Arguably no division in basketball got a facelift this offseason quite like the Northwest Division. With the addition of superstars Jimmy Butler and Paul George, along with all-star forward Paul Millsap, the division is operating with much more star power than last season even with the departure of Gordon Hayward.
For all of the developed stars in the division — which there is certainly no shortage of — next season also becomes an opportunity for a few individuals to burst onto the scene and let the rest of the division know that they won’t be an afterthought. Every great player, coach, executive and team that is currently dominating the NBA had that first season where they caught everybody’s attention.
The Northwest Division isn’t short on candidates poised for a breakout year next season, so let’s dive in and see who could have the league buzzing come next fall.
Jusuf Nurkic — Portland Trail Blazers
Standing at 7-feet tall and hailing all the way from Bosnia, the Blazers struck gold in a midseason trade that landed them Nurkic.
After the Denver Nuggets’ front court seemed to be a bit crowded with Nurkic and fellow budding big man Nikola Jokic, the Mile High club shipped the 22-year-old Nurkic and a first-round pick to Portland for Mason Plumlee and a second rounder.
Talk about a steal.
In his 20 games with Portland last season, Nurkic played like a man possessed, turning in averages of 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. For the last quarter of the season, Nurkic became the true inside presence the Trail Blazers needed to change the dynamic of their ball club.
Now as next season rolls around, with a few games under his belt in Portland and the chemistry to boot, Nurkic should have no problem continuing his ascent as the third leg of the Blazers’ attack behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Expect the Bosnian Beast to be a big part of the Trail Blazers’ success next season.
Gary Harris — Denver Nuggets
Acquired by Denver in the same draft night deal that landed the Nuggets Nurkic as well, Harris still remains in the Mile High and is on the cusp of breaking through to the next level.
Last season Harris really took his game up a notch despite playing in just 57 games.
With the NBA evolving into a league dominated by two-way wing scorers, Harris fits the bill. Last season, the 22-year-old shooting guard connected on 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc on his way to averaging 14.9 points per game. Through just three seasons in the NBA, Harris has posted a positive Defensive Win Shares number each time.
As Harris gets more reps under his belt out in Denver and hopefully avoids the injury bug, the Nuggets look to be in possession of a very valuable piece of their core moving forward.
A full season with the efficiency Harris displayed last year should have the rest of the Northwest Division, and the league as a whole, perking their ears up to take notice of the shooting guard in Denver.
Donovan Mitchell — Utah Jazz
Yes, Mitchell is a rookie. Yes, he has no prior track record in the NBA to warrant this year being a “breakout” year. And yes, there’s a chance a team such as the Jazz, who will be vying for a playoff spot, won’t focus on getting a 20-year-old guard the touches he needs to burst onto the scene.
But I doubt the Louisville product cares about any of that.
Mitchell turned heads this summer for Utah by dominating almost any time he stepped on the court for a summer league game. While most Jazz fans were drying their eyes as Gordon Hayward packed up and moved east, the optimistic fans were taking notice of the 6-foot-3 guard with a 7-foot wingspan and a pretty jumper that their team traded up for on draft night.
At the next level, Mitchell has two quality traits that usually translate to any level of basketball given the player’s’ talent. Those two qualities, shooting and defense, just so happen to be Mitchell’s forte. And he did a lot of both during the summer league.
With Rudy Gobert in the middle and Ricky Rubio running the point out in Salt Lake City, Mitchell should have plenty of opportunities to pick his spots on the wing while opposing defenses are occupied with the 7-foot big man down low.
In a division full of stars, look for this rookie to start lighting it up for Utah as early as next season.
Jamal Murray — Denver Nuggets
After Harris, you don’t have to look too far on the Nuggets’ roster to find another player poised to breakout next season.
During an up and down rookie season, Murray showed flashes of the potential that got him drafted seventh overall. Following the All-Star break, Murray saw his scoring average jump to 12.1 points per game in 25 minutes of play. Along with the scoring bump, his true shooting percentage registered at 53 percent.
While the Nuggets seem to have a bevy of scoring guards on the roster, none possess the raw potential of Murray, who, by the way, is still just 20 years old.
Asking a teenage lottery pick to put up lights out numbers in their rookie year is usually an unfair request. And in Murray’s case, he struggled as most rookies do. But with the wealth of talent around him and the big man duo of Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, the Canadian, who still isn’t even legally allowed to drink, should be sitting pretty next season in terms of ramping up his production.
Kentucky Wildcat guards have a pretty good track record in the NBA. Expect Murray to carve his name into that list next season.
