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Blazers’ C.J. McCollum is Ready for a Big Role

C.J. McCollum is poised to have an increased role in Portland and he says he’s ready to step up.

Alex Kennedy

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The last time we saw Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum, he was lighting up the Memphis Grizzlies in the postseason.

CJInside1In Game 5 of the Blazers’ playoff series against the Grizzlies, McCollum scored a career-high 33 points, shooting 12-of-20 from the field and 7-of-11 from three-point range.

In the final three games of that Blazers-Grizzlies series, he scored 77 points (despite coming off of the bench in two of those three contests). The 23-year-old was remarkably efficient as well, shooting 60.9 percent from the field and 64.7 percent from three-point range.

Entering his third NBA season, McCollum is hoping to pick up right where he left off in the playoffs and he’ll have every opportunity to do so on the new-look Blazers.

After losing veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo this summer, McCollum is poised to take on a much larger role for Portland. Since being the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, McCollum has averaged just 14.5 minutes and started only four of his 111 games because the Blazers were a veteran-laden contender.

Now, Portland needs someone to emerge as their new second-leading scorer behind All-Star point guard Damian Lillard. McCollum seems like best option, and he insists that he’s 100 percent ready to step into that role.

“I’m going to have ample opportunities and I plan on taking full advantage,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time, even when I wasn’t playing a lot or when I was out of the rotation. In the back of my mind, I always knew that there was going to come a time when I was going to get my chance to play and have an extended role. So I think I’m definitely ready. I definitely feel like I’m in a position now where, mentally and physically, I’m ready to handle whatever responsibilities they thrust upon me.

“I definitely relish the opportunity. This is when you prove yourself. This is when you prove why you were drafted where you were drafted. This is when you justify the organization’s decision to pick you and make them say, ‘This is why we drafted this kid; we always knew this was going to happen.’ That’s what I want them to be able to say when it’s all said and done.”

If the huge strides he made at the end of last season are any indication, he’s ready to thrive in the Blazers’ backcourt. After putting up strong numbers in the final month of the regular season and then having that scoring outburst against a very good Memphis defense, McCollum is feeling very good entering this season.

“My confidence level is definitely very high,” McCollum said. “Even if I had struggled throughout the playoff series, I would have been fine because I know the type of work I put in and I think confidence comes from preparation. It comes from just continuing to be prepared. But, yes, when you see yourself have some individual success, that definitely gives you a boost of confidence. Mentally, I’m ready. Physically, my game is there. I’m just continuing to learn and continuing to try to learn from last season. Obviously I finished the year strong, but it is a new year now so I kind of need to move on while taking things away from it, seeing what things I was able to do well and trying to duplicate that and then working on some things I wasn’t able to do so well.”

Keep in mind, this wouldn’t be McCollum’s first time as a major offensive contributor. During his four seasons at Lehigh University, McCollum was the team’s go-to scorer. In fact, he was one of the top offensive players in the country. He averaged 19.1 points as a freshman, 21.8 points as a sophomore, 21.9 points as a junior and 23.9 points as a senior. He believes that experience as Lehigh’s focal point prepared him to play an increased role in the NBA, as he’ll do in Portland this year.

“I think it helps mentally because I know what it’s like to be the focal point of an offense,” McCollum said. “I know what it’s like to initiate an offense and I know what it’s like to be keyed in on [by defenses] every night. Obviously the stakes are raised because it is the NBA; there’s advanced scouting, there’s more focus on breaking things down and there’s better players and better technology. But I think from a mental standpoint, you definitely understand the seriousness of it, such as how in shape you have to be to carry that load. I think from that standpoint, I’m definitely ready.”

As he prepares for his potential breakout year, McCollum has been working extremely hard this summer. He has spent most of the offseason training in Portland, but he has also made stops in California to work out at Peak Performance Project (P3) as well as Toronto to work out with two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash.

