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Six Breakout Players To Watch – Atlantic Division

The Atlantic Division is chock-full of star players. But behind those talented athletes are a handful of guys looking to have a breakout season. Jordan Hicks takes a dive into some of those names.

Jordan Hicks

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The Atlantic Division in the Eastern Conference is going to be an outright bloodbath. For one, it features the top three teams in the conference, and arguably the only three teams from the East with a prayer to compete in the Finals. The Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers all have plenty of talent to make a push through the playoffs, and before the start of the season, the first seed could really belong to any of them.

The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets are both bottom-feeders in the conference but have spent the last couple of seasons building their respective rosters through free agency and the draft. In the weak Eastern Conference, both teams have a justifiable shot at a postseason berth.

Let’s take a look at six players throughout the division that will have the opportunity to make noise for their team. Whether it be as a scoring threat, a defensive savant or a playmaking expert, these breakout candidates are sure to make an impact this upcoming season.

Semi Ojeleye – Boston Celtics

When factoring in his size, Semi Ojeleye could be the most athletic player on this roster. Standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing in at 240 pounds, Semi moves fluidly on the court, both in outright speed and sliding defensively. Thanks in part to his combination of size and speed, he is able to guard multiple positions on the floor. He played this defensive role admirably coming off the bench for the Celtics in his rookie year.

Semi’s issues came on the offensive side of the floor. Playing over 15 minutes per game, he put up a measly 2.7 points on 34.6 percent shooting. His play during the Las Vegas Summer League was highly encouraging for his offensive play this upcoming season. He averaged 12.4 points on 42.6 percent shooting while playing roughly 28 minutes a game. While only shooting 33.3 percent from three, he attempted more three-pointers than any other player on the summer league roster, showing that the coaches have faith in his long-ball as well.

Shabazz Napier – Brooklyn Nets

Shabazz is now playing for his fourth team while entering his fifth season in the league. He saw stints in both Miami and Orlando before finding a solid role with Portland. Signing with Brooklyn in the offseason, Napier is coming off his best statistical season in the NBA. He averaged 8.7 points per game on 20.7 minutes off the bench. He is a proven scorer that can handle the ball and score at an efficient mark.

While he may be fighting for minutes early – he is currently the third point guard on the roster – his ability to score will naturally get him more playing time. Playing behind one of the best scoring duos in the NBA in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum likely prevented Shabazz from seeing the floor more often and could have affected his development. Joining a Nets roster that desperately needs scoring off the bench, Shabazz could break out and average double-digit scoring.

Mario Hezonja – New York Knicks

Mario is entering his first season with the Knicks after signing a 1-year, $6.5 million deal in free agency. Originally a top-five pick in the 2015 NBA draft, Mario didn’t develop as quickly as the Orlando Magic would have liked, so they decided to let him walk in free agency. Regardless of what the Magic thought of his production, his per-36 minutes splits this last season were impressive. He averaged 15.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.3 assists on 44.2 percent shooting.

Hezonja has plenty of length in today’s NBA; this allows him to seamlessly guard multiple positions on the defensive end. His three-point shot hasn’t quite caught fire, but he has enough to work with to eventually become an efficient marksman from downtown. As his shooting ability and defensive instincts continue to progress, look for Mario to make a big impact early with Kristaps Porzingis out to start the season. David Fizdale is one of the better coaches in the business and his expertise should be enough to push Mario to the next level of his game. As his game develops, Hezonja will morph into a true weapon in today’s era of “positionless” basketball.

Markelle Fultz – Philadelphia 76ers

This candidate should come as no surprise. Markelle Fultz was the number one selection in last year’s draft for a reason. He was a highly capable scorer and facilitator at the NCAA level and was, unfortunately, sidelined due to injury for most of the season. A lot of his game is still developing. His shooting, which has taken many forms throughout the last year, seems to finally be coming around. But what we saw at the end of the season looked very promising. For starters, Fultz became the youngest player in the history of the game to record a triple-double, pouring in 13 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in the 76ers’ final game of the season.

Fultz still has a ways to go, but by no indication can he be written off. As his health continues to come around, look at him to make a huge impact for Philadelphia coming off the bench. There’s a reason he was the number one pick in the draft and he’s going to prove that this season.

Furkan Korkmaz – Philadelphia 76ers

Originally drafted by the 76ers back in 2016, he was a draft-and-stash player who spent a year in Europe before signing with the 76ers in 2017. He spent much of his rookie season in the G-League and saw limited time with the 76ers – but he looks to make a jump this season. The first reason is due to his stellar play in the 2018 NBA Summer League. On the first day against the Boston Celtics, he put up a blistering 40 points, thanks in part to shooting 8 of 14 from three. The second highest scorer in the game had 16. He shot confidently, found open spots, and knocked down buckets with ease. It was a very impressive performance from a 21-year-old.