Ok, so technically this isn’t one particular individual. But after the offseason the Wolves just had, along with the players they already had on the roster, plus the fact that they’ve won a Northwest Division title just ONE time, it would be irresponsible to leave them off of this list.
Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jeff Teague. 80 percent of Minnesota’s starting lineup consists of high-caliber players. Two of which have already been All-Stars, while the other two are sitting on probably 10 All-Star appearances a piece by the time they call it quits.
Tom Thibodeau made the moves this offseason to put the best players possible around his two budding young stars in order for them to take that next step. Bringing in Butler allows Wiggins to not have to assume such a vocal leadership role, letting him focus on getting buckets and playing defense. A proven point guard like Teague who can actually shoot the ball opens up the floor for the wing players, as well as creates space down low for Towns.
All in all, this Timberwolves team has the makings of the best club the town has seen since Kevin Garnett was roaming the floor back in his prime.
If there is anyone poised to breakout in the Northwest Division, it’s the entire Minnesota ball club. And by midseason, the rest of the league will be realizing this as well.
Sam Presti — Oklahoma City Thunder
How exactly can a guy who drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and traded for Paul George be in a position for a “breakout” year? Well, because up until now, two of those guys are gone, while the future of the other two hangs heavily in the balance for Presti and the Thunder.
But this year is where Presti turns the corner in his ability to actually keep elite talent in Oklahoma City.
By pairing last season’s MVP with George, Presti gives Westbrook another star and a reason to believe in his abilities to make the Thunder a legitimate contender. On the flip side, giving George a taste of what it’s like to play alongside one of the league’s best players for the first time in his career could get him to throw all of his Los Angeles dreams away and ink up for a long-term deal with the Thunder.
Bringing stars to a team is one thing. And Presti has been extremely successful in identifying and acquiring talents such as those. But keeping them around is a whole different ball game, and until now, Presti’s batting average in that category doesn’t look too hot.
If the Thunder can compete with the big dogs of the league, Presti just may be to sprinkle some of his magic on Westbrook and George, effectively keeping two top-10 players in Thunder uniforms once again.
As the upcoming NBA season gets closer by the day, more and more interest is paid to the Northwest Division. With a healthy amount of star power and developing storylines oozing throughout that realm of the league, all eyes will be closely fixated on how things play out for these particular players, executives, and teams.
NBA Daily: LiAngelo Ball Fighting For Place in the NBA
LiAngelo Ball has the name recognition but is trying to prove he belongs in the NBA based on his skills and abilities.
NBA fans are currently being treated to competitive Western and Eastern Conference Finals. The postseason is coming to a close and in roughly two weeks, the eventual 2018 NBA champion shall be crowned. With the NBA season nearly over, NBA draft season is revving up. On June 21, exactly sixty young men will hear their name called on draft night. This group will include highly sought-after NCAA collegiate prospects, international players and U.S. born players that have spent time improving their respectives games overseas.
Attention is most often focused on the top few picks. However, one name has had a conspicuous tendency to stick out, LiAngelo Ball. Like his older brother Lonzo Ball, Liangelo was recruited into the UCLA program amid the heightened attention surrounding the Ball family. Unlike Lonzo, Liangelo was unable to showcase his game on the U.S. collegiate level following a widely covered theft scandal overseas, his subsequent suspension from the UCLA program and the Ball family’s decision to then place LiAngelo and his younger brother LaMelo Ball into the Lithuanian league.
Now removed from overseas play, LiAngelo Ball is fighting to prove that his game (and not just his name) warrants the attention of NBA team officials. Many critics are quick to look past Lonzo’s clear NBA talent and whatever potential LaMelo Ball might have to quickly dismiss LiAngelo. LiAngelo Ball made it clear he sees himself as an NBA player. Ball spoke to Basketball Insiders recently to discuss a wide range of topics.
“I’m an NBA player, that’s why I declared for the draft. That’s why I’m here also,” Ball stated.
While those who question the potential for Ball to make the league via the draft, Ball has been busy doing his best to make a good impression in person. Ball spoke about the interviews he’s had so far.
“Team interviews were great. It wasn’t really an interview for me. I just started talking, vibing with the coach really. I felt like it went good for me,” Ball said and confirmed which teams he had spoken to. “I had two with [Oklahoma City] and the Suns.”
Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype confirmed that Ball also has private workouts scheduled with the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors.
Ball gave some insight into his approach to the workouts and whether there is a specific approach regarding the teams in attendance.
“I’m going to work out hard. I’m not really familiar with what they do so, I don’t know but I’m going to knock down my shots and show my endurance. Stuff like that,” Ball said.
