip off about 10 hours later at 7:30 p.m. PT -- even be played?

The possibility of going on hiatus had been rumored in recent days as the NBA sent numerous memos to teams about its plans surrounding the evolving coronavirus situation. The day before the Pelicans-Kings game, the Golden State Warriors announced that they’d play their next game, a Thursday tilt against the Brooklyn Nets, in an empty Chase Center -- the first team to take that step. Sacramento’s arena, the Golden 1 Center, was only 85 miles up the road.

Later that afternoon, an answer: The Kings announced at 4:25 p.m. that, after consulting with local public health officials, the game would go on as planned -- with fans in the arena. 

The Kings would not take the same measures as their NorCal neighbors, but the announcement did carry the following warning: “Sacramento County Public Health guidance states that individuals considered high-risk, those over 60 years old, and anyone with an underlying chronic health condition or compromised immune system should avoid large public gatherings.”

In other words: game on, but be careful. So, the Pelicans and the Kings arrived at the arena as normal. Ninety minutes before tipoff, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry took questions from the media as part of his normal pregame routine and was asked about the possibility of playing in front of empty arenas.

“You don’t want to play a basketball game with empty seats,” said Gentry, who, at 65 years old, was above the Sacramento County Public Health department’s recommended age threshold. “However, I think it’s also important to understand this isn’t a minor thing by any stretch of the imagination. Not just in this country, but in the world, you have to do whatever you have to, to contain it or to manage it as much as you possibly can. It’s going to take some drastic measures and this may be one of them.”

Outside of the press room, fans began to fill the Golden 1 Center. For those inside the arena, it became clear that the 17,600-seat arena was going to be packed -- coronavirus scare or not.

Only one small thing: The New Orleans Pelicans never emerged from the tunnel for pregame warmups. Instead, Pelicans players, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, were still inside the visiting locker room, digesting what they just saw. 

* * *

At 6:27 p.m., just over an hour before the scheduled tipoff, a bombshell hit the NBA world via Twitter and reached the Pelicans’ locker room within seconds. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and the game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, which had been delayed for unknown reasons, was immediately called off. As the Pelicans began to wrap their heads around what was transpiring, it occurred to them that their next stop on the road trip was, as luck would have it, Utah.

Things moved too quickly for that thought to linger much longer. Four minutes later, the NBA announced a monumental decision to suspend the season indefinitely. Madness ensued across the league. 

The league statement said the NBA would close its doors at the conclusion of the night’s remaining games. Four games were ongoing, including Nuggets-Mavericks, which, at the time, was on the TVs in the Pelicans’ locker room. It was the ESPN lead-in for their own game.

With Utah-OKC nixed, the Pelicans realized that only one game remained on the night’s schedule, their own. 

In effect, the league decided that Pelicans-Kings was worth playing despite the positive test. Twelve minutes after the NBA announced it was suspending the season, the Pelicans’ official Twitter feed announced the game would still go on, citing the league’s statement.

But behind the scenes, something was awry. Fifty-five minutes after the Pelicans’ tweet stating that the game was on, the Pelicans tweeted that the game was off. 

* * *

NBA referees have a demanding schedule. Like players and teams, they jet around the country during the season working multiple games a week, totaling up to 60-plus games a season. But  NBA officials aren’t afforded all of the luxury accommodations that teams and players have. NBA teams fly via private charters; NBA referees fly commercial. 

On Wednesday night, Pelicans-Kings would be staffed by three referees who flew in for the game: crew chief Marc Davis, Courtney Kirkland and Justin Van Duyne. Referees stick together on the road and largely keep to themselves. In every NBA arena, the referee crew is given their own private locker room and are collectively ushered to, and from, the court by local police for security purposes. 

Inside the bowels of the Golden 1 Center, news about Gobert’s positive test began to spread as staffers stood around discussing what it meant for the night’s game. Multiple sources confirmed that shortly after the Gobert news broke, two referees emerged from the referee locker room and it was communicated that a third referee hung back because he had officiated the Jazz just two days prior, on Monday night. 

