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Willie Reed Gets His Shot With the Nets

Willie Reed waited years for an NBA deal. Now, with the Nets, he’s ready to show what he can do.

Alex Kennedy

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Back in early July, Willie Reed wondered whether he’d ever get an opportunity to play in the NBA. He was obviously confident in his abilities, but it was disconcerting that he was still out of the league.

The 25-year-old big man sat in an Orlando restaurant – at a table far too small for his 6’11 frame – and discussed each of his professional stops throughout his career. Reed went undrafted in 2011 and had brief stints with the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies, as well as a training camp invite from the Brooklyn Nets last year. However, he never appeared in an NBA regular season game.

He spent the last three seasons playing in the D-League and he had one stint in the Dominican Republic, where the league organizers repeatedly referred to him as Willis Reed’s son and promoted him as such, no matter how many times Willie told them that wasn’t accurate (although the two are distant relatives).

As he ate his dinner, Reed spoke of just needing that one call, that one opportunity, from an NBA team to show that he can produce on basketball’s biggest stage. Last season in 48 D-League games, he averaged 16.4 points, 12.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks, while shooting 60.3 percent from the field. He was ranked the top D-League prospect, but he still didn’t get a call-up from an NBA team.

“At times it was frustrating, but it humbled me,” Reed told Basketball Insiders. “I had gotten the opportunity to get called up in the past, but this past season it didn’t happen. It just made me want to work harder. I figured that if that call-up wasn’t coming, there was something more I needed to do or something I needed to work on, so I was in the gym every single day. And I tried to be as consistent as possible; I was determined to be consistent in every single game and keep improving.”

After putting in the work and expanding his game, now it was time for him to take the next step in his career. The way he sees it, he needs to be on an NBA roster this season. No more D-League, no more stints abroad if he can help it. As he said this, he was sitting with his newly pregnant fiancée and holding his 18-month-old son, who is a big reason why he desperately wants to ink that NBA contract as soon as possible. Reed wants to give his children the best life possible and provide for his growing family, which can be extremely difficult when playing in the D-League since salaries range from $13,000 to $25,000. With his son on his lap, and always on his mind, Reed was clearly on a mission entering the 2015 Summer League: NBA contract or bust.

*****

In the Orlando Summer League, Reed was initially going to play for the Indiana Pacers’ squad. However, once Indiana selected center Myles Turner with the 11th overall pick in this year’s draft, Reed’s camp decided to make a change of plans.

Sensing that Turner would significantly cut into Reed’s minutes, his camp decided to move him to the Miami HEAT’s Summer League team. This shuffling is relatively common leading up to the event, as agents want their players in a situation where they can receive significant minutes and actually showcase their skill set.

Moving to Miami’s team ended up being a blessing in disguise for Reed. He got the opportunity to start each of his games with the HEAT and took full advantage of this opportunity. With plenty of minutes and an increased role, Reed ended up emerging as one of Miami’s best players – an impressive feat considering the team also featured lottery pick Justise Winslow and HEAT roster players Tyler Johnson, Shabazz Napier, James Ennis and Zoran Dragic. Hassan Whiteside was also practicing with the team (but not playing in the games), and Reed held his own against last season’s breakout center in workouts.

Reed approached Summer League like a professional. This was a business trip and he treated it as such. While many of the younger players were going out and partying at night, Reed was at his hotel and in bed early. This wasn’t a vacation; this was every man for himself in a brawl for NBA jobs. As a veteran, he understood that.

Over the course of Reed’s week in Orlando, the big man averaged 13.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 26 minutes, while shooting 60 percent from the field. His blocks were down from the previous year in Summer League, when he averaged 2.8 rejections in just 19.9 minutes. But that may have been because Miami wanted to see more of his offensive game since they already knew what he brought to the table as a shot blocker. Instead of swatting shots, he was actually attempting them this year. He took more shots in this Summer League than in any previous year, and even served as Miami’s offensive focal points at times (while still being their defensive leader).

Reed’s best statistical outing was his 17-point, seven-rebound, four-block game against the Los Angeles Clippers, in which he shot 7-10 from the field.

However, the performance that turned heads was against the Brooklyn Nets. This was somewhat of a revenge game for Reed, since the Nets had cut him after training camp last year. This game was clearly important to him and he wanted to send a message. He did just that. Reed finished the game with 17 points (on 8-12 shooting from the field) and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. Cory Jefferson, who was one of the players who made the team over Reed last year, had zero points, two rebounds, three turnovers and three fouls in 12 minutes. Reed admits that he entered that game with something to prove.

