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NBA Daily: Five Breakout Players To Watch — Southwest Division

Young point guards are the theme in the Southwest Division and whichever one breaks out this season could determine the West’s eighth seed, writes Douglas Farmer.

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Not too long ago, the Southwest Division was filled to the brim with title contenders and certain playoff teams. Only the Houston Rockets remain in those major categories as turnover has left the rest of the division balancing contention with rebuilding. That has the clear byproduct of introducing a bevy of new players into contributing roles, some of whom will inevitably yield unexpected contributions. Whether these teams are vying for a final playoff seed or working through the next step in a do-over, here are five candidates for a big-time breakout in 2019-20.

All week, Basketball Insiders has been covering the division’s biggest up-and-comers — so if you’re behind, fix that here. Or here. And maybe even here. OK, great, now that you’re all caught up, here are the Southwest Division’s best bets.

Danuel House, Houston Rockets

On a veteran-heavy roster, the sole exception could play a key role just a year after contentious contract negotiations cost him NBA playing time. When his time on a two-way contract ran its course, House refused to sign what he believed to be a below-market offer from the Rockets, instead headed back to the G-League. In time, Houston converted his contract and put off those negotiations into the summer, where House signed a three-year, $11.15 million deal.

To some degree, the Rockets did not have a choice. They need what House provides and that is shooting. In 39 NBA games last season, House made 41.6 percent of his three-pointers on 6.5 attempts per 36 minutes. Someone needs to provide spacing around James Harden and Russell Westbrook, while Houston does not have many other options aside from Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker. For those who may argue Austin Rivers can fill some of that role, remember he shot just 31.8 percent from deep last year.

House may or may not crack the Rockets’ starting lineup, but his offensive role is key to their success.

Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies

It feels like cheating to select a fresh lottery pick as a breakout player when a fifth-year veteran is about to get his first full-time opportunity after being repeatedly passed over for a prominent role at his previous stop. Without a doubt, rookie point guard Ja Morant will get all the run possibly needed to develop, but Jones will be Memphis’ backup point guard and sometimes the functional 2-guard.

Jones was a steadying influence with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but still garnered only 22.9 minutes per game last season — a year in which his 6.96-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio set an NBA record.

The Grizzlies already have their core of the future in Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. When they have chances to win, they will presumably do whatever it takes to do so, so having someone as efficient as Jones on hand to initiate the offense could prove invaluable. His distribution abilities should make the likes of Jackson, Brandon Clarke and Grayson Allen look good, furthering his benefit to this rebuild.

If nothing else, a fanbase that loved the Grit and Grind ethos will appreciate a workman like Jones, a contributor that’s more focused on aiding his teammates than getting his own buckets.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans Pelicans

It is conceivable the Pelicans drafted Alexander-Walker with the 17th pick without intentions of plugging him into a genuine role this season. They were in the midst of completing a spectacular offseason and, among their additions to the roster, Alexander-Walker warrants no higher than seventh billing. Nonetheless, New Orleans is almost certainly going to have to play the Canadian point guard. To date, he has removed any real choice in the matter.

At 6-foot-5, and a nearly a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Alexander-Walker will match up well defensively with nearly any other backup point guard. He may not score much right away — his cousin Shai Gilgeous-Alexander did not as a rookie last season — but by not being a defensive liability, he should remove any strong reason for head coach Alvin Gentry to keep him glued to the bench.

The Pelicans do not have many other backup point guard options. Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball will form a dynamic starting backcourt. Splitting them up too much will run contrary to New Orleans’ playoff aspirations. If Alexander-Walker can simply set up J.J. Redick and Josh Hart, he will be a worthy second-unit leader. Doing so on a fringe playoff team will earn Alexander-Walker widespread notice, perhaps to a point that we can do away with the extra keystrokes of his hyphenated last name and simply commit to NAW.

Lonnie Walker, San Antonio Spurs

When discussing second-year players on the verge of making an impact, Walker gets unfairly forgotten. That is to be expected after not making more than one field goal in any playoff game and appearing in only 17 regular-season contests as a rookie. That was not Walker’s fault, but the result of a preseason meniscus tear in the same knee that he injured in 2017.

If he had been healthy, Walker’s contributions last year probably would have been minimal, anyway. That is just how San Antonio tends to handle rookies. But the Spurs also work young players into the rotation with time, and Walker will likely force that issue as a possible 3-and-D wing of the future.

He shot only 5-of-13 from deep in the NBA, but in the G League — working his way back from rehab to parent club-ready in 28 games — Walker hit 36.6 percent from beyond the arc while notching 1.2 steals per game. The raw long-term skills are apparent and his ability to get to the rim will earn Walker playing time as those traits mature.

Jalen Brunson, Dallas Mavericks

Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle is notoriously reluctant to give too much control to his point guard and is just as known for limiting rookies’ roles. So it came as some surprise when he leaned so heavily on not only Luka Doncić last season, but also Brunson. Then again, Brunson spent as long leading Villanova as Doncić did playing professionally overseas — so both were more experienced than the average rookie is these days.

Obviously Doncić got the headlines, and that will not change, but Brunson’s job description should expand from 21.8 minutes per game. J.J. Barea may be recovering quickly from a January-torn Achilles, but there is a distinct difference between intrasquad scrimmages and regular-season action.

“I’m feeling better than I thought I was going to,” Barea said Monday. “I still got a way to go. But the more I play, the more I move, it gets better.”

As long as Barea is recovering — which, bluntly, could limit him to some extent well past the All-Star break, given the difficulty most players have finding explosiveness after an Achilles tear — Brunson will be Dallas’ No. 2 point guard and, oftentimes, Doncić’s backcourt partner.

Projecting what that role will bring statistics-wise is a difficult endeavor for a team ready to incorporate Kristaps Porzingis, but there is no reason to think Brunson will not build on his per-36 averages of 15.3 points and 5.2 assists as a rookie.

Ultimately, there is a reason four of these possible breakout players are point guards — and that is a reflection of how well run the Southwest Division is from top-to-bottom, frequently allowing young talent to handle the ball and involve teammates. The Rockets may be the only surefire playoff team in the mix in mid-October — but if these players step forward, the Pelicans, Spurs and Mavericks could start reaching for some postseason aspirations too — while Jones positions the Grizzlies for a quick rebuild and subsequent reentry into that conversation.

Contributing writer to Basketball Insiders, based in Minneapolis since 2017 with previous stops in Dallas and Los Angeles. Went 32-of-40 at the backyard free throw line this past Christmas. Twitter: @D_Farmer

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