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The next wave of NBA stars is coming, and some of them have a chance to illuminate lottery teams with otherwise dim outlooks.
This is essentially a breakout prediction with a twist: The player’s leap will coincide with his team reaching a new level.
That doesn’t have to mean a playoff trip. A significant increase in wins will be enough. Remember, the teams we’ll cover have a long way to go before playoff talk is realistic. All of them sat out the 2019 postseason.
As for the players themselves, the main criteria is that they can’t be established household names yet. No All-Star trips and no All-NBA nods. No previous playoff berths, either. Some of these guys took steps forward last season, and others improved significantly over the course of the year. But in each case, the best is yet to come.
Oh, and if you’re wondering why Luka Doncic isn’t here, it’s because we’re talking about future stars. The all-but-assured Rookie of the Year averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists in his first season, all while regularly commandeering the NBA news cycle with game-winners and triple-doubles. He’s a present star.
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De’Aaron Fox took a major step forward in his second season, but you’re selling him short if you think that was his breakout.
The lefty point guard was the only player to average at least 17 points and seven assists while shooting above 37 percent from deep last year, and he’s the first in league history to post those numbers at age 21 or younger. But yes, this is an argument that he’s far from a finished product.
Fox transformed Sacramento’s offense, leveraging elite speed and natural court vision to make the Kings one of the most exciting uptempo teams in the league. They topped the NBA by using 19.6 percent of their possessions in transition, and they ranked fourth in transition scoring efficiency. Fox drove it all, as his presence on the floor coincided with the largest percentage increase in transition frequency.
When he played, the Kings ran. A lot.
In contrast, Sacramento ranked 17th in half-court scoring efficiency. We should expect Fox, who already demonstrated great craft and smarts by dramatically increasing his free-throw rate, to shore up that area next. And though he became a viable threat from deep after shooting only 30.7 percent as a rookie, Fox will truly break defenses when he boosts his long-range volume. At just 2.9 attempts per game last season, he didn’t hoist often enough to create panic in the pick-and-roll.
Naturally unselfish, it may be difficult for Fox to embrace those pull-up treys when defenders go under screens. But as soon as he starts firing more often, defenses will scramble, the floor will open up, and his vision and speed will instantly become even deadlier.
Sacramento won 39 games with Fox 2.0. When he upgrades again next year, the league’s longest playoff drought will be over.
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If Jaren Jackson Jr. stopped developing right now, he’d still be in good company.
This past season, Myles Turner and Brook Lopez were the only other players who shot at least 35 percent from three and had a block rate above five percent. That floor-stretching, rim-defending skill combo plays in today’s NBA.
Jackson’s rookie year, which was cut to only 58 games because of a deep thigh bruise he suffered in February, featured flashes of a more complete game than either Turner or Lopez possesses. Sure, it’d be great if Jackson reached Turner’s level on defense, as the Indiana Pacers center led the league in blocks. But Jackson is more mobile and projects as a valuable defender in switching schemes. Usually when a big man deters shots at the rim as well as Jackson does, it coincides with a lack of lateral mobility away from the lane.
Not so for Memphis’ cornerstone.
What’s more, Jackson appeared increasingly comfortable putting the ball on the floor as his rookie year progressed. A left-hand-dominant finisher, he shot 72.9 percent inside three feet and showcased an array of scoops and half-hooks. The Grizzlies won’t build an offense around Jackson’s off-the-dribble game, but as defenses become more concerned with his shot in pick-and-pop sets, he’ll have plenty of chances to attack closeouts.
Rookie averages of 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game were impressive, but Jackson should blow those away in the coming years. Expect him to approach 20 points and 10 boards while ranking among the league leaders in blocks.
If the Grizzlies unleash him as a full-time center (which may only happen if Jonas Valanciunas moves on), foul trouble may be an issue. But the Grizzlies could push up toward 40 wins if likely draftee Ja Morant establishes quick chemistry with one of the best young bigs in the game.
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Whether you lean on the numbers or trust your gut, it’s easy to make a case for Trae Young’s team-elevating future stardom.
The rookie point guard endured a frigid opening stretch and holstered his three-point shot for much of December before turning into the defense-shredding lead guard the Atlanta Hawks expected. Young scored 30 or more points only three times in his first 60 games, but he finished the season with six such efforts in his final 21 contests.
Young had seven games with at least 30 points and 10 assists, more than any rookie since Oscar Robertson. The rookie most closely trailing Young on that list, Stephen Curry, posted five such games in 2009-10. Young had five 30-10 outings in the final six weeks of his rookie year.
To say Young was trending up as he gained experience immensely understates his progress.
Numbers aside, Young visibly assumed a rare mantle late in his first season. A threat to pull up from well beyond the arc, he stretched defenses to their breaking points. The Curry comparison is as unavoidable as it is unfair, but it’s difficult to describe the way Young affected opposing game plans without invoking Curry’s high-volume shooting breakout a half-decade ago.
Crafty enough to draw contact in the lane, gifted with uncommon vision and stronger for having survived a brutal first few weeks, Young appears to be a team-transforming offensive force. For proof, look no further than the Hawks’ 25th-ranked offense before the All-Star break. Afterward, when Young started cooking with gas, Atlanta checked in at No. 11.
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Technically, Zion Williamson isn’t a member of the New Orleans Pelicans yet. But unless the clone of an 18-year-old LeBron James joins the draft pool or some vast overhaul of collegiate sports gives Duke basketball a $200 million payroll, it feels safe to assume Williamson will wind up in New Orleans.
Once there, he’ll reshape the Pelicans with his incomparable physical skills and always-on motor.
Though it remains to be seen how NBA defenses will exploit Williamson’s suspect jumper, it’s difficult to imagine any strategy nullifying his open-court rampages and devastating rolls to the rim. If all else fails, Williamson could take on initiator duties in the pick-and-roll.
Go under the screen, and he gets a head of steam. Chase him over the top, and he’ll turn the corner too quickly for resistance to react. Switch, and invite total domination.
His combination of bulk and speed leaves no good answers.
Go ahead, bet against Williamson hitting the league like a sentient, heavily caffeinated wrecking ball. You’ll get great odds.
If you’d rather take the sure wager, put your money on the best prospect in years immediately transforming an Anthony Davis-less Pelicans squad* into a playoff threat.
*Another assumption that feels pretty safe.