“I obviously knew some of the guys who were there [for Brooklyn], the young core, and I was upset that I was the only person who was waived last year,” Reed said. “But I understand that this is a business. I used that [experience being waived] and made myself better. I just tried to get better throughout the D-League season, and I was able to become the No. 1 D-League prospect and become really consistent. … It all worked out; I had a great game against them and a great Summer League.”

After playing so well for Miami, Reed’s stock was suddenly on the rise. The L.A. Clippers approached Reed’s camp during the brief window when they thought DeAndre Jordan was going to the Dallas Mavericks. The Clippers had actually expressed interest in Reed during the 2014-15 season when he was in the D-League, so they had their eye on him for quite some time. They were a possibility for Reed, but then Jordan returning to L.A. obviously changed everything.

But Brooklyn expressed interest in Reed as well. His performance against Jefferson was eye-opening, as was his productivity throughout the rest of the week in Orlando. The Nets ultimately signed Reed on July 9 and waived Jefferson on July 13. Finally, all of Reed’s hard work paid off and he got the chance he’s been desperately seeking for years.

WillieReedInsideOnly1Fittingly, Reed was at lunch with his son on his off day when he got the news that he had been signed by Brooklyn. When he put pen to paper on the contract, he had his boy on his lap.

“I was in Orlando and we had the day off, so me and my son were just eating at a restaurant and I got that call,” Reed said with a smile. “They called me and let me know they wanted to sign me. It was so exciting. So exciting. And right away, like five minutes later, I was actually doing my physical. Then, I was sitting on the bench for their next Summer League game. It was extremely exciting.”

Reed signed a one-year, $947,276 partially guaranteed contract with the Nets. The deal became fully guaranteed on October 28 – the day of Brooklyn’s first regular season game –  so Reed received every cent of his contract.

Reed’s partial guarantee alone ($500,000) was worth 25 times his 2014-15 D-League salary, and his full salary was 48 times his D-League income. Suddenly, the Reed household is doing significantly better financially.

“My family is very excited,” Reed said. “I told them it was going to happen, because I was never going to give up on this dream. The first time I got called up, I didn’t even dress out – I was in a suit the whole time in Memphis. Then I got called up to Sacramento and I didn’t play. After that, I told my fiancée, ‘The next time you see me in the NBA, I’ll be on the court.’ Now, it just so happens that I got a contract with the Nets before the season even started and I’ll get an opportunity to show that I’m an NBA-caliber player, that I’m a rotation player and that I can help a team.”

*****

It remains to be seen what kind of role Reed will have on Nets this season. The team will bring back veterans Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young in the frontcourt, and this offseason they also added Andrea Bargnani, Thomas Robinson and Chris McCullough in addition to Reed.

Reed has been in communication with the Nets’ officials and coaches. They were impressed with the huge strides he had made over the last year and explained why they signed him.

“They thought I had a very good Summer League performance; they thought I rebounded the basketball well and led on the defensive end because I was very vocal,” Reed said. “When they signed me, they also told me that this was the most consistent they had seen me play for such a long stretch and that’s exactly what they wanted to see.

“I just want to continue to do those things. I also want to continue to work on my explosion, my hand-eye coordination, my rebounding and my offensive game over the summer. I just want to be able to get into training camp and show them that I can be a reliable option throughout an 82-game season.”

From day one, Reed wants to make it clear that he’s going to be the energy guy who does the dirty work and never takes a second off. That’s the first impression he plans to make, and he’s more than willing to embrace that role during the season.

“You know what you’re going to get when you have me on your team; you’re getting a guy who’s always going to play hard every time he steps on the floor and a guy who’s going to defend as best as I can and pursue every rebound,” Reed said. “I think the coaches know that they rely on me to provide those things and always provide energy. That’s what I’m going to bring: athleticism, rebounding and energy.”

While Reed’s journey since 2011 didn’t go the way he had originally planned – from being undrafted to toiling in the D-League for years – he’s grateful for the ride and believes it was absolutely necessary. Rather than being upset that it took this long for him to land on an NBA roster, he has a very mature outlook on the situation. He views every moment along the way of his career as a learning experience that helped him reach this point. Each stepping stone led him to Brooklyn, and he’s not sure what would’ve happened had he missed one.