“This offseason, I have been working on everything,” McCollum said. “Starting off each day, we do morning lifts. Usually we’re there at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. depending on the day. We lift in the morning and then we go through a series of function movements, dynamic movements, where we focus on core and back. I’ve been doing a lot of leg lifts this summer to strengthen my lower half to make sure I can finish games, be able to maneuver through pick and rolls and withstand the rigors of carrying a heavier load. Then, we get on the court and go through a series of shooting drills – it’s a lot of catch-and-shoot, a lot of shooting off the move, a lot of working on shooting out of sets that I’ll be involved in. Then, we move onto pick-and-roll stuff, ball-handling drills, a lot of passing, working on just getting different shots in different areas, floaters and things like that. I’ve really been working on everything. I’ve even been incorporating some yoga here and there and just trying to take complete advantage of my [offseason] time. It has been very productive and I’ve prepared – mentally and physically – for the season.”

Working out with Nash in Toronto was special for McCollum, since the legendary point guard is someone he watched a lot as he was growing up. Nash is nearing a deal to be a part-time player development consultant with the Golden State Warriors, but McCollum is hoping they can continue to work together going forward because he enjoyed the experience and learned a lot.

“It was a lot of fun learning from him and seeing his approach to the game and having the chance to actually have him physically work me out and push me through some different drills,” McCollum said of Nash. “He showed me some different techniques and [I was able] to just get a better understanding of how he sees the game. One of the biggest things for me was just getting an understanding of his thought process on shooting versus passing. I also got to understand how he reads pick and rolls, and how crucial it is to execute late-shot-clock and late-game situations, especially in the playoffs. It was a very good experience for me and one that I will cherish. I will continue to try and build a relationship with him throughout the future. Although I’ve heard he may be working for the Warriors soon, hopefully he can still spend a little bit of time with me during the summer.”

In addition to his training, McCollum has been watching a ton of film this offseason. Sometimes, the difference between being good or great in the NBA comes down to a player’s attention to detail and how much time they devote to learning new things and improving their craft. McCollum knows this, which is why he’s borderline obsessed with studying film.

“I’ve been doing a lot of film study, watching Synergy Sports,” McCollum said. “I’ve been breaking down my shot, my pick and rolls, Dame’s pick and rolls, a lot of players’ shots across the league. Just yesterday, I got film of some of the better two-guards who are great at moving without the ball and are accustomed to doing that. Then, I recently got film of guys who guard the pick and roll well. I’m just looking at different stuff: transitions, finishes, floaters in the lane, some of the best guys at the pick and roll in the NBA and just watching them on Synergy on my iPad. Our staff does a great job of breaking down stuff for us, and our video coordinator is always on the spot. Whenever we need anything, he gets it done.

“I watch a lot. As soon as the season ends, I just text my video coordinator and list the things I want, list the guys that I want on and off the ball, list the possessions from previous games and then he gets it back to me and I just have it all summer. Then, when I’m done watching it, he just reloads it and gives me different stuff like ways I could score in our sets. I just watch to try to get a better understanding of everything. I watch film all the time when I fly, because I always have my iPad with me when I’m flying. I watch when I have my NormaTec [recovery equipment] on, which I wear for an hour several times a week. If I can’t sleep at night, I’ll just grab the iPad and start going through stuff, whether it be my shot, Dame’s shot, Wesley’s shot. Or I would just watch post-ups to see how I can relocate off the ball, but now that we don’t have LaMarcus it’ll be a little different. Basically, whenever I’m bored or whenever I have the urge, I just watch film because my iPad is always in my possession.”

When asked which specific players he has been watching, McCollum revealed a very diverse group of individuals he has been studying lately.

“I study everybody,” McCollum said. “I study guys who don’t dribble a lot and are efficient at getting their shot off, like Kyle Korver. Obviously, you want to try to take the least amount of dribbles as possible because that’s how you become more efficient. I also study guys like James Harden, who’s the primary ball handler in Houston but also can play off the ball. I study Klay Thompson because he does a little bit of both, playing on and off the ball. I watch Steph Curry, a guy who handles the ball a lot. I watch Dame. I watch Wesley Matthews. I watch Eric Bledsoe. I watch Goran Dragic. I watch Chris Paul. I watch Mike Conley. I watch Isaiah Thomas from the Celtics because he’s really good with pick and rolls and he’s a guy who can score in bunches and distribute. I watch a lot of Tony Allen, a lot of guys who are good at defending pick and rolls. I watch those guys and just try to go through Synergy to see where guys are ranked and just see how I can improve and what kind of tricks I could learn from each player. So I don’t just watch guys who handle the ball, I also watch guys who move without the ball or who thrive in transition or who defend well because I’m always trying to add different stuff to my game.”