Numerous videos have been posted of Ball shooting well in these workouts. The videos, as his past play would indicate, show that Ball is at least a capable outside shooter. Ball was quick to point this out, along with his defensive potential, as skill sets that make him a viable NBA prospect.
“I feel like I bring the team, I can knock down shots for a team. I’m real confident in that,” Ball said. “I feel like my defensive game is good. With the right coach and somebody lets me know the techniques, I feel like I’ll be a good defender in the league.”
Young players and prospects are often asked which players they have looked up to or emulated as it helps to give a bit of insight into the young player’s mentality. Ball didn’t admit to copying a particular player’s game but did name a few players he likes to watch while slipping in a flattering comparison he says he has heard about himself.
“I don’t really model my game after other players. I always just play my own way, my own style. I like to watch players as far as James Harden, LeBron [James], Klay Thompson. People say I play like [Thompson] sometimes. So, I just like watching that type of stuff. Pick up stuff from the game,” Ball said.
Ball also highlighted his time in Europe as a plus to his resume.
“I feel like it translates good into the NBA. I mean, I got a year of experience over in Europe, Europe basketball. [Because] they do a lot of the same sets, like I said, as far as coming off the screens, pull-ups and all that. I feel like it helped me out there,” Ball stated.
Also, Ball didn’t hesitate to show his interest in playing for any team beyond the Lakers, if that opportunity presented itself.
“I’m saying I’d like to play for the Lakers [because] my brother is on the team. I want to play with him. I’d love to play for any other team really. I don’t have like a set choice. Any other team, I’m ready to play for,” Ball stated
Ball needs to keep all options open. There are only so many spots in the draft and as Ball stated, he will have to be prepared to explore every opportunity in the draft, free agency or perhaps through the G-League. For now, he is focusing his attention on the task at hand and doing whatever he can to ensure his name is among the sixty called on draft night.
2018 NBA Consensus Mock Draft – Ver 4.0
Each week, four of Basketball Insiders’ experts take a look at the draft class and weigh in on what they are seeing and hearing in the march up to the 2018 NBA Draft.
Each week, four of Basketball Insiders’ top writers will break down the latest news and notes surrounding the 2018 NBA Draft. Included is an updated mock draft that reflects how each writer sees the draft landscape based on the latest news, workouts, and information from the pre-draft process.
Moke’s Notebook: One thing I can say for sure is that this is the most unpredictable draft I’ve seen in many years. The Kings and Hawks are each rumored to be open to moving the second and third pick in the draft, and I have a feeling that’s due to the intrigue surrounding Luka Dončić. At this point, the expectation is that the Suns will select DeAndre Ayton first, and I get the sense that there are many that believe that the risk of selecting Dončić is too great. Aside from that, Michael Porter, Jr. (whom I’ve been told is the “dream” scenario for the Knicks) and Mo Bamba each saw their stock rise pretty dramatically during the Combine in Chicago. I’ve seen some mocks having Porter as highly as third.
Aside from those two, there are a lot of questions about Trae Young. It was once thought that Stephen Curry and even Kevin Durant weren’t strong enough to make it in the NBA, and similar questions have been asked of Young. Between Dončić, Bamba, Porter and Young, we might be looking at four of the biggest risks that are consensus top seven picks in quite some time. Of the batch, I’d feel most comfortable selecting Bamba, whose maturity and outside shooting are both better than advertised, but again, with teams at the top willing to discuss dealing their picks and the appetite for risk playing a major role in how the draft shakes out, I only have confidence in my top seven, not necessarily where they’ll land.
As we get closer to the draft, I’d keep an eye on a few names: Aaron Holiday, Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo. Each of those guys have a shot to move up into the late teens, with Holiday, in particular, having lottery potential. Keita Bates-Diop and Jevon Carter are two second rounders who I wouldn’t be surprised to see sneak into the top 30, either.
Over the coming weeks, some guys will be called in for more individual workouts and as the weeks progress, our intel will get stronger.
Jesse’s Notebook: Though the NBA Lottery and Combine are behind us, there are still a lot of questions about how things will shake out on draft night. While Luka Dončić has been considered a consensus top-two pick for some time, some are now questioning whether he will drop a spot or two. I still believe that by draft night, Dončić will likely be picked either first or second, but that doesn’t seem to be a foregone conclusion anymore.