In early July, he wondered out of frustration if he’d ever get the chance to play in the NBA. Now, a little over one month later, he wonders if he ever would’ve gotten this NBA opportunity had he not experienced said frustration and taken his unique path.

“I’m 10 times better than the player I was when I first came out of school [in 2011],” Reed said with a laugh. “God makes things happen for a reason. I wasn’t ready when I first came out of school, but everything happens for a reason. I had to go through this journey. I had to go through the D-League. And all of that is what prepared me to now be in this position with the Nets and make the most of this opportunity. I’m just thankful for the journey. I got the opportunity to get stronger over those three years in the D-League, improve my offensive game and still keep the athleticism I had when I came out of school.

“Overall, I became a better player because of this journey. And I’m prepared for what’s next.”

UPDATE: This week, Reed signed a two-year, fully guaranteed contract with the Miami HEAT. The deal, which is for the veteran’s minimum, includes a player option for the second year so Reed can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Could Gordon Hayward Officially Be ‘Back?’

Following what had to be a frustrating season, Gordon Hayward is showing signs of being the Hayward of old. Matt John examines what looks different about Gordon and what impact that could have on the Boston Celtics.

Matt John

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Let’s not dwell on Gordon Hayward’s injury from two years ago. You probably saw it, and if you didn’t, first of all, consider yourself lucky; and second, you probably know what happened.

Instead, let’s talk about what happened this past season with Gordon. In hindsight, maybe we should have seen his struggles coming. What happened back on opening night in 2017 would be quite the hurdle for anyone to get over one year later, but in Hayward’s case, it may have been worse for him than anyone could have expected.

Hayward entered the summer of 2018 hoping to get back into his old routine, but after experiencing serious discomfort, Gordon opted to get another surgery at that time to remove the screws in his ankle. Little did everyone know, the second surgery was a major setback for the former All-Star. All of his plans he had got pushed back to the fall, which – long story short – meant that Hayward had little time to prepare for the start of last season.

That should have been the red flag that maybe the Celtics weren’t getting the old Gordon back to start. It’s tough because since they were paying him handsomely, they wanted to get him involved as much as possible on a team that wanted a championship. Unfortunately, it was clear through the first couple of months that he was both not back to normal and would take time to get up to speed.

It was nobody’s fault. Fate threw both the Celtics and Gordon some unfair and unexpected twists.

Did he get better as the season went on? Uh… sure? Every so often we got flashes of the old Hayward, but they were few and far between. Another problem was that Gordon was on a team filled with one too many guys who needed both minutes and touches. Force-feeding him minutes when he was still in recovery over talented players at full health was a frustrating ordeal for everyone.

Hayward ended the regular season on a promising stretch and followed that up with a solid outing against the very short-handed Pacers in the first round of the playoffs. His progress halted when Boston faced Milwaukee the following round. Everything fell apart for the Celtics when that series ended, but Hayward’s disappearance specifically made any remaining optimism surrounding his comeback follow suit. Being outplayed by Pat Connaughton, who was making barely over five percent of his salary, would do that to him.

When it was over, one question remained. Would Gordon Hayward ever be Gordon Hayward again?

The man who just two seasons before was coming off of the best one of his career, averaging 22 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 47/40/84 splits? The man who while leading an excellent Jazz team, was a shoo-in All-Star and garnered serious all-NBA consideration during that time? The man who the Celtics traded down from the first overall pick, as well as the long-tenured Avery Bradley, to make room for him money-wise?

We can’t really answer that at the current moment since we’re only entering the beginning of preseason. But since the start of training camp, all reports about Hayward have been encouraging to say the least.

It started with Enes Kanter, who played with Hayward for over three years in Utah. At media day, Kanter stated that not only was Gordon back to where he was, but that he would “shock the world” as well.

Then, Robert Williams III followed it up with similar sentiment.

Danny Ainge sounded optimistic as well about Hayward coming back to his normal self, but he tried to temper both his and everyone else’s excitement. The buzz around the Celtics as training camp started was all the same – Gordon Hayward was back to normal.

But talk is talk. As great as all of this sounded for Boston, everyone needed to see for themselves if Hayward was back to his old self. In his first preseason game against Charlotte, he only played briefly because of an elbow injury, but when he was on the floor, it looked like the believers would have their faith rewarded.

