NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Central Division
With LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Central Division will be looking for a few players to break out and make a name for themselves in 2018-19 — here are Ben Nadeau’s top six candidates.
While the Central Division likely won’t feature any of the Eastern Conference’s biggest powerhouses, there are plenty of franchises here with postseason aspirations. In order for those teams to rebuild or reach new heights, they’ll need a cast of different characters to ascend into bigger, more important roles. Out in Indiana and Milwaukee, two darkhorse contenders, it’ll take more than just Tyreke Evans and Brook Lopez in order to challenge the likes of Gordon Hayward and Joel Embiid — but who fits the bill?
For Detroit and Chicago, the pressure will be on to avoid a lottery-bound fate once more by leaning on two up-and-comers — no matter the massive difference in their contracts. But Cleveland will undoubtedly have the toughest task of all: Replacing LeBron James. With each franchise staring down a difficult benchmark, breakouts must come in all shapes and sizes, by veterans, new arrivals and budding stars alike — so what will this season bring?
Whether through an opening in the rotation or an offseason acquisition, these are six of the Central Division’s strongest candidates to leave a lasting mark in 2018-19.
Bobby Portis — Chicago Bulls
The Bulls’ fourth-year man is a solid, if not unspectacular, contributor whenever he gets regular playtime. Last year, Portis suffered an immediate setback following his preseason scuffle with former teammate Nikola Mirotic, but he bounced back stronger than ever. The forward made good on his uptick in minutes and nearly posted career numbers across the board thanks to his relentless motor and desire to compete. Averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 47.1 percent from the floor, Portis frequently excelled as a change of pace rebounder off the bench.
This season, he’ll have an even bigger opportunity to shine. With Lauri Markkanen sidelined until November at the earliest, it looks like Portis will earn significant minutes and maybe even a legitimate shot at the starting power forward position. In his first start of the preseason on Wednesday, Portis dropped 20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in just 21 minutes. If he comes off the bench, Portis could become an underrated Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But even if he just starts until Markannen’s return, he’ll be well on his way toward earning a lucrative offer sheet in restricted free agency next summer.*
*Portis is eligible to sign an extension until Oct. 15
Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls
For a hot minute, it looked like Zach LaVine might end up in Sacramento during his own trip to the restricted free agency pool this summer. Ultimately, he’s staying in Chicago to the tune of $78 million over the next four years — which, officially, will put the pressure of an entire franchise squarely on his shoulders. Naturally, the high-flyer will not be alone, joined once again by Kris Dunn, the aforementioned Portis and Markkanan, plus newcomers Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr., but LaVine will deservedly receive grander-than-ever expectations.
He struggled after returning from his torn ACL in January — but before he got injured, LaVine was on the cusp of a breakout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Through 47 games in 2016-17, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.9 percent from the floor. With all that in the rearview mirror — the injury, the trade, the contract — LaVine will have a clear path forward for the first time in years. Certainly, LaVine’s defense still needs work, but given the Bulls’ presumed fate outside of the postseason and their unproven collection of talents, there’s a stellar chance that the hyper-athletic scorer will make his big leap now that he’s back at full health.
Pat Connaughton — Milwaukee Bucks
By far, Pat Connaughton has the least spectacular case on this page — but when the opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to ignore the call.
Connaughton played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.4 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists on 42.3 percent from the field — all career-bests. Of course, those 18.1 minutes per game came behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the league’s best backcourt duos. After the Trail Blazers did not extend his qualifying offer, Connaughton was free to explore other destinations, eventually signing with the Bucks for two years and $3.4 million. For the Bucks, he’ll likely join rookie Donte DiVincenzo as the backup guards, looking to space the floor at the perimeter and set up his teammates.
Of note, Connaughton played 20-plus minutes in 37 contests and exceeded his points per game total in 25 of them. It’s a somewhat basic lens through which to examine Connaughton’s impact, but when he gets the minutes, he typically rises to the occasion. Connaughton has some serious bounce and playmaking skills that should fit seamlessly with Milwaukee’s long, athletic rotation immediately. The fourth-year professional even has some experience at small forward as well — so if he can facilitate for others, hit some open three-pointers and scrappily defend, this will be Connaughton’s best season yet.
