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NBA Saturday: Don’t Overlook Julius Randle

Julius Randle is striving for greatness, and he could be one of the best players to come out of this draft class.

Alex Kennedy

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Two years ago, Julius Randle was being labeled as one of the best high school players in the nation. He was a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, winning three state titles in four years at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Texas while averaging 32.5 points and 22.5 rebounds as a senior. However, he didn’t care about the attention he was receiving because he had his sights set on bigger accomplishments.

“All I am right now is a player that’s good on the high school level, but I’m trying to be great in college and then, hopefully, in the NBA,” Randle told me in 2012. “If I make it to the league, I want to be great. I have bigger goals than being recognized in high school and stuff like that. It doesn’t really affect me. I’m grateful that people think I’m a great player and everything, but I have bigger goals than this.”

Two years later, Randle is on the verge of achieving those goals. He just finished his lone collegiate season in Kentucky, in which he was dominant. He averaged 15 points and 10.4 rebounds, leading all Division I players in double-doubles for the season. Randle led all NCAA players in total rebounds (416), registering the second-most defensive rebounds (277) and the fourth-most offensive rebounds (139). He put up an impressive efficiency rating (25) and led Kentucky to the national championship game. Not bad for a freshman who just turned 19 years old in November.

Now, Randle is weeks away from being drafted and turning his NBA dream into reality. He’s going to be a lottery pick on June 26 and potentially a top-five selection. He’s one step closer to becoming the great player that he strives to be, and he can’t wait to begin his NBA journey. He’s confident that his game will translate to the NBA and that he can have the same success he had at every other level.

“I think my versatility [separates me from other power forward prospects],” Randle said.“We’re all athletic and fast, but I think my versatility – being able to shoot the ball, handle the ball really well, having the intangibles to guard on the defensive end even and I’m still getting a lot better at that – I just think my versatility separates me from a lot of people.”

Randle has the killer instinct and confidence that NBA talent evaluators love. That was obvious dating back to his high school days, and he confirmed it at Kentucky.

“I want to be totally dominant on the court in every game,” Randle said in high school. “When I walk off the court, I want to be known as the best player.”

For most of his life, that has often been the case. Randle is an intriguing prospect, since he’s so strong and physically gifted. He’s explosive, quick and always active, which is why he’s such an excellent rebounder. He’s able to score in the post, even against bigger defenders, and he consistently gets to the free throw line and converts. But perhaps the most attractive thing about Randle is his motor. The team that drafts Randle doesn’t have to worry about him giving anything less than 100 percent. He’s an intense competitor who always goes hard, and he has an outstanding work ethic.

There have been some concerns about his height (6’9), since he’s somewhat undersized for a power forward in the NBA. There was also talk that he had relatively short arms, but at the combine his wingspan was measured at 7’0 and his standing reach was 8’9.5, which means that his arm length shouldn’t be an issue in the league.

Randle is confident that he’ll be effective in the NBA and he’s looking forward to further proving himself throughout the pre-draft process. He knows that this is his chance to improve his draft stock and impress the teams that control his fate, and he’s ready to make the most of the opportunity.

“Am I able to stand out? Yeah, I feel like I’ll be able to stand out in any situation just because of my belief in myself and my confidence and my ability,” Randle said.“Regardless of what goes on, I’m just trying to have fun with it all.”

Throughout the college basketball season, Randle and his Wildcat teammates were under the microscope and trying to live up to ridiculously high expectations. Entering the season, Kentucky was ranked No. 1 in the country and being described as the best recruiting class ever. Fans were anticipating an undefeated season and a national title. However, the team ended up losing 10 games before the NCAA tournament, but Randle said he thinks that’s what brought the team together and propelled their impressive run in March.

“It helped us mature a lot just because we had to become closer to each other,” Randle said.“We leaned on each other a lot because we were going through an everyday process together and it really brought us closer than we already were. … I just learned how to attack adversity every day. How I can get better every day, even when things aren’t going the way you want them to? I was able to do that.”

