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NBA Daily: Six Second-Year Breakout Candidates

Although it’s tempting to stay fixated on prospects that quickly find their niche in the NBA, it’s important not to forget about the potential late bloomers.

Ben Nadeau

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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.

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: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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

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

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

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

Matt John

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drew Maresca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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