The impressive play didn’t just stop there. Four games into this year’s edition of the preseason, Furkan is putting up 10.3 points per game on 62.5 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from three. He’s doing that in only 12.4 minutes per game. The 76ers have a very impressive starting five, but Furkan will surely add quite the scoring threat coming off the bench.

Pascal Siakam – Toronto Raptors

Siakam was a large part of the reserves’ success for the Toronto Raptors last season. His presence on the floor from a defensive standpoint is impressive. His frame at 6-foot-9 is impressive but his wingspan of 7-foot-3 makes him a highly versatile piece. He’s athletic enough to guard multiple positions and his defensive IQ always has him in the right spots.

While his effect isn’t as strong on the offensive end, he still averaged 7.3 points per game last season on roughly 50 percent shooting. Now entering his third year in the league, Siakam looks to make a huge impact for the Raptor’s bench unit. With Jakob Poeltl gone to the Spurs, Siakam will have to anchor the second team defensively. He’s shown major strides in his young career up to this point, so he looks to make the Raptor’s bench one of the most feared backup units in the league.

Like I previously mentioned, the Atlantic Division is going to be one of the toughest divisions in the league this year. In order for a team to rise to the top, they’ll need a lesser-known player or two on their roster to rise to the occasion and have a true breakout season. As you can see from the players listed, each of these potential candidates has a case as to why they’ll stand out. In order for their team to find success throughout the year – especially within the division – they’ll need to showcase their specific skills and prove that they can produce at a high level.

Jordan Hicks is an NBA writer based out of Salt Lake City. He is a former college athlete and varsity sports official. Find him on Twitter @JordanHicksNBA.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Cleveland Cavaliers

Spencer Davies opens Basketball Insiders team-by-team “Grading The Offseason” series with an overview of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Spencer Davies

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On Monday night in Las Vegas, the 2019 NBA Summer League champions will be crowned. The Minnesota Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies are set to square off at the Thomas & Mack Center as the last teams standing over the course of the 10-day period.

Once that winner is determined, the world will be without NBA basketball for quite some time. Though the FIBA World Cup will be fun to watch, it’s not until late September that the association returns for training camp.

In order to hold you over until that date, Basketball Insiders has begun a “Grading The Offseason” series, featuring in-depth analysis on how each franchise has done during this wild summer.

To start things off, we’re going to break down arguably the quietest team of them all regarding roster turnover—the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Overview

It’s no secret that, on the floor, the season didn’t go quite as expected. Following the second departure of LeBron James, the organization felt it had enough remnants of the conference championship team to move forward and compete while developing young talent under head coach Tyronn Lue. A detrimental injury to Kevin Love changed that quickly.

Lue was fired six games into the 2018-19 campaign and then the wheels fell off pretty quickly. Top assistant Larry Drew pushed for a raise to take the interim role, due to the mixed bag inside of the locker room, and he was granted one. But as the losses piled up, the internal battle between the veterans and the younger players grew. Most of the criticism shaded toward upstart rookie Collin Sexton, yet he later proved what he was capable of to some of those teammates later down the road.

There were bright spots when Love re-entered the picture around February and played until late March, as he helped steer the inexperienced youngsters like Sexton, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic in the direction of winning basketball. When all was said and done, the final record was ugly. However, the energy surrounding the group was clearly in a much more positive light than it had been beforehand.

What shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle is the job Cavaliers’ general manager Koby Altman and his staff did to revamp the team’s salary cap situation. Entering the year with inflated contracts, via veterans that didn’t want to sit through a rebuild, moves had to be made to tighten up the locker room and lower the cap a significant amount. Ultimately, they were successful in doing so.

Cleveland was able to move Kyle Korver, George Hill, Sam Dekker, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks (acquired in the Korver trade) and turned that into Brandon Knight, Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Nik Stauskas and a boatload of future draft picks. Altman’s been in asset accumulation mode since he took over during LeBron’s last season, and he’s done wonders with the opportunity to chop down those loud figures on the cap sheet, even adding future capital in the process.

Not only has Altman done a great job in obtaining that, but he’s also turned “good” into “great” often—i.e. turning Korver into Burks which he then flipped for a 2019 first-round pick, using the second-rounders to acquire another first-round pick. Even landing Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson at the 2018 trade deadline to kickstart a new direction was impressive.

