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Six Breakout Players to Watch – Northwest Division

Drew Maresca breaks down six breakout candidates from the Northwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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The Northwest Division has its share of boom-or-bust potential. There isn’t as much top-end star power across the division as the Pacific or the Atlantic; instead, there is a relatively even share of talent on most teams, many of whom hope to compete for a Playoff berth.

As a matter of fact, every team in the division likely feels they will belong in the 2019 Playoffs. The Jazz, Thunder, Blazers and Timberwolves all qualified last year, while the Nuggets missed out by one game due to an overtime loss to the Wolves on the final day of the season.

Breakout players can change the narrative for teams. Donovan Mitchell’s impact on the Jazz last season is a perfect example. We are by no means predicting that anyone on this list will have the impact that Mitchell had last season, but a player coming into his own quickly or ahead of schedule gives a team another weapon to rely on. With all that being said, let’s examine six players from the Northwest division who we think can burst onto the scene for their respective teams in 2018-19.

Jamal Murray

Can we really consider Jamal Murray a breakout candidate? After all, he’s already a known commodity, but he’s not yet a star – and that’s the catch.

Murray is only 21 and entering his third season. That’s right, last year was his sophomore season. There was no sophomore slump, though. Murray’s game came alive last year. He posted 16.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He is already a dynamic scorer who, at 6-foot-4, elevates and protects the ball extremely well on his way to highlight-worthy dunks and smooth finishes.

But he can and should take another step forward this year. At media day this year, Murray said he packed on 15 pounds of muscle this off season, which should help him become a more versatile defender. Murray emphasized the team’s focus on defensive this training camp – a source of frustration for the team given how it missed the playoffs last year – which is likely music to the ears of Nuggets fans.

If Murray can develop into a defensive stopper, it makes him that much more valuable. The Nuggets have lots of guys who can score the rock, but Murray’s ability to morph into a great wing defender represents the next step in his progress. If he can do so, he’ll be in the running for an All-Star spot.

Tyus Jones

Jones played well last season, when he played. That much is evident when diving into his numbers and his team’s production while he was on the court (17.8 minutes per game). He saw more playing time this preseason (22.8 per game), which led to improved production in the form of 9.5 points, 3.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game.

But basketball is about more than numbers. And Jones does not disappoint; his effect is obvious in live action. He has the potential to grow into a quality starting point guard – remember, he’s only 22 years old. The main detractor from Jones’ success is playing time, or lack thereof. But he should see more opportunity this season than he did last year, and he should continue to produce when on the floor.

Jimmy Butler’s presence complicates things for Jones because if he remains, then Derrick Rose likely plays more minutes at point guard. But regardless of personnel, Jones needs and deserves minutes.

His production last season was clearly noticed around the league – evidenced by Phoenix inquiring about his availability when exploring the possibility of facilitating a Butler trade as a third party – so hopefully his value is equally high in Minnesota. If he gets the opportunity, look out for Jones to make waves this season.

Josh Okogie

Another Minnesota player primed to make an impression around the league, Josh Okogie has exhibited the type of well-rounded game that Coach Tom Thibodeau prefers. Given the opportunity he has as a wing in Minnesota (considering the Jimmy Butler situation), the 2018 first-round pick should receive a fair amount of playing time to show what he can do.

This is mostly circumstantial. If the relationship with Jimmy Butler is repaired – even for the short-term – his potential impact takes a hit. But Okogie boasts attributes that set him up for success for the short and long-term in the pros.

First of all, he is a long, capable defender. He disrupted lots of offensive sets through the first few preseason games. He also showed that he can contribute efficiently (for a rookie); he averaged seven points per game in 21.5 minutes.

And even Thibodeau has come out and publicly and said that he likes Okogie’s play. Earlier this preseaon, Thibodeau said in reference to his team’s play, “I didn’t like our bench tonight. I didn’t think they played well. I didn’t think our starters played well. But the thing that I do like with Josh is the energy. Like tomorrow he’ll bounce into the gym and he’ll be ready to go in practice. And to me, that’s an important step.”

Lots still hangs in the balance regarding Okogies’s role – namely, who might Jimmy Butler return in a deal if one materializes, and will said player(s) impede on Okogie’s playing time? Or, will Butler remain with the Wolves for part or all of the upcoming season?

