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Los Angeles Lakers 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Los Angeles Lakers.

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Here’s to new beginnings as the Los Angeles Lakers embark on their seasonal voyage without the services of one Kobe Bean Bryant for the first time in 20 years. While no one within the organization was looking to kick dirt on his basketball grave, it is understandable if there is at least a slight amount of collective relief among the players as they head into a season with a significantly lower amount of expectations than this franchise is accustomed to. Any 17-win team coming off back-to-back-to-back “worst season ever” showings should be afforded such a luxury no matter what name is on the front of the jersey.

Diehard fans may still struggle to maintain perspective at times, but the freedom that should come from simply being free of the scrutiny that was a result of the extended farewell tour should be liberating for all parties. Newly hired head coach Luke Walton made it clear he intends to judge this team by the progress it shows rather than wins and losses. That’s because while he is obviously new to his official role, he also realizes the pressure that will already be on a team headlined by a second-year point guard and rookie scoring prospect. On top of that, Los Angeles will feverishly be looking for someone to ascend from the pack as the team’s new leader and wear the de facto “face of the franchise” tag.

The veteran additions of forward Luol Deng and center Timofey Mozgov should help with some of the transitioning, but there is obviously a ton of work to do in terms of reestablishing the team’s identity. Walton knows those things have to happen somewhat organically and wants to not only permit the process to take place, but also be afforded the same patience as he adjusts to life at the helm of a talented but still unproven team.

FIVE GUYS THINK

The dream of Russell Westbrook may have died, but with Brandon Ingram joining a core of youngsters that includes D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, the Lakers have reason to be optimistic about their future.

Timofey Mozgov became the poster child of the questionable contract, but he will absolutely fill a need for the Lakers this season. Though well past their primes, Luol Deng and Jose Calderon are each professionals who have been around the block in the NBA, and both know what it takes to be successful in the league.

The first season of the post-Kobe Bryant era will have one less distraction and could possibly result in more wins after just 17 last season. With Luke Walton presumably installing a free-flowing system that will help keep the young guns in Los Angeles loose and engaged, we will likely see some of the talent accumulated pay off this season. Depending on how steep the learning curve is, the Lakers may surprise a few this season and show some fight. The Warriors and Clippers are still far outside their reach, but they should be competitive for the third seed in the division. I’d still be inclined to put the Kings above them since they have the best player, but even that is no guarantee.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Los Angeles Lakers enter the upcoming season without Kobe Bryant for the first time in roughly two decades. This really is the beginning of a new era for the proud franchise and its fans. Fortunately, the team features a core of young talent, including D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Brandon Ingram. This strong nucleus will be led by rookie head coach Luke Walton, who will need to do a better job communicating with and developing the young guys than his predecessor Byron Scott did. The team also added veteran free agents Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, plus made a deal for Jose Calderon. Deng and Mozgov were given a lot of money over the next four years, so the Lakers will need real production on the court from these guys and not just leadership in the locker room. Despite overpaying for Deng and Mozgov, the Lakers finally have a path towards rebuilding their team and a bright young coach to lead the way.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

Lakers fans are ready to see this team turn the corner, and with young talent just dripping from the roster it’s easy to see why they’re so excited. Brandon Ingram’s name often is whispered in the same sentence as Kevin Durant’s, D’Angelo Russell could be on the brink of something really interesting this season, and we know what kind of young talents the team has in Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. On the other hand, they also excitedly doled out the summer’s worst contract to Timofey Mozgov and brought Chinese star Yi Jianlian back into the NBA after his exile spanning the better part of the last four seasons. There’s some fascinating young talent, but outside of Jose Calderon, Luol Deng and Yi, the “youngster” theme on this roster is pretty overwhelming. That means no matter how badly the Lakers faithful want to believe things will turn around quickly, they probably won’t, but at least they can sleep at night knowing things are back on the right track. It’s just going to take some time for it all to marinate.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

For the first time since the 1996-97 season, the Lakers will head into training camp without the presence of future Hall of Fame guard Kobe Bryant. Through a combination of injuries and Father Time, the franchise has been prepared to move on to the next chapter for quite some time now. The Lakers have plenty of young talent with Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, and this summer the club invested in veteran free agent talent to surround their youth movement. Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov will be expected to help the young Lakers grow up and mature into top flight professionals and rookie head coach Luke Walton promises to remove the security blanket and throw his youngsters into the fire early. The Lakers will begin life after Bryant on the right foot, but unfortunately it won’t translate into significantly more wins in the short term.

