The first game in all except one of the conference semifinals is officially in the books. In a second round in that many hyped to be one of the most all-around intense in history, we’ve seen two blow-outs and one nailbiter. No matter what happens or what reactions show themselves following the first game of a series, everyone comes to the exact same conclusion.
“It’s only one game.”
It’s true. There’s no need to come to any drastic conclusions after only one game has been played in a best-of-seven series. No matter what Paul Pierce says. But, just because each series is still young does not mean there aren’t some causes for concern.
Just like any playoff series, there’s still plenty for every team in its matchup to have to learn and adjust to. For now, let’s take a look at those who lose their first game and the primary question they need to ask themselves as they prepare for their next go-round.
How do they withstand a Kawhi Leonard explosion?
People can fault Philly all they want for how they defended Leonard. Stopping the Raptors obviously starts with stopping Kawhi. Honestly though, when you look at his numbers, there’s not much Philadelphia can do.
Kawhi is having the finest postseason performance of his entire career. In an admittingly small sample size, Leonard has simply dominated in basically every way possible. In six games, Leonard is averaging almost 31 points on 58/51/90 splits. Those who say the Kawhi of old is back would be wrong because the Kawhi of old never played this well even when he was making Finals appearances.
It’s not like he’s facing weak defenders along the perimeter either. Jonathan Isaac, Aaron Gordon and Jimmy Butler are far from a sieve on that end. Yet, Leonard has eaten them all alive. Even with an All-NBA defender like Butler, Philly had no answers for him and they could very well still not have any when the series is done.
Stopping Kawhi at the present time seems out of the question. That does not mean all is lost. There are some guys that frankly can’t be stopped when they’re playing at their best, and Kawhi has certainly proven that he’s one of them. If you shut down the rest of his team, then you still have a chance.
Shutting down the rest of the team means removing the likes of Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol among others. Those guys can be stopped – Lowry has an unflinching reputation for folding in the playoffs – but the Sixers need to find the right personnel to stop them.
How they’re going to do that is anyone’s guess. Siakam has done wonderfully in the playoffs – he outscored every starter on the Sixers – and Gasol has fit like a glove in Toronto. Philly may have more talent, but the Raptors have more guys who can do the little things.
The Sixers also need to exploit mismatches on the Raptors in order to keep up. Again, that’s a hard task because Toronto holds some edges in that department as well. Gasol did an excellent job on Joel Embiid and Kawhi continues to be Ben Simmons’ worst nightmare on the court. Times like these stress the importance of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris.
The silver lining for Philly is that after Brooklyn handled them pretty easily in Game 1 of the first round, the Sixers tore through the Nets like a wet sheet of paper. The Raptors are a much more difficult challenge, but Philly has proven that they can get up again when they get knocked down.
Who steps up if Giannis struggles?
This was an elephant in the room that the Bucks have justifiably avoided. Giannis has taken the reins as the best two-way player in the league – That label and Most Valuable Player are mutually exclusive – so him having an off-game seemed absurd. That was, until now.
The Celtics went scorched earth on the Bucks in Game 1 – winning 112-90 – with their surprising blowout win on the road centered around their defense on the Greek Freak. Giannis may have put up 22 points and even hit a few threes, but that came at 7-for-21 shooting from the field and 5-for-10 from the charity stripe.
It only gets worse. After such a dominant series against the Pistons, Giannis and co. got a nice serving of humble pie thanks to Al Horford’s per usual excellent defense.
The Bucks’ offensive rating when Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the court in Round 1: 120.2.
Bucks’ offensive rating when Giannis shared court with Al Horford in Game 1: 63.3.
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) April 28, 2019
Now that Boston has opened this series by collectively punching Milwaukee right in the teeth, the Bucks have to wonder who can fill in for when Antetokounmpo struggles to get his game going.
Khris Middleton and Nikola Mirotic were the only Bucks who scored in double figures and combined for 29 points. More should be expected from Middleton, who was both excellent in their previous playoff matchup and was an All-Star this season while Mirotic did just about what the Bucks asked of him.
