With opening night of another beautiful NBA season upon us, let’s take a look at some players who could really take a step forward this year:
Myles Turner – The 11th overall pick in the 2015 draft, Turner offers a combination of shooting and rim defense that is ideal for today’s NBA. He shot 42.5% on attempts between 16 feet and the three-point line, proving his stroke can translate at this level. In his rookie season he averaged 14.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes of action as the power forward (via NylonCalculus). When moved to Center in smaller, spacier units, though, his averages ballooned to 17.9 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. Indiana allowed reliable veteran Ian Mahinmi to walk in free agency because they knew they needed to open up a bigger role for their young emerging star. Turner has every opportunity to see a breakout sophomore campaign.
Devin Booker – This one feels a little bit cheap since he actually already broke out over the second half of last season, when he averaged over 18 points per game. But he’s the odds on favorite to win Most Improved Player this season so I better put him on this list. He dominated his preseason outings and has already bumped Brandon Knight, who Phoenix gave up a lot to get, to a sixth man role. Booker shows a good understanding of the timing of the NBA game and always seems to be under control – and he can rise up and shoot from anywhere. Of the 74 Kentucky guards on the Suns’ roster, Booker is the best.
Josh Richardson – Opportunity breeds productivity. Miami is desperate for wing scorers, and Richardson has shown flashes of being able to do just that. He started to receive normal minutes over the second half of last season and, in his final 19 games, he shot 52.8% from deep on 3.8 attempts per game and scored double figures in 12 of those games. He has been hampered by a right knee injury in the preseason and will miss the first few games, but when he returns to full strength he should have no problem jumping over the likes of Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson for regular playing time on Miami’s wing.
Tobias Harris – Tobias has been searching for the right fit his entire career. Is he a small forward or power forward? Which wing players in Orlando can he play with? His midseason trade to Detroit solved those issues. According to basketball-reference, he spent 98% of his time at power forward in Stan Van Gundy’s schemes, stabilizing his role. He averaged 16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in 33.4 minutes per game. He also shot a career high 37.5% from behind the arc, and matched a career high assist rate with a career low turnover rate. Oh, and his offensive rating of 120 was 12 points higher than his previous career high. Harris (who oh-by-the-way is somehow still just 24 years old) has finally found his perfect fit with Stan Van Gundy in Detroit, now it’s time for all that talent to shine.
Justin Anderson – We’re digging a little deeper for this one. Don’t expect him to get national recognition in any awards races, but he’ll expand his role in Rick Carlisle’s rotation. Think Al-Farouq Aminu level improvement. In a tiny five game sample size, during the Mavericks’ short playoff stint last season, Anderson averaged 17.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.1 blocks on 46% shooting, per 36 minutes. This displays his versatile skill set and a small glimpse of his potential. But what’s most important here is that Carlisle trusted the rookie with 19 minutes per game in the playoffs. Take a gander at Dallas’ makeshift roster and you’ll see a barren wasteland on the wing. Anderson will get his opportunities, and Rick Carlisle is a wizard at turning crude parts into a well-oiled machine. Anderson upped his three-point shooting from 26% last season, to 30% in the playoffs, to 36% in his seven preseason games. If he can stabilize that percentage to be league average, he becomes a valuable 3-and-D wing for a Mavs team in desperate need of that.
The Lakers’ small-ball unit – D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Luol Deng, Julius Randle
After helping create the death lineup in Golden State, new coach Luke Walton will bring those same small, spacy, playmaking lineup ideals to Los Angeles. And boy does he have some exciting, young pieces to play with. Russell is one of the smoothest pick and roll operators this side of James Harden, and Brandon Ingram has a world of talent just waiting to be unlocked. This team will struggle in the aggregate, but there will be stretches where they look like the next big thing. The Lakers need to preserve their young core and allow internal development to bring them back to prominence.
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