5th place – Pacific Division

– Lang Greene

All eyes will be on Luke Walton as he makes his head coaching debut with the Lakers this season. Walton did a terrific job with the Warriors when called upon, but many people wonder if his success was simply due to the star-laden roster. This is Walton’s opportunity to show what he can do and silence his doubters. Talking to players this summer, it’s clear that Walton has already started to change the team’s culture and everyone seems excited to play his brand of basketball. This is an intriguing team – a mix of young talent and experienced veterans – but it’s hard to imagine the Lakers seriously competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference this season. Instead, this year is about getting Walton comfortable, turning things over to him and developing the young core as they buy in to the new system.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: D’Angelo Russell

It’s important to note this isn’t solely asking which player will lead the team in scoring, although Russell should certainly have the ball in his hands enough to also challenge for that honor. The Lakers not only need Russell to be a multi-faceted and efficient scorer, but they’ll also need their 20-year-old point guard to be the type of floor general and leader that can also create offensive scoring opportunities for his teammates (3.3 assists per game as a rookie in 28.2 minutes per contest) while fostering a positive chemistry on the court and in the locker room. A tall task for any player, but especially for one as relatively inexperienced as Russell. Regardless, that’s the role these Lakers will need him to fill as they lay the new foundation.

Top Defensive Player: Luol Deng

Serious thought went into placing Ingram in this position given his potential to actually make a serious impact on that side of the ball as well, but he’ll undoubtedly face his fair share of growing pains as he continues to add strength and size to his frame. Deng may be new to the Los Angeles Mix, but the 31-year-old remains an above-average defender that can be utilized at several positions depending upon the matchup. Oft-injured during the middle section of career, the Lakers will also need him to display the type of durability that allowed him to play 72 or more games in each of the last two seasons for Miami.

Top Playmaker: D’Angelo Russell

Like we mentioned, the Lakers need Russell to be special. No other way to put it. The “ice in my veins” moments are great and will always be a part of the Sports Center package, but this team needs more steak than sizzle moving forward. Russell (13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG as a rookie) is a better athlete than initially given credit and appears to be in better shape than he was at this point heading into his rookie campaign. Russell was a bit turnover prone at times as a rookie and saw his playing time and role fluctuate as a result, but the team has to hope the added conditioning and perhaps a slightly longer rope from the new staff could result in an increase in his overall productivity this season.

Top Clutch Player: Brandon Ingram

Although unfair to expect a rookie player to “place the team on his back” with any regularity, one of the main reasons the Lakers drafted Ingram was because of his impressive offensive skill-set for a man of his size. Listed at 6’9 and likely right around 200-205 pounds by the time training camp starts later this month, Ingram can shoot over the top of most defenders as well as put the ball down and create off the dribble. Once he possesses the necessary strength to physically compete against the tougher or heavier opponents, this young man is going to be a matchup nightmare – throughout the flow of the game, but obviously in “clutch” moments as well. This team may not have all that many opportunities for moments of that nature this season, but Ingram could be one of the guys they look to go to from an early point in the year.

The Unheralded Player: Larry Nance Jr.

As beloved and appreciated as Nance Jr. is by the fan base on social media, it still feels like a good portion of folks not covering the team and outside of the market doesn’t realize how effective Nance Jr. could ultimately be under Walton. He’s much more than simply a high-flying act, as the 23-year-old former Wyoming Cowboy continues expanding his shooting range and has better touch around the basket than you might think. Nance Jr.’s greatest contribution could actually end up being on the defensive end and on the backboards, especially if he is able to earn additional playing time (20.2 MPG as a rookie in ‘15-16). He’s a high-energy guy that can not only be a disruptor near the basket and in the passing lanes, but also someone that will change ends with the quickest of big men and finish over the top of plenty as well.