Of course, it’s just one game. Worse, it’s one preseason game, an exhibition that means nothing for just about everyone except the guys who are trying to make the roster. But for Hayward, this definitely looked different for two reasons. First, the fluidity. If you compare how he moved on the floor during that game to how he looked at this exact time a year ago, you can see the difference.

When he started out last year, Gordon ran like he had ankle bracelets attached to his feet. Maybe it’s the added leg spandex, but from the looks of things, Hayward is moving much as he did before his injury. He was never an elite athlete, but Gordon’s specialty was how crafty he was on his feet. If that has returned, then his ceiling should be right back where it was when he first came to Boston.

Second, his confidence. Among all of Hayward’s issues from last season, one of them was that he never figured out what his role was for the Celtics. The overabundance of talent, combined with his recovery both physically and mentally, made it hard for Gordon to know what he was supposed to do.

Now, Kyrie Irving is gone. Al Horford is gone. Marcus Morris is gone. Terry Rozier is gone. On the one hand, the Celtics don’t have nearly as high of expectations. On the other, less could be more for them. With those four gone, there’s more room for Hayward to stretch his legs and play his game. That’s going to take having faith in himself, which Gordon showed he might just have again.

In that one preseason game, Hayward drove to the basket, made quick decisions and played within the team’s concept. Even when he missed a bunny, seeing Gordon drive to the basket without hesitation is something we saw him do only on occasion last season as opposed to pre-injury when he’d do it all the time.

So if Hayward is 100 percent as he’s clamored up to be, one question remains: What should we expect of him? Even with all the team lost, Boston still has plenty of scoring with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and even Enes Kanter if we’re really including their best scoring options.

Because of that, expecting Gordon to put up the same scoring numbers he did in Utah may be unrealistic. Where Gordon could really make up for the Celtics is in his passing. The Celtics made up about as well as they could have from Kyrie’s departure by adding Kemba, but Al Horford is a different story.

Replacing all that Al Horford could do is downright impossible because he’s a big who can do pretty much everything. Hayward can’t replace that because Al’s got a few inches and, hence, can play taller positions. What Gordon can do – now that he’s expected to have a bigger role – is replace Al’s playmaking abilities.

Hayward’s always been a good passer; it’s why he’s a good fit in Brad Stevens’ offense. Last season, he still put up around the same assist numbers that he did in Utah despite a significant dip in minutes. Now that he’ll have a bigger role, and the Celtics offense will want to remain in motion, Hayward can be the playmaker in the offense that Al was. Gordon can’t do all the things that Horford can, but he can make up some of the difference with Horford’s departure on passing alone.

When it comes down to it, Gordon should not have a repeat performance of last season. Instead, we should see a more accurate version of the player the Celtics had in mind when they rolled out a max deal back in 2017.

The Celtics are going to have a lot of questions to answer as this season goes on. If that one preseason game is a sign of what’s to come from Gordon Hayward, they can rest easy knowing he won’t be one of them.

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Collins, Whiteside Appear Mismatched During Blazers’ Preseason Opener

Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside started up front for the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday — but after just one preseason game, it’s clear they’re still a long way from proving that partnership’s staying power, writes Jack Winter.

Jack Winter

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It’s been proven time and again that deducing meaningful conclusions from preseason basketball is mere folly. The games are often played at barely-more-than-half-speed, while teams don’t go through extensive scouting reports or implement major schematic changes related to specific opponents. Exhibition contests are far more about players and teams simply getting their feet wet against real competition leading up to the regular season grind than anything else.

But during the Portland Trail Blazers’ preseason opener at Veterans Memorial Coliseum — where, of note, the franchise won its only championship in 1977 — it was difficult not to wonder if the hopes of bringing another title to Rose City might be mitigated by a starting frontcourt that seems mismatched.

Zach Collins and Hassan Whiteside were on the floor for tipoff against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, as the Blazers have planned since late July. They played just about the opening seven minutes of the first quarter and headed to the bench with Portland trailing Denver 13-11. Both Whiteside and Collins returned to action in the second quarter, but not together. Whiteside was paired with Anthony Tolliver upfront, while Collins played center in a downsized lineup that slotted Rodney Hood at the de facto power forward slot.

That first quarter stint, it turned out, would be the lone occasion Collins and Whiteside were on the floor at once.