The Pelicans’ security personnel were alerted, sources said, and they immediately began communicating that information to the team’s front office members, who were congregated elsewhere in the arena.

Pelicans executives huddled up and grabbed their phones, quickly looking up recent Jazz box scores to confirm the information that had been relayed to them. And there it was: On Monday night, two days prior to this game, Courtney Kirkland had officiated the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz game in Salt Lake City.

That wasn’t just any game. In that heated contest between championship hopefuls, Gobert was ejected by officials after a late-game scuffle with Raptors guard O.G. Anunoby. When a physical confrontation between Gobert and Anunoby started to escalate, two officials, one of which was Kirkland, sprinted into action and physically intervened to separate Gobert and Anunoby, prying the two players away from each other. 

At that moment, the Pelicans’ executives weren’t aware of that ejection sequence where bodies mixed together, but in their minds, it didn’t matter. If Kirkland officiated Gobert recently, the risk of infection was too great.

“We have to shut this down,” a Pelicans executive told his fellow staffers. 

There were only about 20 minutes remaining until tipoff, according to those present. Upon learning of Kirkland’s exposure to an infected player, Pelicans staffers walked to the visitor’s locker room and informed the players. One player wondered aloud, according to sources, “What’s the point of even playing this game?” It was decided as a team that they wouldn’t participate in the game, according to sources. Remain in the locker room, team officials instructed.

Meanwhile, on the court, the Kings continued to warm up. Referee crew chief Marc Davis and his colleague Justin Van Duyne stood at the scorer’s table, noticeably without Kirkland present. Davis spoke into a cell phone while Van Duyne waited at his side. From that nucleus at the scorer’s table, word began to trickle out that the game would be canceled due to Kirkland’s exposure. Both the national and local broadcast teams discussed Kirkland and the game’s postponement openly on air.

Suddenly, Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball walked out of the tunnel and began warming up with an assistant coach, creating the impression that perhaps the game would go on. Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram later joined him on the court. Two Kings ballboys rebounded for Ball. Blue latex gloves covered their hands as they passed him the ball.

Moments later, Gentry emerged from the Pelicans’ locker room. He walked with a member of the Pelicans’ media relations team who had crossed his arms to signify to the surrounding media and game personnel. The game was off.

At center court, Kings public address announcer Scott Moak was handed a piece of paper. Moak began to read from the document, speaking into the microphone for the packed arena to hear.

“Ladies and gentlemen, out of an abundance of caution, at the direction of the National Basketball Association, tonight’s game has been postponed,” the announcement began to bellow in the arena. “We ask that you please exercise caution when leaving the arena.”

The Golden 1 Center crowd booed, nearly drowning out the audio from the on-air broadcasts. Security personnel herded the Kings players and Ball off the floor. With the announcement becoming official, the two Pelicans players walked back into the tunnel. Williamson and the rest of the team never took the court.

In the stands, a young girl in a Zion Williamson Pelicans jersey was shown in tears. There would be no game that night. Everyone went home.

* * *

How much risk is too much? It’s a question the Pelicans asked themselves inside at Golden 1 Center and in the hours and days since leaving Sacramento. It’s a question that we’re all asking ourselves. At what point does the risk of infection outweigh the benefit of proceeding with everyday life?

When the news of Gobert’s positive test was publicized, the NBA had some enormous decisions to make. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in talking to the TNT broadcast last Thursday, described the call to suspend the season as a “split-second decision.” All of 240 seconds had transpired between news of Gobert’s positive test and the season being suspended.

But the decision to let the Pelicans-Kings game go on as planned was a deliberate one. Initially, the league felt the risk didn’t reach the critical point of canceling the game. Twelve minutes after the Gobert news became public and 47 minutes before the game was set to take off, the teams had publicly assured fans that, despite the ongoing pandemic and suspension of the season, the nationally-televised game would go on. It wasn’t until word spread of Kirkland’s involvement that things began to change. 

