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Poised To Breakout: Atlantic Division

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The biggest free agents have signed, summer leagues have concluded and the NBA landscape has suddenly found itself in the doldrums of August. With far too much time before training camps kick off, Basketball Insiders has been taking a closer look at the divisional hierarchy each week.

First, we tackled the rankings. Then, the best new deals from each division got some shine. Now, next in the series, we’ll take a look at those poised to breakout in 2017-18. In the Atlantic Division, much of the mystery over who will lead the division is gone – hello, Gordon Hayward – but there’s still plenty to be unearthed up in the Northeast. This time, the spotlight is on the players, coaches and executives that could improve their league-wide standing due to their potential impact within the division.

Jaylen Brown – Boston Celtics

The hype train for sophomore Jaylen Brown has well and fully left the station. After fearlessly taking on LeBron James last year, Brown played a pivotal role for a Boston Celtics team that stole away the No. 1 seed from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Brown’s explosive first step and ability to catch fire from deep makes him a candidate to breakout in 2017-18, particularly so after his perceived growth this summer.

During his two games in the Utah Summer League, Brown averaged 17.5 points and 10.5 rebounds and later remarked that he was using the competitions to prove that he’s ready to contribute when the wins and losses start counting for real this fall. Even better, Brown has proven to be an athletically gifted game-changer even when his jumper isn’t falling. From win-clinching blocks to strong rebounding efforts, there are plenty of ways Brown can pitch in while the team’s All-Stars handle the scoring load.

Of course, there are minutes to be had in Boston’s rotation following the departure of Avery Bradley, and Brown may already be the best-suited option to handle them. Still, Brown is just 20 years old and incredibly raw, all things considered, but the flashes of brilliance are absolutely already shining through. If he can capitalize on the available opportunities while playing alongside Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, Brown may just force himself into the starting lineup on a permanent basis.

D’Angelo Russell – Brooklyn Nets

This one seems like an absolute no-brainer as the Brooklyn Nets’ summer move for D’Angelo Russell was a win for all parties involved. Russell gets a fresh start with a franchise that figures to remain on the outside of the playoff hunt in 2017-18, even in the weak Eastern Conference. Without the bright California spotlight on him, Russell should have plenty of chances to bloom with the Nets. He’ll share the backcourt with Jeremy Lin and the dynamic, interchangeable pair will give opposing teams trouble when they’re connecting from three-point land.

Even with his alleged growing pains and off-the-court issues, Russell still averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists on 40.5 percent shooting during his sophomore campaign. Perhaps Nets general manager Sean Marks was compelled to trade away franchise centerpiece Brook Lopez for Russell simply to stop the guard from lighting up his team every time they played the Lakers. Over four career games against the Nets, Russell has tallied 24.5 points per contest – including the now-famous I’ve-got-ice-in-my-veins effort of 39 points on 8-for-12 from deep late in his rookie season.

With low expectations and the team built around him, Russell should have his finest season yet in Brooklyn.

Willy Hernangomez – New York Knicks

In the wake of Kristaps Porzingis’ sophomore year emergence and the debacle that can only be described as Joakim Noah’s first season in New York, Willy Hernangomez, by and large, flew under the radar. Hernangomez stepped into the starting lineup following Noah’s injury in early February and impressed during his limited time on the court. Notching 8.2 points and seven rebounds in just 18.4 minutes per contest, his second half growth led to an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection.

While everybody waits to see how the Carmelo Anthony situation resolves itself, the Knicks should be pleased with the 1-2 punch in their frontcourt. Assuming that Hernangomez has permanently leapfrogged Noah, even if the latter is finally healthy in 2017-18, the Spanish center will almost certainly bust out this season. Per 36 minutes, the 6-foot-11 big man pulled down 13.6 rebounds to go along with a solid 16 points on a superb 52.9 percent from the floor. With New York’s dearth of talent down low outside of the budding Latvian superstar, Hernangomez should easily build on his unexpected rookie season successes.

