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Six Breakout Players To Watch – Atlantic Division

The Atlantic Division is chock-full of star players. But behind those talented athletes are a handful of guys looking to have a breakout season. Jordan Hicks takes a dive into some of those names.

Jordan Hicks

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The Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference is going to be an outright bloodbath. For one, it features the top three teams in the conference, and arguably the only three teams from the East with a prayer to compete in the Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers all have plenty of talent to make a push through the playoffs, and before the start of the season, the first seed could really belong to any of them.

The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are both bottom-feeders in the conference but have spent the last couple of seasons building their respective rosters through free agency and the draft. In the weak Eastern Conference, both teams have a justifiable shot at a postseason berth.

Let’s take a look at six players throughout the division that will have the opportunity to make noise for their team. Whether it be as a scoring threat, a defensive savant or a playmaking expert, these breakout candidates are sure to make an impact this upcoming season.

Semi Ojeleye – Boston Celtics

When factoring in his size, Semi Ojeleye could be the most athletic player on this roster. Standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 240 pounds, Semi moves fluidly on the court, both in outright speed and sliding defensively. Thanks in part to his combination of size and speed, he is able to guard multiple positions on the floor. He played this defensive role admirably coming off the bench for the Celtics in his rookie year.

Semi’s issues came on the offensive side of the floor. Playing over 15 minutes per game, he put up a measly 2.7 points on 34.6 percent shooting. His play during the Las Vegas Summer League was highly encouraging for his offensive play this upcoming season. He averaged 12.4 points on 42.6 percent shooting while playing roughly 28 minutes a game. While only shooting 33.3 percent from three, he attempted more three-pointers than any other player on the summer league roster, showing that the coaches have faith in his long-ball as well.

Shabazz Napier – Brooklyn Nets

Shabazz is now playing for his fourth team while entering his fifth season in the league. He saw stints in both Miami and Orlando before finding a solid role with Portland. Signing with Brooklyn in the offseason, Napier is coming off his best statistical season in the NBA. He averaged 8.7 points per game on 20.7 minutes off the bench. He is a proven scorer that can handle the ball and score at an efficient mark.

While he may be fighting for minutes early – he is currently the third point guard on the roster – his ability to score will naturally get him more playing time. Playing behind one of the best scoring duos in the NBA in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum likely prevented Shabazz from seeing the floor more often and could have affected his development. Joining a Nets roster that desperately needs scoring off the bench, Shabazz could break out and average double-digit scoring.

Mario Hezonja – New York Knicks

Mario is entering his first season with the Knicks after signing a 1-year, $6.5 million deal in free agency. Originally a top-five pick in the 2015 NBA draft, Mario didn’t develop as quickly as the Orlando Magic would have liked, so they decided to let him walk in free agency. Regardless of what the Magic thought of his production, his per-36 minutes splits this last season were impressive. He averaged 15.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 44.2 percent shooting.

Hezonja has plenty of length in today’s NBA; this allows him to seamlessly guard multiple positions on the defensive end. His three-point shot hasn’t quite caught fire, but he has enough to work with to eventually become an efficient marksman from downtown. As his shooting ability and defensive instincts continue to progress, look for Mario to make a big impact early with Kristaps Porzingis out to start the season. David Fizdale is one of the better coaches in the business and his expertise should be enough to push Mario to the next level of his game. As his game develops, Hezonja will morph into a true weapon in today’s era of “positionless” basketball.

Markelle Fultz – Philadelphia 76ers

This candidate should come as no surprise. Markelle Fultz was the number one selection in last year’s draft for a reason. He was a highly capable scorer and facilitator at the NCAA level and was, unfortunately, sidelined due to injury for most of the season. A lot of his game is still developing. His shooting, which has taken many forms throughout the last year, seems to finally be coming around. But what we saw at the end of the season looked very promising. For starters, Fultz became the youngest player in the history of the game to record a triple-double, pouring in 13 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in the 76ers’ final game of the season.

Fultz still has a ways to go, but by no indication can he be written off. As his health continues to come around, look at him to make a huge impact for Philadelphia coming off the bench. There’s a reason he was the number one pick in the draft and he’s going to prove that this season.

Furkan Korkmaz – Philadelphia 76ers

Originally drafted by the 76ers back in 2016, he was a draft-and-stash player who spent a year in Europe before signing with the 76ers in 2017. He spent much of his rookie season in the G-League and saw limited time with the 76ers – but he looks to make a jump this season. The first reason is due to his stellar play in the 2018 NBA Summer League. On the first day against the Boston Celtics, he put up a blistering 40 points, thanks in part to shooting 8 of 14 from three. The second highest scorer in the game had 16. He shot confidently, found open spots, and knocked down buckets with ease. It was a very impressive performance from a 21-year-old.