This season, McCollum will likely spend time playing alongside his close friend Lillard. The two players have been friends since they were in college and now it’s very possible they’ll be Portland’s top two scorers this season. McCollum is expecting Lillard to have a huge year now that he’ll be the Blazers’ focal point.

“I just expect him to continue to do a lot of the things he has done in the past: being a good leader, orchestrating the offense, being aggressive like he has been and just being a killer,” McCollum said of Lillard. “I always joke with him and tell him this is just like when he was at Weber State only he’s got more help. He’s going to take on the bulk load of attention from an in-game standpoint and a media standpoint so a lot of pressure is going to be on him, but I think he’s ready for it. Offensively, he has all the tools to be an All-Star again and I think where he will make strides this year is defensively – just continuing to understand the importance of defense and the importance of guarding pick and rolls. I think it starts with him and it finishes with the rest of us because we follow his lead. I look forward to the opportunity to play alongside him and I think he’ll have a tremendous year. He’s ready. He looks like he’s in great shape, his jumper looks good, he looks sharp and I think he’s focused. Everyone’s on a mission to prove something this year; they just want to show they can play at a high level year in and year out.”

This was a tough summer for the Blazers since they lost so many key players, but fans’ frustration will turn to optimism if the team’s young core can play at a high level.

“I’m really excited,” McCollum said. “Obviously this is a big change our team is going through, with the influx of new young talent and the loss of a lot of starters. We lost a lot of people who kind of changed the franchise – with LaMarcus having been here nine years, Wes and Nico each having a great career here and RoLo, even in his short time here, being very successful. So it’ll be different, but I’m glad the opportunity is available [for me] and as a young player, that’s what you look forward to. You look forward to the opportunity where you get to prove yourself, get a chance to play more minutes and get to play through mistakes. I think I’ve earned the right to do a lot of that stuff, and now I’m in a position where I’m on a young team and where I’m moving up the ranks and where I get to prove myself. I think this is a very unique opportunity for our team and for a lot of young players to prove themselves and to take advantage of opportunities they may not have been given in the past. And I’m not just talking about myself; we have a lot of guys who have been on teams where their role was reduced and now their role will continue to grow.

“It’s nice to have a lot of fresh, new faces around. [On last year’s team] we all got along because we lived similar lifestyles – not being married and focusing a lot of our energy and attention to the game. I think it’ll be the same with this influx of 23-to-27-year-olds. All of the guys are focused on basketball, focused on trying to get better and focused on proving themselves. The only difference is a lot of the guys on this year’s team are in a position where their back is against the wall and they need to prove themselves, whereas some of the veterans we had before had already established and proven themselves in the league and racked up accolades. Now, we’re on the opposite side of the spectrum just trying to prove ourselves and enjoy our time in the NBA and establish our reputation.”

McCollum was surprised to see so many of the team’s veterans leave this summer, but he tried to just focus on the things that he could control. Now that he has seen all of the team’s moves and knows the front office’s long-term plan, he’s very confident that the organization is moving in a positive direction.

“I mean, I found out probably the same way a lot of you guys did,” McCollum said of the free agent departures. “I think my agent gave me a call and informed me some of the stuff that was going on, some of the stuff that had happened early on free agency before the draft. But just as a player though, you don’t really worry about that stuff. You’re focusing on your job. What you prepare for each day is just trying to get better. Whether they bring in players or trade players or keep players, you just need to be ready to perform. That’s kind of how I approached it, knowing it is a business and that anything can happen. But I trust the organization. They are doing a great job of putting a plan together and I think we’re going to execute it to perfection. Now, it’s just about us performing and backing up what they’ve done.”

With so many veterans leaving and young players arriving, many people are projecting Portland to freefall down the Western Conference standings. While it’s very likely that the team won’t match last year’s 51 wins, McCollum is ignoring the doubters who say a trip to the lottery is inevitable. He believes a playoff berth is possible if the team jells and things fall into place.