Head coach Terry Stotts downplayed the significance of that development after the game, alluding to a minutes restriction on Whiteside and the whims of exhibition play as the reason why the Blazers’ new starting bigs saw such brief court time simultaneously.

“That was because of minutes, Hassan was limited to 12 minutes,” he told Basketball Insiders. “It was predetermined he was gonna play the first six minutes with the one group, and then the next six minutes with the second. I think during preseason you’re gonna see different matchups at the 4-5.”

Whiteside missed multiple practices last week after tweaking his left ankle, plus Portland did indeed experiment with several different combinations in the post. Stotts specifically mentioned a desire to get the tandem of Collins and Skal Labissiere some run, which he did in the third quarter, and the Blazers slid Mario Hezonja down to power forward later on as both teams went deep into their bench units.

The limits of analyzing preseason basketball don’t need further explanation. But just because there’s only so much new to be learned from it hardly means exhibition play isn’t useful for confirming offseason talking points.

For Portland, that came in the form of a newfound emphasis on pace propelled by the addition of multiple capable ball handlers. Bazemore, ultra-disruptive in his Blazers debut with a whopping seven steals, routinely pushed the ball up the floor himself — even when playing with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Hezonja lived up to his teammates’ training-camp hype by mostly functioning as a true point forward. During his biggest and most exciting moment on the open floor, Hezonja went coast-to-coast off a defensive rebound before dumping the ball behind his head to Whiteside for a layup.

Lillard, McCollum, Anfernee Simons and even Bazemore all dribbled into pull-up jumpers after bringing the ball up the court without making a single pass.

The result was a blistering first-half pace of 112.0, nearly eight possessions more than the Atlanta Hawks’ league-leading average last season. That number suggests the Blazers were able to play fast, even with Collins and Whiteside on the floor. But a deeper dive into the advanced box score reveals that breakneck pace was owed almost solely to their second unit – especially notable given the struggles of the starters in the halfcourt.

Ignore the poor shooting for now as Portland may not play a half all season in which Lillard and McCollum combined to go 5-of-15 overall and 1-of-8 from beyond the arc. The Blazers don’t need to worry about their star backcourt misfiring on a few makable jumpers. Nonetheless, Lillard and McCollum could find it tough to find room to operate in the halfcourt when playing with Collins and Whiteside.

Like Al-Farouq Aminu in years past, defenses just won’t feel the need to guard Collins away from the ball when he’s spotted up from deep until he proves he’s a reliable three-point shooter. Making matters worse is the difficulty Whiteside has operating in a crowd, cue the video evidence:

Collins isn’t on the floor in the second clip, but Portland’s mucked-up spacing, with Hood in the dunker spot and the strong-side corner empty, make it a facsimile of what the Blazers can count on seeing this season while Collins and Whiteside are playing together. Neither is a good screener, either, with Collins hindered by his lack of girth and Whiteside’s longtime indifference to the finer points of basketball – which contributed to his demise as a building block for the Miami Heat – almost fully ingrained.

Those worries will be at least partially alleviated if Collins improves as a shooter. He sarcastically joked that he didn’t shoot any threes this summer at media day before describing all the work he put in and looked confident from range against Denver despite missing both of his attempts.

Collins’ three made jump shots from the right elbow area, meanwhile, serve as both an encouraging example of his natural perimeter touch and the spacing and efficiency pitfalls of playing him at power forward if he remains most comfortable from mid-range.

Reminder: It is far, far too early to write off the long-term viability of Collins and Whiteside as Portland’s starters in the frontcourt.

In any case, the Blazers are bound to get more comfortable offensively with them on the floor together given additional playing reps. Collins has never started at power forward before and Whiteside, as he loves to remind reporters, has never played in an offense that asks him to handle the ball on the perimeter.

But Portland certainly wouldn’t be the first team to stagger a pair of starters after the first and third quarters, and their new priority of increased pace clearly makes Hood, Hezonja or even Tolliver a better stylistic fit at power forward than Collins – before accounting for their superior ability to stretch the floor, too.

If the Trail Blazers want to remain true conference contenders, they’ll need to figure out their new on-court intricacies sooner rather than later — thankfully, the preseason is the perfect playground to do so.

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Five Breakout Players to Watch — Southeast Division

The Southeast Division is full of young, on-the-cusp players. A number of them could easily have breakout seasons in 2019-20, and that could have long-term implications on the division — and the entire league. Drew Maresca writes.