Best New Addition: Brandon Ingram

We certainly don’t mean to be repetitive, and while cases could be made for Deng’s eventual impact and even how Mozgov could make a difference as a rim protector and in mentoring other young bigs like second-round pick Ivica Zubac (purple and gold fingers crossed, probably), the reality is Ingram is the best player they added this summer. They took him with the second overall pick because of that fact. Ingram is oozing with talent and potential and isn’t done growing into his frame.

– Jabari Davis

WHO WE LIKE

1. Luke Walton

Walton returns to the organization after actually being traded away as a player at the 2012 deadline. Obviously, his path led him to even brighter things as a member of that successful Golden State Warriors’ staff over the past couple seasons, but few remember that his coaching career technically started back during the 2011 lockout when he took a position as an assistant under John Pastner and the same Memphis Tigers program that featured the exploits of a young Tarik Black. It’s almost shocking how quickly we’ve come full-circle, as Walton now has the opportunity to coach Black and this talented group of players for the organization he experienced so much success with as a player.

Walton may no longer have the luxury of coaching a team that is immediately within the title mix, but he’s certainly not returning to bare cupboards in terms of talent to work with. With any young coach, especially those also faced with the challenge of guiding primarily young talent, fans and the organization must have patience with this process since there will undoubtedly be games that lead to questions in the early going. Beyond the need to end the trend of having a revolving door on the bench (Walton is the fourth head coach since Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011), he’s being asked to oversee a total shift in culture and direction. Players are noticeably excited about the opportunity to play in his new system, which is obviously a good thing, but now comes the time to actually adapt the approach and learn how Walton wants the game played.

While much has been made about how well the offense will fit some of these players, the real challenge for Walton and staff will be in establishing a defensive identity with this roster. Not only will this staff have to continue teaching defensive principles, but they’ll also be tasked with the duty of convincing young players to take as much (if not more) pride in shutting someone down as they take in scoring on them. It may take time, but Walton is definitely equipped with a strong supporting cast of assistants to ease his transition into the head role. Former Laker player/coach Brian Shaw joins Jesse Mermuys and Mark Madsen, who was also retained by the organization. Casey Owens and Will Scott have also reportedly been promoted into assistant and coordinator roles as well.

2. Julius Randle

Perhaps the most interesting roster “battle” – or at least positional juxtaposition – could come from Randle and Nance Jr. While significantly chiseled and in much better shape than when he joined the organization, Randle is still a guy that wants to lower his shoulder and bull-rush you around the basket. Injury to his right hand aside, Randle has reportedly been working like a madman to improve all facets of his game this summer. Being able to keep the defense in a vulnerable position by continuing to add touch and range on his shot will likely be key to his ultimate success on the offensive end at this level, but he also needs to take a step forward as a defender. He was a walking double-double in ‘15-16 (34 total) and was at least willing to challenge at the rim some of the time, but fell prone to the same lapses, poor angles and improper footwork that tend to plague young defenders. He also tended to get himself into early foul trouble due to those undisciplined tactics and poor positioning, especially early in the year.

Playing alongside more able-bodied defenders could and probably should help, but Randle will also need to improve his attention to detail and at least provide a consistent effort on that end if he wants to keep Nance Jr., Deng and others from potentially taking some of his playing time. It wasn’t exactly clear why the last coaching staff didn’t look to utilize more Russell-to-Randle pick-and-roll action – if for no reason other than to simply make scoring a bit easier for him – but we should probably expect to see more of it moving forward. Being able to effectively score around the bucket with his right hand and spread the defense out with the jumpshot are each vital, but sometimes giving a young player that extra space or step with some good pick-and-roll action can also make the difference simply from a confidence and comfort standpoint. The concern could have been with Randle’s ability to change directions once he gets his momentum going, but the 21-year-old did show improvement with his awareness and body control throughout the year.

