Throughout Team USA’s recent training camp in Las Vegas, Paul George noticed that many of the NBA stars in attendance were impressed with his Indiana Pacers teammate Myles Turner, who was on Team USA’s Select Team.
“Myles looked really good,” George told Nate Taylor of the Indy Star. “I think the whole talk around that camp was, ‘Man, you got a good one.’ That’s coming from all the guys on the Olympic team. Everybody was just raving of how good Myles is. … He’s got the respect. He’s earned it from the veterans and he’s going to be good. He’s one of the best up-and-coming talents in the league.”
Turner played very well against some of league’s best players – even swatting one of George’s lay-up attempts out of bounds. In addition to receiving praise from fellow players, a number of the reporters in attendance spoke highly of his performance – with Marc Spears of ESPN going so far as to say that Turner looked like he belonged on the actual USA Basketball roster as opposed to the Select Team.
In addition to receiving excellent guidance from legendary coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Gregg Popovich (who’s coaching the Select Team), he’s getting the chance to work out and play against talented big men like DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan as well as stars like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler among others.
This comes after a very impressive rookie season in which the 11th overall pick in last year’s draft averaged 10.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 22.8 minutes. Turner fared well compared to his first-year peers, ranking seventh among all rookies in points per game, fifth in rebounds per game, third in blocks per game and sixth in double-doubles on his way to making the All-Rookie Second Team. Oh, and he just turned 20 years old in late March.
In the postseason, there were stretches where he dominated. In the Pacers’ first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, Turner averaged 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 28.1 minutes. He was a monster in the paint, finishing every game with multiple blocks and totaling 23 rejections in the series (plus many more altered shots). If Turner had any nerves about playing on basketball’s biggest stage for the first time, they didn’t show. In his debut playoff game, he had 10 points, five rebounds and five blocks in the Pacers’ upset victory over the Raptors. Two games later, he recorded 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. In Games 5 and 6, he totaled 29 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocks while shooting 61.9 percent from the field.
Pacers president Larry Bird has said that Turner’s “talent is off the charts” and it’s hard to disagree based on his recent production with Indiana and Team USA.
Basketball Insiders recently chatted with Turner about his rookie season, playoff debut, Team USA experience, Indiana’s recent moves, expectations for next year and more.
Alex Kennedy: First of all, how nice was it not having to go through the draft process this year? I know most guys hate doing that, and you were put under the microscope last year. Is it nice knowing you never have to do that again?
Turner: “It’s super nice. You can actually settle in to a normal summer process and focus on getting better, and not have to worry about where you’ll end up, what city you’ll be in, what the coaches are thinking and all of that. You’re really just working for yourself now, and it feels great.”
Kennedy: How much do you feel you learned from your time with the Team USA Select Team?
Turner: “I feel like I’ve made huge strides because that pace is so much faster than what people think. I mean, you see them beating up on these foreign teams and now I can definitely see why teams struggle against them. You have to make plays a lot faster and you have to make reads a lot faster, so I feel like that was really good for me.”
Kennedy: A lot of guys have had breakout seasons after participating with the Select Team because they expand their game, get great coaching and their confidence is way up. Can you envision that happening for you and having this translate into the season?
Turner: “Yeah, definitely. I’m looking forward to making a big jump forward next year. I know I did some good things last year and I want to build off of that. I think this experience was really good for me. It’s one of a kind. I was blessed and fortunate to be chosen and to have this experience.”
Kennedy: Gregg Popovich is coaching the Select Team. What was it like being coached by him?
Turner: “Man, it was great. Coach Popovich is a really cool dude. I don’t think the media gets to see his real personality and the side of him that he shows when he’s coaching players. But I definitely see why he’s considered one of the best. He’s an awesome guy, with a great personality, and he’s really all about getting better. Overall, my experience was great.”
Kennedy: When we talked back in April, you told me DeMarcus Cousins was the toughest center you had guarded. What’s it like being able to play with him and learn from him in this Team USA setting?