“I don’t really worry about what people write or say,” McCollum said. “People obviously have a right to their own opinion, but I don’t read too much into it [when people say we’ll miss the playoffs]. I’m just really focused on individually having a better year, staying ready and continuing to help my team. I definitely think there is a reason why you play the games. There’s a reason why the schedule is made. The NBA Finals aren’t decided in September, so it’s just more about continuing to get acclimated with our teammates and control what we can control, which is to go out and play hard every night and put ourselves in the best position to succeed. We have a new team in place, a lot of new pieces, and we just have to continue to get used to each other offensively and defensively. But there’s a reason why the games have to be played, and I think everybody is looking forward to the challenge.”

In order for the Blazers to have any chance of shocking the basketball world and exceeding expectations, they’ll certainly need their young shooting guard to step up. After a summer that featured rigorous training and countless hours of film study, McCollum is prepared to do his part.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Could Gordon Hayward Officially Be ‘Back?’

Following what had to be a frustrating season, Gordon Hayward is showing signs of being the Hayward of old. Matt John examines what looks different about Gordon and what impact that could have on the Boston Celtics.

Matt John

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Let’s not dwell on Gordon Hayward’s injury from two years ago. You probably saw it, and if you didn’t, first of all, consider yourself lucky; and second, you probably know what happened.

Instead, let’s talk about what happened this past season with Gordon. In hindsight, maybe we should have seen his struggles coming. What happened back on opening night in 2017 would be quite the hurdle for anyone to get over one year later, but in Hayward’s case, it may have been worse for him than anyone could have expected.

Hayward entered the summer of 2018 hoping to get back into his old routine, but after experiencing serious discomfort, Gordon opted to get another surgery at that time to remove the screws in his ankle. Little did everyone know, the second surgery was a major setback for the former All-Star. All of his plans he had got pushed back to the fall, which – long story short – meant that Hayward had little time to prepare for the start of last season.

That should have been the red flag that maybe the Celtics weren’t getting the old Gordon back to start. It’s tough because since they were paying him handsomely, they wanted to get him involved as much as possible on a team that wanted a championship. Unfortunately, it was clear through the first couple of months that he was both not back to normal and would take time to get up to speed.

It was nobody’s fault. Fate threw both the Celtics and Gordon some unfair and unexpected twists.

Did he get better as the season went on? Uh… sure? Every so often we got flashes of the old Hayward, but they were few and far between. Another problem was that Gordon was on a team filled with one too many guys who needed both minutes and touches. Force-feeding him minutes when he was still in recovery over talented players at full health was a frustrating ordeal for everyone.

Hayward ended the regular season on a promising stretch and followed that up with a solid outing against the very short-handed Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. His progress halted when Boston faced Milwaukee the following round. Everything fell apart for the Celtics when that series ended, but Hayward’s disappearance specifically made any remaining optimism surrounding his comeback follow suit. Being outplayed by Pat Connaughton, who was making barely over five percent of his salary, would do that to him.

When it was over, one question remained. Would Gordon Hayward ever be Gordon Hayward again?

The man who just two seasons before was coming off of the best one of his career, averaging 22 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 47/40/84 splits? The man who while leading an excellent Jazz team, was a shoo-in All-Star and garnered serious all-NBA consideration during that time? The man who the Celtics traded down from the first overall pick, as well as the long-tenured Avery Bradley, to make room for him money-wise?

We can’t really answer that at the current moment since we’re only entering the beginning of preseason. But since the start of training camp, all reports about Hayward have been encouraging to say the least.

It started with Enes Kanter, who played with Hayward for over three years in Utah. At media day, Kanter stated that not only was Gordon back to where he was, but that he would “shock the world” as well.

Then, Robert Williams III followed it up with similar sentiment.

Danny Ainge sounded optimistic as well about Hayward coming back to his normal self, but he tried to temper both his and everyone else’s excitement. The buzz around the Celtics as training camp started was all the same – Gordon Hayward was back to normal.

But talk is talk. As great as all of this sounded for Boston, everyone needed to see for themselves if Hayward was back to his old self. In his first preseason game against Charlotte, he only played briefly because of an elbow injury, but when he was on the floor, it looked like the believers would have their faith rewarded.

Of course, it’s just one game. Worse, it’s one preseason game, an exhibition that means nothing for just about everyone except the guys who are trying to make the roster. But for Hayward, this definitely looked different for two reasons. First, the fluidity. If you compare how he moved on the floor during that game to how he looked at this exact time a year ago, you can see the difference.

