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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: Brandon Clarke Wins Big In Vegas

Jordan Hicks had the chance to catch up with Summer League MVP Brandon Clarke, who discussed his transition into becoming a pro, his play during the tournament and skills he’s been working on.

Jordan Hicks

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No player had a better Summer League than Brandon Clarke of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Not only did his team win the Las Vegas Summer League championship, but Clarke was the Finals MVP and MVP of the tournament. In six games of action, he averaged 14.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2 assists and 1.8 blocks. He dropped 15 points, 16 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in the championship game. He was dominant on both sides of the ball throughout the tournament. and there wasn’t really anyone playing that was capable of stopping him.

Accolades aren’t anything new to Clarke. In his lone year at Gonzaga where he transferred to after playing two years at San Jose State, Clarke was First Team All-West Coast Conference, WCC Defensive Player of the Year and WCC Newcomer of the Year. His play during Summer League could have very well earned Clarke significant minutes for the upcoming season.

So why did Brandon Clarke drop so low in the draft? Many had him pegged as a sure-fire lottery selection, but to the surprise of many dropped all the way down to 21 before Memphis traded up to get him.

Most point to the fact that he’s the size of a traditional wing in the NBA, but plays the four or even the five. He stands 6-foot-8 and matches that with a 6-foot-8 wingspan. In college, length doesn’t matter nearly as much as it does in the NBA. Still, after the way he showed out in Las Vegas, many teams are likely scratching their heads wondering why on earth they didn’t pick him up.

Due to the nature of the trade, Clarke wasn’t able to join the Grizzlies until it became official after July 6th.

“It’s getting off all the rust that I kind of had on me,” Clarke said. “Like I’ve said previously, it was tough at the start because I couldn’t practice, I couldn’t really do much with the team, but now I can play again and get used to playing team basketball.”

The rust wasn’t as obvious to the onlooker. There wasn’t really a single game during the 10-day event where Clarke looked fatigued, but his play definitely improved as the tournament went on.

The semi-final game against the New Orleans Pelicans was a tough matchup and eventually went into overtime. Clarke sealed the win with a go-ahead dunk in the closing seconds. When asked about the end of that game compared to a big, close college game, Clarke responded: “It felt pretty similar. The crowd really got kind of loud there in the end. I feel like it was pretty similar to what I’d feel in a big-time college game.”

Shortly after, Clarke was asked about his desire to actually win the tournament.

“It’s just basketball,” he said. “Every time that I play basketball I want to win so I think that we all feel that as a team. Even though it’s not a real NBA tournament, well it is, but it’s not [versus] the big-time NBA dudes. We all still want to win.”

He wasn’t just messing around, either. Clarke went back the following day and led his team to a W.

One thing that really differentiates Clarke from most other rookies drafted in the first round is his age. A lot of players that get drafted early on are younger. Teams draft them as projects based on their playing profile, size, abilities, etc. Clarke – thanks in part to his two years with San Jose State and one redshirt year with Gonzaga – will turn 23 this fall.

When asked if his age gives him an advantage, Clarke agreed.

“Yeah, I would probably say so. If I was playing right now and I was only 18 or 19 I could see why it would be tougher,” he said. “But me being almost 23, I feel like I played in many games that were just like this one tonight.”

There’s no doubt that Clarke’s large volume of collegiate experience will give him an advantage during the long NBA season. He’s played against high-level talent for three seasons in total and had almost four years to develop his various skill sets.

Clarke talked a bit about the process of ending his college career, the draft, and then summer league.

“It’s been a long journey really,” he said. “Lot’s of workouts, lot’s of time put in. But I’m here playing, it’s been super fun and I’m just really happy to get this feel of what NBA games are actually like. Just trying to get that feel back and get better at playing team basketball for the Grizzlies.”

Clarke could truly be considered the ultimate anomaly in today’s NBA. Sure, he’s super athletic, smooth around the rim, and has elite finishing abilities (he led the NCAA in field goal percentage last season). But he’s a big trapped in a wing’s body. There’s one skill that, if developed, could really bring his game to the next level.

“My shooting. That’s been something I’ve been working on a lot. If I can add that to my game I feel like I’ll be a much, much better player,” Clarke said. “There’s just so much I’ve added, but I’d probably say shooting is the biggest part and there’s still lot’s of steps I need to take.”

The fact that Clarke understands that already puts him ahead of the pack. Many players spend too much time developing skills that won’t give them longevity in the league. Clarke really has almost a complete package skills-wise, but becoming a better shooter would take his game so far.

The Memphis Grizzlies are 100 percent in rebuild mode. They have special pieces in Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant, but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke. He could very easily emerge as a central piece to any success the Grizzlies have down the road.

Athleticism aside, it is clear that Clarke has all the intangibles of a great leader, and that alone could pay huge dividends to both himself and the Grizzlies organization in the seasons to come.

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NBA Daily: What’s Next For Chris Paul

Left in the lurch, there are few feasible options for Chris Paul headed into the 2019-20 season, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official, we have hit the dog days of the NBA offseason.