The mystery man of this year’s class continues to be Michael Porter Jr. Porter Jr. checks off all of the boxes for a top-tier draft prospect, but his injury history and long-term health are still major issues that teams need to consider. No one in the draft has a larger range of outcomes. Porter Jr. recently said at the Combine that he is the best player in the draft and it will only take one team with a top pick to agree with his assessment to roll the dice and take a shot on him. But if it looks like his athleticism or burst is limited because of his previous injuries, he could drop toward the end of the top-10.
As of now, there is a good sense of who will be picked with the top 15 picks or so. Once we get outside of that range, things become somewhat less clear. There is very little consensus on how teams will draft from 16-30, so I expect the upcoming workouts and other pre-draft processes to help add clarity on that front.
Benny’s Notebook: Since Basketball Insiders’ last set of Notebooks, much of the draft landscape has changed. From lottery leaps to combine crushers, we’re finally at the point in the process where things start to happen. I still believe Luka Dončić is this draft class’ best player — he literally won both the EuroLeague MVP and Final Four MVP this weekend — but we must deal with the reality that Phoenix (and perhaps others) may look elsewhere. Outside of swapping No. 1 and 2, most of my adjustments come in the lower half of the first round.
I’d banked high on Mitchell Robinson showing out at the Draft Combine and, instead, he pulled out of everything completely. Allegedly, this is because Robinson has earned a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25, according to Aran Smith of NBADraft.net. So, with little else to go off of on Robinson, he slides for me. Additionally, after the strange week of Dennis Schröder news, it’s possible that the Atlanta Hawks could search for a future guard — and the stock-rising Aaron Holiday certainly fits the bill.
Lastly, I’ve begun to come around on Zhaire Smith, the 6-foot-5 prospect from Texas Tech that averaged 11.3 points and five rebounds per game. In the modern, positionless NBA, Smith can already guard multiple spots and his athletic abilities have been rated at the top of his class. He may need some G-League time next season, but he turns just 19 years old in early June. While he probably won’t rise much higher than I’ve had him in mocks thus far, he makes sense for plenty of rebuilding rosters.
Steve’s Notebook: With the official NBA Draft Combine in the books there has been a lot of draft chatter. While it’s important to state clearly that its still very very early in the process and lots of things can change, there is a sense at least in a few places where some teams seem to be heading and where some players might end up landing.
The Phoenix Suns did land the top overall pick, and there was almost no executive in Chicago who thought Arizona big man DeAndre Ayton wouldn’t be Phoenix’s pick. While there is real validity to the idea that new Suns head coach Igor Kokoškov has experience and a relationship with euro sensation Luka Dončić, the belief is the Suns will make their decision based on talent, not relationship.
There was also a buzz that both Sacramento and Atlanta seemed more interested in the domestic big men available at the top of the draft rather than Dončić. That could always change, but the thought process there was the risk that Dončić could opt to stay out of the draft if he didn’t like where he would land, and both teams seem to be higher on other players.
There were a few players who clearly had fans among NBA talent evaluators.
Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr, could go significantly higher than expected with Dallas being his likely ceiling. The Mavericks are far from locked in on anyone, but the belief is the Mavericks are looking at versatile bigs.
Kentucky’s Kevin Knox was something of a mystery in Chicago opting to do very little publicly and left town early. According to several teams, Knox could go as high as six to Orlando and has strong interest from the Bulls, Cavaliers, and Knicks.
UCLA’s Aaron Holiday is said to have a “soft” commitment in the late teens and has, at this point, turned away workouts with teams in the 20’s. There is a sense he could be gone before by the 19th pick.
Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison pulled out of the Combine with NBA Draft.net’s Aran Smith tweeting that he is believed to have gotten a commitment from the Chicago Bulls at 22. Smith also tweeted that Mitchell Robinson also got a promise from the Lakers at 25. One veteran executive labeled this draft class as being the most aggressive draft he can recall where agents were calling and pressing for commitments.
Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo wowed athletically during combine testing and several executives before the testing sessions not only nailed where he’d measure and perform, they also suggested he’d be gone in the 20’s.
Executives were especially critical of the two notable international prospects Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs, suggesting that both could slide into the second round.
IMG Academy’s Anfernee Simons has several fans, but the word on him is that he’s a long-term project that would need time. There was a considerable amount of fact-finding by scouts on Simons. A team to watch could be Orlando if Simons is there is there when the Magic select at 35 or 41.
Tulane’s Melvin Frazier came away with mixed reviews, some love his length and athleticism and see him as a defensive presence, other teams saw him as lacking defined NBA skill sets.
Maryland’s Kevin Huerter has some fans. One executive offered a friendly wager that Huerter would be gone by 40.