The real disappointments were Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez, who were a combined 2-for-10 from the floor. There were already some concerns that Lopez was not a good matchup in this series against Al Horford and he did nothing to quell those fears. Bledsoe, on the other hand, seems to not have gotten past his playoff demons against the Celtics. It goes without saying that Milwaukee needs these two to play better if they are hoping to beat Boston.
Worst of all, the lack of support from the Bucks’ supporting cast in Game 1 fails to dispel the notion that the team lives and dies by the Greek Freak. It’s important to remember that Boston didn’t just steal a game from the Milwaukee. They spanked the deer on their home floor. During the regular season, Milwaukee rarely got blown out and rarely got beaten at home. Boston managed to do both.
To the Bucks’ credit, the odds of Giannis having a game that atrocious again is very low. You should expect him to come back with the vengeance in Game 2 just as much as you should expect the Celtics to be ready for him. The next game should be better than the first, but the Bucks can’t go to war with just Antetokounmpo.
It’s series like these that make you realize that Milwaukee really misses Malcolm Brogdon.
What rotation should they go with against the Warriors?
Let’s step back and take a moment to appreciate that from the looks of things, this series will be every bit like the one we had the privilege to witness last season. What we saw last May was one of the most exciting and intense playoff series in NBA history. To get that again would be amazing. Honestly, the Rockets-Warriors matchup could be the Godfather duology of playoff series.
Getting back to the series itself, Game 1 could haunt Houston when this series is over because they absolutely had every opportunity to steal one in Golden State. Even though the Warriors had the lead for the majority of the game, the Rockets kept themselves within distance.
The Rockets definitely have some legitimate gripes with how the game was officiated, but they should take pride in that Clint Capela played about as badly as he could have, Austin Rivers was out with an ankle injury/illness and James Harden didn’t have the most efficient game – but they were still in it until the closing seconds.
Besides, they’ve got other kinks to work out with their rotation. Rivers’ impending return will probably they will have to decide between Gerald Green – a plus/minus of -16 in seven minutes?! – and Iman Shumpert – who up to that point had been playing garbage time minutes – if they don’t cut out both of their minutes entirely.
The same goes for their frontcourt situation. Capela was awful but that not likely to be a problem going forward. PJ Tucker put up a goose egg yet managed to have a plus/minus of +9. The real question is who is going to get minutes off the bench.
The Rockets opted to play Nene as their backup five against the Warriors. Nene didn’t do a bad job scoring eight points and putting up a plus/minus of +7. At the same time, the Rockets relied on the 37-year-old, whose minutes had declined even further this season, in crucial minutes. They even had him on the floor during the Warriors final offensive possession in which Curry hit the dagger three to put them up for good. A bizarre decision by Mike D’Antoni.
Houston doesn’t boast the most depth in the frontcourt, but perhaps it’s worth considering giving Kenneth Faried some burn? The Warriors out-rebounded the Rockets 38-26. Faried isn’t the best option but he had the highest rebound average per-36 on the team besides Capela at 12.2 per game. Maybe he could give the second unit a bit of a jolt.
Since Houston plays Golden State just about better than anyone and was still within a hair of beating its rival, they don’t have as pressing of a concern as Philadelphia or Milwaukee. Still, the majority of the teams who win playoff series win Game 1. If any of these teams who lost are to defy the odds, they do have to make the appropriate adjustments.
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.
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.
Robert Williams said he would get up at 9 or 9:30 am to work out and Gordon Hayward would be finishing up his work.
On Gordon’s explosion: “He just got it back, man. He’s back.”
— Jay King (@ByJayKing) October 5, 2019
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.
Too bad @gordonhayward got injured (hopefully it's a minor injury), because he was ROLLING during the first half of last night's game against Hornets.
He got his bounce back again! Highlights: pic.twitter.com/SMSvxJZLie
— Tomek Kordylewski (@Timi_093) October 7, 2019
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.
Didn't finish it but Gordon Hayward making these moves 👀 pic.twitter.com/jM9fvojn2S
— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) October 6, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 of 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 pounds with 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 shortcomings 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.