The Atlantic Division in the NBA’s Eastern Conference was home to a good chunk of the league’s major changes this summer. Kyrie Irving jettisoned Boston to join division-rival Brooklyn along with Kevin Durant. In Philadelphia, both Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick left the franchise and were replaced by Josh Richardson and Al Horford. The Raptors also lost two key cogs in their championship run last season in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
This roster shakeup and uncertainty can be a ripe breeding ground for previously unproven players to cement themselves and burst onto the scene. The New York Knicks also have the luxury, if that is the right word, of giving big minutes and opportunities to young, unproven players that could be ready to breakout.
Whether it is becoming a key reserve for a contender or a starter for a lottery team, the Atlantic Division is sure to see some new faces in the spotlight this season. Here are six that could take that next step.
Dennis Smith Jr.
The third-year guard was sent to New York last season as a part of the Porzingis trade and should see heavy minutes on a lottery-bound Knicks team. Smith’s explosive athleticism elevates his ceiling and gives him the potential to be a very productive player with the right coaching.
There were some encouraging signs in Smith’s play in his short time in New York last season. He raised his shooting foul percentage to 10.3 percent in New York, a strong number that would rank in the 81st percent for his position. He also raised his assist percentage to nearly 33 percent, while dropping his turnover percentage to just under 13 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.
While Smith showed playmaking and slashing ability, he still will need to improve his shooting if he is going to take a leap this season. He shot only 32.2 percent overall from deep last season and 30 percent after joining the Knicks.
Smith will only be 22 this season, his third in the NBA. If he is able to inch towards league-average from beyond the arc, he could be poised for a breakout season.
The Knicks have another candidate for a big jump this season in second-year player Mitchell Robinson. Robinson, a seven-footer with endless arms, showed flashes of elite rim protection last season. He was the second-most prolific shot-blocker in the league last season, trailing only Myles Turner in that department.
Robinson also showed great finishing ability last season and operated as a lob threat in the pick and roll. He led the league in true shooting percentage last season at 69.2 percent, attempting nearly all of his shots in the immediate vicinity of the rim.
Robinson’s athleticism and length had him projected as a good finisher, but his defensive impact as a rookie was a surprise to even the most optimistic of Knicks fans. He did have his rookie flaws, such as his very high foul rate, but the overall impact he made around the rim is rare for a first-year player.
Now, with a season of experience under his belt, Robinson may be able to take that next step from promising defender to elite. He may also even further improve his pick-and-roll game with more understanding of timing and better chemistry with his teammates.
Musa was drafted by the Nets with the 29th overall pick in 2018, but rarely saw the court after suffering an injury early in the year. The Nets were very excited about drafting the Bosnian prospect, but the injury coupled with the immediate emergence of a solid Nets rotation saw Musa bouncing back and forth between the Nets and their G League affiliate for his rookie season.
With the roster turnover and Durant out for the season, Musa now has a golden opportunity to assert himself into the Nets’ rotation. Coming out of Cedevita, Musa was touted as a crafty playmaker and scorer. He signed with the Croatian team when he was only 16 years old and went on to win the EuroCup Rising Star Trophy in the 2017-18 campaign.
Musa got off to a nice start in 2019-20 with his first preseason appearance. He played 25 minutes off the bench and had a line of 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists. If Musa proves to be a consistent outside shooter and isn’t too much of a defensive liability, he could be a key bench piece for the Nets this season and beyond.
There were some who thought that last season would be Ojeleye’s breakout year, but his minutes were actually cut in half from 2017-18, as the forward struggled to find a consistent role.
This season, the Celtics frontcourt lacks the depth of years past with Al Horford, Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris no longer on the roster. Ojeleye has the opportunity to carve out a role as the team’s backup power forward.
Now in his third year, Ojeleye could take a leap on the defensive end. He has the size and foot speed to guard both threes and fours which could be a valuable skill for a Celtics team that is currently lacking in interior defense.
Ojeleye improving his stroke from outside would go a long way for his chances of seeing consistent minutes. He will particularly need to improve his shot from the corner, where he shot only 29 percent last season per Cleaning the Glass.
Ojeleye did show an ability last season to use his size to finish around the rim and draw fouls. With increased playing time and more experience, he could further develop his game on that side and become a very valuable piece in Boston this season.
The Raptors had a bittersweet summer, celebrating a championship while also mourning the loss of their superstar Kawhi Leonard. Luckily for Toronto, they have a wing in waiting who could somewhat fill that Leonard-sized hole in Anunoby.
Anunoby, like most of the Raptors’ rotation, is already a strong defender. His 7-foot-2 wingspan allows him to be a pest on the perimeter, and he figures to be a starter for this upcoming season.
Like most of the players on this list, Anunoby breaking out will come down to whether his offensive game can take a leap this season. Anunoby has been streaky from beyond the arc, shooting 33 percent from deep last season after a 37 percent campaign in his rookie year. He has only attempted about two per game in each of those seasons, so opposing defenses do not consider him a threat from outside.
His playmaking and ball-handling leave some to desired as well, as his turnover and assist percentages are both below-average for his position. Anunoby will be given chances at a larger offensive role this season, and he has the tools and the work ethic to take advantage.
The second-year guard had a harrowing rookie season. After breaking his foot in a summer workout, Smith had an allergic reaction to sesame seeds that left him hospitalized and on a feeding tube for multiple months.
Smith reportedly lost 40 pounds during the ordeal and missed nearly the entire season. Miraculously, he was able to put the weight mostly back on and appeared in six games for the Sixers at the end of the regular season.
After some roster shakeup, Smith will now compete for the spot of the backup wing on a Sixers team that will likely contend for a trip to The NBA Finals. Smith had an impressive Summer League, showing some of the athleticism that inspired Philadelphia to trade down and select the Texas Tech product.
Smith has also been standing out in training camp this season. Head coach Brett Brown commented specifically on the defense that Smith and rookie Matisse Thybulle were playing, while a few Sixers players commented on Smith’s athleticism and his shooting proficiency in their practices.
If these observations translate to the season, Smith could emerge as a valuable three-and-D reserve in the Sixers’ rotation.
Not all of these players will break out this season. In fact, there’s a chance that none of them will. With that said, each of these six will have an opportunity to see an increased role, and each has the tools to use that opportunity to make their presence felt in the league.
A few of these players could swing a playoff series with a breakout season, while others may simply play their way to a better contract. Either way, it will be exciting to watch.
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