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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: 6 G League Players Deserving of NBA Call-Ups

With teams around the league signing players to 10-day contracts, Tristan Tucker takes a look at some of the G League players most deserving of a call-up.

Tristan Tucker

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With most teams in the NBA G-League bubble having around 10 games under their belts, fans are getting a clearer look at which teams have a legitimate shot at winning the G-League championship and which players are stepping up. Recently, the NBA saw a flurry of action after teams became eligible to sign players to 10-day contracts, with G-League players like Justin Patton, Brodric Thomas, Tyler Cook and Donta Hall getting new opportunities.

With that being said, let’s take a look at some of the top performers from the G-League that deserve NBA call-ups sooner rather than later.

Henry Ellenson, Raptors 805

Ellenson, drafted 18th overall by the Detroit Pistons in 2016, is one of the feature pieces on a 7-3 Raptors 905 team that has very real title aspirations. In just over 30 minutes a night, Ellenson is averaging 19.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. One of the things that makes Ellenson so enticing as a prospect is the fact that, at 6-foot-10, he isn’t scared to unload the clip from downtown.

This season, the big man out of Marquette is shooting 37.5 percent from deep on eight attempts per night. For reference, one of the best shooters in the NBA in Duncan Robinson shoots at a 39.8 percent clip on nearly the same amount of attempts. For any team looking for immediate bench reinforcements with a refined offensive game, Ellenson is a great place to start.

Tyrone Wallace, Agua Caliente Clippers

Tyrone Wallace gets buckets. Wallace originally joined the Los Angeles Clippers on a two-way contract in the 2017-18 season, then a scrappy team that saw major contributions from Wallace and fellow two-way guard C.J. Williams en route to a 42-40 record. After averaging 9.7 points per game as an undrafted two-way contract rookie, Wallace was curiously left out to dry, bouncing around the NBA landscape before coming back to the Clippers’ G League affiliate.

This season, Wallace is averaging 18.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and, while his three-point shooting could use some refinement, Wallace is bound to earn another call-up sooner or later.

Jordan Bell, Erie Bayhawks

Bell was a draft favorite for many after being acquired in the 2017 NBA Draft in the second round by the Golden State Warriors. Bell joined the Warriors as the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and it seemed as if he and Draymond Green were a frontcourt match made in heaven.

Ultimately, Bell’s stint with the Warriors and subsequent trip around the NBA didn’t work out, but the forward out of Oregon is proving that he deserves another shot. Look no further than the hilariously efficient rate at which he’s hit shots, 80.6 percent on just under 10 attempts, for proof of that.

Picking up his offensive game was always going to be integral for Bell to be a complete NBA player, something he’s done very well as of late while averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. However, it’s still impressive to note that Bell is hitting such a high rate of shots and is averaging 2 blocks per game at just 6-foot-8 it isn’t like he’s reaching over everyone in the paint to hit these shots.

Myles Powell, Westchester Knicks

After entering the draft out of Seton Hall, Powell was a fan favorite for his scoring antics and many New York Knicks fans wanted to see Powell get a roster spot after he signed as an undrafted free agent. That ultimately didn’t happen, but Powell is tearing it up for Westchester.

One of the things that scared general managers from taking Powell was his efficiency and consistency, both of which he has improved in the G League. Powell scored 21 points per game as a senior in college but shot 39.8 percent from the floor and 30.6 from three on well over nine attempts per game. Adversely, Powell is averaging 17.1 points a night on a 43.2/46.4/82.4 shooting split in the G-League. After seeing such a vast improvement in such little time, it would only make sense for an NBA team to take a shot on Powell, he seems to have good intangibles and is clearly committed to improving himself.

Alize Johnson, Raptors 905

Basketball Insiders took a look at Johnson earlier this season — and he’s meeting expectations while being a key part of a winning 905 team. Johnson is averaging a very impressive 13.3 points and 12.8 rebounds while dishing out 3.6 assists per game. Recently, Johnson scored 22 points with 20 rebounds and 7 assists. He followed that up with 25 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists

There’s no reason for Johnson not to get another NBA chance this season.

Justin Wright-Foreman, Erie Bayhawks

Wright-Foreman was drafted in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz, joining the team on a two-way contract. While the Jazz let him go, it’s easy to see that the 6-foot guard still has a future in the NBA after his showings in the G League bubble. Wright-Foreman had a legendary college career at Hofstra, breaking the school’s record for points in a game with 48 and scoring 27.1 points per game as a senior.

While Wright-Foreman’s box score production is somewhat hampered by the sheer amount of talent on the Bayhawks, his impact is still clear to see. The guard is averaging 11.6 points per game while shooting 40.4 percent from deep on over five attempts per game. If Wright-Foreman can improve his stamina he averages 14.5 points with one day of rest as opposed to 5.7 points on the second night of back-to-backs — he’ll have a bright future in the league.

It’s easy to be impressed with the sheer production fans see from players in the G-League on a daily basis and so many more players deserve opportunities than one article can name. One thing is certain though, NBA teams are re-tooling their rosters which will be sure to lead the way to more young players getting chances. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to keep up with all the latest news and rumors.

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NBA PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline

The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.

Garrett Brooks

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As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.

Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.

If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.

Another Frontcourt Option

The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.

Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.

Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.

Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.

With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.

The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.

Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.

Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.

It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.

Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.

Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.

Depth At The Point Guard Position

With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.

After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.

Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.

That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.

That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.

Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.

If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.

General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.

We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.

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Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center

Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.

Ariel Pacheco

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The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have. 

Enter: Bruce Brown.

Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury. 

In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team. 

Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green. 

Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle. 

When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn. 

Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer. 

“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”

Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able. 

Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.

 

He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5. 

The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends. 

But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.

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