Turner: “I feel like I really held my own this time. I definitely was a lot better guarding him this time than I was during the season when I played him (laughs). It was cool to see how he uses his body and uses his footwork to get around other people. I always see it on TV and see what he does, but to see it in person, it’s definitely one of a kind. But yeah, I definitely feel like I did a lot better this time.”
Kennedy: How much are you taking from the other stars there too? Obviously there’s some skill stuff, but then also things like work ethic, preparation and seeing how they handle specific things. Are there things like that you can learn from the Select Team experience?
Turner: “Yeah, that’s huge. Their work ethic, like you said, stands out. The coaches were actually trying to get them to relax and chill because they have all of these scrimmages, but they were the ones who always wanted to work. They were getting up extra shots after practice, they scrimmaged against us one time and you can just tell that they love playing the game. With all of those guys, they don’t ever truly feel like they ‘made it.’ They really continue to work on their game and keep learning and are true students of the game. It’s [motivating] to see that from people who are at the superstar status.”
Kennedy: Which other players from the Select Team impressed you the most?
Turner: I like [Milwaukee Bucks draft pick] Malcolm Brogdon out of Virginia. He really impressed me. We were playing a lot of one-on-one and he’s a very capable player. He can use both of his hands, he can shoot it, has a good handle on the ball and he’s athletic. I watched college basketball this year, but I didn’t really get to see Virginia play a lot, but I can see why people were high on him. I really like his game. I know everyone else from my class. D’Angelo Russell did well. Stanley Johnson did well. I knew they were going to do well. Oh, and I had never really seen Brandon Ingram play in an NBA setting or whatever. I saw him play at Summer League and I saw him play at Duke, but I like his game too. Once he starts adding more strength to his game, he’s going to fill out nicely.”
Kennedy: From your first NBA game to your final postseason game, how much did you improve as a player?
Turner: “Oh wow, drastically. Dramatically. It’s so crazy how the improvement process goes because you don’t really improve body-wise or things like that. The game just starts to slow down for you and once that happens, everything is so much easier. When I came back from my injury midseason, I was able to take a step back and really see everything for what it was. I definitely got a lot better in the post, making defensive rotations, seeing plays before they happen. I dramatically improved over the course of the season.”
Kennedy: How would you describe your first playoff experience? And how can you build off of that momentum because you played really, really well in that series.
Turner: “I appreciate that, man. It’s definitely a lot different. The game is fast in the regular season, but in the postseason the game is a lot faster. The crowd is more into it. Every possession matters and it’s a nail-biter every other play. Really, in our series, things didn’t get interesting until the last couple games because the early games were blowouts – either they blew us out or we blew them out. But overall, it was a lot different and I can’t even describe the atmosphere. In Toronto, the atmosphere was unbelievable because that whole country was behind them. It was an incredible experience, and I see why people crave it and are determined to get back there and get further. I really enjoyed my playoff experience. The first game, I definitely had some jitters, but after that I was fine.”
Kennedy: You had multiple blocks in every postseason game and averaged 3.3 rejections per game in the series. What’s that feeling like – knowing that everyone is aware of your presence and, to some extent, intimidated to come in the paint?
Turner: “It only builds my confidence. And once I get going defensively, I feel like I only do better offensively and the game flows more naturally for me. Being able to establish that kind of presence early and have my team be able to rely on me if they get beat and their guy gets to the rim, that’s good for everybody’s confidence too because they know I can help back there. But yeah, it’s just huge for my individual confidence – being able to, I guess, demand that respect.”
Kennedy: You turned 20 years old in March. Do you ever think about how surreal it is that you’re repping Team USA as one of the youngest guys there, putting up monster numbers in the playoffs, earning All-Rookie Second Team honors? Does it ever feel surreal how quickly this has all happened?
Turner: “Definitely, man. I was just sitting and talking about it with one of my friends the other day when I was back home. It’s just amazing to see how far I’ve come in such a short period of time, but also how much further I have to go. Me and my dad have talked about this too: I see some players who come into the league, get all of this hype and then they start to fizzle out and stop working. I’m never going to be that type of player. My work ethic is a lot of stronger than that and I’m very driven right now. I’m really looking forward to what’s to come over these next couple of years.”
