As the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year, the Milwaukee Bucks clearly own the Central Division. That being said, finding a potential breakout player for them proved to be difficult compared to the other four teams in the division.
There are a lot of new parts and pieces in the division, and even some familiar faces on the other side of the fence. Malcolm Brogdon, Thaddeus Young, and former MVP Derrick Rose are just a few of the names wearing different uniforms in the Central. Aside from the top spot, the pecking order of the division will largely be decided by which players make a leap forward this season.
The winner of the Most Improved Player Award is a good gauge for this exercise. Four of the last seven winners of this award all came from a team in the Central Division. Victor Oladipo (Pacers), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Jimmy Butler (Bulls), and Paul George (Pacers) have all continued to thrive in their respective careers. Last year’s winner Pascal Siakam was arguably the second-best player on a championship-winning team.
Below are seven players from the Central Division that are destined to have a breakout year.
Markkanen is arguably the most likely breakout candidate within the Central Division. The 22-year old enters his third season with high expectations as one of the cornerstone pieces of the franchise. The Bulls have had horrible luck with injuries over the past few years, and Markkanen is no exception. The versatile big man missed 14 games in his rookie season and 32 games last year after missing the first couple of months of the season.
One major aspect of Markkanen’s game is the three-point shooting. The seven-footer shot 36 percent from deep in his rookie and sophomore seasons and is averaging 2.2 threes made per game thus far. That is the most among seven-footers by a comfortable margin (the next most is 1.5 attempts). Lauri had a strong stretch last season where he averaged at least 20 points and 9 rebounds in 11 consecutive games. If he can get on that same level, with stability from the players around him and head coach Jim Boylen, Markkanen could very well become an All-Star this season.
Wendell Carter Jr.
Should Carter have a breakout season, he will have to stay healthy. The 2018 seventh overall pick missed nearly half of his rookie campaign last year due to multiple injuries. He had surgery for a sports hernia in July and two more issues this summer. On the first day of training camp, he suffered a sprained ankle and a tailbone contusion. If the big man stays on the floor, there is no doubt he will be effective. In the 44 games he played, Carter averaged 10.3 points per game, 7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 0.6 steals.
While 44 games is a small sample size, Carter’s per 36 minutes statistics looked promising. Scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds are reasonable expectations for the 20-year old in his sophomore season. Carter should be a double-double machine for the young Bulls, especially with Markkanen on the perimeter. With Robin Lopez no longer in the fold, Chicago lacks serious depth at the center position. They desperately need to keep Carter healthy and conditioned if they want to make a run at the playoffs this season.
The last Pistons guard to score 20 points per game was Richard Hamilton in 2005-06. While that likely won’t happen for Kennard, he should step up his scoring output from his first two seasons. Should Kennard start this season, his offensive upside could be limited playing alongside Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and either Reggie Jackson or Derrick Rose. What if he were to take on a sixth-man role and be the offensive focal point of the second unit?
Bruce Brown could be a better fit with the starting group, utilizing his defensive skillset. During the regular season, Luke played just under 23 minutes per game. In the playoffs though, he led the team in minutes at more than 33 per game, resulting in a scoring average of 15 points per contest. Kennard has also shown that he can drive to the basket and create for others, which could raise his assist numbers and help Detroit return to the playoffs.
Brown started 56 games for Detroit as a rookie last season. That may come as a surprise until you realize how tenacious he is on the defensive end of the floor. Brown’s 1.6 Defensive Win Shares and 1.7 Defensive Box Plus-Minus ratings (per 36 minutes) from last season were impressive. Even outside of the raw numbers, you can visually notice his high defensive IQ by how he jumps the passing lanes and uses his quick hands to create loose balls. His length and strength are a lethal combination for a team that desperately needed a strong defender on the perimeter.
The determining factor for Brown breaking out this season will be what he can improve in his offensive game. He was a liability on that end of the floor last year, shooting a dreadful 25.8 percent from behind the arc. Most rookies struggle with that shot in their first season, though. They also tend to have problems finishing at the rim, which Brown did as well. His upside is very high, but it all depends on his ability to grow as an offensive player.
Turner broke out a fair amount last season, but this year figures to be the one where he really takes a big leap. The 23-year old has elite interior skills and can switch defensively on the perimeter. Couple that with his silky smooth jump shot and you have a serious weapon on your hands. Turner worked with Hall of Fame big man Kevin McHale to develop some interior post moves and fine-tune his decision making. He has had a problem with getting pushed around, so he worked on strengthening his core improving his lower body strength. If he can actually get to his spot, it will dramatically help Indiana’s offense.
After leading the league in blocks last season, Turner said he is still not content with his defensive skill set. Myles frequently fell for pump fakes and was often a half-a-step late on rotations. Being in the right spot at the right time is something that comes with experience. As he begins his fifth season, all eyes will be on Turner and fellow big man Domantas Sabonis. The two bigs nearly took home the Sixth Man and Defensive Player of the Year awards last season. If the duo can play well together, they could anchor the Pacers while Oladipo continues to rehab.
Four of Milwaukee’s starters are set in stone, but the question is who will start alongside Eric Bledsoe. It may very well be the 2017-18 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, but there is a lot of competition for the spot. Donte’s rookie campaign was cut short due to injury, so 27 games is a small sample size, but he did have the fifth-highest defensive rating among players with at least 20 games played.
Like most rookies, Donte struggled with his outside shot, shooting just 27 percent from beyond the arc and just 40 percent overall. While at Villanova, DiVincenzo shot 38 percent from three. He scored 31 points off the bench in the NCAA Championship game and could play a similar role this year if the starting job goes to Wes Matthews, George Hill, Kyle Korver, Pat Connaughton or Sterling Brown. It is a crowded backcourt in Milwaukee, but Donte could separate himself from the pack if he finds his three-point shot.
Sexton’s rookie season essentially felt like two different ones. The young point guard struggled for the first half of the season, but definitely found himself in the final few months. In his final 29 games, he averaged more than 21 points per game on 47 percent shooting. He also improved his long-range shooting, as he hit 42 percent of his shots from behind the arc. That was with Kevin Love on and off the floor, but the five-time All-Star is healthy and ready (for now) to lead this rebuilding effort. That should bode well for Sexton and rookie Darius Garland, giving them more space to operate and a reliable knock-down shooter they can pass to.
Cleveland surprised a lot of people when they decided to hire 66-year old John Beilein as their new head coach. This actually will be beneficial to Sexton and Garland, as they learn to share the ball and run the offense. If anyone understands how the ball screen offense works, it is the former Michigan coach. The role players will take turns in the spotlight throughout the season, but Sexton should be primed for a breakout season as long as Love can stay healthy – and he and Garland can learn how to play off of each other.
There are a handful of guys that are less likely to have a breakout season this year, but should show significant signs of improvement. Cleveland has a lot of young players, but one guy that has experience and some serious upside is Larry Nance Jr. In Detroit, Svi Mykhailiuk and Christian Wood are two young players to watch as the Pistons aim to take that next step.
The Pacers likely won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but one name you should familiarize yourself with is Edmond Sumner. Aaron Holiday is another guard in Indiana that could fill in quite nicely during Oladipo’s absence. Chicago’s new starting point guard Tomas Satoransky is likely to have a career-best season after three years as the backup in Washington.
That is how things might shake out in the Central Division. Make sure to get the full rundown on the Southwest Division tomorrow.
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