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Poised To Breakout: Pacific Division

David Yapkowitz takes a look at which players and executives in the Pacific could have a breakout 2017-18 season.

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Updated 10 months ago on
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With the exception of the defending champion Golden State Warriors, the Pacific Division is in a state of transition. The Los Angeles Clippers will have to adjust to the loss of Chris Paul. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, and Sacramento Kings are all presumably years away from fielding a contending team. They each have a roster full of young talent that could potentially yield success sometime down the road.

The Warriors have a veteran team, and they just added more vets in Nick Young and Omri Casspi. The Clippers also are veteran laden and young players haven’t really received much playing time under Doc Rivers. But among the rebuilding teams, there are plenty of players looking to break out and take that next step. Here are a few of them.

Devin Booker – Phoenix Suns

Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, David Robinson, Elgin Baylor, Devin Booker. What do all those players have in common? They’ve all scored at least 70 points or more in a single game. The first four are all Hall of Famers, and with the exception of Baylor, champions. That’s some elite company to be part of. Booker joined that group when he dropped 70 points on the Celtics on Mar. 24.

Having just finished up his second season in the league, Booker scoring jumped from 13.8 points per game to 22.1. His field goal percentage stayed the same at 42.3 percent, but he did improve from the three-point line shooting 36.3 percent compared to 34.3 percent his rookie year. He’s emerged as a very deadly and talented scorer. He finished last season in the top 25 in the league in scoring, but look for him to climb the ladder even more.

Booker isn’t even one of the top ten highest paid players on the team, and yet he’s arguably their best player. The Suns have been mentioned as one of the teams possibly interested in trading for Kyrie Irving, but are unwilling to move Booker in a potential deal. They would be very wise to keep him at all costs. It’s not out of the question to think that Booker could vie for an All-Star spot next year. He may even have franchise caliber potential.

Julius Randle – Los Angeles Lakers

Although not always the case, young players with potential usually start to show signs of the player they could become in their third season. Randle was drafted in 2014 but suffered a season ending injury in the first game of the 2014-15 season. Technically, this upcoming year will be his third year.

Randle’s numbers have improved each year he’s been in the league. He didn’t see that much of a spike in scoring, going from 11.3 points per game to 13.2, but he became a much more efficient scorer. He shot 48.7 percent from the field this season, up from 42.9 percent the year before. While his rebounding went down to 8.6 from 10.2, he’s been developing into more of a point forward. His assist numbers went up from 1.8 to 3.6 per game.

The Lakers acquired Brook Lopez in a trade this offseason, but he’s pretty much a one-year rental as his contract expires next summer. Randle’s name was mentioned in trade rumors since the summer began as names such as Paul George and Jimmy Butler were floated around. He remains a Laker, however. He can become a restricted free agent next summer, and he will be looking to prove to the team that he should have a future with them.

Buddy Hield – Sacramento Kings

It was well documented after the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins that Hield was a player they had coveted for a while. One of the older players taken in the lottery, some predicted that Hield was the most NBA ready in the draft. It didn’t quite work out that way as he struggled during his first 57 games with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Hield did average 20.4 minutes per game and made 37 starts, but he shot only 39.3 percent from the field, including 36.9 percent from the three-point line, while averaging 8.6 points per game. Then the trade to Sacramento happened. Hield started 18 of the 25 games he played with the Kings and saw a big increase in production. In 29.1 minutes per game, he averaged 15.1 points while shooting 48 percent from the field and 42.8 percent from beyond the arc.

He should be the starting shooting guard for the Kings on opening night, but he’ll likely have rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic pushing him for playing time. He’ll get a full training camp with the Kings, and the opportunity to prove that the player he was in Sacramento is more who he is, rather than the player in New Orleans.

Brandon Ingram – Los Angeles Lakers

Perhaps the player with the most potential on the Lakers aside from Lonzo Ball, Ingram played in only one summer league game before suffering leg cramps that kept him out the rest of the summer. Throughout the first few months of the season, Ingram mostly came off the bench, tallying only 14 starts in the first 53 games.

It wasn’t until early February that Ingram became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup, and that’s when he really began to show real potential. In the 26 games from when he first became a starter on Feb. 6 until the end of the season, Ingram scored in double figures 18 times including a season-high 22 points against the San Antonio Spurs on Feb. 26.

Now having the responsibility of being a starter from the beginning of the season, and being able to play with a pass-first point guard like Ball, Ingram should see an increase in his numbers. Don’t be surprised if his name is possibly being mentioned in the Most Improved Player conversation.

Willie Cauley-Stein – Sacramento Kings

Like Hield, Cauley-Stein was another player that benefitted tremendously from the Cousins trade. Mostly a reserve his rookie year, Cauley-Stein also began this past season coming off the bench. It wasn’t until Cousins was traded that he was inserted into the starting lineup and he really took off.

After the All-Star break was when he became a regular in the starting lineup. Up to that point, he had only one double digit rebounding game in 57 games. In the last 25 games of the season, he had nine double digit rebounding outputs, and he scored in double digits in 19 of those games. His best game of the season came immediately after the trade on Feb. 23 when he had 29 points on 63.6 percent shooting, and 10 rebounds in a 16-point win over the Denver Nuggets.

He’ll be a starter right off the bat this upcoming season and he’ll look to prove that the finish to last season was no fluke. This will only be his third year in the league, he’s at the perfect age to be a part of the new young core the Kings are putting together. Sacramento may have just found their big man of the future.

Magic Johnson – Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers completely revamped their front office once the season ended. Gone are Jim Buss and longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak. In their place are Magic Johnson and former agent Rob Pelinka. Johnson wasted no time getting to work as he traded the former No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets.

The old regime, in signing Mozgov and Luol Deng to massive contracts last summer, was trying to make the team more competitive ahead of schedule. Rebuilding in the NBA can take some time. Where teams usually fall flat on their face is when they try to accelerate the process by bringing in a few overpriced veterans. Johnson doesn’t appear to be that sort of executive.

The Lakers added four rookies to the team this summer, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Thomas Bryant. That’s in addition to their already talented group of Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Ivica Zubac. Johnson has also managed to maintain cap space for next summer when superstars like Lebron James, Paul George, and Russell Westbrook hit the open market. If Johnson is able to get at least one of those stars to join this talented core, he may just be the right man to bring the Lakers back to prominence.

So while the Warriors will indeed run away with the division, there are some nice young teams and players to watch. As the Warriors set off into the sunset once their run of dominance is over, the young cores of the Kings, Lakers, and Suns might just be ready to pounce on the opportunity.

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David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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