This essentially serves as a 2017 NBA preview. I’ll take a look at who I believe the most interesting player will be for all 30 teams in the coming season. They could interesting for any reason, and they may be interesting only to myself. Hopefully, though, you’ll learn a bit about each player and how they will help decide their team’s fate. The regular season is fast approaching. Let me help you prepare for it.
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Atlanta: Dennis Schroder?
I guess? To call any part of this Hawks team “interesting” is a stretch. I took Schroder here because the team trusted him enough to let Jeff Teague go. Last season didn’t clear up if that was a good call or not on the court. It clearly became the right move in terms of salary once Atlanta shifted into rebuilding mode. Lost in all that chaos was Schroder real improvement. He went from 6 to 78 games started while playing 11 more minutes per game. Even with a bigger workload, his shooting stats all went up a couple points, his Assist% held constant and his Turnover% went down. He’s a solid NBA point guard, something that wasn’t a given a year ago.
Schroder or Kent Bazemore could have gone here. They’re the only meaningful contributors remaining from 2015’s 60-win squad, the only real interesting Hawks team this century. Too bad Atlanta traded Dwight Howard after one season. He may not have been good, or even a positive force in any way, but he was absolutely interesting. Now rookie big man John Collins has to fill that void. He probably won’t be able to, and that might a good thing. Somebody may create some interest here, just not much of it. The most interesting thing of the season happened weeks before it started, when Schroder allegedly got into a brawl in a hookah bar. How very Hawks.
Brooklyn: D’Angelo Russell
The actual most interesting Nets thing this season is where their draft pick will land for Cleveland, but since that’s the draft rights of a man, not a man, it won’t fit this concept. Bummer. The good news is this team is finally clawing its way forward. They’ve taken a gamble and put Russell in charge of it, swapping him for former cornerstone Brook Lopez and starting fresh. Russell wore his welcome out in LA both personally and professionally, but always showed some promise as a real player.
His per game stats from each of his first two seasons are nearly identical. His sophomore year showed better shooting efficiency and an increase in assists. These pushed his Win Shares into a positive number. He’s still glaringly bad at the rim, shooting just over 50%, that’s 10% below league average, while hovering around league average from everywhere else. He can compensate by floating nifty runners in the lane before big men can reach him. There’s stuff to work with here. Free from the Laker chaos and playing with other young players with something to prove, Brooklyn of all places could shockingly give Russell the structure he needs.
Charlotte: Dwight Howard
The Hornets are basically mediocre in all ways and therefore not interesting, but a team with Kemba Walker can’t be boring. It’s just that we know who they are at his point, all the way down the roster. If Malik Monk weren’t hurt, he would go here. Instead, it’s Howard. We definitely know who he is and he knows who he is. We also know what we want him to be and he knows what we want him to be and has refused for years. I’m mostly alone in this by now, but his lack of interest is profoundly interesting to me.
If all the Hornets know who they are and he’s the only big new addition, how does he fit in? Welp. If he could run the pick and roll with Walker that would be terrific. But, uhhh…he doesn’t really like to do that too often. It’d be nice if he could run the pick and roll with Jeremy Lamb or Nic Batum. But, uhhh…yeah. I mean, Marvin Williams and Frank Kaminsky are solid stretch 4s that can give Howard space to work inside when he inevitably demands the ball on the block. Sure, that space would be even better put to use running a pick and roll, creating as many looks for the outside shooters as for Howard. But, uhh…he doesn’t really like t-okay, we’re moving on.
(Even as a Magic fan, I don’t love ragging on and Dwight and I do hope he succeeds. But I reserve my right to take shots at him if they’re rooted in truth. Thank you.)
Chicago: Lauri Markkanen
When you trade away a top-15 NBA player and the best piece you get back is this guy? The 7 footer who shoots threes and we’re not sure what else? Interesting! Well, the piece was the #7 pick, and the Bulls took him while Dennis Smith Jr. and Malik Monk were still available. Sure, they have plenty of other guards already, but if none are any good it won’t hurt to try someone new. Markkanen doesn’t fit perfectly into their current big man situation, anyway.
Can he play with Robin Lopez or do they stagger minutes? Does he play stretch 5 with Bobby Portis or Nikola Mirotic at the 4? Cristiano Felicio is on his way up. The backcourt is in a similar situation. With a glut of players where nobody truly stands out it’ll be tough to find continuity. Will any 5-man lineup crack 150 minutes together? How much will that hurt Markkanen development? He is the first lottery pick of this rebuild, after all, you really can’t let him go to waste. He looked pretty good in Eurobasket, though, whatever that’s worth!
Indiana: Myles Turner
Apologies to Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, who are sure to help the Pacers this season, but the future of the franchise depends on Turner. Nearly 7’ tall, showing a 3-point stroke but still capable of controlling the paint on both ends, his game is already the best case scenario for Markkanen’s. Turner improved in nearly every facet of the game in his second year, but now Paul George is gone. There’s no superstar to lean on, he’s in charge now.
Yet in lineups with Turner and without George last season, offensive efficiency showed almost no change while team shooting percentages actually went up from overall team numbers. Turner doesn’t rack up assists but he’s a team player who keeps the ball moving. He only averages 1.29 seconds per touch and never over-dribbles. He’s an anti-Dwight Howard, basically. Indiana averages a point per each possession Turner got a touch in the paint. The team has several quality players, but they’ll all need to coalesce around Turner to make any noise this season.