If you’re the Lakers, you might secretly love the idea of Nance Jr. functioning as a driving force behind Randle. As someone who has actually shown a fair amount of poise and maturity at an early age, Randle seems to possess a singular focus on simply being the best player he can be, and that will permit him to embrace the challenge in a manner that should be positive for both parties. The two of them could wind up pushing one another to the next level as players, and that certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

3. Jordan Clarkson

Due to the traffic sensational headlines can garner during the free agency period, Clarkson’s four year, $50 million deal was somewhat swept under the rug this summer, but it has the potential to become an absolutely phenomenal value contract for this team. Clarkson (15.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 2.3 APG in ’15-16) may not have had the chance to join his teammates on Team USA’s Select squad, but that doesn’t mean the young man hasn’t been putting in serious work in the gym and weight room this summer. Fans and opponents alike may be in for a surprise when they see the results of his dedicated workout regimen as the third-year guard really appears to be exhausting all efforts in order to continue improving.

Clarkson was impressive as a rookie, particularly for a late second-round pick the Lakers actually purchased from the Wizards. He showed a solid level of improvement in year two, but if the 24-year-old can take yet another step as a playmaker and defender under the new regime then his deal would quickly become a steal. You don’t simply become a solid perimeter defender overnight, but Clarkson shows the physical tools of someone that is far more capable than he’s been in that department through two years.

The freedom of the new system will also need to come with discipline. Clarkson can get a bit “out over his skis” when attacking at times, but he can be the type of interchangeable player you want when adopting a less constrained system. He was up to 34.7 percent from deep with about as disjointed an offensive system as you can imagine, and should see far more quality looks moving forward. If Clarkson can consistently knock down the deep ball while developing into a player that can at least adequately defend a couple positions (as is the ultimate hope), the Lakers will be in business.

4. D’Angelo Russell

If Russell is truly that transcendent type of player that some scouts and analysts believed he could be when coming into the league, then we should start to see significant strides in his game on both sides of the ball as early as this year. Last year may have appeared to be an unmitigated disaster considering his difficulties with professionalism, with maintaining his role and even position on the court at times, but Russell did show some real flashes of brilliance at certain moments. Not quite enough to offset some of the sophomoric behavior and antics for some, but he was able to do enough to make the organization at least appear to remain comfortable with the idea of Russell at the helm.

Russell showed a clear ability to shoot the ball from distance at this level as the season wore on (38.8 percent or 57/147 from the start of February through the end of the season) and actually has a nice post-up and mid-post game you should probably anticipate seeing more and more of (especially against small or smallish opponents – yes, you, Isaiah Thomas and the like), but we have yet to see him consistently embrace being a playmaker as a Laker. After being intoxicated by comparisons to greats like Magic Johnson or Jason Kidd when it came to his passing, it seemed as though Russell was a bit more comfortable attacking NBA defenders as a scorer than he was with generating offense for others.

To be clear, the 2015-16 Lakers didn’t have an awful lot of players capable of capitalizing on his creativity, but Russell also appeared to struggle against defenders that applied heavy pressure at times and he often adopted the “put your head down and go get a bucket” mentality many of today’s top scoring guards employ. With Walton likely to utilize a system similar to the one he was a part of in Golden State, there should be plenty of opportunities for Russell to display just how much ice his veins possess, but these Lakers need him to be dynamic and all-around offensive presence he was once advertised as being if they are to take the next step as a unit.

5. Brandon Ingram

We’d ask everyone to write, “I will not unfairly expect Ingram to immediately play like Kevin Durant” 100 times on the chalkboard if we thought it might help… but it won’t. Not with Ingram being built so similarly and being such a capable scorer at the same position. Especially not with guys like Durant himself making mention of it, as he did when the two faced one another during this summer’s Team USA training camp. While fans can’t be faulted for finding it difficult to curb their enthusiasm when it comes to this team, it will do all parties involved a service if a bit of patience is utilized with Ingram.

He’ll undoubtedly have some nights that look incredible along the way, but they’ll probably be balanced with some rough ones against certain teams, especially in the early portion of the season as he adjusts to the pace and physicality. As a swingman, Ingram is not only going to have to figure out how to consistently score against top defenders and schemes expressly designed with limiting his comfort in mind, but he’ll also be charged with the responsibility of at least slowing down some of the league’s most dynamic scorers on the other end.

