As soon as Isaiah Thomas found out he was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Boston Celtics, he received a text from an NBA legend. The other Isiah Thomas had a message for him.
“Take them to the playoffs,” the Hall of Famer wrote. “You’re a game and a half out of the seventh spot. Take them to the playoffs.”
Thomas admittedly didn’t know where the Celtics were in the standings prior to the trade, but from that point on, he was extremely excited and determined to make his postseason debut with Boston.
“I watched some Boston games because I’m friends with Avery Bradley, but I didn’t know their situation and where they were in the standings,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders in a phone interview. “Then, once I saw Isiah’s text, I got even more excited [about the trade] because all I want to do is make the playoffs. I started thinking, ‘Man, we got a realistic chance of making the playoffs – this year and for years to come because the East is so wide open.’”
Boston is still just one game out of the eighth seed and one and a half games out of the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. And if his first five games with the Celtics are any indication, Thomas could be the piece the team needed to push them over the edge and into the postseason.
The point guard, who was traded for Marcus Thornton and a 2016 first-round pick, has played just five games (119 minutes) with the Celtics yet he has already scored 109 points off of the team’s bench. He’s currently averaging 21.8 points, 5.8 assists and 3.0 rebounds, fitting right in as Boston’s sixth man. The NBA has taken notice of his productivity, giving Thomas the Player of the Week award for games played Feb. 23 through March 1.
“It’s so surreal, it doesn’t even seem real,” Thomas said of wearing a Celtics jersey. “I’ve been in purple since college – from UDub (Washington) to Sacramento to Phoenix. Now, wearing the all green Celtics jersey is just so crazy. It’s so legendary and there’s so much history behind it. And the fans in Boston, whether it’s on social media or in person, they’ve shown me so much love and the market is so much bigger. Man, everything about it is crazy. It’s really a basketball city.”
Thomas believes the Celtics have a chance to be a very good team – now and in the future.
“I think we can be really good,” Thomas said. “We’re young right now and learning. We have a great, young head coach in Brad Stevens and a great coaching staff, and then I feel like everybody in the organization – from Danny Ainge down – knows how to build championship teams. Making the playoffs this season is the goal, and I’m excited for the future. Hopefully I can be here for a while.”
The Celtics’ starting backcourt of Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley is tough and defensive-minded, but the duo is only averaging a combined 21.5 points per game on the season. That’s where Thomas and his 21.8 points come in. He is a perfect complement to those two gritty players since he can provide instant offense off of the bench.
“I’m just showing [Marcus] things that coaches and players showed me and helping him along the way,” Thomas said when asked about helping Smart develop. “I’ve already started telling him some little pointers that I think can make the game easier for him, and I also can learn from him on the defensive end. I mean, he’s a great defensive player and I can ask him for tips on how he goes about being such a great defensive player. We can learn from each other. I think we complement each other too, because our games aren’t really alike outside of us both attacking. I think we fit together really well.
“Me and Avery, we grew up together in the same neighborhood and played in the same AAU program,” Thomas added. “He’s a few years younger than me, but we always worked out together at the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the community centers – we always played together. I’ve known him since we were in grade school. It really doesn’t seem real. I mean, two guys coming from the same neighborhood not only playing in the NBA, but playing on the same team? It doesn’t seem real, but it’s so much fun. When I got traded, he was the first guy to hit me up and said, ‘This is crazy!’ I’m loving it and having so much fun here.”
Thomas seems to be a much better fit with the Celtics than he was with the Suns in his brief 46-game stint in Phoenix. Although it’s a small sample size, his numbers with Boston look similar to how he produced in his final season with the Sacramento Kings (20.3 points, 6.3 assists, 2.9 rebounds) even though he’s now coming off of the bench rather than starting and, as a result, playing 6.7 fewer minutes.
The 26-year-old was blindsided by the trade since he really felt that he had a long-term future with the Suns. They rolled out the red carpet for him in free agency this past summer and he signed a four-year, $28 million deal with them. He thought he’d be settling down in Phoenix with his fiancé and two children, but he was dealt eight months after inking his contract and found out in an odd way.
