It’s easy to get caught up in searching for the next big thing — and in the NBA, it happens all the time. Between the long-awaited arrival of Ben Simmons and the immediate impact of Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Lonzo Ball, among others, it’s been difficult to catch your breath. While this June’s prospective rookies are poised to burst onto the scene, there are plenty of 2017 draftees still looking for their breakthrough as well. Whether they had to deal with lingering injuries, crowded rotations or the G-League, here are six second-year players that should improve by leaps and bounds this upcoming season.
Luke Kennard, Detroit Pistons
Many were disappointed when the Pistons selected Kennard with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but after a strong end to the season, it looks like the franchise has big plans for the silky shooter. In March, the training wheels came off Kennard and he produced admirably for the playoff-less Pistons. Over 19 contests, the former Blue Devil averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those along the way. Even more recently, Detroit had planned to deploy Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee pushed back those plans for now.
Despite his fluctuating minutes as a rookie, Kennard still made 1.1 three-pointers per game at an impressive 41.5 percent clip. In his final season at Duke in 2016-17, Kennard tallied 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from downtown — so there’s precedent here for the 6-foot-5 guard to join the upper echelon of shooters sooner rather than later. Versatile enough to play three positions, Kennard can flexibly move across the perimeter on both offense and defense — what else could you want from a 22-year-old?
One year later, it’s clear that Detroit is enamored with Kennard, and his role could grow even larger following the arrival of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year.
Malik Monk, Charlotte Hornets
In terms of last year’s stacked rookie class, Malik Monk’s false start may have been the most frustrating. Excelling as one of the NCAA’s best scorers, Monk averaged 19.8 points on 39.7 percent from three-point range in his lone season at Kentucky. Deservedly, Monk soared toward the top of draft boards and it was even a surprise when he dropped to Charlotte at No. 11 overall, where fans saw a budding backcourt partner for franchise cornerstone Kemba Walker. Instead, Monk dealt with a few lingering injuries and struggled to get consistent minutes under former head coach Steve Clifford.
All in all, it’d be tough for Monk not to clear his rookie season numbers — 6.7 points, 1.4 assists — but he could absolutely blow them out of the water. Once Monk was freed from rotational hell in March, the streaky shooter settled in and averaged 16.4 points on 42 percent from three-point range — an optimistic sign that the 6-foot-3 shooting guard had begun to turn the corner. Unfortunately, a fractured thumb ended Monk’s stint in Las Vegas this summer after just one game, but should be ready for the season opener. Either way, the Hornets and their bloated payroll will absolutely lean on the second-year assassin in hopes a permanent breakout this fall.
Semi Ojeleye, Boston Celtics
Back in July, Basketball Insiders’ Spencer Davies wrote about how the Celtics’ recent second-round gem plans to build off his successful rookie season. But beyond his strong perimeter defense — an absolute must in Brad Stevens’ rotation — a clear opportunity exists there as well. With Gordon Hayward firmly back in the mix, Ojeleye can focus on honing his craft as the backup small forward. In 15.8 minutes per game last season, Ojeleye averaged just 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds — but he’s the type of high-energy, high-effort competitor that could carve out a sizable role in Boston.
As a key member of a freakishly athletic second unit that’ll likely include Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis, the Celtics will have the chance to suffocate their opponents once more. Certainly, Ojeleye’s 34.6 percent from the field will need work, but his length and flexibility make him an intriguing project under Stevens’ tutelage. Over five summer league games, Ojeleye notched 12.4 points and 4.2 rebounds on 43 percent from the floor — numbers that the Celtics would gladly take from their 23-year-old stopper.
Jordan Bell, Golden State Warriors
It’s tough to envision a 13-game starter for the back-to-back champions as a true breakout candidate — but here we are. With DeMarcus Cousins rehabbing well into the winter as he recovers from an Achilles tear, Bell will get the lion’s share of minutes at center for the foreseeable future. Given his hyper-athletic shot-blocking presence, Bell is the perfect fit for the Warriors’ already-historic scoring side. As a rookie, Bell averaged 4.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists and a block in only 14.2 minutes per game, but those will all conceivably rise in year two.
Bell, of course, will be a restricted free agent next summer and he’ll be well-chased no matter what happens in 2018-19 — but he could obviously push any prospective payday far higher.
The 6-foot-9 center won’t be tasked with any heavy scoring demands, but as long as he can admirably switch in the pick-and-roll, change shots on defense and catch alley-oops, he’ll be a mainstay in the rotation. Just before Christmas, Bell notched 20 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and one block on 9-for-13 from the floor, fully exhibiting his potential as a highly-efficient contributor. With Zaza Pachulia and David West both moving on this offseason, Bell is one of the league’s most likely breakout candidates.
Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies
For most of the players on this list, they’re potential-laden prospects just looking for an expanded role — but Dillon Brooks had all that and a bag of chips from opening night. After starting in a staggering 74 games for the lottery-bound Grizzlies as a rookie, Brooks will now try to improve on an impressive start to his career. Brooks, who believes he’ll be one of the class’ best players when it’s all said and done, averaged 11 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 28.7 minutes per game. As of now, his place in the starting lineup is still yet to be determined, but the retained J.B. Bickerstaff will be pleased to slot Brooks in wherever he’s needed.
Although Brooks will likely never be a superstar, he’s already thrived in a variety of roles for Memphis. From defending future Hall of Famers like Paul George to sharing playmaking responsibilities alongside Tyreke Evans, Brooks has done a little bit of everything for his new franchise. Like the aforementioned Kennard, Brooks took on a bigger scoring responsibility toward the end of the season and responded with a bang. During the Grizzlies’ final six games in April, Brooks tallied a heady 20.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists — or, in other terms, All-Star-worthy numbers.
Of course, the healthy return of Mike Conley Jr. — as well as the additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Omri Casspi and Kyle Anderson — means the scoring load won’t fall on Brooks like that too often anymore. Still, Brooks’ versatility, fearlessness and sticky defending will afford him some major opportunities to take the next step in 2018-19.
Isaiah Hartenstein, Houston Rockets
Once upon a time, Hartenstein was projected as a potential first rounder, but he fell to the Rockets at No. 43 overall, where he’d spend an entire season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers — Houston’s G-League affiliate. Following his upgraded efforts in Las Vegas — 10.3 points, eight rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game — Hartenstein quickly signed a three-year deal this offseason. Although Clint Capela has the center position on lock, Hartenstein will only have to outpace Nene Hilario and Zhou Qi for playing time in the Rockets’ three-point heavy system.
Over 38 contests for Rio Grande, Hartenstein averaged 9.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks on 34.3 percent from three-point range. At 20 years old, Hartenstein is raw but his game certainly fits into the modern, unicorn-obsessed mold for an athletic big man. Naturally, Hartenstein is still a work-in-progress, but his portfolio of work over the previous year proved to be enough reason for the Rockets to commit a tiny portion of their future to him.
Every season, eyes are fixated on the new and exciting rookie additions — but we must not forget about the late bloomers either. From lottery selections like Kennard and Monk to second-round grinders like Ojeleye, Bell, Brooks and Hartenstein, the potential sophomore year breakout is always something worth eagerly monitoring. Each situation is fluid and unique, often dependant on injuries, rotations and other mitigating in-season factors — but these are six ready-to-go candidates that could steal the show in 2018-19.
NBA All-Star Friday Recap
Basketball Insiders recaps NBA All-Star Friday 2019, which featured a four-point shot and a deep pool of talent in the Rising Stars Challenge.
NBA All-Star Celebrity Game
The NBA All-Star Celebrity Game had a variety of big names to trot out on Friday night. This list included former NBA players such as Ray Allen and Jay Williams, current WNBA players Stefanie Dolson and A’ja Wilson, entertainers such as JB Smoove, Mike Colter, and Hassan Minhaj, and last year’s MVP, Quavo.
The Home Team was coached by WNBA legend Dawn Staley while the Away Team was coached by WNBA superstar Sue Bird.
Team Staley pulled ahead multiple times throughout the game, but every run they made was followed by a run by Team Bird. Team Bird’s comeback attempt fell short as Team Staley ultimately won 82-80.
Internet Comedian Famous Los led the way for Team Staley, scoring a team-high 22 points on 10-16 shooting while dishing out three assists in the team’s victory. Jay Williams razzled and dazzled as well, scoring 18 points on 8-15 shooting while dishing out five assists – including this beauty.
— NBA (@NBA) February 16, 2019
What could have been with Jay Williams…
Quavo topped his performance last year for Team Staley, scoring a game-high 27 points in total, highlighted by what may very well be the only five-point play to ever happen in an NBA-sponsored basketball game. Quavo shot 13-19 from the field while also corralling nine rebounds as well. Ray Allen also put up a vintage performance, putting up 24 points on 11-21 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists.
There were a few interesting wrinkles to this game. A four-point shot was implemented in which $4,000 would be donated to charity for each shot made from distance. Ten four-pointers were made in the game, totaling $40,000 in charity donations.