Offseason

After parting ways with Drew at season’s end, the Cavaliers set a new course with the hiring of John Beilein in mid-May. Over the span of these past few months, he’s constructed a fresh coaching staff with former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff as his associate, University of California women’s head coach Lindsay Gottlieb and five-year Utah Jazz assistant Antonio Lang in complementary roles.

Beilein’s graduate assistant at Michigan, Jay Shunnar, is also a part of the staff. Team favorites Mike Gerrity and Dan Geriot are staying on as well to continue developing the players they’ve worked with.

All in all, the people assembled to take on this task of changing a culture are entrenched in teaching and doing hands-on work. It’s the on-court product with an extremely inexperienced group of coaches—three of which are coming from the collegiate level—that could be a challenge.  Luckily, the process seems to be about a collective group with an open-mindedness that won’t allow for egos to get in the way.

Despite the lottery results going south (Cleveland had the second-best odds in the top three and dropped to five), draft night was a smashing success for the organization. The wine and gold came out with a trio of highly touted rookies—Darius Garland, Dylan Windler and, after trades were officially cleared, Kevin Porter Jr. Adding talents to the roster was the top priority for the front office — today, that stands as the most noise from what’s been a mostly silent offseason.

With a lack of roster spots and an understanding that there would be little money to spend in a chaotic, competitive free-agent market, the Cavaliers have had to stand pat with what they have. JR Smith’s contract had reportedly fielded some offers between NBA Draft Combine time and around the draft, but the team didn’t like the idea of taking back a bad contract. Instead, they found an easier way to get a third pick in the 2019 first round by using the plethora of second-rounders acquired in the past to flip for Porter.

Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com reported Monday that Cleveland plans on waiving and stretching Smith’s contract for $1.4 million each over the next three years. The move will allow the team to stay under the luxury tax, avoid the repeater tax penalty and also provides a full mid-level exception amount at its disposal. Fedor does mention the front office won’t likely use it heading into the season to remain flexible financially and to keep a roster spot open.

Smith not being traded came as a surprise to many, especially knowing the salary relief his previously-grandfathered CBA deal offered to a team searching to clear space for a big free agency offer. The summer moved fast, though, and other franchises with similar predicaments acted quickly. The Cavaliers could’ve facilitated a few trades to get more future draft assets in return, but they didn’t feel like taking on an albatross contract that would’ve been worth paying the extra tax this upcoming season.

The only other real decision to make was whether or not to retain David Nwaba, who, when healthy, displayed flashes of defensive excellence and aggressiveness on the offensive end, Cleveland did not extend the qualifying offer to Nwaba before the deadline, making him an unrestricted free agent. He recently signed with the Brooklyn Nets on a two-year deal.

This move was not so surprising as Basketball Insiders reported at the beginning of June that Nwaba’s representation would be looking for a multi-year deal. A league source said that last summer’s one-year agreement between the Cavaliers and Nwaba was with the understanding that he’d be strictly looking for a newly re-structured multi-year contract with no qualifying offer in his 2019 plans.

The latest addition the franchise made was inking Dean Wade, an undrafted rookie from Kansas State, to a two-way contract. He played in five NBA Summer League games for the organization between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

PLAYERS IN: Darius Garland, Dylan Windler, Kevin Porter Jr., Dean Wade (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: JR Smith, Marquese Chriss, David Nwaba, Channing Frye

What’s Next

Following the waiving of Smith, the Cavaliers roster will be at 13 players. You’d imagine they wouldn’t keep two roster spots open, so seeing a free agent signing or even nabbing a player from a summer league team could be in the cards.

Per Fedor, the franchise will be above the $109 million salary cap by $22 million once the Smith news is made official by the team. It’s a much healthier number than they’ve been at in years past — so, going into next summer, that cap sheet is going to be as clean as it’s been in quite some time.

Cleveland is going to have numerous attractive contracts on its hands as five players on the roster are on deals set to expire following this year. Tristan Thompson ($18.5 million), Brandon Knight ($15.6 million), Jordan Clarkson ($13.4 million), John Henson ($9.7 million) and Matthew Dellavedova ($9.6 million) are all trade chips that Altman can move to stockpile the future even more. Depending on what offers come their way, it could be yet another busy season regarding roster turnover.

There’s plenty of speculation that the team should trade Love to a contender to both satisfy the player and allow the team to get out of his sizable deal. What people are forgetting is that the Cavaliers want to have a championship-caliber player in the locker room as a guiding voice. Remember, this team has one person that is at least the age of 30, and it is the All-Star big man. The next guys up are 28 years old—Henson, Dellavedova and Thompson—and who knows how long they’ll be around.

Cleveland will have to be blown away to take back what it thinks it should receive in return for Love. No deal will be made just to make a deal. The organization values him too much as a person and a player.

