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Six Breakout Players to Watch – Northwest Division

Drew Maresca breaks down six breakout candidates from the Northwest Division.

Drew Maresca

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The Northwest Division has its share of boom-or-bust potential. There isn’t as much top-end star power across the division as the Pacific or the Atlantic; instead, there is a relatively even share of talent on most teams, many of whom hope to compete for a Playoff berth.

As a matter of fact, every team in the division likely feels they will belong in the 2019 Playoffs. The Jazz, Thunder, Blazers and Timberwolves all qualified last year, while the Nuggets missed out by one game due to an overtime loss to the Wolves on the final day of the season.

Breakout players can change the narrative for teams. Donovan Mitchell’s impact on the Jazz last season is a perfect example. We are by no means predicting that anyone on this list will have the impact that Mitchell had last season, but a player coming into his own quickly or ahead of schedule gives a team another weapon to rely on. With all that being said, let’s examine six players from the Northwest division who we think can burst onto the scene for their respective teams in 2018-19.

Jamal Murray

Can we really consider Jamal Murray a breakout candidate? After all, he’s already a known commodity, but he’s not yet a star – and that’s the catch.

Murray is only 21 and entering his third season. That’s right, last year was his sophomore season. There was no sophomore slump, though. Murray’s game came alive last year. He posted 16.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. He is already a dynamic scorer who, at 6-foot-4, elevates and protects the ball extremely well on his way to highlight-worthy dunks and smooth finishes.

But he can and should take another step forward this year. At media day this year, Murray said he packed on 15 pounds of muscle this off season, which should help him become a more versatile defender. Murray emphasized the team’s focus on defensive this training camp – a source of frustration for the team given how it missed the playoffs last year – which is likely music to the ears of Nuggets fans.

If Murray can develop into a defensive stopper, it makes him that much more valuable. The Nuggets have lots of guys who can score the rock, but Murray’s ability to morph into a great wing defender represents the next step in his progress. If he can do so, he’ll be in the running for an All-Star spot.

Tyus Jones

Jones played well last season, when he played. That much is evident when diving into his numbers and his team’s production while he was on the court (17.8 minutes per game). He saw more playing time this preseason (22.8 per game), which led to improved production in the form of 9.5 points, 3.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game.

But basketball is about more than numbers. And Jones does not disappoint; his effect is obvious in live action. He has the potential to grow into a quality starting point guard – remember, he’s only 22 years old. The main detractor from Jones’ success is playing time, or lack thereof. But he should see more opportunity this season than he did last year, and he should continue to produce when on the floor.

Jimmy Butler’s presence complicates things for Jones because if he remains, then Derrick Rose likely plays more minutes at point guard. But regardless of personnel, Jones needs and deserves minutes.

His production last season was clearly noticed around the league – evidenced by Phoenix inquiring about his availability when exploring the possibility of facilitating a Butler trade as a third party – so hopefully his value is equally high in Minnesota. If he gets the opportunity, look out for Jones to make waves this season.

Josh Okogie

Another Minnesota player primed to make an impression around the league, Josh Okogie has exhibited the type of well-rounded game that Coach Tom Thibodeau prefers. Given the opportunity he has as a wing in Minnesota (considering the Jimmy Butler situation), the 2018 first-round pick should receive a fair amount of playing time to show what he can do.

This is mostly circumstantial. If the relationship with Jimmy Butler is repaired – even for the short-term – his potential impact takes a hit. But Okogie boasts attributes that set him up for success for the short and long-term in the pros.

First of all, he is a long, capable defender. He disrupted lots of offensive sets through the first few preseason games. He also showed that he can contribute efficiently (for a rookie); he averaged seven points per game in 21.5 minutes.

And even Thibodeau has come out and publicly and said that he likes Okogie’s play. Earlier this preseaon, Thibodeau said in reference to his team’s play, “I didn’t like our bench tonight. I didn’t think they played well. I didn’t think our starters played well. But the thing that I do like with Josh is the energy. Like tomorrow he’ll bounce into the gym and he’ll be ready to go in practice. And to me, that’s an important step.”

Lots still hangs in the balance regarding Okogies’s role – namely, who might Jimmy Butler return in a deal if one materializes, and will said player(s) impede on Okogie’s playing time? Or, will Butler remain with the Wolves for part or all of the upcoming season?