Two more fun facts: We didn’t even get a tip-off in this game. Comedian Brad Williams stole the ball from the ref to start it off. Also, just because it’s a harmless exhibition does not mean participants won’t get into it. JB Smoove and Hassan Minhaj got a little testy at the end of the first quarter.
Other participants included:
From Team Bird: Ronnie 2K (Director of influencer marketing, 2K Sports), AJ Buckley (Actor, “SEAL Team”), Bad Bunny (Singer), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks’ Co-Owner), Adam Ray (Host of About Last Night), Amanda Seales (Actor/Comedian), James Shaw Jr. (Hometown Hero), Brad Williams (Host of About Last Night)
From Team Staley: Chris Daughtry (Singer), Terrence Jenkins (TV Personality/Actor), Dr. Oz (TV Personality), Rapsody (Rapper), Bo Rinehart (Musician), Steve Smith (Former NFL Player), Jason Weissman (Hometown Hero)
MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars
If last year’s Rising Stars game had an overabundance of talent, this one may have very well topped it. That’s how loaded this year’s class was.
Let’s start with what could be a preview for what’s to come next year: Luka Doncic’s performance. More specifically, his connection with Lauri Markaanen. Throughout the first quarter, Doncic found Markaanen everywhere, either for easy alley-oops or wide open threes on the pick and pop.
Why bring this up? Because this is exactly what we could expect to see from Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis when they share the court together, as Markaanen has a similar skill set offensively to Porzingis’.
As for the game itself, Team USA jumped out to a 12-point lead at the half, thanks primarily to the likes of Jayson Tatum (16 points on 6-12 shooting) and Kyle Kuzma (21 points on 10-16 shooting).
Team World wouldn’t go down without a fight. In the third quarter, they managed to cut the deficit down to a point thanks primarily to Doncic and Ben Simmons’ collective efforts, but that was as close as they got. Team USA pulled away in the fourth quarter as they went on to win 161-144.
Simmons led the way for Team World, as he finished with 30 points on 14-17 shooting on a squad where, outside of Simmons, the scoring was pretty well spread out as Doncic, Markaanen, DeAndre Ayton, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rodney Kurucs, OG Annonuby, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Okogie all had 10 points or more.
Team USA had a few standouts, including Kuzma (35 points on 15-27 shooting), Tatum (30 points on 12-24 shooting), Donovan Mitchell (20 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), and Trae Young (25 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds). All were deserving of the MVP, but the award ultimately went to Kuzma.
Tonight, we go a little deeper into All-Star Weekend with the Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shooting Contest, and the Skills Challenge. Stay tuned!
NBA Daily: Can Tobias Harris Put the 76ers Over the Top?
Shane Rhodes breaks down whether the addition of Tobias Harris can push the 76ers into the NBA Finals.
The Philadelphia 76ers made perhaps the biggest move of trade season when they acquired Tobias Harris from the Los Angeles Clippers. Harris, in the midst of a career year, was on the path to a lucrative contract come this summer. But, with an uncertain future in Los Angeles, Philadelphia capitalized and made their move to win now.
In doing so, the 76ers have put together, arguably, the most talented starting roster in the Eastern Conference. But what exactly does Harris bring to the team, and can he put them over the top of their competition in the East?
Harris has very much looked the part of an All-Star this season and has given Brett Brown and the 76ers coaching staff yet another weapon with which to attack defenses. The 26-year-old has posted career highs in points (20.7), rebounds (7.8) and assists (2.8) per game, field goal percentage (49.7) and three-point percentage (43.0) this season and should prove a significant upgrade over Wilson Chandler, who was sent to Los Angeles in the trade, on both offense and defense.
In a superior lineup, his Harris’ play should only improve as well.
His statistical values may dip with the move to Philadelphia, but, in a way, the team may look at that as a positive; with so many talents on the floor together, Brown, in theory, should be able to utilize Harris in order to reduce wear and tear on his other players — namely Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler — and keep them somewhat fresh for the postseason, if not at the expensive of some personal stats.
Harris is another player that can handle the ball and should lead to even more movement within the 76ers offense. He has shown over the years an ability to push the ball up the floor in transition and should relieve some of the pressure from Simmons in that area as well. In the event that he is the lone star on the floor, or should the ball movement stop, Harris able and willing to break out his do-it-himself kit; he may not dance a defender like Kyrie Irving, but he is more than capable of sizing up his man and either hitting a shot in their face or brute-forcing his way to the basket.
Harris is a more-than-capable shooter and, off the ball, should provide Simmons with another reliable perimeter outlet and open things up on the interior open things up inside for him and Embiid as well.
