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NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Central Division

With LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Central Division will be looking for a few players to break out and make a name for themselves in 2018-19 — here are Ben Nadeau’s top six candidates.

Ben Nadeau

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While the Central Division likely won’t feature any of the Eastern Conference’s biggest powerhouses, there are plenty of franchises here with postseason aspirations. In order for those teams to rebuild or reach new heights, they’ll need a cast of different characters to ascend into bigger, more important roles. Out in Indiana and Milwaukee, two darkhorse contenders, it’ll take more than just Tyreke Evans and Brook Lopez in order to challenge the likes of Gordon Hayward and Joel Embiid — but who fits the bill?

For Detroit and Chicago, the pressure will be on to avoid a lottery-bound fate once more by leaning on two up-and-comers — no matter the massive difference in their contracts. But Cleveland will undoubtedly have the toughest task of all: Replacing LeBron James. With each franchise staring down a difficult benchmark, breakouts must come in all shapes and sizes, by veterans, new arrivals and budding stars alike — so what will this season bring?

Whether through an opening in the rotation or an offseason acquisition, these are six of the Central Division’s strongest candidates to leave a lasting mark in 2018-19.

Bobby Portis — Chicago Bulls

The Bulls’ fourth-year man is a solid, if not unspectacular, contributor whenever he gets regular playtime. Last year, Portis suffered an immediate setback following his preseason scuffle with former teammate Nikola Mirotic, but he bounced back stronger than ever. The forward made good on his uptick in minutes and nearly posted career numbers across the board thanks to his relentless motor and desire to compete. Averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 47.1 percent from the floor, Portis frequently excelled as a change of pace rebounder off the bench.

This season, he’ll have an even bigger opportunity to shine. With Lauri Markkanen sidelined until November at the earliest, it looks like Portis will earn significant minutes and maybe even a legitimate shot at the starting power forward position. In his first start of the preseason on Wednesday, Portis dropped 20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in just 21 minutes. If he comes off the bench, Portis could become an underrated Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But even if he just starts until Markannen’s return, he’ll be well on his way toward earning a lucrative offer sheet in restricted free agency next summer.*

*Portis is eligible to sign an extension until Oct. 15

Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls

For a hot minute, it looked like Zach LaVine might end up in Sacramento during his own trip to the restricted free agency pool this summer. Ultimately, he’s staying in Chicago to the tune of $78 million over the next four years — which, officially, will put the pressure of an entire franchise squarely on his shoulders. Naturally, the high-flyer will not be alone, joined once again by Kris Dunn, the aforementioned Portis and Markkanan, plus newcomers Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr., but LaVine will deservedly receive grander-than-ever expectations.

He struggled after returning from his torn ACL in January — but before he got injured, LaVine was on the cusp of a breakout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Through 47 games in 2016-17, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.9 percent from the floor. With all that in the rearview mirror — the injury, the trade, the contract — LaVine will have a clear path forward for the first time in years. Certainly, LaVine’s defense still needs work, but given the Bulls’ presumed fate outside of the postseason and their unproven collection of talents, there’s a stellar chance that the hyper-athletic scorer will make his big leap now that he’s back at full health.

Pat Connaughton — Milwaukee Bucks

By far, Pat Connaughton has the least spectacular case on this page — but when the opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to ignore the call.

Connaughton played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.4 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists on 42.3 percent from the field — all career-bests. Of course, those 18.1 minutes per game came behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the league’s best backcourt duos. After the Trail Blazers did not extend his qualifying offer, Connaughton was free to explore other destinations, eventually signing with the Bucks for two years and $3.4 million. For the Bucks, he’ll likely join rookie Donte DiVincenzo as the backup guards, looking to space the floor at the perimeter and set up his teammates.

Of note, Connaughton played 20-plus minutes in 37 contests and exceeded his points per game total in 25 of them. It’s a somewhat basic lens through which to examine Connaughton’s impact, but when he gets the minutes, he typically rises to the occasion. Connaughton has some serious bounce and playmaking skills that should fit seamlessly with Milwaukee’s long, athletic rotation immediately. The fourth-year professional even has some experience at small forward as well — so if he can facilitate for others, hit some open three-pointers and scrappily defend, this will be Connaughton’s best season yet.