On the court, the focus is going to be on player development, mainly in watching how Sexton and Garland play off one another. Different looks and combinations with the frontcourt of Love, Nance Jr., Zizic, Windler and Osman will be available for Beilein to tinker with. A new coaching staff with a freshly enthused group of players should be intriguing to watch.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C-

Stay tuned to the rest of Basketball Insiders “Grading The Offseason” series over the next few weeks.

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NBA Daily: Veterans Influencing Spurs Youngsters

Having NBA veterans that can ease young players into the league can be very helpful, which is why Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris have been nice additions to the Spurs’ summer league roster.

Matt John

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The Summer League is a time for many things.

It’s a time for young players to get a taste of what professional basketball is like. It’s a time for teams to evaluate what young talent they have their roster. Most importantly of all, it’s a time for growth.

The Summer League, whether it be in Salt Lake, Sacramento or Las Vegas, serves as a transition for the new blood. Most are either fresh out of college or just arrived into the country, who are also either just beginning or have recently begun their NBA career. Making that transition isn’t always seamless. As talented as some of these kids are, they are prone to make mistakes. That’s where having a veteran who has been around the block can help.

For this year’s summer league. San Antonio brought in two who fit the profile: Thomas Robinson and Darius Morris.

Morris has bounced around between the NBA and the G League since being drafted 41st overall by the Lakers back in 2011. He’s been around the league long enough that playing in the Summer League wasn’t originally in the plans. That all changed when the Spurs called him.

“They actually reached out to me and told me they were interested,” Morris said. “When an organization like the Spurs calls you, you can come in and show that you can blend in and the high character is going to follow you the rest of the way.”

Robinson has also been a journeyman since being selected sixth overall by the Kings back in 2012. Now that he has found himself on the Spurs, he praised the organization for its player development.

“To even get any type of time under anybody on this staff is helpful for any player,” Robinson said. “Whether it’s summer league, mini-camp, or the real roster, it’s always helpful to learn from these guys. They’re like the Mecca of NBA basketball.”

Not many can say that they are the veteran of a summer league team, but Morris not only has that role but also appears to have embraced it since coming on for the Spurs. So much so that even though he takes that responsibility seriously, he and his teammates can have a laugh about it.

“I joke with the guys that I’m transitioning to that vet stage like a little baby vet,” Morris said. “To be able to extend whatever knowledge to the young guys, and kind of getting me in that mode as opposed to being that guy that was drafted, just transitioning to being a mentor and just helping where I can.”

There are various ways in which those are designated as mentors decide to use their role. Some give very little advice while others give nothing but advice. For Morris, he has implemented a “trial by fire” strategy for his younger teammates.

“First, you want them to go out there and play freely,” Morris said. “You don’t want to give them too much advice at first. You just kind of sit back and just watch… You don’t want to put too many things in their ear. Everything is already going 100 miles per hour for you out there and as they go along, just give my advice as we go along.”

As the other veteran/mentor on the squad, Robinson’s approach is simple on the court – just being himself for the Spurs.

“I’m not trying to show that I can do anything different,” Robinson said. “I just want to show that I’m doing everything that they ask me to do the first time.”

Since coming to San Antonio, Robinson has gotten to know some of the Spurs’ young talent. He even took the time to praise some of the Spurs’ young talent – in particular, one of the Spurs’ most recent first-rounders, Keldon Johnson.

“‘Baby Russ’. That’s what I called him” Robinson said. “He doesn’t get tired. He’s super aggressive… He’s big, athletic. I definitely see the makings of a superstar.”

Both Morris and Robinson are leaving impressions with the younger players on their squad. The Spurs other first-rounder this season, Luka Samanic, spoke highly of what they’ve been able to do for him primarily with how he handles his mistakes.

“If I do one quick mistake in the beginning, then it affects my game later,” Samanic said. “So they’re all about ‘Don’t worry about mistakes. You’ll miss shots. It’s all normal here.’ So they helped me a lot with that.”

Blake Ahearn, who coached the Spurs at the Utah Summer League, praised both Robinson and Morris for the calming influence they have on the team.

“It’s huge,” Ahearn said. “Having some of those calming-presence guys on the floor helps those younger guys… That’s a good luxury for coaches to have.”

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon also heaped praise for the two veterans primarily for what they have been able to do for the Spurs’ young players off the court while also reiterating the value guys like that have on these teams.

“They’ve been talking to them in their ear the whole time about what it takes to be a professional and get opportunities,” Hammon said. “Their leadership on the court, off the court has been very helpful. Obviously, having guys like that in a situation like that is very helpful and invaluable.”