Drew Maresca

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The Southeast Division saw its fair share of new additions this offseason. And while there is less established talent within the division than there is in the Atlantic or Pacific, there is plenty of youth on the precipice of breaking out.

With the NBA season right around the corner, Basketball Insiders’ breakout players series is underway. With that in mind, let’s examine five players poised to have breakout years in the Southeast Division. We’ll skip past those that are mostly established; to say a guy like Trae Young, John Collins or Terry Rozier is “primed for a breakout year” is a stretch since the first two are no brainers and the latter already had his coming out party two seasons ago – albeit, with a good amount of regression last year.

Let’s instead focus on guys on the cusp on stardom who haven’t yet received national attention for their performances. And with that being said, we’ll jump in.

Miles Bridges – Charlotte Hornets

Bridges is dangerously close to stardom. He is a walking highlight reel and appears ready to take on a significantly larger role in the Hornets’ offense considering the loss of Kemba Walker in free agency.

But a few things are holding him back from reaching his fullest potential. The first is shooting. Bridges is a career 32.5 percent three-point shooter; however, he told reporters on Hornets Media Day that he aspires to shoot 38 percent from deep this season. In his preseason debut last Sunday, Bridges’ performance looked quite similar to his career average from beyond the arc (33.3 percent on three attempts), but he also notched an impressive 12 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes — in which time he posted a plus-8 in a Hornets’ loss. If Bridges can extrapolate that production across heavier minutes throughout the season, his 2019-20 campaign should be quite strong.

The second item holding Bridges back is defense. Historically, Bridges is viewed a capable but inconsistent defender. He is 6-foot-7 and 225 poundswith a 6-foot-9 wingspan. And he boasts an impressive (approximately) 40-inch vertical. Much of Bridges’ growth must come from an improved understanding of schemes and responsibilities. His on-ball defense was mostly fine (for a rookie), but he looked lost and relied on others to direct him too often last season. He posted a defensive rating of 112 and a defensive plus-minus of .5. For context, Hasaan Whiteside led the league in defensive rating with a 99.0 and Leonard posted a 105, while Rudy Gobert led the league in defensive plus-minus with 5.1 and Leonard posted a 0.7.

But it’s not like the Hornets’ coaching staff lacks confidence in Bridges’ defense. In fact, Bridges told reporters at media day that head coach James Borrego recently told him that he has the potential to become “a Kawhi-like defender” who can switch screens across all positions. If Bridges can grow into that a Leonard-like defender and improve on his three-point shooting, he will become a perennial All-Star and, possibly, a household name.

Justise Winslow – Miami HEAT

Expectations were pretty high for the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. So much so, that Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics allegedly offered six drafts picks — four of which were first-rounders— in exchange for the Hornets’ ninth overall pick with an eye on the Duke product. But the Hornets badly wanted Frank Kaminsky, leaving the HEAT with Winslow. Last season could almost, sort-of be considered a breakout year; Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists, and played even better than that from Dec. 8 and on after an injury to Goran Dragic opened the door for him to slide into the starting point guard role.

But if last season might be considered a semi-breakout season, 2019-20 will leave no doubt. Winslow is big and athletic, especially for a point guard (listed at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds). And after catching a bad rap regarding his long-range accuracy earlier in his career, he first improved his three-point percentage in 2017-18 (38 percent on 1.9 attempts per game) and then began shooting more at a very similar percentage last year (37.5 percent from three-point range on 3.9 attempts per game).

Winslow just needed a little more time to iron out the kinks in his game and the freedom to play on the perimeter – both of which he’s now had. Winslow told Basketball Insiders last April in the final game of the season that “playing a more natural perimeter position was a better fit for me more than small ball forward.” And now with Jimmy Butler on board in Miami, and another offseason in the books to work on the limited short comings he has left, he should get even more of the notoriety that he rightfully deserves.

Bam Adebayo – Miami HEAT

With Hassan Whiteside’s inclusion in the four-team, Jimmy Butler trade, a path has been cleared for Adebayo. Yes, the HEAT also returned Myers Leonard, but the HEAT appear poised to give the starting nod to Adebayo, so long as he doesn’t muck it up.