One of the benefits of playing for Kentucky is that there are many, many former Wildcats in the league who are still very involved with the program. Randle has been receiving advice from a number of these players, many of whom went through this same NBA pre-draft process recently and were top picks as well.

“[They told me to] just be myself and have fun with everything since it’s something you only get to do once,” Randle said.

Randle has been training for the draft back in Texas and working on several aspects of his game.

“I’m just going to keep getting into great shape, keep working on shooting, keep being that versatile player and keep getting better on the defensive end,” Randle said. “I put in a lot [of conditioning work], just because I want to be ready for the workouts, ready for the summer league games and eventually ready for the season. Being in shape as a professional is something you should always be in.”

NBA talent evaluators love Randle’s game and believe he has what it takes to be an impact player at the next level.

“He’s interesting,” one Western Conference executive said. “He’s a little undersized for a four, but he’s a guy that coming into the league can come off your bench and score baskets. He’s got to develop a 15-17 foot jump shot, which I think he will. He’s very left-handed, but I think he can rebound at the NBA level. Offensively, I think he’s going to come in and score baskets.”

“He’s a guy that can be Zach Randolph,” said Ryan Blake, the Senior Director of NBA Scouting Operations. “At this stage of the game as a power forward, I project him to do a lot more with his development [considering the] hard work that he puts into it.”

He’s a man, and he won’t get pushed around by other players,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “Right now, he’s left-hand dominant, so he must work on his right hand and keep improving his jumper if he wants to take the next step and really wreak havoc. He should be able to play in the league for a really long time, but the question is how good will he be?”

Randle has been waiting his whole life to play in the NBA, brushing off past success because he strived to be great on the professional level. Soon, Randle will be on basketball’s biggest stage and have the chance to solidify himself as an elite player. This draft is loaded with talented players who have been hyped up for years, but Randle shouldn’t be overlooked.

(Check out this breakdown of Randle’s game, from our friends at DraftExpress).

Phil Jackson Asks Carmelo Anthony to Opt In

Will Carmelo Anthony opt into his contract and delay his free agency by one year? That’s what Knicks president Phil Jackson has asked his star to do. Jackson wants Anthony to give him and his new head coach one season to change the culture in New York and show ‘Melo how things are going to be moving forward before he makes his free agency decision.

If Anthony opts in to the final year of his contract, he’ll make $23,333,403 next season. By opting in and increasing his contract number, he would be eligible to sign a larger contract next offseason when he’s a free agent, since salary increases go off of the previous year’s figure. It’s risky, because Anthony would be delaying his multi-year, lucrative payday and could get injured during the 2014-15 season, but he could end up making more money in the long run if all goes as planned.

This would also take Anthony’s contract off of the books in the summer of 2015, when the Knicks want to pursue “headline players,” according to Jackson. The Knicks only have $290,000 in guaranteed commitments for the 2015-16 season, so Jackson and his staff would have a ton of money to throw around to re-sign Anthony and then put a star (or two) next to him in New York.

Jackson said that Anthony is considering opting in, and he reportedly has until June 23 to make his decision and inform the Knicks.

“I’ve told him it might be a good idea to hang in here and see what it’s like for a year, and go on to next year,” Jackson said, according to The Wall Street Journal. “But that’s his option. That’s what he’s earned and part of his contractual agreement. He has the right to [opt out]. But I just offered that to give him an opportunity to see how this is going to change – with the coaching, the system and the culture we impose.”

In the meantime, Jackson needs to find a head coach. He nearly had Steve Kerr, even coming to a verbal agreement with the first-time coach, but then the Golden State Warriors job opened up and he couldn’t resist considering the team’s talent and his California roots.

“Unfortunately, I had told [Anthony] that Steve Kerr was coming in to coach the team when I felt it was the time to tell him,” Jackson said. “Then I obviously had to back off that. And we haven’t talked about coaches since.”

“I had to kind of release [Kerr] to actually go to this job and say, ‘You have to do what’s right for yourself’,” Jackson said, according to the New York Daily News. “I understood entirely the process he was going through to have that [Warriors] job open up. That was something he kind of thought would be a good fit for him. So that’s good, we’re happy for him.

