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Six Breakout Players to Watch — Southwest Division

Shane Rhodes breaks down several players who could be due for a breakout season in the Southwest Division.

Shane Rhodes

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The Southwest Division should be one of the more interesting in the NBA this season. While they may not all be the best teams in the league, they could all make the argument that they belong in the postseason (some more than others).

The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies found themselves at the bottom of last season’s standings, but both should see major improvements this season, whether that be because of health or otherwise. The Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans should all once again compete for a playoff spot as well.

But which players could step up for their team and make a real difference?

Luka Dončić – Dallas Mavericks

Luka Dončić has received an incredible amount of hype up to this point, and for good reason. The Slovenian 19-year-old had impressed on the basketball world’s second biggest stage, winning a Euro-League Most Valuable Player award and championship before he decided to make the transition to the NBA.

Now, Dončić has the opportunity to show the rest of the basketball world what he can do.

Dončić, from the jump, should get plenty of run on the floor and control of the Mavericks offense. There will be a learning curve as he goes up against stronger and faster players than he saw in Europe, but Dončić should be better equipped than many, if not all, of his peers to face that challenge and improve.

Marquese Chriss – Houston Rockets

The Phoenix Suns gave up on Marquese Chriss much too early.

Chriss was playable, if not unspectacular, in his first two seasons in Arizona. Last season, he averaged 7.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists and one block per game; not superstar numbers by any means, but promising enough for a young man that just turned 21 in July.

Chriss has been a late bloomer since his basketball career began – he didn’t start playing till he was 14-years-old – so his development has lagged behind some of his peers. But, he should benefit massively from the move to a competent offense. James Harden and or Chris Paul present a major upgrade at the guard positions. The Rockets won’t ask him to do much, either: rebound, rim-run and play solid defense. That’s it.

If Chriss can just get the fundamentals down, he should be able to play a big role off the bench for a championship-or-bust Houston squad. While he isn’t the player Clint Capela is, a similar ascension could be in order for Chriss, in time, if he works on his game and uses his athletic frame to his advantage.

Derrick White – San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs took Derrick White with the No. 29 pick back in 2017, with the expectation that he would play a secondary role to Dejounte Murray and others. A year later, the Spurs took Lonnie Walker IV to further solidify their backcourt.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned.

With Murray and Walker both out for an extended period of time, White will be thrust into the spotlight. While DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge will still do most of the heavy lifting on offense, White is a capable contributor; he routinely looked like one of the best players on the floor during the Spurs’ Summer League run.

If he can replicate that success, the Spurs figure to be in good hands while Murray and Walker recover.

Jakob Poeltl – San Antonio Spurs

The oft-forgotten piece in the swap between the Spurs and Toronto Raptors this summer, Jakob Poeltl came over with DeRozan in the trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto. Poeltl didn’t spend much time on the floor in Toronto – he averaged 18.6 minutes per game last season and just 15.6 across two seasons with the team – but that should change in San Antonio.

The Spurs have a serious lack of quality front-court depth behind Aldridge and an aging Pau Gasol, and Poeltl is more than capable of remedying the situation. While he isn’t necessary elite when it comes to any one skill, Poeltl can do many things well and is exceptional when it comes to the small things. He sets good screens, is a capable passer and can finish near the basket. He just works hard, and that alone should endear him to Greg Popovich and the San Antonio fanbase.

But Poeltl, when given the opportunity, has shown the ability to produce quality counting stats as well. He had multiple games last season where he recorded at least 15 points, five rebounds, one steal and one block. If he gets an extended look in San Antonio, he could do big things.

Dillon Brooks – Memphis Grizzlies

Dillon Brooks, a former second-round pick, was one of the lone bright spots in a lost season for the Grizzlies. Now, Brooks has the chance to create a major role for himself as the Grizzlies look to bounce back.

Heading into the 2018 season, Chandler Parsons is still a major question mark. Regardless of whether or not they believe Parsons can contribute this season, Memphis will need someone to fill in those minutes.

Brooks, a twitchy, switchable defender, is the perfect candidate.

His defensive chops make Brooks an invaluable member of any modern NBA defense – he can guard smaller forwards on the perimeter and hold up against larger forwards – while he has shown he is a capable shooter. Brooks shot 35.6 percent from three last season and should expect an uptick of touches on the offensive side of the court. That, combined with the general improvements most players make from year-one to year-two – conditioning, strength, etc. – and Brooks seems like a logical choice to breakout this season.

Julius Randle – New Orleans Pelicans

This is a make-or-break season for Julius Randle. And he just may be in the perfect situation to capitalize.

Randle made the move from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Pelicans this offseason, and there may have not been a better place for him to land. Randle will have the opportunity to learn from arguably the best big in the game, Anthony Davis, as the Pelicans give him plenty of minutes to show what he can do on the court.

New Orleans had grown accustomed to running offensive sets based on their monster Davis-DeMarcus Cousins duo in the frontcourt. While Randle isn’t as skilled as Cousins was pre-Achilles injury, he should flourish in an offense built for the big man and line himself up for a nice pay-day as the Pelicans compete for a playoff spot. Last season, Randle averaged 16.1 points, eight rebounds and 2.6 assists while playing off the bench for about half the season. He should easily top those numbers as a starter in New Orleans.

Again, the Southwest may not boast the best teams in the NBA, but every team here should be competitive next season. If they want to make that jump, however, these players, and others, will need to step up for their team and be difference makers.

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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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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: Checking In On Clippers & Lakers, East Arms Race, Warriors’ Challengers

Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte evaluate the L.A. teams after the trade deadline, break down the Eastern Conference contenders, and look for the Warriors’ biggest challengers.

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