But it seems like Thibideau will prioritize developing the young wing regardless of who else might be on the roster. Hopefully that remains the case because Okogie could develop into something special.

Grayson Allen

Grayson Allen is about as polarizing a rookie as exists this season. He has his haters, but he also has supporters – including teammate Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell knows what it takes to be a breakout player, having broken onto the scene last season in epic fashion.

And Mitchell clearly sees star potential in his teammate, Allen. He has been vocal in his support of Allen, claiming the rookie from Duke is in for “big things”, and implying that the sharpshooter could be the 2018-19 Rookie of the Year.

Allen’s numbers don’t quite support the latter, but he did impress with his poise and production in the preseason. He shot a surprisingly efficient 51 percent from the field this preseason on 45 attempts, including 52 percent from deep. He dropped 12.6 points in 19.4 minutes per game.

He proved he’s not afraid of the moment – not that that was ever in question for Allen. He definitely fills a need for Utah, and he should contribute to the team’s success this season. If Allen can keep his cool for the most of the season – a big if – then he’ll certainly produce at a relatively high level.

Zach Collins

Collins fits the mold of the modern big man. He blocks shots, shoots the ball from deep and possesses a soft touch around the rim. He just needs to do all of those things more consistently.

While only entering his sophomore season, Collins recently inherited a vastly increased role. With the departure of backup big Ed Davis, Collins must step in and take on primary backup duties. And while Davis voluntarily left to join the Brooklyn Nets, the Blazers seem less than heartbroken to see him go. Team GM Neil Olshey recently told NBA.com’s Brook Olzendam that the organization is pleased that that there will be playing time for the versatile rookie.

If Collin’s season was less-than-impressive last year, it’s only due to a lack of opportunity and familiarity. Remember, he was a rookie. And he only received 15.8 minutes per game – in which, he still managed 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds on .398 shooting.

A better indicator for him for the upcoming season is his lone season at Gonzaga. In 2016-17, Collins averaged 10 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 17.3 minutes per game, including shooting 48% from deep.

The Blazers don’t need a go-to scorer. They don’t even necessarily need a second scoring option. They need Collins to grow into a supplemental player who can come in and effect the game in a number of ways, which he can do thanks to his versatility and skill set. Expect more production and highlights from Collins this season, as his shooting and athleticisim should be on display far more regularly.

Nerlens Noel

This last selection is as much a comeback player candidate as he is a breakout candidate. Nerlens Noel was supposed to be a star, but tore his ACL after completing a chase-down block in in February of his freshmen season. His draft stock was hurt; he dropped from a first overall pick consideration to sixth overall.

Noel became the first Philadelphia rookie to forego his rookie season due to injury in what’s become a time-tested tradition – and which may continue this season thanks to an injury to Zhaire Smith suffered in early August. Noel flamed out in Philadelphia and moved on to Dallas, where he saw career lows last season in minutes, points, rebounds and most every trackable statistic.

But Noel proved that he still has value in four preseason games with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His best output came predictably when he logged the most playing time: in 34 minutes, Noel notched seven points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals.

Maybe he was never meant to be a franchise cornerstone, but he sure can stuff a stat sheet. And while his offensive game might not be terribly versatile, his overall game still seems to be. He is a glue guy who energizes the team with change-of-pace plays like blocks, dunks or key rebounds.

Considering Noel is on a team with two scoring savants, look for Noel to get lots of space and easy looks. And look for him to capitalize on it with dunks and other buckets around the rim. His presence should help the Thunder, and he should get a good amount of playing time both alongside Steven Adams and backing him up.

Breakout players are more than just happy accidents. They can energize a team generating momentum and effort out of thin air. Sure, they’re a feel-good story, and when their breakouts are big enough, they can be news onto themselves. But they really do move the needle for teams. They are assets that weren’t expected to appreciate nearly as quickly. They are also challenging to predict, and therefore, teams obviously can’t count on projected breakout players to contribute immediately, or at all. But each of the aforementioned players has made a strong case for themselves. With the season less than a week away, we won’t have to wait long to see which one’s produce, but we expect relatively big years from all six.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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