When he started out last year, Gordon ran like he had ankle bracelets attached to his feet. Maybe it’s the added leg spandex, but from the looks of things, Hayward is moving much as he did before his injury. He was never an elite athlete, but Gordon’s specialty was how crafty he was on his feet. If that has returned, then his ceiling should be right back where it was when he first came to Boston.

Second, his confidence. Among all of Hayward’s issues from last season, one of them was that he never figured out what his role was for the Celtics. The overabundance of talent, combined with his recovery both physically and mentally, made it hard for Gordon to know what he was supposed to do.

Now, Kyrie Irving is gone. Al Horford is gone. Marcus Morris is gone. Terry Rozier is gone. On the one hand, the Celtics don’t have nearly as high of expectations. On the other, less could be more for them. With those four gone, there’s more room for Hayward to stretch his legs and play his game. That’s going to take having faith in himself, which Gordon showed he might just have again.

In that one preseason game, Hayward drove to the basket, made quick decisions and played within the team’s concept. Even when he missed a bunny, seeing Gordon drive to the basket without hesitation is something we saw him do only on occasion last season as opposed to pre-injury when he’d do it all the time.

So if Hayward is 100 percent as he’s clamored up to be, one question remains: What should we expect of him? Even with all the team lost, Boston still has plenty of scoring with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Enes Kanter if we’re really including their best scoring options.

Because of that, expecting Gordon to put up the same scoring numbers he did in Utah may be unrealistic. Where Gordon could really make up for the Celtics is in his passing. The Celtics made up about as well as they could have from Kyrie’s departure by adding Kemba, but Al Horford is a different story.

Replacing all that Al Horford could do is downright impossible because he’s a big who can do pretty much everything. Hayward can’t replace that because Al’s got a few inches and, hence, can play taller positions. What Gordon can do – now that he’s expected to have a bigger role – is replace Al’s playmaking abilities.

Hayward’s always been a good passer; it’s why he’s a good fit in Brad Stevens’ offense. Last season, he still put up around the same assist numbers that he did in Utah despite a significant dip in minutes. Now that he’ll have a bigger role, and the Celtics offense will want to remain in motion, Hayward can be the playmaker in the offense that Al was. Gordon can’t do all the things that Horford can, but he can make up some of the difference with Horford’s departure on passing alone.

When it comes down to it, Gordon should not have a repeat performance of last season. Instead, we should see a more accurate version of the player the Celtics had in mind when they rolled out a max deal back in 2017.

The Celtics are going to have a lot of questions to answer as this season goes on. If that one preseason game is a sign of what’s to come from Gordon Hayward, they can rest easy knowing he won’t be one of them.

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Collins, Whiteside Appear Mismatched During Blazers’ Preseason Opener

Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside started up front for the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday — but after just one preseason game, it’s clear they’re still a long way from proving that partnership’s staying power, writes Jack Winter.

Jack Winter

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It’s been proven time and again that deducing meaningful conclusions from preseason basketball is mere folly. The games are often played at barely-more-than-half-speed, while teams don’t go through extensive scouting reports or implement major schematic changes related to specific opponents. Exhibition contests are far more about players and teams simply getting their feet wet against real competition leading up to the regular season grind than anything else.

But during the Portland Trail Blazers’ preseason opener at Veterans Memorial Coliseum — where, of note, the franchise won its only championship in 1977 — it was difficult not to wonder if the hopes of bringing another title to Rose City might be mitigated by a starting frontcourt that seems mismatched.

Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside were on the floor for tipoff against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, as the Blazers have planned since late July. They played just about the opening seven minutes of the first quarter and headed to the bench with Portland trailing Denver 13-11. Both Whiteside and Collins returned to action in the second quarter, but not together. Whiteside was paired with Anthony Tolliver upfront, while Collins played center in a downsized lineup that slotted Rodney Hood at the de facto power forward slot.

That first quarter stint, it turned out, would be the lone occasion Collins and Whiteside were on the floor at once.

Head coach Terry Stotts downplayed the significance of that development after the game, alluding to a minutes restriction on Whiteside and the whims of exhibition play as the reason why the Blazers’ new starting bigs saw such brief court time simultaneously.

