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NBA Daily: The Boston Celtics’ Interesting Dilemma

The Boston Celtics may struggle more than most expect in 2018 and beyond, especially if they don’t address impending problems.

Drew Maresca

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The Boston Celtics’ 2017-18 season was a success by all accounts. They fell one win shy of advancing to the NBA Finals and did so without two of their best players – Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. At first glance, the 2018 iteration of the Celtics is even more intriguing. The Celtics return both aforementioned stars, with two other young pillars – Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – on the precipice of stardom, too. Additionally, the Eastern Conference championship is almost certainly up for grabs with LeBron James heading west to Los Angeles, concurrently eliminating Cleveland from contention. But think twice before penciling the Celtics into the NBA Finals. There are questions to be answered about the Celtics’ future, as well as concerns about the season at hand.

The most pressing item to be addressed is the team’s chemistry and rotation. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens must delicately manage his roster. He will likely rely heavily on Irving and Hayward considering both are proven All-Stars. And considering both will be working back from a knee procedure and a gruesome leg injury, respectively, there will likely be minutes restrictions in place that allow for the younger Celtics to continue contributing early on this season. However, what effect might lesser roles have on the likes of Terry Rozier, Brown and/or Tatum as the season wears on?

Rozier, Brown and Tatum flourished while averaging 36.6, 32.4, and 35.9 minutes per game, respectively, in the 2018 postseason. Basketball is a rhythm game and few players can find theirs without a requisite amount of playing time. That could hinder their progress, and potentially hinder production. Further, will splitting minutes with the younger Celtic wings prove to be counterproductive to Hayward, who averaged 34.5 minutes per game in the 2016-17 season with Utah – his last complete season prior to the injury? Similarly, will Kyrie’s effectiveness dwindle due to a dip in playing time from his pre-injury 32.2 minutes per game last season?

Less direct implications are also possible. Marcus Smart will likely see a decreased role due to the talent stockpiled on the roster, but Smart’s contributions last season were noteworthy. He is an ultra-versatile defender who can guard four positions. While he is limited offensively, his hustle and grit are contagious. Limiting his minutes might be a necessity, but his energy is difficult to replace.  Having too much talent is rarely a detriment, but all of Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Smart, Rozier, and Irving can’t be maximized. Long-term, this is much more of a problem for general manager Danny Ainge than it is for the team (or even coach Stevens), but it is a problem nonetheless. Maybe Ainge packages two of the above players for Jimmy Butler, or another superstar before the deadline; but barring a similar move, maximizing all of the talent on the roster will be challenging.

And then there are the challenges that await the Boston Celtics outside of their locker room – most notably, the development of Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. Both of the Celtics’ divisional rivals stand to improve in 2018. The Raptors took a chance in trading for disgruntled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. While he very well may leave Toronto after the 2018-19 season, Leonard is a definitively better talent than DeMar DeRozan on both sides of the ball. Canada’s only NBA franchise also took on Danny Green in the DeRozan-Leonard transaction. Green is a career 39.5 percent three-point shooter who can still defend at a high level. Add Leonard and Green to the Raptors’ existing foundation of Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and C.J. Miles and you have a contender in the making. What’s more, the arrival of Leonard and Green does more than simply infuse talent; they represent players who came up big in key moments throughout their respective careers (e.g., in the 2014 NBA Finals, Leonard was named the Finals MVP and Green shot 45 percent from three-point range over the course of the five-game series). The addition of the two former Spurs should improve on the Raptors’ poor execution in recent trips to the Playoffs. While the trade represents a major risk on behalf of Raptors’ President Masai Ujiri and the franchise, it could just as easily pay off with one or more NBA Finals appearances.

Comparatively, Philadelphia had a relatively quiet offseason. They traded the twelfth overall pick, Mikal Bridges, to the Phoenix Suns for Zhaire Smith, who, in typical Sixers fashion, injured his foot in summer league and will miss at least the beginning of the 2018 season. The team also re-signed J.J. Redick, and traded for Wilson Chandler. But most of the improvement that Philadelphia stands to undergo will come from standing pat, as their core is relatively young. Currently, Joel Embiid is 24, Ben Simmons is 22, and Markelle Fultz is only 20 – and all reports indicate he has successfully worked through his shoulder injury and subsequent shooting hitch. The infusion of a productive Fultz alone should add a few wins; for comparison’s sake, Lonzo Ball, who was selected immediately after Fultz in the 2017 NBA Draft, posted a win share of two last season. Philadelphia will ask less of Fultz than was asked of Ball by the Lakers, but a similar net effect is reasonable given Ball’s ups and downs in 2017-18. And that doesn’t take into consideration the progress that can be expected from Simmons and Embiid.

The Sixers represent less of an immediate threat to the Celtics than the Raptors, having lost to Boston in the second round of the 2018 Playoffs 4-1; but they pose a very real threat beyond 2018-19. Entering 2019-20, they should have only around $70 million in salary commitments, assuming all team options are picked up. The majority of that money is spread between the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Zhaire Smith – a formidable six-man rotation. The team will have approximately enough money to sign one free agent to a max deal. Philly’s core is young and talented, and they can add a superstar to it to improve even more quickly for next season and beyond – a scary concept to anyone building an NBA franchise.

If all of that doesn’t worry Ainge, Stevens, and the Boston faithful, there are the rumors about Irving’s desire to team up with Jimmy Butler and/or flee to New York. Rumors are anecdotal at best, but this particular rumor is more substantive than most. Irving’s hometown Knicks were on a short list of preferred landing spots, communicated by the point guard to the Cavs last summer. Further, rumblings have permeated the mainstream media about Irving and Butler’s desire to play together next season. Butler was recently quoted by Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times in a recent interview saying he has grown sick of “the nonchalant attitude of his younger teammates, specifically Karl-Anthony Towns.”  While any number of scenarios can play out in Minnesota, it is unlikely that ownership approves of a deal in which Towns is moved. Therefore, odds of a continued working relationship between Butler and Minnesota appear unlikely. And Irving’s unwillingness to sign an extension, while expected given the current salary cap environment, opens the door to suitors next July, which will likely result in the two players looking at signing with the same team a la LeBron James and Dwyane Wade circa 2010.

None of these scenarios by themselves spell disaster for the Celtics, but the sum of the parts certainly causes more anxiety for the Boston front office than each issue would individually. The Boston Celtics’ rebuild, which began immediately after the 2012-13 season via the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade, took hold quickly. The 2017-18 season is the culmination of that rebuild, with steady progress between the two points in time. Traditionally, perennial contenders like the current Golden State Warriors, 2000’s Lakers and 1990’s Bulls enjoy years of success after struggling to build a team and overthrow an antagonist. Nothing is promised in the NBA, but the path to success for the Celtics, which appeared seamless to many, has cracks in its armor. The Celtics could end the 2018-19 season as Eastern Conference champions facing off against whoever wins the West; but they could just as easily be eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, lose Irving to free agency and have two formidable opponents in their division to contend with for the foreseeable future. Neither scenario is overtly bad, but from the potential chemistry issues to the intra-division competition, to the potential to lose their best player, the Celtics’ future is far less certain than it appears at first glance.

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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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NBA

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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