The impressive play didn’t just stop there. Four games into this year’s edition of the preseason, Furkan is putting up 10.3 points per game on 62.5 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from three. He’s doing that in only 12.4 minutes per game. The 76ers have a very impressive starting five, but Furkan will surely add quite the scoring threat coming off the bench.

Pascal Siakam – Toronto Raptors

Siakam was a large part of the reserves’ success for the Toronto Raptors last season. His presence on the floor from a defensive standpoint is impressive. His frame at 6-foot-9 is impressive but his wingspan of 7-foot-3 makes him a highly versatile piece. He’s athletic enough to guard multiple positions and his defensive IQ always has him in the right spots.

While his effect isn’t as strong on the offensive end, he still averaged 7.3 points per game last season on roughly 50 percent shooting. Now entering his third year in the league, Siakam looks to make a huge impact for the Raptor’s bench unit. With Jakob Poeltl gone to the Spurs, Siakam will have to anchor the second team defensively. He’s shown major strides in his young career up to this point, so he looks to make the Raptor’s bench one of the most feared backup units in the league.

Like I previously mentioned, the Atlantic Division is going to be one of the toughest divisions in the league this year. In order for a team to rise to the top, they’ll need a lesser-known player or two on their roster to rise to the occasion and have a true breakout season. As you can see from the players listed, each of these potential candidates has a case as to why they’ll stand out. In order for their team to find success throughout the year – especially within the division – they’ll need to showcase their specific skills and prove that they can produce at a high level.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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How The NBA Became The Most Betting-Friendly League In American Sports

Basketball Insiders

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The NBA has become synonymous with betting conversations during the Adam Silver era, with the league frequently being at the forefront of those discussions. Compared to the other professional sports leagues in the United States, the NBA has not only appeared to be the most progressive with regard to the topic, but it has also looked like the league that is the most likely to get further involved in the industry.

Of course, the league has placed a focus on sports betting, given that they have a vested interest in the continued legalization of that. They have mentioned that they would like a cut of NBA wagers placed, with the industry’s growth in the United States being something that the league could see improving the bottom-line.

Whether or not the NBA gets a piece of the action from a financial perspective, it is still surprising to see a major professional sports league in the United States willing to entertain the conversation at all. By comparison, the NFL has been largely afraid to discuss sports betting, while Major League Baseball has banned its all-time leading hitter for life for gambling-related offenses.

And it isn’t as if the NBA is only interested in gambling in the context of betting on NBA games. The league has relationships in the daily fantasy sports industry as well, with visibility for brands in that space seen in NBA arenas as well. And the NBA-subsidized WNBA is also a part of this betting-friendly basketball landscape, most notably in the form of a team named after a casino.

The Connecticut Sun is that team, as they play in the home of a popular casino in their area. Both the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury play in a venue named after a casino as well. And it is the casino industry that the NBA may conceivably expand into as their relationships in the betting industry appear to be growing in both quality and quantity. With the growth of online casinos, it isn’t impossible to envision the NBA encouraging its fans to compare the best casino bonuses to increase its market share in this growing industry.

Of course, with the betting renaissance that is going on in the United States at this time, the league is making sure that everyone knows that its integrity is not to be questioned. The league has made clear that they are going to ramp up the enforcement of its betting policies, to make sure that players aren’t compromising the game’s integrity. That move by the league is a smart one, as it makes sure that fans know that there is no reason to question the sport even if the league embraces betting.

The NBA is seeing progress across the sport, from its on-court evolution that prioritizes ball movement and long-range shooting, to its off-court stances on betting. Unlike the other major American sports, that willingness to evolve is part of what has caused the popularity of the NBA to skyrocket in recent years.

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NBA Daily: Three-Point Champion is Just a Regular Joe

Joe Harris had his league-wide coming out at All-Star weekend when he shocked fans across the globe in upsetting three-point shootout favorite-Steph Curry.

Drew Maresca

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Joe Harris’ fortunes and those of the Brooklyn Nets appear to be traveling on the same trajectory. Harris’ personality and approach embody the softer side of the Brooklyn Nets’ team persona: he is loyal, hardworking and humble. And while Jared Dudley and DeMarre Carroll provide veteran leadership and Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson offer personality, Harris provides a grounded approachability.

No one would blame him, though, if he develops a small ego. After all, Harris just received his formal introduction to the world, having won the NBA’s three-point championship last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s hard to deny that his star is rising.

And yet, Harris seems unaware that his status is rising.

“To be honest, I am solid in my role. That’s what I’m about,” Harris told Basketball Insiders before the Nets’ January 25 game against the Knicks. “I’m pretty realistic with where I view myself as a player. And I have the self-awareness to realize that I’m not a star player in this league by any means. I mean, I’m good in my role and I’m trying to take that to another level and be as complete as I can in my niche role that I have.”