Luke Kennard — Detroit Pistons

After an up-and-down rookie season, there are lofty expectations brewing for Luke Kennard as he heads into his follow-up campaign. At first, there was some disappointment that the sweet-shooting lefty was picked ahead of Donovan Mitchell, but as the season went on, the Detroit faithful grew fond of the former Blue Devil’s nuanced play style. Over the final 19 contests of the year, Kennard averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, even reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those games. Assuming that his role grows under the tutelage of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, Kennard could be a standout sophomore in 2018-19.

Even craftier, the Pistons had planned to use Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee tempered those expectations for now. Kennard can play three positions, flexible enough to compete on both offense and defense already. His potential from three-point range is not without merit either, as Kennard averaged 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from deep during his final season in college, marking him as one of Division-I’s most elite shooters. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, it looks like we’re just scratching the surface on Kennard’s budding future.

Doug McDermott — Indiana Pacers

Perhaps the most interesting case on the list is that of Doug McDermott.

Dangerously close to joining the rank of journeyman, McDermott landed a three-year deal worth $22 million in July — a contract that left many onlookers initially puzzled. But now that he’s there and entrenched in the Pacers’ preseason rotation, it’s clear what type of impact he might bring off the bench. Although Indiana will be McDermott’s fifth team since he was drafted in 2014, he’s excelled as an above average three-point shooter thus far. Sporting a career tally of 1.1 three-pointers per game on 40.3 percent, he could fill a serious void for the Pacers if they let him loose.

Between New York and Dallas last season, McDermott had 26 multi-three-pointer outings, including a blistering 5-for-7 effort against the Clippers in November. Admittedly, he’s not really a consistent contributor anywhere else, but the recent long-range renaissance means that there will always be room in the NBA for a sharpshooter like McDermott. Most importantly, then, is Indiana’s desperate need for not just bench three-point marksmanship, but shooting in general. In 2017-18, the Pacers only made nine three-pointers per game (their bench contributed a woeful total of 2.4), which left them tied for the fifth-worst mark in the entire league.

Even if McDermott doesn’t see a major uptick in volume, he’ll join the Pacers as their fourth-best three-point shooter at the very worst, only trailing Darren Collison (1.4), Bojan Bogdanovic (1.9) and Victor Oladipo (2.1) from deep. His track record may not be exhilarating on just numbers alone, but given his above-average percentages and his forthcoming opening, this may be McDermott’s biggest chance to breakout yet.

Cedi Osman — Cleveland Cavaliers

Everybody loves Cedi Osman.

Not much was expected of the 23-year-old when he joined the Cavaliers last season as an end-of-bench piece. But as the season grew longer, Osman got an honest shot at the rotation and he made the most of his unexpected fortuity. From February on, Osman tallied five or more points in 13 of his 22 appearances, even reaching double digits in six of them. During an uneventful win against the Atlanta Hawks, Osman notched 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two three-pointers over 38 minutes — more or less, the kid can play.

Everywhere you look, the people surrounding Osman can’t stop gushing about his love for the game, his desire to get better and the impact he may have this season. During his two Las Vegas Summer League contests, Osman exploded for 20 points, eight rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and one block per game — a salivating preview most definitely. Although the team is undoubtedly Kevin Love’s now, he’ll need some backup and Osman — a grinder, slasher and do-it-all-glue-guy — has the skill-set to take a leap in 2018-19 and beyond.

Needless to say, there are some intriguing storylines developing in a freshly LeBron-less landscape. Can the mid-tier teams join the conference’s current royalty? Can the division’s two lottery members reach the postseason conversation? Surely, if anything, the Cavaliers won’t make their fifth straight NBA Finals — but can the efforts of Osman keep them from falling out of the playoff race completely? Answers will come sooner rather than later, but all these teams will need some breakout players to help lead the way this season.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Bought Out Players Faring Well With New Teams

The deadline for teams to send their unwanted players to the buyout market was March 1. Jordan Hicks takes a look at some of the key acquisitions since the deadline and how they are helping postseason pushes.

Jordan Hicks

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The buyout market seems to be gaining more and more popularity with each season. While rebuilding teams tend to forego more seasoned players in order to give their younger guys some run, veteran players often find themselves bought out or waived prior to the deadline.

Teams competing for a spot in the playoffs – so it seems – have increasingly taken advantage of this situation by signing guys that can definitely help them get enough wins. While you definitely will not find All-Stars in the pool of available players, oftentimes solid role players find themselves there due to a myriad of reasons.

