Arguably no division in basketball got a facelift this offseason quite like the Northwest Division. With the addition of superstars Jimmy Butler and Paul George, along with all-star forward Paul Millsap, the division is operating with much more star power than last season even with the departure of Gordon Hayward.
For all of the developed stars in the division — which there is certainly no shortage of — next season also becomes an opportunity for a few individuals to burst onto the scene and let the rest of the division know that they won’t be an afterthought. Every great player, coach, executive and team that is currently dominating the NBA had that first season where they caught everybody’s attention.
The Northwest Division isn’t short on candidates poised for a breakout year next season, so let’s dive in and see who could have the league buzzing come next fall.
Jusuf Nurkic — Portland Trail Blazers
Standing at 7-feet tall and hailing all the way from Bosnia, the Blazers struck gold in a midseason trade that landed them Nurkic.
After the Denver Nuggets’ front court seemed to be a bit crowded with Nurkic and fellow budding big man Nikola Jokic, the Mile High club shipped the 22-year-old Nurkic and a first-round pick to Portland for Mason Plumlee and a second rounder.
Talk about a steal.
In his 20 games with Portland last season, Nurkic played like a man possessed, turning in averages of 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. For the last quarter of the season, Nurkic became the true inside presence the Trail Blazers needed to change the dynamic of their ball club.
Now as next season rolls around, with a few games under his belt in Portland and the chemistry to boot, Nurkic should have no problem continuing his ascent as the third leg of the Blazers’ attack behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Expect the Bosnian Beast to be a big part of the Trail Blazers’ success next season.
Gary Harris — Denver Nuggets
Acquired by Denver in the same draft night deal that landed the Nuggets Nurkic as well, Harris still remains in the Mile High and is on the cusp of breaking through to the next level.
Last season Harris really took his game up a notch despite playing in just 57 games.
With the NBA evolving into a league dominated by two-way wing scorers, Harris fits the bill. Last season, the 22-year-old shooting guard connected on 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc on his way to averaging 14.9 points per game. Through just three seasons in the NBA, Harris has posted a positive Defensive Win Shares number each time.
As Harris gets more reps under his belt out in Denver and hopefully avoids the injury bug, the Nuggets look to be in possession of a very valuable piece of their core moving forward.
A full season with the efficiency Harris displayed last year should have the rest of the Northwest Division, and the league as a whole, perking their ears up to take notice of the shooting guard in Denver.
Donovan Mitchell — Utah Jazz
Yes, Mitchell is a rookie. Yes, he has no prior track record in the NBA to warrant this year being a “breakout” year. And yes, there’s a chance a team such as the Jazz, who will be vying for a playoff spot, won’t focus on getting a 20-year-old guard the touches he needs to burst onto the scene.
But I doubt the Louisville product cares about any of that.
Mitchell turned heads this summer for Utah by dominating almost any time he stepped on the court for a summer league game. While most Jazz fans were drying their eyes as Gordon Hayward packed up and moved east, the optimistic fans were taking notice of the 6-foot-3 guard with a 7-foot wingspan and a pretty jumper that their team traded up for on draft night.
At the next level, Mitchell has two quality traits that usually translate to any level of basketball given the player’s’ talent. Those two qualities, shooting and defense, just so happen to be Mitchell’s forte. And he did a lot of both during the summer league.
With Rudy Gobert in the middle and Ricky Rubio running the point out in Salt Lake City, Mitchell should have plenty of opportunities to pick his spots on the wing while opposing defenses are occupied with the 7-foot big man down low.
In a division full of stars, look for this rookie to start lighting it up for Utah as early as next season.
Jamal Murray — Denver Nuggets
After Harris, you don’t have to look too far on the Nuggets’ roster to find another player poised to breakout next season.
During an up and down rookie season, Murray showed flashes of the potential that got him drafted seventh overall. Following the All-Star break, Murray saw his scoring average jump to 12.1 points per game in 25 minutes of play. Along with the scoring bump, his true shooting percentage registered at 53 percent.
While the Nuggets seem to have a bevy of scoring guards on the roster, none possess the raw potential of Murray, who, by the way, is still just 20 years old.
Asking a teenage lottery pick to put up lights out numbers in their rookie year is usually an unfair request. And in Murray’s case, he struggled as most rookies do. But with the wealth of talent around him and the big man duo of Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap, the Canadian, who still isn’t even legally allowed to drink, should be sitting pretty next season in terms of ramping up his production.
Kentucky Wildcat guards have a pretty good track record in the NBA. Expect Murray to carve his name into that list next season.
Ok, so technically this isn’t one particular individual. But after the offseason the Wolves just had, along with the players they already had on the roster, plus the fact that they’ve won a Northwest Division title just ONE time, it would be irresponsible to leave them off of this list.
Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jeff Teague. 80 percent of Minnesota’s starting lineup consists of high-caliber players. Two of which have already been All-Stars, while the other two are sitting on probably 10 All-Star appearances a piece by the time they call it quits.
Tom Thibodeau made the moves this offseason to put the best players possible around his two budding young stars in order for them to take that next step. Bringing in Butler allows Wiggins to not have to assume such a vocal leadership role, letting him focus on getting buckets and playing defense. A proven point guard like Teague who can actually shoot the ball opens up the floor for the wing players, as well as creates space down low for Towns.
All in all, this Timberwolves team has the makings of the best club the town has seen since Kevin Garnett was roaming the floor back in his prime.
If there is anyone poised to breakout in the Northwest Division, it’s the entire Minnesota ball club. And by midseason, the rest of the league will be realizing this as well.
Sam Presti — Oklahoma City Thunder
How exactly can a guy who drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and traded for Paul George be in a position for a “breakout” year? Well, because up until now, two of those guys are gone, while the future of the other two hangs heavily in the balance for Presti and the Thunder.
But this year is where Presti turns the corner in his ability to actually keep elite talent in Oklahoma City.
By pairing last season’s MVP with George, Presti gives Westbrook another star and a reason to believe in his abilities to make the Thunder a legitimate contender. On the flip side, giving George a taste of what it’s like to play alongside one of the league’s best players for the first time in his career could get him to throw all of his Los Angeles dreams away and ink up for a long-term deal with the Thunder.
Bringing stars to a team is one thing. And Presti has been extremely successful in identifying and acquiring talents such as those. But keeping them around is a whole different ball game, and until now, Presti’s batting average in that category doesn’t look too hot.
If the Thunder can compete with the big dogs of the league, Presti just may be to sprinkle some of his magic on Westbrook and George, effectively keeping two top-10 players in Thunder uniforms once again.
As the upcoming NBA season gets closer by the day, more and more interest is paid to the Northwest Division. With a healthy amount of star power and developing storylines oozing throughout that realm of the league, all eyes will be closely fixated on how things play out for these particular players, executives, and teams.
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