LOS ANGELES -- JJ Redick, a veteran guard for the New Orleans Pelicans, saw the photo.
With NBA teams starting to slowly fill their practice facilities, Pelicans rookie sensation Zion Williamson was back at work, mask on, sleeves off, his muscles exploding out of his hoodie. Williamson was always big. But in this photo, he looked like a bulldozer sculpted down into a Humvee.
"The key for him is his body and just being in shape. As you saw yesterday, it was all over my timeline," Redick said with a laugh. "He looks fantastic."
Before the season shut down March 11 because of the coronavirus, Williamson was dominating. In his first 19 games, Williamson averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds and had New Orleans playing better than .500 ball and pushing for a playoff spot.
Assuming the NBA can withstand the strains put on the league and its plan by COVID-19 and resume play July 30, Williamson will be one of the prominent stars on the court near Orlando, Fla., even though he turns just 20 on Monday.
While the resumption of action will reunite fans with familiar faces -- LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George and Anthony Davis -- it also will showcase a trio of young players all fighting to make their postseason debuts from inside the NBA's bubble in Orlando, Fla.
"With Zion, Luka (Doncic) and Ja Morant, those are great players that are going to be the faces of this league in a couple of years," Milwaukee Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton said. "To have those guys all in one city competing for their first playoff experience, it's going to be fun to see, I think. Exciting times. Hopefully, those guys are in shape and ready to play and put on a show."
It appears all three are.
Morant, in an offseason tradition of players around the league, used his time to put on a dozen pounds of muscle. And Doncic, who was rumored to be out of shape, clarified that his trainer in Slovenia was mistranslated. He's feeling great.
All three players are in position to make the Western Conference playoffs, with Morant's Memphis Grizzlies and Williamson's Pelicans possibly headed for a showdown in the NBA's first play-in tournament for the No. 8 seed.
Williamson is the darling -- he'll be one of the cover athletes of the "NBA 2K" video game series next season -- and his Pelicans are regarded as the favorites to eventually win that final playoff spot. That's how he hopes things play out.
"We're trying to make a playoff push," Williamson said. "And we're trying to get back into our full game condition within those eight games."
Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks will be in the playoffs barring a meltdown in the eight seeding games. Despite traveling home during the shutdown, Doncic said he never considered sitting out the opportunity to finish the season.
"I never hesitated," said Doncic, the rookie of the year last season. "I always wanted to play. I missed basketball a lot. ... There was no question about me."
Somewhat forgotten in this is Morant, the front-runner for this season's rookie of the year, who led the Grizzlies into the No. 8 spot in a remarkable turnaround for a franchise that appeared to be headed for a long rebuild. The break, like it did for everyone, allowed Morant to get healthier -- putting Memphis in a good spot.
"I took it as an opportunity to get better, even if I didn't know how it would play out," he said.
Luka Doncic handles the ball for the Dallas Mavericks on March 11, 2020.
Second-year star Luka Doncic will reach his first playoffs unless things go very wrong for the Mavericks in the eight seeding games.(Ron Jenkins / Associated Press)
"... I feel like I'm in more shape, my knee is feeling way better, no pain or anything. Actually feel like I'm leaving the floor easier and jumping higher. I've just been taking this time to focus on my body and make sure everything is good, so when it's time to go out and play I'll be fine."
With so much uncertain about what the games will look like and with no one knowing for sure which teams were most benefited, or hurt, by the stoppage of the season, maybe a team led by one of the league's young stars can pull off an upset.
All three seem capable.
"We'll see what happens in Orlando," Doncic said.
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