It could be that their previous teams wanted to give more playing time to guys more in-line with their future plans. It could also be because their previous team was simply wanting to lose games in order to increase their draft position, which is also known as tanking. By waiving better players on your roster and keeping less talented ones, teams can essentially give themselves a better chance to lose games without totally making it look like they’re doing it on purpose.

This year had one of the stronger pools of players on the buyout/waived market as of March 1st in recent memory, so let’s take a look at some of the top players and how they’ve fared since joining their new team.

Wesley Matthews

Matthews was part of the marquee trade that sent Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks. He ended up with the Knicks, but after two short games, they realized they didn’t want his talent interfering with their draft position. They waived him prior to the deadline and he was picked up by the Indiana Pacers.

This has turned out to be an incredibly important acquisition for the Pacers – primarily due to the fact that they lost All-Star Victor Oladipo for the season.

Matthews brings grittiness on the defensive end and a diverse set of skills offensively. He is an above average shooter from the three-point line, averaging 38.8 percent on 6.1 attempts per game since joining Indiana. He has added much-needed scoring to the offense as well – currently at 12.5 points and 2.4 assists each night.

He’s very clearly a step below Oladipo, especially when considering what Vic brought to both ends of the floor, but the fact that the Pacers added him without having to give up any assets is pretty remarkable.

While he has yet to add any considerable value on defense, Matthews has ranked fifth on the team in offensive rating since joining them on February 7. If Oladipo was still on the roster, you could argue that they wouldn’t necessarily need Matthews. But in light of recent events, being able to add Matthews as easily as they did was certainly a win for the franchise.

Enes Kanter

Another player the Knicks decided to unload was Enes Kanter. He was sent to the player pool via buyout, and it is safe to assume that New York had to spend handsomely to send him there.

Kanter is an interesting player. He has always been able to get buckets around the rim, as well as grab rebounds, but he has always struggled defensively. This was not why the Knicks wanted to let him go, however. Tension had been growing between Kanter, the front office, and the coaching staff, as they wanted to limit his minutes in lieu of the younger players on the roster.

Enes just wanted to play, and, by being bought out and signing with the Portland Trail Blazers, he’s been able to do just that.

Since joining Portland, the team as gone 9-3. While he continues to have his struggles on defense, he is posting 10 points and 6.7 rebounds on only 18.2 minutes per night.

Since the acquisition, Meyers Leonard has seen a decreased role. Kanter has turned into the de-facto backup to starting center Jusuf Nurkic. While Kanter is a poor defender himself, Portland has enough solid defensive players in the frontcourt that they haven’t had too much of a problem hiding him on that end of the floor.

Jeremy Lin

Lin headed to the market after being bought out by the Atlanta Hawks. He was picked up by the Toronto Raptors, who have struggled to field consistent backcourt players off the bench due to injuries – which was made more difficult after dealing Delon Wright to the Grizzlies as part of the Marc Gasol trade.

In 13 games with the Raptors, Lin is averaging 8.4 points and 2.5 assists in 20.8 minutes per game. He has struggled to find any consistency with his shot, as he’s averaging just 39 percent from the field and a morbid 18.4 percent from three.

That shooting has every opportunity to increase. Lin is a 34.3 percent shooter from downtown over the course of his career.

The Raptors will need Lin to pull his shooting together as the season wraps up for a strong playoff campaign. The bench unit was a major part of their success last season and it is proving to be another key part this year. In order for Toronto to finally reach their goal of winning the Eastern Conference, they’ll need Lin to be at his best. He isn’t the only key to their success, but he’ll have a major impact on how the Raptors finish out the season.

There are still plenty of solid players on the market. Carmelo Anthony, Ben McLemore and Nick Young could provide instant offense off the bench. Greg Monroe, Marcin Gortat and Zach Randolph could help improve the frontcourt of any team in need. Whether or not teams decide they need their services, only time will tell.

While the season plays out, it will be interesting to see just what impact these players discussed – as well as those not mentioned – will have for their franchise in the postseason.

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NBA Daily: Justin Bibbs Gets First NBA Opportunity In L.A.

Justin Bibbs spoke to Basketball Insiders about joining an NBA team after going undrafted, playing in the G League, his developing skill set and more.