Los Angeles Lakers: Julius Randle
There’s another younger, more famous guy on this team that could go here, but you know all about him by now. (Am I talking about Lonzo Ball or Kyle Kuzma, WHO KNOWS ANYMORE.) I’ll focus on Randle, a divisive figure among NBA nerds who aren’t sure if he’s any good. Why? He’s a bit undersized at 6’9” and can’t shoot threes in a league increasingly reliant on stretch 4s. He broke his leg minutes into his rookie season and the next season was dysfunctional at best. But Luke Walton may have rescued Randle from his Byron Scott-induced purgatory.
He doesn’t serve as a roll man all that often but works his way into open spaces as a cutter. He’s improving at turning his touches into points, working his Assist% up to nearly 20% and drawing fouls if he can’t convert himself. In Walton’s offense and playing with Ball, getting open for passes and keeping the ball moving is the entire deal, so he looks ready for that. Defense may always be an issue for a guy the size of LeBron James with agility closer to that of Greg Monroe. But Randle got (extremely) ripped this summer, which will theoretically increase his mobility while maintaining physicality. We’ll see. He’s fighting Larry Nance, Jr. and yes, Kuzma, for a starting spot so he’ll want all the pure athletic ability he can muster.
New York: Frank Ntilikina
Nobody really knows that much about Frank (I’m going to use Frank so I only have to spell the last name that once) which is why he’s the most fascinating part of the Knicks. Kristaps Porzingis is super good and fun, it’s a matter of if the team can use and foster that correctly. Tim Hardaway, Jr. isn’t worth that contract. Courtney Lee, Ramon Sessions and Jarrett Jack aren’t very good anymore. Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott do not equal Carmelo Anthony. Michael Beasley is a little crazy. These are all things that are known.
As for Frank, who knows? He could be the French George Hill or the French Ricky Ledo. Or somewhere between, or better or worse. I honestly have zero idea. He’s a tall PG at 6’6” but also has quickness that could enable him to defend multiple positions, vitally important in the NBA today. He’s shown shooting ability but needs to work on his distribution still. At least I’m pretty sure. I, like everyone else, have only seen video from French leagues against mystery competition.
That was enough to go on for Porzingis, so the Knicks took another gamble. Playing with house money usually isn’t a great idea, like most things the Knicks do. So yeah, Frank should be interesting this year.
Orlando: Elfrid Payton
I told you I’m a Magic fan, so this is a tough one for me. Since the Dwight trade, Orlando has trotted out a series of mediocre-to-good players at best, and I’ve developed Stockholm Syndrome with almost all of them. So not surprisingly, the Elfrid Payton hill is one I’m willing to die on. He’s got a funky, unique style of play, which is a soft way of saying he’s a point guard that can’t shoot. But he’s also got a funky, unique hairstyle, which greatly helps his appeal.
You may not be surprised to find that Payton led the Magic in Win Shares last season, because you didn’t watch the team play, because why would you. But you may be surprised to find he did that while losing his starting spot for all of December. (Serge Ibaka finished third after appearing in only 56 games so that’s…yeah.) This is the duality of Payton. He’ll be below average for long stretches then look like a top-20 point guard like he did for all of the second half last year. He racked up five triple doubles and averaged 8 assists per game in that time. If that is who he really is, and with the open space made by Aaron Gordon finally moving to the 4 spot it’s possible, then Orlando might have something going.
Phoenix: Devin Booker
The list of NBA players who have scored 70 points in a game since 1963 is interesting. The most interesting part of that list is Booker. The most interesting thing about Booker’s 70-point game is that he was 20 years old at the time. If he accomplished that already, what can he do once he’s legally able to buy alcohol? Is his pure scoring ability enough to bring the Suns out of their doldrums?
I mean, probably not. Booker isn’t close to being a positive defender and he’s still on the same team as Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight; you can only get so many shots up with that crowded backcourt rotation. His shot chart is also interesting: he’s better spotting up for three from the right side and creating his own midrange shots on the left side. A big focus area should be his finishing at the rim. He’s below league average there, but should be able to pack more muscle onto his 6’6” frame and learn to convert down low. As good as Booker already is, he has a ways to go to be a leading man on a good team.
Also, his middle name is Armani. I just think that’s worth mentioning. Okay, next.
Sacramento: Skal Labissiere
I couldn’t have guessed this one nine months ago. After Labissiere dropped to 28th in the 2016 draft and began bouncing back and forth from the D-League, it was easy to forget about him. Then Boogie Cousins got traded. That unlikely occurrence this unlikely guy a shot. He only appeared in 33 games, 25 of them coming after the All-Star break. He even started 12 games, including the final 8 of the season. Was this because he proved himself worthy or because the Kings wanted to tank? It could be both!
All Labissiere’s stats must include the Small Sample Size disclaimer, but his games and minutes played are roughly equal to Joel Embiid’s output last season. Per 36 minutes, he averaged 17 and 10 with just over 2 turnovers and under 4 fouls. Embiid logged 29 and 11 with over 5 turnovers and fouls apiece. Labissiere will never have Embiid’s offensive ability or be allowed his 36% Usage Rate, but he won’t ever try to be Embiid, either. He has the build and athleticism to grow into a plus defender as well. Sacramento added quality veterans and the frontcourt is a bit crowded, but if Labissiere’s second half was real, he should have the starting spot locked up.
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