Much like the reality that Russell was faced with as a rookie, Ingram will likely see a steady diet of Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Andrew Wiggins, Gordon Hayward and probably even Rodney Hood all within the first 30 days of the regular season. Good luck with that.

“Don’t get too high on the highs or too low on the lows” may be one of the more commonly used clichés in sports when dealing with a young team or player, but it will need to be the approach taken with Ingram and most of these players. As long as they continue to show progress along the way, that’s all that can be fairly asked. If what we’ve seen from Ingram while a member at the University of Duke and during the Last Vegas Summer League are any indication of what is to come, then we have a feeling fans will be more than willing to wait for his total development.

6. Luol Deng

While Deng’s contract partially swept up in the general disappointment and outcry over the Lakers failing to bring in some of the summer’s top names, he is actually a really good addition to this team. He may be 31 and have some miles on his body, but as mentioned, he remains a relatively versatile defender that can be depended upon to knock down the deep ball at a respectable level (34.4 percent in ‘15-16, 35.5 in ‘14-15). Whether he’s used primarily at the small forward or Walton elects to move him around according to the lineup and opponent, Deng’s value won’t be limited to the box score.

He is the perfect guy for a locker room in need of guidance and professionalism. Last year in Miami really exemplified how Deng has somewhat seamlessly transitioned from being a primary focus and one of the main options of the offense – as he was throughout his time in Chicago – to a jack-of-all-trades member of the supporting cast. Quite honestly, it could have made a bit more sense for a player of Deng’s capability to join a roster that is closer to being an immediate playoff team.

However, Deng makes sense for L.A. While developing young talent, you need a glue guy like Deng to contribute and hold things together during the difficult periods that will come over the course of an 82-game schedule.

Similar to what guys like Joe Johnson (Utah Jazz) or even Al Jefferson (Indiana Pacers) did in accepting similar supporting roles, the fact that Deng decided to join this team at this time should absolutely be taken as a positive. Sure, money and the length of his deal (four years, $72 million) are factors, but Deng still has plenty to offer and could play a pivotal role in helping with the development of several others on the roster.

– Jabari Davis

SALARY CAP 101

The Lakers used cap space to acquire players like Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Jose Calderon, Ivica Zubac and Yi Jianlian. Now over the cap, the Lakers still have their $2.9 million Room Exception – although their roster is full with 15 guaranteed players. The Lakers are looking to get out of Nick Young’s salary ($11.1 million over two years), which could open a roster spot for Zach Auguste, Travis Wear or Julian Jacobs.

Yi’s contract is unique in that it’s minimally guaranteed, ramping up by games played (20, 40 and 59), making Yi a potential trade piece starting Dec. 15. Looking ahead to next summer, the Lakers project to have at least $26.6 million in cap space, and more if they can get out of Young’s contract. That assumes the Lakers do not finish with a top-three pick in the 2017 lottery, instead sending their pick to the Philadelphia 76ers to close out the Steve Nash trade. The Lakers also have three easy decisions to make before November – the rookie-scale options for D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Larry Nance are all no-brainers.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The added talent will definitely help, but the refreshing feeling around the team with the new direction already appears to be taking effect. Although down the road there could be some revised appreciation for the time they played for the previous staff, to a man, the players have each expressed great optimism about the current trajectory. Also, as mentioned, while a certain level of pressure will always come with playing under the bright lights of Staples Center and for this organization in general, at least this team won’t have anyone truly expecting them to compete for a playoff spot in the ever-challenging Western Conference for at least another year or so. The transition to a more free-flowing and uptempo style should not only be a far more entertaining product for the fans, but should lead to guys actually having more fun while out there on the court.

– Jabari Davis

WEAKNESSES

Deng, Mozgov and perhaps Lou Williams aside, the majority of the core is still littered with early 20-somethings and guys that have less than three years of NBA experience. Randle was still in high school in 2013 and missed a year of action due to a leg fracture. As talented as he may be, Ingram was still playing high school basketball in Kinston, North Carolina in March of 2015. The NBA isn’t very forgiving on rookies and inexperienced players (see: last season), so there may be some games that look eerily similar to the more disappointing of nights over the past few seasons; but the main difference will be the team should actually be headed in a definitive direction these days. For fans, more disheartening than anything else over this stretch of futility was the fact that it at least appeared the front office may have been a bit lost over the past few years.