David Yapkowitz

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One of the best moments in the life of an aspiring pro basketball player is to receive the news that an NBA team wants to sign them.

For Justin Bibbs, that dream became a reality of his when the Los Angeles Clippers called him up to the team on a 10-day contract last week. The former Virginia Tech guard went undrafted last summer and was spending his first professional season in the G League with Maine Red Claws, the affiliate of the Boston Celtics.

This past Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets was actually his first day being around the team as they had immediately assigned him to the Agua Caliente Clippers after signing him.

“To be honest, I still don’t have words for it. It’s kind of indescribable,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I always wanted to be on this level, but now that I’m here I just trying to take in every second of it, just relax and let God do his thing.”

Bibbs had a decent showing with the Celtics in summer league, leading to him being added to their training camp roster. He was ultimately cut and joined the Maine Red Claws as an affiliate player. Each NBA team is allowed to assign up to four players to their G League affiliate, players who were in training camp and are guaranteed a G League roster spot.

Affiliate players, however, are still considered ‘free agents’ in that they can sign with any NBA team. Bibbs played in 44 games with the Red Claws and averaged 11.8 points per game, 3.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

At Virginia Tech, he was a knockdown outside shooter (42.4 percent) and a strong defender. He has good size for a guard at 6-foot-5 and 225-pounds. It’s those qualities that he’s hoping to bring to the Clippers should he get the chance on the court.

“I always bring energy defensively and I just play my game. On offense, I bring shooting,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “But it’s whatever the coach tells me to do and basically just playing the right way.”

Although Bibbs has reached his goal of the NBA, he’s in a different situation than the rest of his Clippers teammates. They’re all secured with guaranteed contracts. Bibbs has ten days to prove himself to team brass, ten days to show he’s worth keeping around a bit longer.

“I’m happy that my play has been rewarded, that the organization believed in me enough to give me a 10-day. Its motivation for me to keep going,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I was called down from the G League team, and I’m just trying to get all the sets and plays and stuff, trying to make that adjustment. But it’s definitely a blessing.”

He’s played in three games for the Agua Caliente Clippers so far, logging 27.1 minutes per game off the bench. He’s put up 9.7 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field, 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists during that stretch.

He’s yet to log any minutes for the Clippers, but he’s just thrilled to be a part of an NBA organization. Despite being undrafted, he always knew that he’d get to this level at some point.

“Yeah I did, for sure I did. I didn’t know when or how, but I always thought I would be here,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “I had no idea what team, but being out in LA, I’ll take that as a blessing. But yeah I thought I would be here for sure.”

For players like Bibbs who are on 10-day contracts, nothing is guaranteed. But he’s soaking up the entire experience as long as he can. Whether the Clippers decide to retain him a little bit longer, or he moves on to another opportunity, he just wants to be able to play his game.

“My overall goal is just to actually play my game my way and not be restricted,” Bibbs told Basketball Insiders. “Kind of just play freely and right now that’s what I’ve shown, that’s what got me here. I’m just taking in the whole process, just taking it all in and getting the experience and knowledge.”

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 3/19/19

With the field of teams set for the 2019 NCAA March Madness tournament, things should get noisy over the next few weeks on the NBA Draft front. Steve Kyler offers up another 60-pick Mock Draft before all the zaniness begins.

Steve Kyler

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Let the Madness begin.

The basketball world will shift its attention to college basketball’s biggest stage over the next few weeks, especially this weekend’s opening round of 64.

While the tournament doesn’t necessarily make or break a player’s draft stock, this will be the first time some notable draft prospects will face elite talent and, more importantly, the pressure of the big stage. You can check out march madness predictions 2019 here.

Expect things in the draft world to start to percolate, not just because of the magnitude of the games, but also because a lot of NBA scouts will be in the same places, which is where the draft chatter originates.

Equally, a lot of NBA teams will watch games together in the conference rooms this week, so more group discussion on players will happen inside NBA teams’ front offices, and that could lead to new preference information flowing into the NBA Draft information bubble.

Here is this week’s 60-Pick Mock Draft, based on NBA games played through 3/18/19:

Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the standings, it will not be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the standings, would convey.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the current standings, the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the current standings, would not convey.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the current standings, would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the current standings this pick would not convey. If the debt is not settled this year, the pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.

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