The fifth installment of our division-by-division breakout series hones in on the Southeast. There wasn’t too much change aside from one big trade, but there was an outgoing movement that should allow players and coaches to step in and make an impact.
Here are six candidates to keep an eye on down there.
Aaron Gordon – Orlando Magic
One year can make a huge difference for a budding star.
Last summer, when Serge Ibaka came to town through a blockbuster trade by then-general manager Rob Hennigan, it was unknown what Gordon’s role was going to be. First-year Magic head coach Frank Vogel tinkered with his lineups as the team’s dreadful season dragged along.
It wasn’t the best for Gordon and his development to be slotted at small forward while Ibaka manned the four. There’s always the argument that he’s a “tweener,” but his jump shot just wasn’t good enough to be a reliable consistent threat on a nightly basis.
As soon as Orlando shipped Ibaka to Toronto, Gordon’s position opened up and he took advantage. Over the final 25 games of the season, he averaged 16.2 points and 6.2 rebounds with his true shooting at 57.8 percent. The 21-year-old also had the Magic’s second-best offensive rating (108.8) during this stretch.
With the way Gordon finished out last year and an influx of better young talent starting to surround him, it’s foolish to think he can’t build on that moving forward. If he can work on the outside game, be more aggressive and crash the glass a little bit harder, flashy dunks won’t be the only reason people know his name.
Dennis Schroder – Atlanta Hawks
2016-17 was a season to remember for the talented German point guard. Jeff Teague was moved to the Indiana Pacers before things got started and it meant it was Schroder’s turn to shine.
He did just that by putting up career highs all across the board headed into the postseason. In his first playoff series as a starter, Schroder led the way with 24.7 points and dished out nearly eight assists per game. He cashed in on 42.5 percent of his threes and went 83.8 percent at the free throw line.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, Schroder efforts weren’t enough and it resulted in a first round exit. The biggest question with Schroder is his consistency. However, the strengths of his game are too much to let that overshadow the kind of player Mike Budenholzer has.
Paul Millsap’s gone. Tim Hardaway’s gone. Schroder is going to be depended on to keep this inexperienced Atlanta ball club afloat, though they likely won’t be even near the playoff picture when all is said and done. Regardless of that, it’ll be another opportunity for him to establish a bigger case as one of the NBA’s best young players.
Erik Spoelstra – Miami Heat
Had his team squeaked into the postseason, Spoelstra could have honestly won Coach of the Year. It was a remarkable effort by the Heat to keep grinding until the literal end to earn a .500 record after an 11-30 start. Despite all of the injuries, the team simply didn’t quit, and that’s a testament to its leader.
Coming into this year, Miami has kept the key pieces of the band together. Dion Waiters is back on a big contract. James Johnson earned a well-deserved payday that has eluded him for his entire career. Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside will continue to be one of the top inside-out tandems in the league. Pat Riley decided to bring Kelly Olynyk along as well. Though for an expensive price, he’ll offer versatility they didn’t have before.
As long as they don’t get banged up too badly, Spoelstra has a chance to take the Heat back to the playoffs with a roster in which each player loves one another. It’s a tight-knit group with a great mix of veteran and young talent, which—combined with a coach like him—is a definite recipe for success.
Steve Clifford – Charlotte Hornets
Reuniting with one of his most successful pupils from the past, Clifford finally has a proven big man to pair with his superstar point guard, Kemba Walker.
As stated last week, Dwight Howard has a lot left in the tank to give the Hornets a reliable post threat and help with rim protection. As one of the most underrated all-around players in the game today, Nicolas Batum hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down when healthy.
Defensively, Charlotte should be one of the most difficult teams to play against. On the other side of things, the scoring should come naturally after getting stops and wearing down the opposition. Toughness will be a huge factor in the ball club’s quest for the playoffs, and if Clifford gets that out of his guys, they’ll reach their goal.
Kelly Oubre – Washington Wizards
The former Kansas Jayhawk’s minutes were doubled in year two and the progress in his game was evident. There were multiple moments in the postseason where he stepped up and gave the Wizards a boost off the bench.
Expect Oubre’s playing time to increase even more. Along with newcomers Tim Frazier and Mike Scott, as well as mainstay Jason Smith, Washington’s depth is all of a sudden a newfound strength.
Since Bojan Bogdanovic jumped over to the Indiana Pacers, it’s full speed ahead for the young wing to become the anchor of the second unit.
Taurean Prince – Atlanta Hawks
Opportunity is knocking for the youth starving for chances in Atlanta. Prince is one of those players who wants to prove he has what it takes to be a starting forward in this league.
Coach Bud gave him the reigns in the playoffs against the Wizards last year and he took full advantage. That experience there, and the hunger to prove the doubters wrong about a rebuild should bode well for Prince in his sophomore season.
For both teams in contention and those at the bottom of the barrel, there will be a platform for young players to show off their skills. The Southeast Division has plenty of potential and it’ll be fun to witness newer faces carrying the torches next year.
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