“I was actually on the Suns’ team bus because we were about to go to the airport to go to Minnesota,” Thomas said. “We were kind of waiting until the deadline came to leave the arena because we knew Goran Dragic was getting traded and we were just waiting for it be finalized. Then, when the deadline passed, everybody thought they were good. Everybody was like, ‘Whew, we’re good.’ Then, Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee came back and told us they got traded to Milwaukee. Then, Brandan Wright read something and was like, ‘IT, you just got traded.’ I’m like, ‘You’re lying, no I didn’t.’ [Reports] said it was to Philly at first and I was so confused. Then, it ended up being Boston. I didn’t believe it, though, it caught me by surprise. I just got off of the bus, went into the locker room to get some things with Tyler and Miles and then talked to front office about being traded. That’s how I found out. I was ready to go to Minnesota as a member of the Suns. … We were still in the playoff hunt and that’s what caught everyone off guard, like, ‘Why are we making all of these moves if we’re still in playoff contention?’”
When Thomas talked to members of the Suns’ front office, he says he didn’t get much of an explanation for why he was moved.
“They said…” Thomas starts and then there’s a long pause. “I don’t know. It was a little weird. They said that I played well and, ‘Thank you for being a professional and thank you for this and that.’ Coach [Jeff] Hornacek said that while I was there, I played well and helped them, but that they were just going in a different direction. It caught me off guard. When Goran had said all of the stuff that he said in the media, you kind of knew he was going to get traded. But I didn’t think I was going to get traded. When it happened, they wished me luck and said this might be a better situation in Boston and that they wanted to send me somewhere that would help my career or something like that. I do thank them for the opportunity for believing in me and signing me, but now we went our separate ways.
“You realize it’s a business. It was shocking. I was caught off guard, but I will never be caught off guard again. That was my first time being traded so it caught me off guard, especially because I signed for four years just a few months ago. I thought I’d be there for a lot longer.”
When asked about making a midseason transition to a new team, Thomas admits it isn’t easy on or off the court.
“It is tough,” Thomas said. “I have a family – two boys and a fiancé – and they have to move too. That’s the toughest part. Because it’s near the end of the season, I’ll probably stay in a hotel for the rest of the season and look for a place out here in the summer. That’s probably the toughest part that people don’t see. Having to get up and move from a previous city and all of that stuff is tough, but the guys here in Boston are making it an easier transition for me.”
Thomas was surprised to be traded, but he wasn’t shocked to learn that it was the Celtics who acquired him. Their front office has shown interest in him for quite a while, so this move didn’t come out of nowhere.
“Danny Ainge was the first guy to call me at 12:01 on July 1 [when free agency started last summer] to tell me how much he was interested in me and tell me how much he liked my game,” Thomas said. “And I’ve heard from numerous people – my agent, players around the league, Avery Bradley – that Danny Ainge has liked me since I was in college. It isn’t anything new. When we were sitting there watching the Celtics and Kings game [the night after the trade] he told me, ‘I’ve wanted you since I watched you at the Maui Invitational [in 2010] when the world was talking about Kemba Walker and I felt like you were just as good as him.’ They didn’t draft me because they needed a shooting guard at the time, but he still liked me a lot.
“Then, right when I got to Boston, all of the staff members said, ‘Man, it’s been a long time coming and we’re not talking about your flight here. We’re talking about how long we’ve been trying to get you in a Boston Celtics uniform.’ It feels good. It feels good to be wanted like that. I felt wanted in Phoenix, but to have a legendary guy like Danny Ainge say that he loves what I do on the court is a blessing.”
As soon as the trade went down, Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford predicted that Thomas would be a perfect fit in Boston. Crawford has known Thomas for over a decade, since the two are both from Seattle, and they describe themselves as brothers.
“I think he can help them tremendously,” Crawford said of Thomas. “It’s such a storied franchise, and I know they’ve liked him for a long time and there’s nothing like being wanted. The shock of being traded can obviously throw you off a little bit, but it just means you’re wanted. I think he’s exactly what they need, with the way he plays and his spirit, and I know the Boston faithful will fall in love with him.”
Crawford was right, and it only took five games for Celtics fans to fall in love. “Thank you, Phoenix!” has been a popular tweet from fans in Boston recently.
Thomas has been excellent early on for the Celtics, but he has bigger goals in mind. He’s hoping to lead the team to the playoffs and shine on basketball’s biggest stage, for the first time in his career and his first time wearing a green jersey.
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 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.