“There were plenty of things in the contract where he could have come here and been very satisfied. So that really wasn’t the issue. The issue was about California, and the issue was about — to be perfectly honest – it’s a better job for him. He’s a California guy. It’s a group of guys that are for him, been in the playoffs, been there, they have a really good operating team right now. … We’re still a team that didn’t make the playoffs, have to put together a roster. I’m not saying we have to rebuild, per se, but we have to build a competitive team, whereas that team — what did they get, to the semifinals last year, and this year they got bumped in the first round. But playoff experience is important.”

Jackson admitted that some people in the organization have “suggested” that he return to the sideline and coach for a year while he mentors a young coach. However, he says he’s not interested. He doesn’t think he can physically do the job at his age, which is a big reason why he’s hesitant to coach again.

Derek Fisher, who currently plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder and spent many years as Jackson’s point guard with the Los Angeles Lakers, is someone who he is considering to be the Knicks’ next head coach since he’s a great leader and familiar with the triangle offense.

“For the last two summers, Derek and I have talked about the next step in his career. And he’s gone back to playing,” Jackson said. “But we’ve talked about the next step over the last two years. So I kind of know what he wants to do, and his feelings. He’s got a family—kids, little kids, in L.A. I’ve got no idea if he’d want to move his family to come here. There’s so many unknowns, and I’m not talking to him [yet]. But he’s definitely on my list of guys who could be a very good candidate for this job.”

Jackson would love to steal his old protégé Brian Shaw from the Denver Nuggets, but he doesn’t want to give the team any compensation.

“Denver has everything that we’ve owned for the last few years already,” Jackson joked, since the Nuggets have two draft picks and four players from the Knicks’ trade for Anthony. “There’s nothing else I want to give them.”

It remains to be seen if Anthony will opt in and who the next head coach will be in New York, but as always, the Knicks are an interesting team to keep an eye on.

 

 

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

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NBA Daily: Playoff Implications In Week One

Douglas Farmer takes a quick look at a few matchups this NBA opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.

Douglas Farmer

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When the Los Angeles Clippers lost to the New Orleans Pelicans in last season’s first week, they had no way of knowing how costly the defeat would be. Flipping that 116-109 defeat, or any single one of the Clippers’ other 33 losses, would have kept Los Angeles from the buzzsaw of the Golden State Warriors in last spring’s first round.

That seems obvious now when every game feels important because it has been so long since any game has happened. But in no time, this week’s games will be diminished with “early season” qualifiers. They should not be. An October win has the same worth as an April victory. Losing before Halloween is as costly as falling after St. Patrick’s Day.

Some nights heighten those stakes even further. Facing the closest competition in the standings can have double the effect. With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at a few matchups this opening week that could have notable implications in playoff seeding, or lack thereof, many months from now.

Tuesday: Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – TNT.

To err on the side of obvious, as this is arguably the most-hyped game of the week, more than inane home-court advantage could be on the line in the second game of the league year. Neither Los Angeles team will have its full arsenal at its disposal, but that is part of the importance to the game: Both the Lakers and the Clippers have distinct hopes of managing their workloads this season. Getting off to a strong start is crucial to those intentions.

Consider last year’s Houston Rockets: If they had not struggled so mightily in October and November (not getting above .500 until Dec. 17), they would not have had to go pedal to the metal throughout the spring just to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Better seeding or fresher legs may have spelled better postseason fortune.

Wednesday: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers – 7:30 ET p.m. – ESPN.

The Eastern Conference pecking order is expected to separate these two, the Celtics among the also-rans while the 76ers chase the Milwaukee Bucks for the No. 1 seed. For both, though, each game will matter. Boston will have the Toronto Raptors, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat all looking to slip by it, while the Bucks will inevitably rattle off enough wins to make Philadelphia’s pursuit a difficult one.

On top of that, studying how the wings of the Celtics fare against the size of the 76ers could be informative for both seasons.

Wednesday: Denver Nuggets at Portland Blazers, 10 p.m. ET – ESPN.