But it seems like Thibideau will prioritize developing the young wing regardless of who else might be on the roster. Hopefully that remains the case because Okogie could develop into something special.

Grayson Allen

Grayson Allen is about as polarizing a rookie as exists this season. He has his haters, but he also has supporters – including teammate Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell knows what it takes to be a breakout player, having broken onto the scene last season in epic fashion.

And Mitchell clearly sees star potential in his teammate, Allen. He has been vocal in his support of Allen, claiming the rookie from Duke is in for “big things”, and implying that the sharpshooter could be the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year.

Allen’s numbers don’t quite support the latter, but he did impress with his poise and production in the preseason. He shot a surprisingly efficient 51 percent from the field this preseason on 45 attempts, including 52 percent from deep. He dropped 12.6 points in 19.4 minutes per game.

He proved he’s not afraid of the moment – not that that was ever in question for Allen. He definitely fills a need for Utah, and he should contribute to the team’s success this season. If Allen can keep his cool for the most of the season – a big if – then he’ll certainly produce at a relatively high level.

Zach Collins

Collins fits the mold of the modern big man. He blocks shots, shoots the ball from deep and possesses a soft touch around the rim. He just needs to do all of those things more consistently.

While only entering his sophomore season, Collins recently inherited a vastly increased role. With the departure of backup big Ed Davis, Collins must step in and take on primary backup duties. And while Davis voluntarily left to join the Brooklyn Nets, the Blazers seem less than heartbroken to see him go. Team GM Neil Olshey recently told NBA.com’s Brook Olzendam that the organization is pleased that that there will be playing time for the versatile rookie.

If Collin’s season was less-than-impressive last year, it’s only due to a lack of opportunity and familiarity. Remember, he was a rookie. And he only received 15.8 minutes per game – in which, he still managed 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds on .398 shooting.

A better indicator for him for the upcoming season is his lone season at Gonzaga. In 2016-17, Collins averaged 10 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 17.3 minutes per game, including shooting 48% from deep.

The Blazers don’t need a go-to scorer. They don’t even necessarily need a second scoring option. They need Collins to grow into a supplemental player who can come in and effect the game in a number of ways, which he can do thanks to his versatility and skill set. Expect more production and highlights from Collins this season, as his shooting and athleticisim should be on display far more regularly.

Nerlens Noel

This last selection is as much a comeback player candidate as he is a breakout candidate. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be a star, but tore his ACL after completing a chase-down block in in February of his freshmen season. His draft stock was hurt; he dropped from a first overall pick consideration to sixth overall.

Noel became the first Philadelphia rookie to forego his rookie season due to injury in what’s become a time-tested tradition – and which may continue this season thanks to an injury to Zhaire Smith suffered in early August. Noel flamed out in Philadelphia and moved on to Dallas, where he saw career lows last season in minutes, points, rebounds and most every trackable statistic.

But Noel proved that he still has value in four preseason games with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His best output came predictably when he logged the most playing time: in 34 minutes, Noel notched seven points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals.

Maybe he was never meant to be a franchise cornerstone, but he sure can stuff a stat sheet. And while his offensive game might not be terribly versatile, his overall game still seems to be. He is a glue guy who energizes the team with change-of-pace plays like blocks, dunks or key rebounds.

Considering Noel is on a team with two scoring savants, look for Noel to get lots of space and easy looks. And look for him to capitalize on it with dunks and other buckets around the rim. His presence should help the Thunder, and he should get a good amount of playing time both alongside Steven Adams and backing him up.

Breakout players are more than just happy accidents. They can energize a team generating momentum and effort out of thin air. Sure, they’re a feel-good story, and when their breakouts are big enough, they can be news onto themselves. But they really do move the needle for teams. They are assets that weren’t expected to appreciate nearly as quickly. They are also challenging to predict, and therefore, teams obviously can’t count on projected breakout players to contribute immediately, or at all. But each of the aforementioned players has made a strong case for themselves. With the season less than a week away, we won’t have to wait long to see which one’s produce, but we expect relatively big years from all six.

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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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NBA Daily: Danuel House Optimistic About Future

David Yapkowitz speaks to Danuel House about life as a two-way player for the Houston Rockets & what he hopes comes out of his time in the G League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity is everything in the NBA. Last season’s implementation of two-way contracts gave a lot more players potential opportunities in the league that may not have been previously available.