The decisiveness with which they locked in on Walton coupled with all the spoils of their recent inefficacy -whether gathered intentionally or with a bit of luck along the way- at least present the appearance of a stable and clear-cut plan. Their lowest point also happened to coincide with the league shifting both from a financial/structural and on-court standpoint. Laker fans may shake their heads in disapproval, but the truth of the matter is to have potentially turned it around in as quickly as four years on the heels of losing the organization’s long-time patriarch in Dr. Buss and having to figure out the eventual hierarchy, influence and control between two very different siblings in Jeanie and Jim Buss, all while watching an aging superstar transition away would be a bit of a miracle when all things are considered.

– Jabari Davis

THE BURNING QUESTION

The biggest question for this team will be: how long does it take them to individually develop so they can collectively improve? If a couple of the young guys were to actually take the next step on both sides of the ball while the other young prospects at least showed a steady rate of improvement, then a win-total as high as the upper-20s (or perhaps even low 30s if everything were to break somewhat favorably) is attainable. That prognosis may be a bit gloomy for some and is almost certain to outright anger others, but that’s why we’ve preached “perspective” throughout the preview. If the Lakers were to somehow reach a win range of even 28-32 games it would take a remarkable 11-15 game improvement from one season to the next, which would be a great accomplishment for any rebuilding team. Walton set the tone by establishing progress as his determining marker and that has to be the mindset and approach for everyone within the organization moving forward. This steady, even incremental advancement may be new for some of the younger amongst the fan base, but, by and large, these are the steps most franchises have to take when building a winner. The Lakers may not quite be there yet, but it is nice to see them headed in that direction once again.

– Jabari Davis

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NBA

NBA Daily: Six Small Sample Size Overreactions

It’s not always healthy to overreact to small sample sizes — but it sure is fun! Ben Nadeau checks in on five of his favorite early season storylines.

Ben Nadeau

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Today is October 20, 2018.

The newest NBA season has been a thing officially for four days. On Monday, Basketball Insiders’ Spencer Davies penned a piece with pointers on how to enjoy the 2018-19 campaign. Naturally, Davies urges that it’s important to not overreact to sample sizes after just two games. It’s sound advice but, on the other hand, it’s definitely not as fun either. Sports were tailor-made for grandiose overreactions, particularly in the volatile realm of professional basketball, so that’s exactly what we’re going to do here.

In game No. 1 last year, the Indiana Pacers’ Victor Oladipo dropped 22 points, five rebounds, four assists and four steals in a nine-point win over the hapless Nets. Interesting, we thought, but small sample sizes, right? Two games later, Oladipo tossed out 28 points, four rebounds, five assists, four steals and four three-pointers — then 28-, 35- and 23-point lines quickly followed. When the season was all done and dusted, Oladipo’s blisteringly hot start ultimately finished with the guard hoisting the award for Most Improved Player. So, sure, some of this might be hollow, but there’s also a decent chance it isn’t either.

And if it isn’t just a momentary flash in the pan, here’s your cheat sheet for getting ahead of the rest of your friends, family and fantasy leagues.

Luka Dončić and Deandre Ayton: Special Already

It took about 30 seconds to realize that the NBA was blessed with at least two remarkably special rookies this season in Dončić and Ayton. The pair kicked off their respective careers against each other on Wednesday and, generally speaking, neither disappointed. Dončić brought his smooth operating style — the same style that helped him take home EuroLeague MVP last year — right from the opening tip. The Slovenian sensation tallied 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists, including a fantastic behind-the-back dime to a cutting DeAndre Jordan. It wasn’t exactly a coming out party, per se, but this 19-year-old may just meet all of our massive expectations and then some before long.