Perhaps only out of deference to continuity, both the Nuggets and the Blazers are trendy picks to finish among the top-four of the West. A year ago, they finished a game apart, only one game separating second-seeded Denver from falling to fourth in place of Houston.

Putting too much emphasis on one game the second night of the season may sound absurd, but the head-to-head matchups in this series will very likely determine playoff seeding among the league’s best. That is as true on Oct. 23 as it is on April 9.

Friday: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics – 7 p.m. ET.

Activate your League Pass subscription. While the defending champions may have lost a lot this summer, they still have playoff aspirations. By no means do those expectations equate to slipping in among the Eastern Conference’s barely-competent middle class. The Raptors anticipate fighting for home-court advantage. The Celtics hung on to such by one game last season. There is no reason to expect that gap to be bigger this year.

Friday: Dallas Mavericks at New Orleans Pelicans, 8 p.m. ET – ESPN.

The legitimacy of these playoff hopes may as much hinge on fall-off elsewhere in the West as the progress of these upstarts, but the odds of both the Mavericks and the Pelicans reaching the playoffs are slim. With or without Zion Williamson this week – and it’ll be without – New Orleans will need to boost its record while knocking Dallas’ early if it wants to find the postseason at the dawn of the Zion Era.

The Mavericks, meanwhile, are looking to prove the viability of the Luka Dončić and Kirstaps Porzingis pairing. Floundering into the draft lottery will not do much in the eyes of prospective free agents.

Friday: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET – ESPN.

Much akin to the Nuggets and Blazers, the Jazz have stayed in the contention conversation because of continuity more than anything else, while the Clippers jumped into it via their active offseason. At some point, some of these teams have to end up in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoffs. That’s just math.

Last season, two games separated the fifth seed from the eighth. Los Angeles may be without Paul George right now, but how it does without him will thus directly impact what awaits George in the spring.

When the Clippers lost to the Pelicans 12 months ago, their leading scorer was Tobias Harris, who tallied 26 points yet was still a minus-3 while on the court. By the playoffs, Harris was working for the 76ers, but his showing in October still altered Los Angeles’ spring.

The same can be said of many games this week, early season or not.

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NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch — Pacific Division

Shane Rhodes takes a look at players in the Pacific Division that have a great chance to take a significant leap in the upcoming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Anything can happen in the NBA.

Every season, there are so many things that seem to come out of the blue, whether it be a team that was or wasn’t expected to be competitive or big trade that no one saw coming. There is just too much randomness involved in the day-to-day to be certain about anything.

But, if there is one thing consistent in the NBA, it’s that there are always a few breakouts every season.

Pascal Siakam, Montrezl Harrell, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Jokić are a few that have made stepped out from behind the curtain and made their way to the NBA’s center stage over the last few seasons.

Basketball Insiders has already looked at the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northwest and Southwest — but which players could step into those shoes from the Pacific Division?

Landry Shamet, Los Angeles Clippers

After the Philadelphia 76ers traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers, Landry Shamet shined in a primary role. And now, after the Clippers’ serious roster improvement, the game should come even easier to Shamet in his sophomore season.

In 25 games with Los Angeles, Shamet averaged 10.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists while he shot 41.4% from the floor and 45% from three-point range with relatively little room to operate. On the season, he shot 42.2% from three, good for 11th-best in the NBA.

Now with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard expected to draw much of the defensive attention, Shamet – and the entire Clippers’ roster on the whole – should have plenty of room to operate.

Given weapons of George’s and Leonard’s caliber, opposing defenses should be stretched quite thin against Los Angeles; although he proved he was a plus-shooter, Shamet may find that other teams pay him relatively little mind when he has the ball. And, because of that, a jump in efficiency is firmly in Shamet’s range of possible outcomes in 2019, however hard that is to believe.

The Clippers won’t need Shamet to be a world-beater, just good enough to keep defenses honest when faced with George, Leonard and others. So, he may not see a meteoric rise in his total touches or field goal attempts per game, but it would be a surprise if there wasn’t a leap in his counting stats, namely points and assists.