What began at such a frenetic pace has inevitably sputtered and slowed, as deals have been made, unmade and some of the biggest names in the NBA have moved house. Everything that could have happened seems to have and now, with Summer League over, basketball is left with almost nothing to occupy the seemingly infinite amount of time between today and training camp.

And, unfortunately for Chris Paul, it may feel even longer than that.

Despite the Houston Rockets’ declaration to the contrary, Paul has since been traded, stranded on an Oklahoma City roster that has no business competing in a stacked Western Conference next season.

Between his contract – more than $124 million over the next three seasons – and his regression a season ago, Paul’s removal from the Rockets’ roster was a necessity; it’s a business, and the point guard was a hinderance to Houston’s championship aspirations.

But the situation hasn’t changed for Paul – he is still unwanted, a (very) pricy veteran miscast on his current roster.

So, where does that leave him? There are but a few teams that could afford to take on the massive amount of money owed to Paul and even fewer that would want to. There is no doubt that, given a clean bill of health, Paul could recapture some of his prior form next season but, still, would it be worth his price tag?

Probably not. And that should only limit Paul’s options further.

The Thunder reportedly want to get a deal done “as soon as they can” according to Adrian Wojnarowski, but discussions are “parked” for now. They could always opt to retain him; who better to serve as a mentor for the young Shai Gilgeous-Alexander than the Point God himself?

But would Paul want to serve in that role? There would be a clear opportunity to rebuild some value and open up potential landing spots. But, Paul, 34, is a soon-to-be 15-year veteran with a single Conference Finals appearance to his name. Surely, if he were to step back into a secondary role, he would rather do so for a contender.

And, of course, the money would be an issue as the Thunder, despite the recent roster reconstruction, are still expected to pay a heavy luxury tax penalty next season. Given their current situation, it should be obvious that keeping Paul on his current deal isn’t the best move.

The Lakers serve as another potential destination — don’t forget, Los Angeles tried to acquire Paul back in 2011, but the deal was subsequently nixed by then-commissioner David Stern.

While there is almost no connection between that iteration of the Lakers and the current one, it is still an interesting option. Los Angeles is an obvious fit because, for lack of a better option, the Lakers are set to start LeBron James at point guard next season. With Paul in the fold, James could serve in his normal role and reduce his workload with time off the ball.

The prior relationship between James and Paul could also serve to benefit the Lakers’ chemistry and may allow for an easier roster transition.

But, again, Paul’s contract looms large. The Lakers opened a max-slot in their salary cap earlier this summer, hoping to land recently-minted champion Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard spurned them for their in-house neighbor, the Clippers, they made use of that space to fill out the rest of the roster with complementary players.

Now, a buyout would be necessary to facilitate any deal before the start of the season. Otherwise, the Lakers would have to wait until December, when those players that signed new contracts would become eligible to be traded.

And then, of course, there are the HEAT. Miami is almost always mentioned when a big-name is available, whether as a free agent or via trade, and the rumors proved true this offseason in the case of Jimmy Butler.

Despite the awkward fit in Philadelphia alongside other stars such as Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, Butler proved his worth and, at times, looked like the 76ers’ best player during the postseason.

Now in Miami, Butler should almost certainly bolster their future outlook, but they are far from done with the roster. Without a subsequent move, they aren’t a championship contender — could Paul be the one to take them a step further?

The reported mutual interest, according to Brian Windhorst, should only fuel the flames, but a deal involving Paul could be as much of a necessity for Miami as it was for Houston.

The HEAT were the 10th seed in the Eastern Conference a season ago and Butler is a major upgrade, but the rest of the roster is underwhelming at best. While Butler and Paul could prove an awkward fit basketball-wise, there is no doubt that the two of them together would significantly elevate the HEAT’s ceiling above that level. Miami, unlike many of his other potential suitors, would also have the salary to match Paul’s incoming deal.

But a dispute over draft compensation seems to have tabled discussions until further notice.

Beyond those scenarios, it’s hard to imagine Paul anywhere else next season.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Paul is anywhere other than Oklahoma City to start next season, barring a change of heart (either from Paul regarding a buyout or the HEAT and Thunder regarding potential compensation), anyway.

And so, the long wait for Paul will continue. It would be foolish to doubt him now, after 14 seasons in the NBA, but it’s hard to imagine that Paul will come close to providing adequate value relative to his contract. Ultimately, a potential move may be out of his hands, left up to the teams to determine whether or not Paul is an asset worth acquiring.

So far, it would seem the NBA has deemed him not worth it.

But, it is the NBA and if the offseason thus far is anything to go by, anything could happen.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Chicago Bulls

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by taking a look at the Chicago Bulls.

David Yapkowitz

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With summer league over and the big name free agents all signed, we’re now approaching the doldrums of the NBA offseason. Most big moves have all been made, and we shouldn’t expect to too much movement between now and the start of training camp.

