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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: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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