If Shamet can take that boost and maintain a spot near the top of the league in three-point percentage, expect the NBA to take notice.

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton had quite the impressive rookie season for the Phoenix Suns. Unfortunately, it went unnoticed by most because of the hype machine that was Luka Dončić.

Now in his second season, his first with a capable point guard on the roster, the NBA may not be ready for him.

Ayton averaged 16.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and shot 58.3% from the floor as a rookie in an offense that lacked a floor general and, outside of Devin Booker, struggled to create space. While Ricky Rubio isn’t an elite guard, he is more than capable of injecting some life into a Suns offense that was one of the worst in the NBA, both in terms of scoring and turnovers.

What does that mean, exactly? Some cleaner looks underneath should allow for a few more field goals, while the added spacing from Rubio, Cameron Johnson, Dario Šarić and others should open things up even more down on the block.

While he isn’t a marquee addition, Aron Baynes could also play a pivotal role on the Suns if he can get Ayton to buy in on the defensive end.

If he can step up his game on that end of the court, and take the necessary steps that are expected of him on offense, Ayton could prove one of the best young players in the NBA this season.

Bogdan Bogdanovič, Sacramento Kings

Like Ayton, the Sacramento Kings’ Bogdan Bogdanovič had quite an excellent, if not under the radar, rookie season. The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 14.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.8 assists in his second season and played a major role in the Kings’ turnaround after years of poor results.

That may seem like a breakout in and of itself. But, unfortunately, Bogdanovič’s play went largely unnoticed on the national stage because of his teammate, De’Aaron Fox, who had a breakout season of his own a year ago.

That said, with another offseason in the books, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Bogdanovič elevate his game further.

Bogdanovič should spend much of his time with the second unit. And, as the leader of the bench, he certainly shouldn’t lack for touches. Likewise, against opposing second units, Bogdanovič should come into his fair share of open shots or easy plays.

With Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes clogging up space in the starting lineup, Bogdanovič may never see enough time to break out to a more national audience — barring a sixth-man role rise ala Lou Williams. That said, if he can maintain his efficiency, Bogdanovič’s play should prove competent enough to put him squarely in the conversation for Most Improved and, maybe, even Sixth Man of the Year.

And in his third season, if that isn’t a breakout for Bogdanovič then what is?

Avery Bradley, Los Angeles Lakers

It’s been an arduous journey for Avery Bradley.

In his last season with the Boston Celtics, Bradley was regarded as one of the NBA’s premier defenders and was more than capable on offense as he averaged 16.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

But since? Bradley has bounced between three different teams while his stats have dropped off and his defense has worsened. In two seasons between the Clippers, Detroit Pistons and Memphis Grizzlies, Bradley managed a meager 11.8 points per game while he averaged a defensive rating of 113, by far the worst of his career.

That said, Bradley’s stint with the Los Angeles Lakers could see a return to form. While the “best shape of his life” story is a yearly cliché, Bradley may truly be in the best shape of his life, having lost 40 pounds between his trade from Los Angeles to Memphis and the start of free agency.

Alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a healthy Bradley should prove more than capable as a secondary scorer, a role which would afford him enough energy to wreak havoc again on the defensive end.

He may not post a career year, but expect Bradley to once again look like the player he was for seven years in Boston as opposed to the question mark that has taken the court over the last two seasons.

Marquese Chriss, Golden State Warriors

Marquese Chriss, the No. 8 overall pick back in 2016, has been a flop to this point in his NBA career. But with the Golden State Warriors, Chriss may be in line for his best season as a pro and a potential breakout year.

There’s a reason the Suns regarded Chriss so highly as a prospect too — while at Washington, he showed he had the tools necessary to play the role of the NBA’s modern, floor-stretching big. He averaged 13.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and shot nearly 57% from the field and 35% from three-point range.