Luke Kennard — Detroit Pistons
After an up-and-down rookie season, there are lofty expectations brewing for Luke Kennard as he heads into his follow-up campaign. At first, there was some disappointment that the sweet-shooting lefty was picked ahead of Donovan Mitchell, but as the season went on, the Detroit faithful grew fond of the former Blue Devil’s nuanced play style. Over the final 19 contests of the year, Kennard averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, even reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those games. Assuming that his role grows under the tutelage of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, Kennard could be a standout sophomore in 2018-19.
Even craftier, the Pistons had planned to use Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee tempered those expectations for now. Kennard can play three positions, flexible enough to compete on both offense and defense already. His potential from three-point range is not without merit either, as Kennard averaged 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from deep during his final season in college, marking him as one of Division-I’s most elite shooters. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, it looks like we’re just scratching the surface on Kennard’s budding future.
Doug McDermott — Indiana Pacers
Perhaps the most interesting case on the list is that of Doug McDermott.
Dangerously close to joining the rank of journeyman, McDermott landed a three-year deal worth $22 million in July — a contract that left many onlookers initially puzzled. But now that he’s there and entrenched in the Pacers’ preseason rotation, it’s clear what type of impact he might bring off the bench. Although Indiana will be McDermott’s fifth team since he was drafted in 2014, he’s excelled as an above average three-point shooter thus far. Sporting a career tally of 1.1 three-pointers per game on 40.3 percent, he could fill a serious void for the Pacers if they let him loose.
Between New York and Dallas last season, McDermott had 26 multi-three-pointer outings, including a blistering 5-for-7 effort against the Clippers in November. Admittedly, he’s not really a consistent contributor anywhere else, but the recent long-range renaissance means that there will always be room in the NBA for a sharpshooter like McDermott. Most importantly, then, is Indiana’s desperate need for not just bench three-point marksmanship, but shooting in general. In 2017-18, the Pacers only made nine three-pointers per game (their bench contributed a woeful total of 2.4), which left them tied for the fifth-worst mark in the entire league.
Even if McDermott doesn’t see a major uptick in volume, he’ll join the Pacers as their fourth-best three-point shooter at the very worst, only trailing Darren Collison (1.4), Bojan Bogdanovic (1.9) and Victor Oladipo (2.1) from deep. His track record may not be exhilarating on just numbers alone, but given his above-average percentages and his forthcoming opening, this may be McDermott’s biggest chance to breakout yet.
Cedi Osman — Cleveland Cavaliers
Everybody loves Cedi Osman.
Not much was expected of the 23-year-old when he joined the Cavaliers last season as an end-of-bench piece. But as the season grew longer, Osman got an honest shot at the rotation and he made the most of his unexpected fortuity. From February on, Osman tallied five or more points in 13 of his 22 appearances, even reaching double digits in six of them. During an uneventful win against the Atlanta Hawks, Osman notched 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two three-pointers over 38 minutes — more or less, the kid can play.
Everywhere you look, the people surrounding Osman can’t stop gushing about his love for the game, his desire to get better and the impact he may have this season. During his two Las Vegas Summer League contests, Osman exploded for 20 points, eight rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and one block per game — a salivating preview most definitely. Although the team is undoubtedly Kevin Love’s now, he’ll need some backup and Osman — a grinder, slasher and do-it-all-glue-guy — has the skill-set to take a leap in 2018-19 and beyond.
Needless to say, there are some intriguing storylines developing in a freshly LeBron-less landscape. Can the mid-tier teams join the conference’s current royalty? Can the division’s two lottery members reach the postseason conversation? Surely, if anything, the Cavaliers won’t make their fifth straight NBA Finals — but can the efforts of Osman keep them from falling out of the playoff race completely? Answers will come sooner rather than later, but all these teams will need some breakout players to help lead the way this season.
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