There will be plenty of great storylines to keep an eye on this upcoming NBA season, but today we’ll take a look at some of the players who could potentially be their team’s X-Factor in the 2016-17 campaign. While there are a ton of young talents like Devin Booker (Suns), D’Angelo Russell (Lakers) and Ben Simmons (Sixers) who will be eventually be asked to lead their respective teams in their ongoing rebuild efforts, today’s list features players who are either expected to take that next step forward, entering a new locker room or simply being asked to shoulder a larger portion of the basketball burden for teams with title or playoff aspirations.
Here are the players who could ultimately serve as lightning rods for their each of their respective teams:
#7 – Dennis Schröder – Atlanta Hawks
Schröder is set to take over the starting duties in Atlanta now that Jeff Teague is a member of the Indiana Pacers. He started just six times last season and only 16 times in his career. Head coach Mike Budenholzer must be very comfortable with the idea of placing the added responsibilities on Schröder, but the 22-year-old German-born player has yet to average more than the 20.4 minutes per contest he played in 2015-16 for the Hawks.
His per-100-possession stats (above) look pretty good, but Schröder will have to step up as Atlanta’s floor general as he attempts to also work center Dwight Howard into the action. Regardless of whether you feel Howard is worthy of such considerations at this stage in his career, the 30-year-old big man was clearly brought in to be a key figure and Schröder could go a long way toward controlling the team by keeping Howard and returning big man Paul Millsap as happy as possible. The two of them should balance each other out relatively well, but it will be left to the coaching staff and Schröder (by on-court extension) to make those parts fit as nicely as possible.
#6 – Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
To paraphrase the character Bodie Broadus from HBO’s The Wire, “The Greek Freak… he’s a problem.” Although we can’t necessarily fault you if you’ve failed to keep a close eye on the state of Milwaukee Bucks basketball over the last couple seasons, that won’t stop us from telling you you’re missing out on one of the league’s more intriguing and unique young talents in Antetokounmpo. Below are his stats per-100-possessions:
Antetokounmpo still isn’t where he needs to be when shooting from distance, but he was the 20th-ranked player in the NBA in terms of overall efficiency in 2015-16, according to TeamRankings.com. As you can see from the video above, Antetokounmpo is an absolute nightmare in transition or the open court, and he appears to be growing more comfortable facing up and attacking in the halfcourt set. His shift to a point forward role after the All-Star game earlier this spring seems to have helped with said comfort; the 21-year-old averaged nearly 19 points, 8.8 rebounds and seven assists while blocking 1.9 shots and swiping 1.4 steals per contest over a 29-game stretch to end the year. Head coach Jason Kidd has already declared him the team’s point guard heading into next season.
The timing of the decision is somewhat of a surprise since the team also has Michael Carter-Williams and the recently acquired Matthew Dellavedova, but the move makes sense if you’re Kidd and trying to maximize every position on the court. The Eastern Conference has improved and the path to the postseason certainly won’t be as clear as it was a couple seasons ago, but a strong year from Antetokounmpo could put them back into the discussion.
#5 – Andrew Wiggins – Minnesota Timberwolves
It may surprise some to see Wiggins on this list with Karl-Anthony Towns already being the team’s best player – and one of the league’s more versatile, young big men in general – but newly hired head coach Tom Thibodeau will absolutely need Wiggins to take the next step on both ends of the court and continue to develop into the transformative talent many anticipated him being at this level. At 6’8 and about as rangy as they come, Wiggins has the prototypical swingman’s build for today’s game. You’d like to see him continue to extend his range and get that three-point percentage (30.4 percent for his career) to at least somewhere in the mid-30s, but the real challenge for Thibodeau will be extracting the best defensive player possible out of Wiggins.
Showing flashes of defensive prowess at times, Wiggins has yet to find a way to maintain a balance of intensity and focus on that end as of yet. Those are areas you wouldn’t expect to be issues on a Thibodeau-coached team, so the hope would be that guys like Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and Ricky Rubio (if he’s around) will embrace the challenge of being asked to compete on the defensive end on a nightly basis. The Wolves are expected to be an improved lot, but for them to truly compete for a playoff spot in this Western Conference mix, they’ll obviously need a each of those players to collectively progress. However, they’ll specifically need Wiggins to cause match-up issues for opposing teams all while being a problem solver on the perimeter in a conference full of wings scorers.
For anyone concerned about Wiggins’ durability since Thibodeau often asks a lot of his players, the 21-year-old has already averaged 35.7 minutes per contest and has played in 163 of a possible 164 games.
#4 – Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic
After a few years of aiming for (and missing) the postseason in the East, it appears the Magic have finally added the right blend of talent to make that a realistic possibility. Along with the shift toward newly hired head coach Frank Vogel’s preferred style of play, the frontcourt positions were each bolstered by the additions of Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo (to backup Nikola Vucevic).
Gordon was already reportedly slated for the small forward position in the starting lineup, but he spent the summer continuing to work on his shooting and playmaking and sounds as confident as ever about the idea of attacking and slashing from the wing.
The one area where Gordon can be instantly more impactful is on the defensive end. At 6’9 and in the best shape of his career, Gordon possesses the athleticism and natural defensive instincts to defend as many as four positions at a highly effective level. His per-100-possession stats (seen above) project to be impressive. He should earn additional playing time under Vogel, and there’s a feeling that he could really excel playing alongside Ibaka. If Gordon can fully tap into his ability to be a flat-out disruptive force on the defensive end, then it should provide him enough opportunities to make an impact in the open court and semi-transition, especially as he continues to adjust to life at the three and attacking primarily from the wing in the halfcourt set.