Then there’s Ayton, the reigning No. 1 overall pick and presumed future star as well. While everybody rightfully gushed over Dončić on opening night, Ayton went and showed out himself. With 18 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and a block, Ayton went toe-to-toe with the aforementioned Jordan — a center 10 years his senior and an excellent rim protector in his own right — and shot 72.7 percent in his debut. The 7-foot-1 prospect will need to overcome some defensive hurdles, but he’ll put up some serious numbers in this Suns offense — that is nearly guaranteed. The last few years have brought some incredibly talented classes to the league lately and this one, headlined by Dončić and Ayton, appears as if it could be just as good.

Caris LeVert is LeGit

All summer, it was LeVert this and LeVert that. His coaches showered effusive praise on the third-year wing, while teammates — both new and old — touted LeVert as a breakout candidate this fall. Well, so far, it looks like his admirers were right on the money. LeVert, a slasher at heart, talked throughout last season about maturing and growing into his body — now, we’re getting an important taste of that comfort he’s long sought after. Dropping 27 points, four rebounds, four assists and a steal in 34 minutes against the Detroit Pistons, LeVert carefully used every herky-jerky step to mince his opposition to shreds. When the Nets were floundering in another infamously poor third quarter — a tradition like no other, at this point — it was LeVert that helped to claw them out of their self-made deficit. Most of the attention in Brooklyn has been focused on D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen, but perhaps it’s now LeVert’s time to shine.

On Friday, he did exactly that. The Nets called on him time and time again against the Knicks and the budding star delivered in spades. Not only did LeVert set a new career-high of 28 points, but 15 of them came in the final 12 minutes, including a tough, game-winning finish with just a second left on the clock. If people simply assumed that Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie would seamlessly resume duties as the crunch-time operators, they’d be dead wrong so far. The Nets have gone to LeVert with the game on the line twice in a row already and there’s a fair chance a star is being born in front of our very eyes.

The Knicks Are Probably Bad… But Absolutely Fun

In the Knicks’ season opener, jokes were flying around social media early about their potential ineptitude, particularly so without Kristaps Porzingis to save the day. Of course, New York then went and dropped 49 points on Hawks’ heads in the second quarter and never looked back. The Hawks are likely destined to be in the cellar this season and the Knicks won’t get 31 points from Tim Hardaway Jr. each night out. Having said all of that, this is an honest-to-goodness fun basketball team and, all of a sudden, there’s a nice collection of youngsters New York can develop moving forward. Kevin Knox, who surprisingly lost his starting spot just before the season began, tossed in 17 points versus Brooklyn on Friday; with newcomer and the perpetually-breaking-out Mario Hezonja helping with 15 points of his own in the opener.

Led by the ever-charismatic Enes Kanter (cue the nipple clip) and Hardaway Jr., it’s way too early to think about the postseason for the Knicks, but there will be plenty of reasons to tune in. Former G-League castaway Trey Burke is still here too, playing side-by-side with the defensive-minded Frank Ntilikina, while preseason standout Allonzo Trier is looking right at home in the rotation. The cherry on the top? Mitchell Robinson, the uber-athletic mystery man from June’s draft, has played just one minute in their first two games — his time will come soon enough. Even if head coach David Fizdale can’t transform the Knicks immediately, they will play hard and stay competitive on most nights — that alone is a better fate than half of the league’s lottery-bound franchises. The Knicks might be bad, but they’ll be a fascinating puzzle to watch come together over the coming months.

Devin Booker: Still Divisive, Still Very Good

Long before Booker brought home a five-year extension worth $158 million, fans and pundits alike were arguing about the sharpshooter’s true impact on the game. Between the Suns’ losing record since his arrival and an open discussion on empty stat-padding, many scorned the Phoenix front office for giving the 21-year-old a max deal. But if the next 81 games are anything like his first outing, Booker will be torching any defender that comes near him. Even a semi-alarming hand surgery in early September couldn’t slow down Booker in the opener. Against Dallas, Booker poured in 35 points, seven assists and four rebounds on 6-for-10 from three-point range — well, then. New head coach Igor Kokoškov promptly called Booker their “anchor” and noted that he will only continue to improve.