During an interview on ESPN on Wednesday, Silver said he communicated with Kings owner Vivek Ranadive following the news about Gobert about potentially calling off the game. Silver noted being down one referee was a factor, but he ultimately decided to cancel “out of an abundance of caution,” per the league statement. The Pelicans’ refusal to take the court and risk infection more than likely forced his hand.

Like players on the court, officials are susceptible to transmit the virus. Whistles are transferred from hand to mouth and the ball is passed through those same hands. It’s not hard to see why team staffers were concerned about Kirkland’s recent assignment.

Dr. Karen Edwards, the chief epidemiologist at the University of California-Irvine, shares those concerns.

“When you have individuals in close contact with each other where bodily fluids are shared, it certainly increases the risk of transmission,” Edwards said. “I certainly think that having people fly around and coming into contact with lots of other people, this is not going to help reduce the spread of the disease.”

The good news is that the NBA referee union confirmed an ESPN report on Saturday that Kirkland was indeed tested in Sacramento and the results came back negative for the COVID-19 virus. Kirkland reportedly stayed quarantined in his downtown Sacramento hotel room for days until he was cleared.

Since Gobert’s positive test was made public, six other organizations are known to have positive tests including the Brooklyn Nets (four players, including Kevin Durant), Los Angeles Lakers (two unnamed players), Boston Celtics (Marcus Smart), Philadelphia 76ers (three members of the organization), Detroit Pistons (Christian Wood) and Denver Nuggets (unnamed staffer or player). Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive.

On Wednesday night, Silver revealed on ESPN that he wasn’t surprised that the Nets saw positive tests, calling NBA players “super spreaders” because of their travel schedule, age and the fact that they often come in close contact with other individuals and large crowds. He indicated that eight teams have been tested at the recommendation of league doctors and public health officials. 

“We looked at that group of teams that were most proximate to the (Utah Jazz) and the circle expanded from there,” Silver said.

Plenty more have been cleared, including the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors. Mitchell and Gobert were the only positive tests among the 58 members of Utah’s traveling party. As of now, the COVID-19 virus is known to have spread to at least seven of the league’s 30 teams, though we’ve seen varying levels of detail in those positive cases. 

There’s no word on whether other referees have been tested. Sources at the league office and referee union both declined to provide further information, indicating that tests and the results of those tests would be made public at the discretion of the applicable state and local health authorities.

Last Tuesday, the Nets and Lakers played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the end of Brooklyn’s string of five games in eight nights against five different opponents. We now know that between both teams at least a half-dozen players tested positive. According to league data, 15 different referees officiated that five-game stretch for the Nets. And those referees went off to different arenas and worked with different referee crews. It stands to reason that the “super spreaders” label that Silver used to describe NBA players could also be attributed to officials.

When confronted with a positive test exposure, Edwards recommended that the league rewind the calendar 14 days, which is the general incubation period of the novel coronavirus, and analyze players, staffers and referees’ risk for infection across that two-week period. 

“That’s a good rule of thumb,” Edwards said. “The problem is there may have been players or referees that are positive and we just don’t know it because they haven’t been tested. But we don’t have enough testing. This is the problem: When we see a positive case, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Untangle that NBA web long enough and you begin to see why Pelicans officials were so concerned about the league’s initial decision to play the game and why infection curves are so steep.

“This is a good example (of that),” Edwards said. “This is why we see an exponential curve where you start seeing a few cases and then it grows and grows and grows. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I’m going to guess that we are going to see more cases in the NBA. The fact that we’ve seen some, this is just the beginning.”

Edwards believes that the NBA’s decision to suspend the season will be a pivotal moment in the timeline of the United States’ attempts to contain the virus, calling it “the right move” to cancel the Kings-Pelicans game out of an abundance of fear of a recently exposed individual spreading the disease. The silver lining of high-profile players like Gobert and Durant testing positive is that it can be a game-changing lesson for the NBA world and beyond.

Said Edwards: “The message for everybody is, nobody is safe from this. There’s no determination that stars don’t get infected and others do. It’s an equal-opportunity virus and everybody is at risk.”

NBC Sports California Kings Insider James Ham contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter (@James_HamNBCS)Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.