For Orlando to stand a chance at improving enough in year one of Vogel’s tenure to truly get into an improved East’s playoff race, Gordon will need to play a huge part of that progression in a jack-of-all-trades role not unlike the one Shawn Marion played for the Phoenix Suns about a decade ago.
#3 – Rodney Hood – Utah Jazz
After a strong finish to 2014-15 followed by just narrowly missing the 2015-16 postseason, the Utah Jazz now find themselves not only poised to break through and return to playing beyond the regular season for the first time since 2012, but maybe even in position to challenge for a top-six spot that would allow them to avoid the top two seeds in the opening round. While we won’t get ahead of ourselves by predicting any playoff openers from Salt Lake just yet, one player who could really be a determining factor for their overall success could be Hood. Gordon Hayward remains the team’s “go-to” guy on most nights, while Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are the anchors below the basket, but the up-and-coming shooting guard could be the guy who puts them over the top if he’s able to somehow duplicate last season’s rate of progress.
Playing alongside dozens of the league’s best players and sharpening his craft as a member of USA’s Select Team certainly shouldn’t hurt, as younger guys have consistently shown progress and growth after participating in the workouts and training camps. Here are his per-100-possession numbers throughout his career:
Even with the addition of veteran Joe Johnson over the offseason, there should be enough minutes between the shooting guard and small forward positions so all the swingmen are kept heavily in the mix. He nearly doubled his output in certain areas (and increased or improved in just about every aspect) from year one to his sophomore campaign.
Upgrading the point guard position with a defensive presence like George Hill and a healthy Dante Exum looking to return to the fold was key for Utah. But to truly compete this postseason, it will come from continuing to strengthen from within. Hood presents their most promising prospect of a player who can ascend to an even higher level of play in a relatively short period of time.
#2 – Derrick Rose – New York Knicks
Rose was mocked for his assertion that the Knicks could be one of the league’s upcoming “super teams,” and while health will obviously play a considerable role in such a proclamation coming to fruition, we can’t necessarily fault the seven-year veteran for expressing confidence in his new surroundings. When you consider that the 2015-16 season was about as strong and consistent a year as we’ve seen from Rose in at least four seasons, and it’s easy to see why he’s feeling optimistic again. His 66 games played were by far the most he’s been healthy for in a single season since his MVP campaign back in 2010-11.
Rose may no longer be the blazing fast and freakishly athletic guard that would routinely get to the rim and finish in fantastic fashion, but he is starting to look more comfortable taking his man off the dribble and at least finishing in or around traffic. If the Knicks are able to limit the burden he places on his body by divvying up playmaking duties while limiting his on-court time to right around the 31.8 minutes per contest he played for the Bulls in his final year in Chicago, then Rose could really see a resurgence and even an improvement in his game from an efficiency standpoint.
Having a capable backup in Brandon Jennings will help, but being paired in the backcourt with Lee – a guy who can defend the opposing team’s top guards and shot 37.8 percent from deep last year – while suddenly having offensive firepower like Carmelo Anthony and even Kristaps Porzingis at his disposal should make life easier for Rose as a scorer himself. Rose is in a contract year, on a big stage and looks as good physically as he has in years. If ever there were a perfect confluence of circumstances for a player to come out and prove he is still a star (and worthy of star money next summer), this could be it.
# 1 – Russell Westbrook – Oklahoma City Thunder
While some may have placed shooting guard Victor Oladipo on this list, the shift in the franchise’s priority list and the huge burden on Westbrook were too much to pass over. The reality is that we are about to see a ton of Westbrook this season, and he’ll be asked to carry the Thunder.
We’re 18 months removed from that 2014-15 season that featured about a 50-game sample size of what Westbrook-centered basketball can look like, and OKC fans should take solace in the fact that the 27-year-old has continued to show progress over that stretch. He’ll likely wind up in the top five of both the PER and Usage Rate categories when all is said and done, but Westbrook also has a nice selection of weapons to help with some of the responsibilities. The pairing with Oladipo should be exciting since they’re probably the most athletic backcourt in the NBA, while Steven Adams and Enes Kanter each progressed to a level that head coach Billy Donovan was able to rely on lineups with both big men playing (and they were effective even against small-ball units).
The addition of power forward Domantas Sabonis makes the roster even more intriguing, since the No. 11 overall pick seems like a good fit for OKC if he can transition well to this level. We can probably hold off on the legitimate MVP contender talk until we see that OKC is at least able to compete for a top-five seed in a crowded Western Conference, but that doesn’t mean Westbrook will not have done absolutely everything in his power along the way. The league’s single-season record for triple-doubles was the great Oscar Robertson’s 1961-62 year that featured 41 of them.
Westbrook may not eclipse such a seemingly ridiculous total, but is it beyond the realm of possibility that he could accomplish the feat as many as 30 times in 2016-17? Keep in mind, he had 18 of them while quasi-sharing the load with Durant last year. The ultimate question will be, can he take that next step of dominating the league while winning a majority of OKC’s games? He’s undoubtedly going to try, and that’s why we love him.
Honorable Mention X-Factor Players:
Al Horford, Clint Capela, Myles Turner
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