Defensively, Harris isn’t a wizard, but the effort and energy are there and should shine in the already competent 76ers defense. While it may not be ideal in all situations, Harris has the size to bang down low with some centers and the quickness to keep up with smaller players on the perimeter. Harris’ length — a near seven-foot wingspan — should also prove an asset, as he will allow the defense to switch on almost every possession. In the postseason, that could prove invaluable.
As good as this acquisition may look on paper, it isn’t without its cons or risks. Harris’ is another primary option on a team that already had three of them in Embiid, Simmons and Butler; could the presence of too many options bog things down a la the Boston Celtics earlier this season?
His contract situation, alongside the impending free agency of Butler, should give some pause as well.
The team has hedged its future on those two players and given up some good (and some great) assets to acquire them. Should Butler leave, Harris would provide the 76ers with the ultimate insurance policy but, should both players move on after the season it could set the team back years.
The 76ers have plenty of pre-existing issues to figure out as well, a losing record against their chief Eastern Conference competition — Milwaukee Bucks (0-1), Toronto Raptors (1-2) and Celtics (0-3) — most prominent among them.
But, with Harris in the fold, the 76ers seem to have all the pieces of the puzzle. If the players can put it all together, they could very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.
Gordon Hayward Clearing Hurdles, Finding Joy In Comeback From Injury
Spencer Davies sits down with Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward to discuss the first half of his season, returning from a devastating injury and the team blocking out the noise.
As his Boston Celtic teammates got some shots up to prepare for a morning practice in Cleveland, Gordon Hayward sat in a chair on the baseline watching.
Quicken Loans Arena held a particular place in his mind. Not because of a championship memory, nor for any individual accomplishment.
But because nearly five months after an emotional return and season debut, Hayward had come back to the scene where the course of his career shifted in an instant.
“It’s something that I was thinking about sitting in the hotel last night,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders before shootaround at The Q. “Like, last time I was here, my whole world changed. I’ll probably think about it, be a little anxious about it at the beginning when I first check in, but then when I get going it’ll be fine.”
If there was any trepidation, it was either short-lived or didn’t show. The 28-year-old looked as confident as ever, packing a powerful punch off the bench as a scorer and a distributor for a depleted Boston team. He finished with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.
“I didn’t even think about that until this morning,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Hayward’s return to Cleveland. “I thought about it in the preseason and then for whatever reason, I probably should’ve thought about it.
“I just think he has played enough now where he’s past that initial hurdle, right? So it’s probably not fun to walk out on the court the first time and shoot around and those type of things but ultimately, I think he probably moved past that really quickly. I thought he was great tonight, both ends of the court. I thought his offensive playmaking passing the ball was as good as his scoring.”
Hayward has scored 20 points or more on just three different occasions this year. It’s a far cry from the All-Star numbers he used to put up nightly. He understands, however, that perseverance is necessary as he slowly, but surely gets re-acclimated to playing.
“Physically, I’ve felt pretty good. I think I’m definitely moving way better than I was at the beginning of the season,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting more and more confident with each month, each week. There’s definitely still games where I just don’t feel like myself, but I think I’m trending in the right direction.”
When asked about those areas that don’t feel right yet Hayward pinpointed attacking the basket, specifically going at big men in the paint, taking contact and finishing.
Knowing that he can go up, get hit and be able to come down fine is a mental hurdle Hayward admittedly still has to clear—and the only way to get past that is repetition.
“You just have to do it, and do it more than one time,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “It’s like an experience-type thing. You’ve got to just do it and feel confident doing it, and until that happens, then you’ll just keep thinking about it.”
Once Hayward is driving and dunking on a regular basis without thinking about what happens next, he says he’ll officially be back. Until then, an appreciation of being able to play the game he loves again is the true big picture—especially after an injury that could’ve taken it all away from him.
“That’s been a mental thing as well is trying to find some joy in just the fact that I’m back out on the court,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Because some people don’t return from that and a blessing that we have the technology that we do these days that they were able to fix my ankle. So I guess just being patient with the whole thing, that’s been a challenge.”
CELTICS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Coming into the 2017-18 season, the excitement in Boston was palpable. Hayward signed a four-year maximum contract with the Celtics that summer. Shortly thereafter, Danny Ainge made a blockbuster deal to acquire Kyrie Irving, creating a dynamic duo to begin a new era of C’s basketball.
The Celtics started the campaign on the road against the defending Eastern Conference Champion Cavaliers in October. Since the storyline of the night was Irving facing off against the franchise he had won a championship with on opening night, Hayward’s debut took a bit of a back seat…until the unthinkable happened.