Kennedy: One question kept coming up from Pacers fans: Because you are just 20 years old, what do you think your ceiling is? When you reach your prime, what kind of player do you see yourself being?
Turner: “I can see myself being a very dominant player in this league one day – and one day soon. I mean, I don’t know what my ceiling is. With my work ethic and my drive, I feel like there is no ceiling. I can always improve and get better at all facets of the game. Like I was saying, guys like KD and Draymond and everyone on Team USA, they’re upper-echelon players but they’re constantly striving for more and striving for more. I want to put myself in that same category as far as that mindset.”
Kennedy: How is Indiana? What has it been like adjusting to the city and living there throughout your first year in the league?
Turner: “I love it down here, man. It’s good because it’s a city that’s not really flashy, it’s really blue-collar. I like that because I can just stay on my grind and work on my game and not worry about any distractions. It’s good for me because I can have my family come out here, support me and watch some of my games. It’s just a great city all around, man. Everybody loves basketball. I’m from Texas, where football is king, so it’s nice to be in a city that really appreciates basketball at every level. People love the Pacers, people love the Hoosiers, people love high school basketball. It’s really cool to be part of that environment. I’m really excited and blessed to be part of such a great organization as well.”
Kennedy: This has been a busy offseason for you guys. What do you think of the additions of Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson, and how they fit with the current squad?
Turner: “I love those moves. I think Jeff is a very aggressive point guard and one that we need to make plays for us. With Big Al, his footwork is impeccable and I’ve watched him play over the years and he’s an incredible player. Thad brings a lot of energy. He’s that ‘do-the-dirty-work’ kind of player that we need, but he’s also more than that because he’s skilled at what he does. I’m curious to see how we’re going to fit together. I also like Jeremy Evans and Aaron Brooks too. Jeremy has always been a good athletic, energy guy. And Aaron, he was one of the toughest point guards I had to guard last year. He didn’t play a lot when we played them, but when he did, some of the plays he made were crazy. He’d finish around the rim and it’s just like, ‘Wait, how did he do that?’ I really love all of the moves.”
Kennedy: You and Big Al have different skill sets, but he’s obviously had a lot of success in this league. Have you guys talked at all yet and are you looking forward to picking his brain?
Turner: “I haven’t talked to him yet, but I love how poised he is. I can learn patience from him and I want to be able to read the game the way he does. And obviously I can learn a lot from him in the post and some of the things that he does with his touches. He’s a veteran who has been in the league for awhile too, so I’m sure he can teach me some off-the-court stuff as well. I think getting him is a great look for the organization and I’m excited to partner with him.”
Kennedy: Nate McMillan will take over for Frank Vogel as head coach, obviously. What changes do you envision and what’s your relationship with Coach McMillan like?
Turner: “Me and Coach Mac are tight. We talked a lot last year during my rookie season. I’m glad that, if we did have to make an adjustment, it was with a familiar face. I’m definitely going to miss Coach Vogel; I’m indebted to him because he gave me a chance in my rookie year to go out there and play and make the most of my opportunities. With Coach McMillan, I feel like we’re going to make some changes on offense. We’re still going to be a hard-nosed, defensive team, but we’re going to run. With the group that we have, I feel like we’re going to be able to get up and down the court rather quickly. He wants to see a change of pace.”
Kennedy: What are your expectations for next season – as a team and then also individually?
Turner: “As a team, we want to finish top three in the East and I feel like we’re very capable of doing so. On paper, we’re very talented, but it’s about how we put stuff together. I do feel like the East will be a lot stronger next year with some of the moves that have been made in our conference, but I feel like we can go out there and get the job done and finish in the top three. That’s the goal, and then we want to go make a deep playoff run. And obviously, we’re all chasing rings and that’s a big goal of mine. I don’t see why we can’t do it next year. I know that ‘sounds good’ and anybody can just say that, but I’m a very confident player and with that confidence comes ambition. Individually, I feel like I can put up big numbers for this team and help in any way necessary. I’d like to see myself put up 15 to 20 points per game. That may seem like a long shot, but I feel like I’m very capable.”
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.