Brett Brown – Philadelphia 76ers

Since becoming the Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach in 2013, Brett Brown’s all-time record is less than stellar at 75-253 – good for a winning percentage of just 22.9. Yet, it would be impossible to pin many of those losses on the savvy Brown as he lived through the roughest years of former general manager Sam Hinkie’s much-maligned process. Between the constant stream of injuries and the borderline intentional tanking, Brown hasn’t gotten a truly fair shake at this head coaching gig quite yet. As one of the league’s best motivators, Brown, health permitting, has a massive opportunity to cash in on the 76ers’ patience.

Claiming an injury-free season for the 76ers at this point would be bold, but if that dynamic young core – starring Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid – can stay healthy, then Brown’s image will skyrocket. The wheels fell off in 2016-17 when Embiid’s season ended early, but it was Brown that had molded a pretty average roster into a darkhorse playoff contender, albeit however brief. Now that Brown has plenty of fancy toys to experiment with at every position, it wouldn’t be surprising to find the 76ers’ leader on the shortlist for Coach of the Year next season. While the raw, athletic talent of this Philadelphia core is undoubtedly electric, they’re still going to need a wise tactician to put it all together and get these youngsters into positions they can succeed in.

Through three seasons, Brown has already done so much with so little. Let’s see what he can do with a strong, healthy roster in 2017-18.

Allen Crabbe – Brooklyn Nets

One year after their initial pursuit, the Nets got their man. After handing over an offer sheet worth $75 million to Allen Crabbe last summer, Brooklyn acquired the sharpshooter for next-to-nothing in late July. In 2016-17, the Nets tossed up the fourth-most three-point attempts per game at 31.6, but, sadly, converted on just 33.8 percent of them – good for the 26th-worst mark in the entire league. So, despite his bloated contract, Crabbe represents a near perfect fit for the growing Nets.

Never quite able to get out from under the superstar shadows of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Crabbe has the opportunity to shine in the Nets’ run-and-gun system. He’ll likely start in Brooklyn at small forward, alongside the aforementioned Lin and Russell, bringing his 44.4 percent rate from three-point range with him. This Nets team clearly loves to shoot the ball from deep and they desperately needed a deadeye shooter like Crabbe to make opposing defenses pay. Thanks to the sheer volume of attempts he’ll grab under head coach Kenny Atkinson, that immaculate second-best three-point percentage (Kyle Korver, 45) will likely fall in 2017-18, but Crabbe could quickly become one of the Nets’ top contributors.

Scott Perry – New York Knicks

For now, a total meltdown in New York has been quelled thanks to the hiring of new general manager Scott Perry. To say the least, it’s been a hectic summer for the Knicks despite being largely uninvolved in the proceedings. Former executive Phil Jackson nearly dealt away Porzingis during the NBA Draft and once he was dismissed, the remainder of the front office opted to give Tim Hardaway Jr. an untouchable $71 million to go with the albatross deals given to both Noah and Courtney Lee last summer.

After successful stints with the Detroit Pistons, Seattle SuperSonics and Orlando Magic, Perry is a fantastic candidate to clean up the mess at Madison Square Garden. Honestly, Perry has a chance to start off extremely well with the Knickerbocker-diehards by just playing things safe. Holding onto Porzingis is an excellent first step, but if he can get relatively fair value for Anthony, Perry will be hailed in New York almost immediately.

If front offices have learned anything lately, it may be that there are no shortcuts to success in this current NBA landscape. Undoubtedly, there’s plenty of work to be done, but time is on the Knicks’ side. So, if Perry doesn’t look for a get-rich-quick bailout plan in New York, he’s almost guaranteed to break out, especially in comparison to the former job holder.

Although the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors will likely remain atop of the Atlantic Division, that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of compelling storylines to look out for in 2017-18. From bloated contracts to new opportunities, Brown, Russell, Hernangomez and Crabbe can all make this upcoming season their best respective full effort yet. After years of what seemed like limitless losing, Brown finally gets to prove his worth as an NBA head coach, while Perry enters a critical period in the Knicks’ franchise timeline.

On and off the court, this group of six players, coaches and executives are ready to break out in a big way in the Atlantic Division during the 2017-18 NBA season.

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About Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.