Less than halfway into the first quarter, Irving saw a cutting Hayward with an open path to the rim and threw up a lob looking for an alley-oop finish. Cleveland’s Jae Crowder and LeBron James came to double before Boston’s pair could connect, leaving Hayward afloat in an awkward position.
Hayward came down almost horizontally, with only his left leg there to brace himself for the fall. Tragically, he dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia simultaneously in one of the most gruesome moments in the history of sports.
As he was consoled by trainers and wheeled away on a stretcher with an air cast, the whole arena was dead silent. Players from both teams were praying in disbelief of what they’d just witnessed. Just like that, Hayward’s season was over, and even perhaps his career.
Following multiple successful surgeries and going through rehabilitation programs over the course of a year, Hayward was able to make a miraculous return to the court on October 16, 2018. He’s been on the floor for 26 minutes per night, playing in 53 of 58 total games.
Just as Hayward has tirelessly ground away to get back to form, so have the Celtics. With a healthy Irving and returning Hayward, along with the group that unexpectedly went seven games into the conference finals last year, they were supposed to be the top dog in the East.
It’s no secret that the Celtics boast an abundance of young talent. Jaylen Brown has shown plenty of growth after a shaky start to the season. Terry Rozier is on track to get paid in the offseason by a team in need of a starting point guard. Jayson Tatum is Boston’s second-best scorer (16.5 points per game) and rebounder (6.3 boards per game) at just 20 years old.
That goes without mentioning rookie center Robert Williams. Daniel Theis and Brad Wanamaker, while not quite as young, are two inexperienced NBA players who have overseas experience. The Celtics’ depth is a quality that is necessary for a deep run in the postseason.
“I think anytime they have an opportunity, they seem to make the most of it. That’s at every position,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders.
At the halfway mark headed into the All-Star break, Boston holds fifth place, locked in a battle with the likes of the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers for the three seed. The Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors each have 43 wins with over five games separating them from the trio of teams behind them.
Despite back-to-back blown leads and losses to both Los Angeles franchises at the TD Garden, the Celtics have won 12 of their last 15 contests.
“I think when we all play with energy and when we’re connected defensively – and offensively, for that matter, but especially on the defensive end – we give ourselves a chance to win the game,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “Then, when we are able to move the ball and put together games where we have 30-plus assists, that’s when we’re really tough (to beat).”
TUSSLING WITH THE MEDIA
It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, though. Early in the season, there were many things said by multiple players on the record, including some pointed words from Irving in more than one instance. These comments can be twisted and turned easily.
Add in an example: the day he told reporters, “Ask me July 1,” regarding his free agency plans, it turned into a big mess of speculation. What many people didn’t hear was Irving’s thoughts regarding the media’s spin on what was actually going on.
“This is like college recruitment for me all over again. I don’t know. This is just weird,” Irving said to the scrum of reporters in New York. “It’s a new position to be in answering all these questions, seeing all this stuff that I’m trying to avoid, and it’s just a distraction. It’s crazy how stories and things and storyline can seep into a locker room. You guys are part of the destruction of locker rooms. That’s just what it is….”
Hayward had plenty of his own thoughts on the matter.
“I mean, I think certainly all outside noise has an opportunity to put a wedge between people and between teammates,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “I think especially in today’s age where there’s social media and information is right now, all-the-time, like everybody sees what everybody says. There’s guys that are paid to give their opinions on things and, if you read into all that stuff, can definitely put a wedge in between guys.
“More than anything, just talking to people,” Hayward said of the proper remedy. “If you have an issue with somebody, just tell ’em, talk to ’em. But I think for the most part if you block all that stuff out and really just focus on yourself as a group and what the coaching staff is saying and what your teammates are saying, it’s usually better.”
FATHERHOOD IS A BLESSING
We talked about the youth Boston has already, but Hayward isn’t in that same category anymore. While it’s not that he’s old, per se, he is a nine-year man in the NBA.
Hayward considers it “weird” that he’s the veteran now. Yet, at the same time, he doesn’t mind that time has flown by because of the gift of fatherhood. The injury he sustained was absolutely devastating.
But it put things in perspective for him, and no matter what happens from here on out with his career, Hayward will always be grateful for the most important thing in his life—family.
“No doubt. I think no matter what happens on the court, my girls don’t care,” Hayward told Basketball Insiders. “They just care that dad’s home and they want to play hot lava and play picnic and all that stuff. Like having three healthy kids and a wife at home, those things are good.”
If Hayward’s recent play is an indication of what we’re going to see from him moving forward, he might just get the best of both worlds.