“That was because of minutes, Hassan was limited to 12 minutes,” he told Basketball Insiders. “It was predetermined he was gonna play the first six minutes with the one group, and then the next six minutes with the second. I think during preseason you’re gonna see different matchups at the 4-5.”

Whiteside missed multiple practices last week after tweaking his left ankle, plus Portland did indeed experiment with several different combinations in the post. Stotts specifically mentioned a desire to get the tandem of Collins and Skal Labissiere some run, which he did in the third quarter, and the Blazers slid Mario Hezonja down to power forward later on as both teams went deep into their bench units.

The limits of analyzing preseason basketball don’t need further explanation. But just because there’s only so much new to be learned from it hardly means exhibition play isn’t useful for confirming offseason talking points.

For Portland, that came in the form of a newfound emphasis on pace propelled by the addition of multiple capable ball handlers. Bazemore, ultra-disruptive in his Blazers debut with a whopping seven steals, routinely pushed the ball up the floor himself — even when playing with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Hezonja lived up to his teammates’ training-camp hype by mostly functioning as a true point forward. During his biggest and most exciting moment on the open floor, Hezonja went coast-to-coast off a defensive rebound before dumping the ball behind his head to Whiteside for a layup.

Lillard, McCollum, Anfernee Simons and even Bazemore all dribbled into pull-up jumpers after bringing the ball up the court without making a single pass.

The result was a blistering first-half pace of 112.0, nearly eight possessions more than the Atlanta Hawks’ league-leading average last season. That number suggests the Blazers were able to play fast, even with Collins and Whiteside on the floor. But a deeper dive into the advanced box score reveals that breakneck pace was owed almost solely to their second unit – especially notable given the struggles of the starters in the halfcourt.

Ignore the poor shooting for now as Portland may not play a half all season in which Lillard and McCollum combined to go 5-of-15 overall and 1-of-8 from beyond the arc. The Blazers don’t need to worry about their star backcourt misfiring on a few makable jumpers. Nonetheless, Lillard and McCollum could find it tough to find room to operate in the halfcourt when playing with Collins and Whiteside.

Like Al-Farouq Aminu in years past, defenses just won’t feel the need to guard Collins away from the ball when he’s spotted up from deep until he proves he’s a reliable three-point shooter. Making matters worse is the difficulty Whiteside has operating in a crowd, cue the video evidence:

Collins isn’t on the floor in the second clip, but Portland’s mucked-up spacing, with Hood in the dunker spot and the strong-side corner empty, make it a facsimile of what the Blazers can count on seeing this season while Collins and Whiteside are playing together. Neither is a good screener, either, with Collins hindered by his lack of girth and Whiteside’s longtime indifference to the finer points of basketball – which contributed to his demise as a building block for the Miami Heat – almost fully ingrained.

Those worries will be at least partially alleviated if Collins improves as a shooter. He sarcastically joked that he didn’t shoot any threes this summer at media day before describing all the work he put in and looked confident from range against Denver despite missing both of his attempts.

Collins’ three made jump shots from the right elbow area, meanwhile, serve as both an encouraging example of his natural perimeter touch and the spacing and efficiency pitfalls of playing him at power forward if he remains most comfortable from mid-range.

Reminder: It is far, far too early to write off the long-term viability of Collins and Whiteside as Portland’s starters in the frontcourt.

In any case, the Blazers are bound to get more comfortable offensively with them on the floor together given additional playing reps. Collins has never started at power forward before and Whiteside, as he loves to remind reporters, has never played in an offense that asks him to handle the ball on the perimeter.

But Portland certainly wouldn’t be the first team to stagger a pair of starters after the first and third quarters, and their new priority of increased pace clearly makes Hood, Hezonja or even Tolliver a better stylistic fit at power forward than Collins – before accounting for their superior ability to stretch the floor, too.

If the Trail Blazers want to remain true conference contenders, they’ll need to figure out their new on-court intricacies sooner rather than later — thankfully, the preseason is the perfect playground to do so.

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NBA

Five Breakout Players to Watch — Southeast Division

The Southeast Division is full of young, on-the-cusp players. A number of them could easily have breakout seasons in 2019-20, and that could have long-term implications on the division — and the entire league. Drew Maresca writes.