And Adebayo appears more than ready to take the challenge head-on. He already averages 13.2 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes through two professional seasons. And while he shot only 20 percent from three-point range last season, he shot very well from mostly everywhere else on the floor: 71.6 percent at the rim, 41.5 percent from 3-10 feet, 37.3 percent from 10-16 feet and 43.8 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line. If he can continue to stretch the floor to the mid-range (and maybe even beyond it ) he’ll open up lots of space for Butler, Winslow, Dragic and others.

And Adebayo embraces the expectations— exactly as he should.

“I wouldn’t consider it pressure,” Adebayo recently told the Miami Herald. “I would more consider it an opportunity, a big opportunity for that matter. And (I plan on) just going out there and just playing positive, staying positive and showing everybody what I can do.”

Jonathan Isaac – Orlando Magic

Isaac was drafted sixth overall in 2017. He hasn’t exactly met expectations, but there is still massive excitement around the 6-foot-10 forward in Orlando. In his second season in the league, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 43 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range — which jumped to 11.8 points and  6.2 rebounds across their final 31 games.

He put in some work with the great Tracy McGrady this offseason, which should result in at least some improvement, too. Furthermore, he is an above average (and versatile) defender whose length and instincts allow him to cover a wide range of opposing forwards and wings; Isaac finished 2018-19 ranked 17th in block percentage with an above average real defensive plus-minus of 1.02 (which is actually lower than what he posted in his rookie season). If Isaac can become a consistently above-average three-point shooter, he could enter All-Star discussions sooner than later.

Mo Bamba – Orlando Magic

Bamba was seen as the second or third best big man in the 2018 NBA Draft. Deandre Ayton mostly lived up to the hype. Unfortunately, the other two – Wendell Carter Jr. and Bamba – did not. In Bamba’s case, injuries and a loaded Orlando front court limited him to 16.3 minutes per game across only 47 games.

Still, his skill set is ideal for a modern center. The 7-foot-1 center has the potential to become a defensive force; he averaged 3 blocks per 36 minutes in his limited action last season. He shot only 55.5 percent on two-pointers and 30 percent on threes last seasons; however, the shooting range that caught scouts’ eyes has been on display in the early part of the preseason so far this year.

Bamba shot 3-for-5 from downtown on Monday night against the Pistons (posting 13 points, 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 16 minutes), and 7-for-11 from the field on Saturday (18 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks in 19 minutes). While Bamba has been a backup thus far this season, look for creative ways for the Magic to deploy him throughout the season – especially if he keeps performing as he’s done through two preseason games.

Honorable Mention: Markelle Fultz – Orlando Magic

Fultz is the unfortunate position of being written off as a bust by many, while still being seen for his potential by others. And to be fair, Fultz was a huge disappointment in Philadelphia – failing to deliver after being drafted before Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell will do that to a player. But the NBA loves a comeback story, and Fultz landed in a good spot to begin his with the Orlando Magic.

Fultz has done very little in 33 games across two seasons. He’s shot 26.7 percent from three-point range and only 53.4 from the free-throw line. But what’s more worrisome is his lack of confidence and the noticeable hitch he developed in both his set shot and free-throw shooting form. Rumors ran rampant about the cause of Fultz’s yips; but if three preseason games and an offseason workout video are to be trusted, he might be ready to rejoin the world as a successful basketball player.

Fultz’s shooting form looks much improved across the Magic’s first three preseasons games, and he appears more comfortable shooting the ball; while he’s missed all four three-pointers he’s attempted, he is at least 2-for-2 on free throw attempts. And while he’s missed his share of shots, he’s demonstrated confidence in launching it – which is probably the most encouraging sign yet. But he’s also flashed the athleticism and length that set him apart from other 2017 NBA Draft prospects, getting in passing lanes and pushing the ball up the floor on fast breaks. We obviously need to see more from Fultz before anointing him a contributor, but things are beginning to look up.

The bar is low for Fultz this season, and this writer believes that he’ll exceed most expectations. The Magic lack depth at point guard, so there is a real opportunity for him to earn minutes and contribute. And the Magic already picked up Fultz’s option for 2020-21; so if he plays well enough, he might even earn the starting spot for next year and beyond.

All six, except for Justise Winslow (23), are 22 years old or younger. Therefore, all still have lots of development ahead. All will also have the opportunity to contribute to their respective teams this season.

If they can do so effectively, all will carve out a spot in this league for years to come – and probably have their breakout season sooner than later.

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