In the midst of Booker’s 19-point fourth quarter explosion, he showed off the full arsenal. Certainly, Booker is known from his long-range skills, but the talented scorer is proficient at taking defenders off the dribble as well. Booker has only played once — he’ll face off against the Denver Nuggets later on today — but he just continues to chug along, picking up right where he left off in March of last year. Through injury, rehab and a big money contract, it may just be time to admit that Booker is every bit ready to become a star. With potential-laden assets like Josh Jackson and Ayton surrounding him now, we’re about to find out how good this former Wildcat can be.

For now, the shaken-up Magic Eight Ball says this: “Signs point to yes.”

Kemba Walker: Setting Charlotte Ablaze

It feels like an eternity has gone by since the Walker trade rumors initially began — running the full gamut between certain availability, cautious denial and the point guard’s steadfast desire to stay right at home. Still, Walker will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and Charlotte has their work cut out to even make the postseason in the weaker Eastern Conference at all. While destinations like Cleveland and Phoenix have popped up in accordance, Walker has gone on record that he wants to “create something special” with the Hornets. But when push comes to shove, will Charlotte be willing to take the risk of their star walking away for nothing? As of now, February is a lightyear away, however, and Walker himself has helped the Hornets off to a positive start through two games.

Albeit in a slim one-point loss to Milwaukee, Walker erupted for 41 points, four assists and two steals on 7-for-13 from three-point range. On Friday, the Hornets took home their first win of the campaign on the back of Walker’s 26 points, five assists and five three-pointers. Flanked by standout rookie Miles Bridges, a more confident Malik Monk, plus healthy versions of Nicolas Batum and Cody Zeller to boot, Walker looks poised to record his best season yet. Walker, 27, has always been a big-game killer and more than happy to talk down those pesky trade rumors — but this will be an extremely interesting case to check in on in a few months. Walker can’t keep up a 34.5-point per game pace, obviously, but it certainly appears as if a special, fire-breathing effort is brewing down the coastline. Don’t sleep on Kemba, he’ll make you pay.

Julius Randle: Unleashed?

And then there’s Randle: New Orleans’ DeMarcus Cousins replacement, the formerly renounced Los Angeles Laker and criminally underpaid big man. Under the never-well-hidden guise of LeBron James’ inevitable arrival, Randle seemed like a bit of an afterthought this summer for the purple and gold. Despite improving in every successive season, Randle’s trip to unrestricted free agency was a bit of a dud too, eventually landing him in a fantastic situation alongside Anthony Davis on a two-year deal worth $18 million. Randle is no stranger to impressive performances — his 36-point, 14-rebound, seven-assist onslaught last year against the Cavaliers instantly comes to mind — but he’s been undoubtedly key to the Pelicans’ red-hot start.

Randle is currently stepping confidently into three-pointers — he’s already at three through two games and his career-high in a season is just 17 — and the 6-foot-9 big man has shot 55 percent during their blowout victories over the Houston Rockets and Sacramento Kings. But what’s been most impressive so far is his continued versatility on the offensive end; smooth enough to stroke from deep, but more than able to post up, spin past a defender and then throw it down. Needless to say, the list of players capable of such flexibility, particularly those at the age of 23, is a short one. For now, he’ll continue to come off the bench behind the floor-stretching Nikola Mirotic — off to an even hotter start than Randle, somehow — but these minutes aren’t going anywhere.

The season is still in its early infancy stages but these storylines seem like sure-fire bets to continue well into the future. Whether these players compete for postseason hopefuls or lottery-bound rebuilders, it’d be wise to watch these storylines unwind and take shape. Most would agree that Dončić and Ayton are special — but how quickly can they find consistent success at the top level? LeVert and Randle are poised for their biggest respective seasons yet, while Walker and Booker look to ready to smash their detractors once again. Tiny sample sizes are admittedly dangerous, that goes without saying, but they can also offer helpful glimpses through the crystal ball at some of the league’s brightest stars. Feel free to sleep on these entries here — but if Oladipo taught us anything last season, it’s that these type of starts can turn into year-long heat checks and a renewed status across the entire league.

Who here has called next?

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NBA Daily: Can The Milwaukee Bucks Be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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