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Williamson, Ball, Cunningham and Holmgren headline list of young NBA comeback hopefuls

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Zion Williamson sprinted down the sideline of an empty practice football field on a campus that houses the headquarters of the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans and NFL's New Orleans Saints.

Nearby, a couple members of the Pelicans' training staff oversaw the injury-plagued forward's offseason conditioning work.

That scene back in August symbolized a substantive change Williamson made in an effort to come back healthy after playing in just 29 games last season because of a hamstring injury. No longer was the 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick spending offseasons away from New Orleans, doing his own thing.

“I wanted change,” Williamson said. “If I wanted to change, I’ve got to do something different. So, I sat down with the Pels and came up with a great plan."

Williamson is among a handful of promising young NBA players aiming to become successful comeback stories this NBA season — from Charlotte's LaMelo Ball, to Detroit's Cade Cunningham and Oklahoma City's Chet Holmgren.

“Those guys can change your organization. They're impact players,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “So, when you're missing them, you're trying to figure out how to make adjustments, generate offense, the style that you want to play. But when you have them and your team is whole ... it gives you a glimpse of what the possibilities are.

“A big part of it is staying healthy, being on the floor,” Green added. “Hopefully, all of those guys do. It's better for the NBA.”

Williamson is entering the first year of a five-year contract extension he signed in July 2022 that could pay him more than $200 million if he remains fit and produces as hoped.

His potential to be a dynamic, high-scoring force has been evident when he's played. He's averaged about 26 points and seven rebounds.

His combination of explosiveness, vertical leap and ball-handling is unusual for a player of his listed size: 6-foot-6, 285 pounds. That's one reason he's captured basketball fans' imagination since his high school days in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and through his lone college season at Duke.

Fans in New Orleans celebrated in the streets when Williamson was drafted, but haven't gotten to see him play much in person. Williamson has played in 114 total games in his first four NBA seasons — 61 during the pandemic-affected 2020-21 season, when arena crowds were limited to just a few thousand per game.

He played 24 games as a rookie — mostly because of a preseason right knee injury — and missed all his third pro season because of a fractured right foot.

This past offseason, Williamson said he “stayed in New Orleans for a big part of the summer, working with the Pels, being on the same page with them,” and “really just locking in to every aspect of my body.”

He made it through the preseason healthy, periodically providing promising, above-the-rim highlights, and is slated to play in the Pelicans' regular season opener in Memphis on Wednesday night.

LAMELO BALL

The Hornets' star point guard played in just 36 games last season because of ankle problems, including a fracture in February that sidelined him the rest of the way. He's back now, albeit in ankle braces.

Ball was among the more productive point guards in the league when he played last season, averaging 23.3 points and 8.4 assists per game. The Hornets averaged 6.8 more points per 100 possessions with Ball on the court.

Charlotte coach Steve Clifford said the Hornets simply can’t win without the 2022 All-Star, who was also the NBA's third overall draft choice in 2020.

“I think that he is ready to take a step,” Clifford said. “When you actually sit in the summer where you can go slower and watch, he was making really good progress in a lot of ways."

CADE CUNNINGHAM

Drafted first overall out of Oklahoma State in 2021, the point guard was limited to 12 games last season by a stress fracture in his left leg.

But Cunningham proclaimed himself “100%” when Pistons training camp began.

Before that, USA Basketball chose Cunningham to join its select team to practice and scrimmage against its World Cup team.

“You saw glimpses of how good he is, and also forecast how good he can be, at the USA deal this summer,” first-year Pistons coach Monty Williams said.

Now Cunningham aims to build upon his first pro season, when he averaged 17.4 points, 5.6 assists and 5.5 rebounds — and was unanimously voted to the NBA All-Rookie first team.

CHET HOLMGREN

Drafted second overall out of Gonzaga in 2022, Holmgren missed his entire rookie season with a lisfranc injury in his right foot.

Now he says he's as ready as he can be to join a team that made last season's Western Conference play-in without him.

When his injury occurred, Holmgren said he was determined not to let "this one bad thing spiral into many bad things and let it accumulate to one big, bad situation.”

This offseason, he was well enough to join Cunningham on USA Basketball's select team.

“I didn’t want to shy away from opportunities to play against good players,” Holmgren said. “I feel like I did a really good job this summer of really calculating where I was playing and the situations and the settings — but still going out and really chasing the competition and opportunity to get better.”

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AP Sports Writers Larry Lage, Steve Reed, and Cliff Brunt contributed.

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/nba