Most teams probably have an idea already of what the bulk of their roster will look like come training camp, and as such, we’re starting a new series here at Basketball Insiders taking a look at each team’s offseason to this point.

Next up in our series is the Chicago Bulls.

Overview

The Bulls are a team clearly in rebuilding mode. After this offseason, they’ve done a pretty solid job at filling out the roster with young talent at every position. It’s obvious now that they were clear winners of their trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves two years ago that netted them Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn.

LaVine continued his ascent to stardom this past season. There may have been initial concerns when he was traded to Chicago as to how he would respond after his torn ACL, but since then, he’s showed no lingering limitations. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the elite shooting guards in the league. Few can match his scoring prowess whether he’s slashing to the rim or shooting 37.4 percent from the three-point line.

Markkanen has emerged as one of the top young big men in the NBA. He made some strong steps forward in his second year in the league. He’s moving closer to becoming a double-double threat every night. He’s exceeded projections from when he was drafted that pegged him as little more than a three-point shooting big. He has shown a lot more versatility to his game.

One major addition the Bulls made last season was the trade deadline acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. When he arrived in Chicago, he quickly played some of the best basketball of his career, fitting in seamlessly with the team and solidifying himself as part of their future core.

They’ve also got Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold. Their top draft pick last offseason, Carter quickly established himself a great defensive complement to Markkanen. An injury cut his rookie season shorter than expected, but he still showed flashes of being a capable around the rim scorer.

They do have some other decent rotation guys in Antonio Blakeney, Chandler Hutchinson and Ryan Arcidiacono. Blakeney is an instant offense scoring guard for the second unit, and Hutchinson was showing flashes of his talent before he too went down with an injury during his rookie season. Arcidiacono was re-signed by the Bulls after being one of their most consistent outside shooters last season.

Offseason

The Bulls came into draft night with the seventh overall pick. It might have seemed like a disappointment seeing as how the Bulls probably had a shot at a top three pick considering their record. But ultimately, Chicago might have gotten what it wanted in the end. Point guard has been an area of need for the Bulls for quite some time, and they used their pick on North Carolina’s Coby White.

White is a little more in the mold of a scoring guard, but if you could take away one thing from his performance in summer league, it’s that he can thrive as a playmaker as well. It’s unlikely that White will get to start right away, but he’s got the makings of developing into the Bulls eventual starter at the point.

Chicago also picked up Daniel Gafford in the second round. The Bulls needed frontcourt depth after losing Robin Lopez in free agency, and they may very well have found their answer with Gafford. Summer League isn’t always a great indicator of how a player will translate to the NBA, but Gafford was solid as a finisher around the rim and a shot blocker in the paint. He may end up becoming one of the steals of the draft.

In free agency, the Bulls made some rather solid moves. On a team full of young players, it’s necessary to have a couple of key veterans for the young guys to lean on and to provide leadership and stability in the locker room. Thaddeus Young certainly fits that bill. Entering his 13th year in the league, Young played in 81 games last season and was a key guy on a Pacers team that made the playoffs. He’ll provide the Bulls with consistency on and off the court.

They also made a big step to addressing their point guard woes. They acquired Tomas Satoransky in a sign and trade with the Washington Wizards. He’ll provide a perfect stop-gap as the starting point guard while White develops. He proved himself as a facilitator with the Wizards, and he’s one of the better three-point shooters in the league, He’s a versatile guy who can play and defend multiple positions.

The Bulls also picked up Luke Kornet who spent last season with the New York Knicks. Kornet is relatively young and gives the Bulls a solid stretch big man on a decent contract. He’s also a solid shot blocker and should compete with Gafford for minutes off the bench.

Chicago also picked up an intriguing prospect in Adam Mokoka. The French combo guard initially declared for the draft a year ago but ultimately withdrew. He re-entered the draft this summer but went undrafted. In summer league, he showed flashes of playing both wing positions and being a capable defender who can shoot from three. He’ll be on a two-way contract so he’ll see significant time with the Windy City Bulls, Chicago’s G League affiliate.

PLAYERS IN: Adam Mokoka (two-way), Coby White, Daniel Gafford, Luke Kornet, Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky

PLAYERS OUT: Brandon Sampson, Rawle Alkins, Robin Lopez, Shaquille Harrison, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Walt Lemon Jr., Wayne Selden

What’s Next

The Bulls roster currently stands at 15 guaranteed contracts and one two-way contract. They’re likely done with any roster additions unless they find someone to take that second two-way contract slot. They’d most likely move Cristiano Felicio if they could find a taker for his contract, but it’s probably unlikely.

With the additions of Satoransky and White, that likely spells the end of the Kris Dunn experiment in Chicago. If Dunn remains on the roster through the season, and the Bulls aren’t able to move him, it’s highly unlikely Chicago tenders him a qualifying offer. In all likelihood, this is his final season in the Windy City.

The Bulls have done a decent job at filling the roster out with good, young talent. Making the playoffs, even in the Eastern Conference, is still likely a few seasons away. But there is reason for optimism for the Bulls future.

OFFSEASON GRADE: B

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