In Phoenix’s always dysfunctional system, Chriss struggled. After a production dip between rookie and sophomore seasons, the Suns cut bait and he bounced from the Houston Rockets to the Cleveland Cavaliers. There, Chriss showed some of that spark that made him a top pick, thought

Now with the Warriors, Chriss has impressed enough in training camp to push Alfonzo McKinnie from the roster. With little frontcourt depth beyond Draymond Green, Kevon Looney and Willie Cauley-Stein, there is a clear opportunity here and a role for Chriss to fill.

If he can take advantage, Chriss would certainly prove a worthwhile gamble for the Warriors and a nice surprise this season.

Any player could find themselves on the fast track to NBA stardom. Fox, Harrell, Siakam and D’Angelo Russell represent a few prime examples from a year ago; players can come out of nowhere to make their mark on the NBA stage, and that could prove true again this season.

But these players, via a combination of opportunity and or talent, would seem to have a greater chance to do so – maybe more so than anyone else – in the Pacific Division. If they step up or show out, don’t be surprised – their respective teams certainly won’t be.

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How Magical Can Orlando Be?

In an Eastern Conference full of unknowns, the Orlando Magic stand out as one of the most prominent in that category. Matt John takes a look at the three players who should play a role in their progress this season.

Matt John

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As it stands right now, the Eastern Conference is wide open.

It definitely has its favorites, like the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. But even they have their question marks.

There are teams who could be at that level, or possibly higher should things break their way, like the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. But, that remains to be seen; how they do depends on if their previously injured stars are back to normal and how much their young talent progresses.

Then there are others like the Brooklyn Nets, who honestly may have to wait a year before they’re put in the conversation, and the Miami HEAT, who just got their biggest free agent since LeBron James and could sneak their way into the conversation if they make the right moves.

And then, there’s the Orlando Magic.

There’s a lot of optimism coming out of the Magic Kingdom. And why shouldn’t there be? Orlando made its first playoff appearance in seven years, they had one of the best records in the league following the trade deadline (18-8) and they brought pretty much everyone back and even some reinforcements.

And yet, of all the teams in the East, Orlando’s the one that has no consensus. Or, more specifically, no one knows where they will fall in the conference. They might just be the biggest wild card in an Eastern Conference that already has plenty of them.

If all their hopes and dreams come true this season, the Magic could very well be right up there with the Bucks and the Sixers. If it goes the opposite way, they could find themselves back in the lottery.

But this Orlando team is good. They can make the playoffs, but they should be wary of their other competitors. The Toronto Raptors may have lost Kawhi Leonard but, as of now, they’re not going anywhere. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons. There is also a lot of buzz around two particular and young up and coming teams- the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls.

If the Magic are to prove themselves better than those teams and as good as those aforementioned ones, they’ll need contributions from several particular players. They already know what they’re going to get out of Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Terrence Ross, Al-Farouq Aminu, Wes Iwundu and DJ Augustin, but for the following players, Orlando’s odds of getting to that next level depends on their individual progressions.

Aaron Gordon

Aaron Gordon has already proven himself an above average player. He’s an excellent athlete, a hard-nosed defender, has improved his three-point shot over the years and, in this past year alone, has shown improved playmaking ability, as his assist percentage shot all the way up to 16.6.

But now, entering his sixth season in the NBA, he still has yet to prove that he’s a truly special talent. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years to see an explosion from Gordon, the transition from raw talent to the superstar we anticipated he’d be. It’s not entirely his fault; previous Orlando management forced Gordon to play out of position for too long, which may have hurt his growth as a player.

It didn’t ruin his career, but it didn’t help one bit. Two years later, Gordon has some playoff experience under his belt. His first go-round was honestly quite solid for a playoff rookie. 15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists while putting up 47/40/52 splits is promising, but those are satisfactory stats for a complementary player.

Gordon’s ceiling right now is still that of a future star. And, at 24-years-old, there is still plenty of time for him to reach that level. Last season, Steve Clifford wanted the young player to be more a defensive specialist, a role in which Gordon performed very well in. Now with higher expectations from the team, Gordon should be expected to take his game another step further.