While Harris’ comments could be misinterpreted as a humble brag, they shouldn’t be. He is simply a hard-working player who perhaps doesn’t quite realize everything he adds to his team. But let’s be clear, Harris’ presence absolutely improves the Nets’ play.

Harris boasts the second-best three-point percentage in the NBA (.471) through the first four months of the season; he trails only Victor Olapido and J.J. Reddick for top three-point percentage of all 48 players who have at least 10 “clutch” attempts from long-range and he’s ranked tenth in points per clutch possession (1.379).

He helps space the floor for teammates D’Angelo Russell and Spencer Dinwiddie, who take advantage of his long-range acumen by attacking an often less congested pathway to the hoop — and drives account for 53.4 percent of the Nets’ points (third in the entire league).

It is no surprise then that the Nets are currently in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

“At the end of the day we’re just trying to go play good basketball.” Harris said. “The wins are a byproduct of that. It’s about staying locked into this process and how it’s gotten us here regardless of who is on the court.”

Harris’ dedication to the team and its process is becoming more unique each year as players hop from franchise to franchise more frequently than ever before. While Harris only joined the Nets in 2016, he was immediately seen as a key player by the Nets’ leadership, albeit one on a minimum deal – according to Kyle Wagner of the Daily News, Coach Kenny Atkinson saw a lot of Kyler Korver in his game and GM Sean Marks wanted him to study Danny Green.

And while Harris’ 2018-19 stats reflect similar production to the career highs of both of Korver and Green (13.2 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of .622 for Harris versus 14.4 points with an eFG% of .518 for Korver and 11.7 points with an eFG% of .566 for Green), at only 27 years old, he should only continue to improve.

A lot has changed in the two and a half seasons since Harris signed a free agent deal with the Nets, but one thing that hasn’t changed is his character.

“We had various deals that were shorter for more (money),” Harris said. “And some were longer and roughly the same, but this is where I wanted to be and I’m happy it ended up working out.”

Harris ultimately signed a two-year deal for approximately $16 million, which can be viewed as both cashing in, given where he was only two years ago (out of the league), and betting on himself, considering the short-term nature of the contract and his relative youth.

And what’s more, Harris will probably go down as a value signing for the Nets considering his versatility. After all, he is not merely a one-dimensional shooter. In fact, he is actually shooting slightly better than 60 percent on 3.2 attempts per game from the restricted area – which is better than All-Star teammate D’Angelo Russell (53 percent on 2.8 attempts). Further, Harris shoots a fair amount of his three-point attempts above the break, which is to say that he does not rely heavily on the shorter corner threes – which tend to be a more efficient means of scoring (1.16 vs. 1.05 points per possession league-wide from 1998-2018) as they are typically a spot where specialist players lurk awaiting an opening look.

The question is, how much more can we expect to see from Harris in the future? If you ask him, he’d probably undersell you on his ceiling and allude to steady progress that ultimately looks similar to what he’s done recently. But the only thing similar about Harris’ career production is that it has steadily improved – and that’s partially due to his process-oriented approach.

“We talked about it in the midst of the losing streak,” Harris said. “What are you going to change, what are you going to do (when you’re in a slump)? Not that we were going to do the exact same thing, but we felt like we were very process oriented. We felt like we were right there. Our whole thing was about being deliberate and doing it as consistently as possible.”

Harris sees the validity in repeating what works. And he’s figured that out, partially with the help of his teammates. Harris clearly values veteran input and team chemistry.

“You look at our team right now and we have really good veteran presences with Jared and DeMarre and Ed (Davis),” Harris said. “That’s the voice from the leadership standpoint. I’m learning from them just like DLo is. And all the other guys in the locker room are. They’re the guiding presence of what it is to be a professional and they keep everything even keel. They don’t go too low when things are tough, and they don’t let us get too high when things are going well.”

Harris is clearly a little uncomfortable taking credit for his team’s success, and he shies away from the spotlight a bit. He seems to prefer anonymity. But Harris should probably get used to the attention he’s received this season because it will only increase as his profile continues to rise as we enter the 2019 NBA Playoffs.

“He’s not just a shooter,” Atkinson told NBA.com last April. “He’s worked on his drive game, he’s worked on his finishing game. I think he’s worked on his defense. So just a complete player who fits how we want to play. He’s one of our most competitive players. Not a surprise watching, from the first day we had him, how locked in he was, how hungry he was. On top of it, he’s a top, top-ranked human being.”

So expect to see more of Joe Harris this April and beyond, but don’t be surprised by his humility. It’s one aspect about him that won’t change.

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