West Virginia’s Jevon Carter looks like he has a real shot to be drafted in the first round, with several teams at the bottom of draft expressing real interest.
There are a couple of sleeper types that seemed to have turned some heads through the process in Chicago, namely Kansas’ Udoka Azubuike, Louisville’s Ray Spalding, Dayton’s Kostas Antetokounmpo and West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate. All of them could go significantly higher than currently projected.
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NBA Daily: Porter Jr. Ready to Make Up For Lost Time in the NBA
Michael Porter Jr. played just 53 minutes of basketball in his lone college season, yet believes he’s the best player in the draft now that he’s seemingly healthy.
When Michael Porter Jr. stepped foot on Missouri’s campus, he was supposed to inject life into a basketball program that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since the 2012-13 season.
After receiving his release from the University of Washington, following the firing of Lorenzo Romar, Porter Jr. decided to return home and play under Cuonzo Martin for the Tigers. The No. 2 ranked recruit in the nation, the near 6-foot-11 small forward possessed the scoring and versatility traits to suggest he would be a star at the college basketball level before making his jump to the NBA.
But that would not be so for Porter Jr., as a back injury and subsequent surgery would limit him to just 53 total minutes in three games coming at the end of the season.
In his brief stint as a student-athlete, Porter Jr. played how many would expect a teenager coming off of months-long injury rehab: rusty.
Thirty points and 20 rebounds in three games, on 10-for-33 shooting from the field, and 7-for-20 from beyond the arc. It was clear Porter Jr. was not up to the speed he expected to be on the college court just several months prior. But no matter, he wanted to get out there anyway, regardless of risking re-injury, so that he could help his teammates.
“I knew that I wasn’t gonna put on a show, or be the Mike that they saw in a few months,” Porter Jr. said at the NBA Combine. “The way I was thinking about was just, you know, they’ll know the player I am in a few months. Just trying to help my team and not be selfish with the decision. We had like six players on scholarship at the time because two had gotten injured. So, I was just trying to do what I could to be a part of the team.”
Porter Jr.’s return didn’t lift his team the way he had hoped, as Missouri fell to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament 67-54. When the clock hit zeros, the smooth shooting swingman with a questionable injury history set his sights on the NBA.
However, Porter Jr.’s projection at the game’s highest level is much different in May than it was 10 months ago. From positioning himself to battle for the top overall pick, Porter Jr. is now somewhat of an enigma. His game is a bit of a mystery, and so are his medical records. Once considered a no-brainer to be picked top-three, Porter Jr. could find himself sliding near the back end of the top 10 on draft night.
Noting that he originally injured his back a few years ago in high school, when the injury finally caught up to him just before his college career was ready to tip off, Porter Jr. took a unique approach to otherwise disappointing news.
“When I had to have the surgery I kind of viewed it as a blessing,” Porter Jr. said. “A new start, and I could really reach my full potential. They had me as the number one player in high school, but I didn’t even feel like I was at 100 percent, and I do now.”
Being at 100 percent, as Porter Jr. says in his own words, just before he begins his NBA career has the forward excited for his future. Despite missing time on the court and falling behind other prospects in the draft conversation, Porter Jr. hasn’t lost his self-confidence.
“I’m just excited to show everybody the player that I am,” Porter Jr. said. “I’m still the best player … I played against all these guys, they’re all great players. But I’m the best player in this draft.”
Though his back is still a mystery, and his sample size is small, if Porter Jr. were to reach the potential scouts and NBA personnel pegged him as having when he was on the doorsteps of college basketball, then he has the makings of a franchise-caliber player.
With the opportunity of getting that kind of upside at a potentially discounted selection, Porter Jr. was one of the most popular names at the Cmbine. The forward mentioned meeting with just about every team picking in the top 10 come June’s draft. One team that Porter Jr. has been frequently linked to, the Chicago Bulls, were not exclusively mentioned on his list. But Porter Jr. noted the Bulls and his agent were in contact and he hoped to get a workout scheduled with Chicago.
No matter who Porter Jr. meets with or works out for from now until draft night, the versatile and skilled forward projects to be one of the most interesting players to follow. Could he impress throughout the draft process and reclaim his spot within the top-three? Or will he slide down draft boards and become a potential steal for a team in the back half of the lottery?
Whatever the outcome is, Porter Jr. will be ready.
“I was hoping to turn college basketball upside down like a lot of these players,” Porter Jr. said. “But this is just a step in my process in becoming the best player that I can be. It’s a little different, but I’m more ready than ever. I’ve been dreaming about this NBA stuff for so long, I feel like I’m ready.”