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NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Atlantic Division

After a summer of roster turnover, the Atlantic Division will be full of opportunities for young and unproven players to cement themselves. Quinn Davies looks at six players that could seize that opportunity.

Quinn Davis

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The Atlantic Division in the NBA’s Eastern Conference was home to a good chunk of the league’s major changes this summer. Kyrie Irving jettisoned Boston to join division-rival Brooklyn along with Kevin Durant. In Philadelphia, both Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick left the franchise and were replaced by Josh Richardson and Al Horford. The Raptors also lost two key cogs in their championship run last season in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. 

This roster shakeup and uncertainty can be a ripe breeding ground for previously unproven players to cement themselves and burst onto the scene. The New York Knicks also have the luxury, if that is the right word, of giving big minutes and opportunities to young, unproven players that could be ready to breakout.  

Whether it is becoming a key reserve for a contender or a starter for a lottery team, the Atlantic Division is sure to see some new faces in the spotlight this season. Here are six that could take that next step.

Dennis Smith Jr.

The third-year guard was sent to New York last season as a part of the Porzingis trade and should see heavy minutes on a lottery-bound Knicks team. Smith’s explosive athleticism elevates his ceiling and gives him the potential to be a very productive player with the right coaching.

There were some encouraging signs in Smith’s play in his short time in New York last season.  He raised his shooting foul percentage to 10.3 percent in New York, a strong number that would rank in the 81st percent for his position. He also raised his assist percentage to nearly 33 percent, while dropping his turnover percentage to just under 13 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.

While Smith showed playmaking and slashing ability, he still will need to improve his shooting if he is going to take a leap this season. He shot only 32.2 percent overall from deep last season and 30 percent after joining the Knicks.  

Smith will only be 22 this season, his third in the NBA. If he is able to inch towards league-average from beyond the arc, he could be poised for a breakout season.

Mitchell Robinson

The Knicks have another candidate for a big jump this season in second-year player Mitchell Robinson. Robinson, a seven-footer with endless arms, showed flashes of elite rim protection last season. He was the second-most prolific shot-blocker in the league last season, trailing only Myles Turner in that department.

Robinson also showed great finishing ability last season and operated as a lob threat in the pick and roll. He led the league in true shooting percentage last season at 69.2 percent, attempting nearly all of his shots in the immediate vicinity of the rim.

Robinson’s athleticism and length had him projected as a good finisher, but his defensive impact as a rookie was a surprise to even the most optimistic of Knicks fans. He did have his rookie flaws, such as his very high foul rate, but the overall impact he made around the rim is rare for a first-year player.

Now, with a season of experience under his belt, Robinson may be able to take that next step from promising defender to elite. He may also even further improve his pick-and-roll game with more understanding of timing and better chemistry with his teammates.  

Dzanan Musa 

Musa was drafted by the Nets with the 29th overall pick in 2018, but rarely saw the court after suffering an injury early in the year. The Nets were very excited about drafting the Bosnian prospect, but the injury coupled with the immediate emergence of a solid Nets rotation saw Musa bouncing back and forth between the Nets and their G League affiliate for his rookie season.

With the roster turnover and Durant out for the season, Musa now has a golden opportunity to assert himself into the Nets’ rotation. Coming out of Cedevita, Musa was touted as a crafty playmaker and scorer. He signed with the Croatian team when he was only 16 years old and went on to win the EuroCup Rising Star Trophy in the 2017-18 campaign.

Musa got off to a nice start in 2019-20 with his first preseason appearance. He played 25 minutes off the bench and had a line of 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists. If Musa proves to be a consistent outside shooter and isn’t too much of a defensive liability, he could be a key bench piece for the Nets this season and beyond.

Semi Ojeleye

There were some who thought that last season would be Ojeleye’s breakout year, but his minutes were actually cut in half from 2017-18, as the forward struggled to find a consistent role.  

This season, the Celtics frontcourt lacks the depth of years past with Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris no longer on the roster. Ojeleye has the opportunity to carve out a role as the team’s backup power forward.

Now in his third year, Ojeleye could take a leap on the defensive end. He has the size and foot speed to guard both threes and fours which could be a valuable skill for a Celtics team that is currently lacking in interior defense.

Ojeleye improving his stroke from outside would go a long way for his chances of seeing consistent minutes. He will particularly need to improve his shot from the corner, where he shot only 29 percent last season per Cleaning the Glass.  

Ojeleye did show an ability last season to use his size to finish around the rim and draw fouls.  With increased playing time and more experience, he could further develop his game on that side and become a very valuable piece in Boston this season.

OG Anunoby

The Raptors had a bittersweet summer, celebrating a championship while also mourning the loss of their superstar Kawhi Leonard. Luckily for Toronto, they have a wing in waiting who could somewhat fill that Leonard-sized hole in Anunoby.

Anunoby, like most of the Raptors’ rotation, is already a strong defender. His 7-foot-2 wingspan allows him to be a pest on the perimeter, and he figures to be a starter for this upcoming season.

Like most of the players on this list, Anunoby breaking out will come down to whether his offensive game can take a leap this season. Anunoby has been streaky from beyond the arc, shooting 33 percent from deep last season after a 37 percent campaign in his rookie year. He has only attempted about two per game in each of those seasons, so opposing defenses do not consider him a threat from outside.

His playmaking and ball-handling leave some to desired as well, as his turnover and assist percentages are both below-average for his position. Anunoby will be given chances at a larger offensive role this season, and he has the tools and the work ethic to take advantage. 

Zhaire Smith

The second-year guard had a harrowing rookie season. After breaking his foot in a summer workout, Smith had an allergic reaction to sesame seeds that left him hospitalized and on a feeding tube for multiple months.

Smith reportedly lost 40 pounds during the ordeal and missed nearly the entire season. Miraculously, he was able to put the weight mostly back on and appeared in six games for the Sixers at the end of the regular season.

After some roster shakeup, Smith will now compete for the spot of the backup wing on a Sixers team that will likely contend for a trip to The NBA Finals. Smith had an impressive Summer League, showing some of the athleticism that inspired Philadelphia to trade down and select the Texas Tech product.

Smith has also been standing out in training camp this season. Head coach Brett Brown commented specifically on the defense that Smith and rookie Matisse Thybulle were playing, while a few Sixers players commented on Smith’s athleticism and his shooting proficiency in their practices.

If these observations translate to the season, Smith could emerge as a valuable three-and-D reserve in the Sixers’ rotation.

Not all of these players will break out this season. In fact, there’s a chance that none of them will. With that said, each of these six will have an opportunity to see an increased role, and each has the tools to use that opportunity to make their presence felt in the league.

A few of these players could swing a playoff series with a breakout season, while others may simply play their way to a better contract. Either way, it will be exciting to watch.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks

David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.

David Yapkowitz

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Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.

The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.

For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.

He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.

“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”

Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.

But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.

He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.

“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”

In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.

Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.

But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.

“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”

Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.

“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”

It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.

Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.

“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.

“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”

At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.

“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”

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NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA

Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte

James Blancarte

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The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.

So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.

Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.

“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.

With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.

“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.

The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.

After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.

“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.

While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.

“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”

On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.

“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.

Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.

The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.

Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.

“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”

Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.

“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”

Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.

Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.

“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”

The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.

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NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return

Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.

Chad Smith

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Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.

Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.

Then, it happened.

With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.

Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.

His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.

To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.

After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.

Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.

And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor

That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.

Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.

Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.

For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.

With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.

But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.

In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”

Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.

And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.

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