We got an explosion from an athletic, defensively stout power forward who showed off the three-point range last season that we keep expecting from Gordon, but it came from Pascal Siakam. If Gordon is to take that next step, he should look at Siakam’s last season as an example to build his game on.

Jonathan Isaac

Jonathan Isaac is only 22-years-old. He’s 6-foot-10. He has a 7-foot-1 wingspan. He plays more like a wing but does things on the court that any big would be capable of doing. When people think of Isaac, they think of raw talent.

Following an injury-plagued rookie season, Isaac did okay offensively in his first full year, averaging 9.6 points on 43/32/81 splits while also averaging 5.5 rebounds. Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about, as Isaac averaged 1.3 blocks and 0.8 steals while also putting up a Defensive Real Plus-Minus of 1.13.

With his insane physical measurements, there’s a lot to like about Isaac’s game and potential. His body frame has garnered comparisons (albeit unfairly) to Kevin Durant, but the potential he has makes it hard not to see a great future for him.

He knows how to use his length to bother his opponents; there are just too many advantages he has physically to not already be a good defender. Offensively, he’s not at the same level. But, every so often, Isaac showed he was capable on that end. There were even times where he took over games last season.

As of now, Orlando already has Vooch, Fournier, and Ross to handle the scoring load. If they want to take that next step, Isaac’s offensive progression would not only vault them higher in the standings, but it would also add a whole new dimension to the team.

There’s no rush for him to become a star, but if Isaac can show even more improvement in year three, then the Magic should become a lot harder to stop.

Markelle Fultz

Now this is where the Magic’s ceiling gets interesting.

Markelle Fultz was a project from the day it was announced that he was traded to Orlando. It was clear he no longer fit Philadelphia’s timeline and that he needed his own timetable to get his game back on track. That said, he’s a project worth investing in; Fultz was a top overall pick for a reason.

Unlike Anthony Bennett, whom Cleveland reached for back in 2013, Fultz has the tools to be something special. It’s only been injury and mental gymnastics that have held him back. Now he has a fresh start and a team that can afford to be patient with him.

Because of all the off the court drama that was going on with Fultz, there’s no concrete data to support anything that he could do this season. All we have now are just preseason videos to see what Fultz can do. But, in the few preseason games that we’ve seen, the returns look promising.

With or without a reliable jump shot, Fultz is definitely an NBA-caliber player. He has good court vision.

He can attack the basket.

And he has shown good instincts on the defensive end of the floor.

Then there’s his jumper. His jump shot looks… better? It doesn’t look like it’s completely fixed, but when your jumper is so ugly that it would have made Shawn Marion grimace, you have nowhere to go but up.

We’ll have to see how his new and improved jump shot will fare when the real competition starts. If it’s for real, then Markelle becomes a much more lethal scoring threat. He’s already shown that he can be a useful tool in the offense. His abilities as a scorer would make him all the more dynamic.

The reason why Fultz’s potential could pay more dividends than Gordon or Isaac this season is that the one area where the Magic desperately need improvement is at the point guard spot. DJ Augustin had one of his most efficient seasons ever last season, but that didn’t exactly take Orlando that far. If Fultz is to show that he was worth the top pick – which, at this point, may be unrealistic – then Orlando becomes so much better.

Gordon’s and Isaac’s improvements would definitely take the Magic up a notch. Fultz could vault them up so much higher.

We’re not going to include Mo Bamba on this list because, as long as Vooch is around, Bamba won’t be relied on to do much besides be a back-up five. Even in that role, he has some competition.

Now say these guys all progress enough to stay promising, but not enough that the Magic would take a major leap forward. Then comes the possibility of trading some of their youth for an established star.

Orlando has the assets to acquire someone good. Players like Blake Griffin or Bradley Beal could be had if they have an offer sweet enough to entice their respective teams, but it all depends on the progress of the roster as a whole. They may have to decide whether to try and open a win-now window by pairing Vucevic and Fournier with an established star or to build for a more glorious future around Gordon, Isaac, Bamba and Fultz.

Either way, this Magic team should be up next. What is left to be determined is how “up next” they truly are.

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