Drew Maresca

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The Southeast Division saw its fair share of new additions this offseason. And while there is less established talent within the division than there is in the Atlantic or Pacific, there is plenty of youth on the precipice of breaking out.

With the NBA season right around the corner, Basketball Insiders’ breakout players series is underway. With that in mind, let’s examine five players poised to have breakout years in the Southeast Division. We’ll skip past those that are mostly established; to say a guy like Trae Young, John Collins or Terry Rozier is “primed for a breakout year” is a stretch since the first two are no brainers and the latter already had his coming out party two seasons ago – albeit, with a good amount of regression last year.

Let’s instead focus on guys on the cusp on stardom who haven’t yet received national attention for their performances. And with that being said, we’ll jump in.

Miles Bridges – Charlotte Hornets

Bridges is dangerously close to stardom. He is a walking highlight reel and appears ready to take on a significantly larger role in the Hornets’ offense considering the loss of Kemba Walker in free agency.

But a few things are holding him back from reaching his fullest potential. The first is shooting. Bridges is a career 32.5 percent three-point shooter; however, he told reporters on Hornets Media Day that he aspires to shoot 38 percent from deep this season. In his preseason debut last Sunday, Bridges’ performance looked quite similar to his career average from beyond the arc (33.3 percent on three attempts), but he also notched an impressive 12 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes — in which time he posted a plus-8 in a Hornets’ loss. If Bridges can extrapolate that production across heavier minutes throughout the season, his 2019-20 campaign should be quite strong.

The second item holding Bridges back is defense. Historically, Bridges is viewed a capable but inconsistent defender. He is 6-foot-7 and 225 poundswith a 6-foot-9 wingspan. And he boasts an impressive (approximately) 40-inch vertical. Much of Bridges’ growth must come from an improved understanding of schemes and responsibilities. His on-ball defense was mostly fine (for a rookie), but he looked lost and relied on others to direct him too often last season. He posted a defensive rating of 112 and a defensive plus-minus of .5. For context, Hasaan Whiteside led the league in defensive rating with a 99.0 and Leonard posted a 105, while Rudy Gobert led the league in defensive plus-minus with 5.1 and Leonard posted a 0.7.

But it’s not like the Hornets’ coaching staff lacks confidence in Bridges’ defense. In fact, Bridges told reporters at media day that head coach James Borrego recently told him that he has the potential to become “a Kawhi-like defender” who can switch screens across all positions. If Bridges can grow into that a Leonard-like defender and improve on his three-point shooting, he will become a perennial All-Star and, possibly, a household name.

Justise Winslow – Miami HEAT

Expectations were pretty high for the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. So much so, that Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics allegedly offered six drafts picks — four of which were first-rounders— in exchange for the Hornets’ ninth overall pick with an eye on the Duke product. But the Hornets badly wanted Frank Kaminsky, leaving the HEAT with Winslow. Last season could almost, sort-of be considered a breakout year; Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists, and played even better than that from Dec. 8 and on after an injury to Goran Dragic opened the door for him to slide into the starting point guard role.

But if last season might be considered a semi-breakout season, 2019-20 will leave no doubt. Winslow is big and athletic, especially for a point guard (listed at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds). And after catching a bad rap regarding his long-range accuracy earlier in his career, he first improved his three-point percentage in 2017-18 (38 percent on 1.9 attempts per game) and then began shooting more at a very similar percentage last year (37.5 percent from three-point range on 3.9 attempts per game).

Winslow just needed a little more time to iron out the kinks in his game and the freedom to play on the perimeter – both of which he’s now had. Winslow told Basketball Insiders last April in the final game of the season that “playing a more natural perimeter position was a better fit for me more than small ball forward.” And now with Jimmy Butler on board in Miami, and another offseason in the books to work on the limited short comings he has left, he should get even more of the notoriety that he rightfully deserves.

Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

With Hassan Whiteside’s inclusion in the four-team, Jimmy Butler trade, a path has been cleared for Adebayo. Yes, the HEAT also returned Myers Leonard, but the HEAT appear poised to give the starting nod to Adebayo, so long as he doesn’t muck it up.