Now, undoubtedly, the goal for Robinson and Morris is to be in the NBA again. They’ve been there before and their willingness to play in the summer league shows that they’re not giving up on their dreams.

Regardless of whether they make it, they can take comfort that, in the end, they positively impacted the Spurs of tomorrow.

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NBA Daily: Carsen Edwards Sending Good Vibrations in Las Vegas

Celtics rookie Carsen Edwards took Las Vegas by storm not only earning a multi-year contract but likely a significant role in Boston this coming season.

Shane Rhodes

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Las Vegas can be a scary place; just ask Carsen Edwards.

“Not to be dramatic, but I really thought I was about to die.”

Edwards, among a number of other players and NBA-related persons, found himself in the midst of two earthquakes – magnitude 6.7 and 7.1 – that rocked southern Nevada and California last week. “I was in my room by myself,” Edwards said, “and I’m on the 16th floor so, right then I’m thinking – and I know this sounds deep – how am I going to survive?”

Fortunately, for Edwards, his days reading about covering online betting odds in the Silver State may be numbered.

While the earthquakes may have shaken Las Vegas, the Purdue University product has sent the Boston Celtics his own good vibrations. Edwards has impressed mightily during his stint with the Summer League Celtics, so much so that, while fellow second-round pick Tremont Waters recently agreed to a two-way deal with Boston, the Celtics have reportedly are negotiating a full-time deal with the Edwards. And, while he has remained humble when questioned about his high-quality play, it’s hard to imagine that Edwards will see much more time in Las Vegas beyond the coming Summer League Tournament.

“My first experience was a blessing, man” Edwards told Basketball Insiders. “I’m so happy to be here, just to have this opportunity and put on that jersey and be out there.”

Edwards, a standout Boilermaker, has been a certified bucket-getter in his short Summer League tenure. Through four games (and two starts), the diminutive combo-guard has averaged 18 points to go along with 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and a steal in just 23 minutes per contest. Edwards has gotten to his spots on the floor with ease – when it hasn’t been easy, he’s simply put his head down and bullied his way there – and he certainly hasn’t been afraid to pull up from deep.

Edwards has also come along as a shooter since his last showing in the NCAA tournament. In three seasons with Purdue, Edwards posted field goal and three-point percentages of 41.2% and 36.8%, respectively. Since Edwards has proven himself one of the Summer League’s best and most consistent shooters; he has shot 52% from the floor and 48.4% from three-point range.

“I just try to make the right decisions,” Edwards said. “I just try to get into my space, places where I’m comfortable.”

Despite his relative inexperience against NBA-level competition, a continued ascent for Edwards – and an end to his Summer League career after just his rookie appearance – shouldn’t be put out of the question as players and teams head into next season and beyond.

And, while he may not have wanted to slip into the second round of June’s 2019 NBA Draft, Edwards may have hit the jackpot in landing with Boston.

While Head Coach Brad Stevens has struggled with certain aspects of coaching, he has never had a problem with maximizing the production of his guards. 2011’s Mr. Irrelevant, Isaiah Thomas, was a Most Valuable Player candidate in 2017, while Kyrie Irving, despite the reported unrest, posted arguably the two best statistical seasons of his career with the Celtics. Others, including Avery Bradley, Evan Turner and Jordan Crawford have flourished under his watch, and Edwards may be the next player to benefit from Stevens’ system.

Still, Edwards’ work is far from over, and he knows it. “It’s not the same [as in college],” he said as he pointed out that he still needed to focus on his defense, decisions making and consistency. “I’m still learning so much.”

“I know [the Boston Celtics] just want me to improve. Help the team win, but continue to try and improve and be consistent every game.”

Edwards isn’t the perfect prospect or one without his deficiencies by any means. They have yet to do so in the Summer League, and his strong, stocky build should help counteract this to a degree, but NBA competition will take advantage of Edwards’ 6-foot-flat height. And, if it wasn’t already obvious, Edwards is a score-first, pass later type of guard; while that necessarily isn’t a bad thing, given the role he should serve with the Celtics, Edwards’ passing ability must improve as he transitions to the NBA game.

“[NBA players] are more athletic, they have more length,” Edwards said. “Playing against those guys, it’s tough.”

As Edwards pointed out, it will, in fact, be tough for him. But, between the roster and coaching fit and his own talent, it’s as if everything has started to come together for the talented guard and it is there for the taking.

After his debut, Edwards noted his primary Summer League goal was to win. “I just want to make an impact on the team and just help us win,” Edwards said.

Should he take advantage of what’s in front of him, Edwards has the chance to be something special in the NBA, and he could help the Celtics do just that for a long time.

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