One player who has used two-way contracts to showcase himself and really prove that he belongs in the NBA is Danuel House Jr.

House actually began his career two years ago as an undrafted rookie with the Washington Wizards. However, he suffered a wrist injury only about a month into the 2016-17 season.

He was subsequently cut by the Wizards and used the summer to heal up before joining the Houston Rockets for training camp prior to the start of last season. He ended up being one of the final cuts in camp, and he joined the Rockets’ G League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

His strong play earned him a two-way contract with the Phoenix Suns after only two months of G League play. This year, he rejoined the Vipers, only to earn another two-way contract with the Rockets. Having had some experience now with a two-way, it’s something that House sees as being beneficial.

“It’s got its good perks and its bad perks. But then the NBA is just trying to open more doors for more guys to be seen and have an opportunity,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s a good idea, it’s gonna work the kinks out so it can be more beneficial to the players. It’s still new and it’s still trending and working itself through the NBA.”

This season has been a bit of a whirlwind for House. He initially joined the Golden State Warriors for training camp, only to have them cut him before the start of the season. After spending about a month with the Vipers, the Rockets called him up, only to cut him and then eventually re-sign him to a two-way deal.

Due to injuries in the Rockets lineup, House saw meaningful minutes right away, even being placed in Houston’s starting lineup. He had some solid performances down the stretch of last season with the Suns, but this season he really looked the part of a legitimate NBA rotation player.

When a player signs a two-way deal, they are allotted a maximum of 45 days of NBA service, meaning that the rest of the time they must remain in the G League. If a player exceeds the 45-day limit, they must be sent back down to the G League unless they’re able to reach an agreement on a standard contract with the NBA team.

Because of the Rockets’ necessity of House in the rotation, he used up his NBA days last month. He and the Rockets were unable to agree on a contract, so he returned to the G League with the Vipers. While there haven’t been many updates as of late, he’s still hopeful that something can work out with the Rockets.

“Hopefully I can go back to Houston and compete for a title. There’s nothing like learning from James [Harden] and Chris Paul, Gerald Green, Eric Gordon and those guys,” House told Basketball Insiders. “And now with the additions of [Iman] Shumpert and Kenneth Faried, I’m just excited to hopefully get something done so I can be out there and competing with those guys.”

Initially, House wasn’t playing with the Vipers upon returning to the team. But he made his return to the court a few weeks ago on Feb 8. In that game, House shook off some initial rust and ended up having a solid performance including hitting the game-winning free-throws.

In the past, the G League was often times seen as a punishment for NBA players. The league didn’t have that great of a reputation, but over the past few years that image has started to change. The competition has gotten a lot stronger, and according to House, there are plenty of guys who are that close to making it to the NBA.

“The competition here is real. There’s a lot of dudes out here that got a lot of talent that they can showcase. They just want their one opportunity, their one chance that I was so fortunate and blessed with,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I know not to come out here and take it for granted, that’s why I’m playing hard and of course still trying to be a student of the game and learn.”

Recently, during a media availability session, Rockets star and perennial MVP candidate James Harden expressed hope that the Rockets and House could work something out. Harden told reporters that they all know how good House is and what he brings to the team.

In 25 games for the Rockets this season – including 12 starts – House put up nine points per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point line. He’s in the mold of a three-and-D type player, but he also moves well without the ball on cuts to the rim and can attack the basket as well.

“My role was to play defense and make the right read,” House told Basketball Insiders. “Shoot when I’m open, drive, attack the rack, and run the floor. Of course, defend and rebound and make good reads. It was easy.”

As it stands, the Rockets have 12 players on their roster, and a pair of two-way deals for House and Vincent Edwards. House is not eligible to rejoin the Rockets until the G League season concludes. Even then, he won’t be eligible to play in the playoffs as per two-way deal restrictions.

The Rockets will need to add at least two players to get up to the league-mandated 14 players on the roster. House would appear to be a good candidate for one of those spots, but that remains to be seen. But regardless of whether or not it works out in Houston, House is confident that he’s done enough to prove he belongs in the NBA.

“It gave me the utmost confidence, but my hard work, my passion, and my faith in the man upstairs gave me the ability. I asked him to guide me through the journey and he’s been taking care of me,” House told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so grateful that the opportunities and I used my ability to perform and do something I love to take care of my family.”

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