And Adebayo appears more than ready to take the challenge head-on. He already averages 13.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes through two professional seasons. And while he shot only 20 percent from three-point range last season, he shot very well from mostly everywhere else on the floor: 71.6 percent at the rim, 41.5 percent from 3-10 feet, 37.3 percent from 10-16 feet and 43.8 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line. If he can continue to stretch the floor to the mid-range (and maybe even beyond it ) he’ll open up lots of space for Butler, Winslow, Dragic and others.

And Adebayo embraces the expectations— exactly as he should.

“I wouldn’t consider it pressure,” Adebayo recently told the Miami Herald. “I would more consider it an opportunity, a big opportunity for that matter. And (I plan on) just going out there and just playing positive, staying positive and showing everybody what I can do.”

Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Isaac was drafted sixth overall in 2017. He hasn’t exactly met expectations, but there is still massive excitement around the 6-foot-10 forward in Orlando. In his second season in the league, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range — which jumped to 11.8 points and  6.2 rebounds across their final 31 games.

He put in some work with the great Tracy McGrady this offseason, which should result in at least some improvement, too. Furthermore, he is an above average (and versatile) defender whose length and instincts allow him to cover a wide range of opposing forwards and wings; Isaac finished 2018-19 ranked 17th in block percentage with an above average real defensive plus-minus of 1.02 (which is actually lower than what he posted in his rookie season). If Isaac can become a consistently above-average three-point shooter, he could enter All-Star discussions sooner than later.

Mo Bamba – Orlando Magic

Bamba was seen as the second or third best big man in the 2018 NBA Draft. Deandre Ayton mostly lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, the other two – Wendell Carter Jr. and Bamba – did not. In Bamba’s case, injuries and a loaded Orlando front court limited him to 16.3 minutes per game across only 47 games.

Still, his skill set is ideal for a modern center. The 7-foot-1 center has the potential to become a defensive force; he averaged 3 blocks per 36 minutes in his limited action last season. He shot only 55.5 percent on two-pointers and 30 percent on threes last seasons; however, the shooting range that caught scouts’ eyes has been on display in the early part of the preseason so far this year.

Bamba shot 3-for-5 from downtown on Monday night against the Pistons (posting 13 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 16 minutes), and 7-for-11 from the field on Saturday (18 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 19 minutes). While Bamba has been a backup thus far this season, look for creative ways for the Magic to deploy him throughout the season – especially if he keeps performing as he’s done through two preseason games.

Honorable Mention: Markelle Fultz – Orlando Magic

Fultz is the unfortunate position of being written off as a bust by many, while still being seen for his potential by others. And to be fair, Fultz was a huge disappointment in Philadelphia – failing to deliver after being drafted before Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell will do that to a player. But the NBA loves a comeback story, and Fultz landed in a good spot to begin his with the Orlando Magic.

Fultz has done very little in 33 games across two seasons. He’s shot 26.7 percent from three-point range and only 53.4 from the free-throw line. But what’s more worrisome is his lack of confidence and the noticeable hitch he developed in both his set shot and free-throw shooting form. Rumors ran rampant about the cause of Fultz’s yips; but if three preseason games and an offseason workout video are to be trusted, he might be ready to rejoin the world as a successful basketball player.

Fultz’s shooting form looks much improved across the Magic’s first three preseasons games, and he appears more comfortable shooting the ball; while he’s missed all four three-pointers he’s attempted, he is at least 2-for-2 on free throw attempts. And while he’s missed his share of shots, he’s demonstrated confidence in launching it – which is probably the most encouraging sign yet. But he’s also flashed the athleticism and length that set him apart from other 2017 NBA Draft prospects, getting in passing lanes and pushing the ball up the floor on fast breaks. We obviously need to see more from Fultz before anointing him a contributor, but things are beginning to look up.

The bar is low for Fultz this season, and this writer believes that he’ll exceed most expectations. The Magic lack depth at point guard, so there is a real opportunity for him to earn minutes and contribute. And the Magic already picked up Fultz’s option for 2020-21; so if he plays well enough, he might even earn the starting spot for next year and beyond.

All six, except for Justise Winslow (23), are 22 years old or younger. Therefore, all still have lots of development ahead. All will also have the opportunity to contribute to their respective teams this season.

If they can do so effectively, all will carve out a spot in this league for years to come – and probably have their breakout season sooner than later.

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