Breakout Potential: These Players Could Shake Up the 2017–2018 NBA Season
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the NBA’s young talent is rising.
By Matt Foley
The NBA season tipped off on Tuesday, and fans are already deep in debate over parity, personnel and potential. Golden State still looks unstoppable, but that’s not to say that the other 30 teams aren’t trying to shake things up.
In the Eastern Conference, former Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving grew tired of playing Robin to LeBron James’ Batman. Now he’s in Boston after being traded for Celtics fan favorite Isaiah Thomas. Out West, top talent continues to assemble. Carmelo Anthony and Paul George have front-row seats to Russell Westbrook Outwork the World, Jimmy Butler is the new leader of the upstart Timberwolves and Chris Paul has been deployed to Houston for a case of hostage negotiation. Hopefully, James Harden will pass the basketball soon.
Below, we dig into Irving’s magnified importance now that Boston has already lost Gordon Hayward for the season, plus four other situations that deserve monitoring. These players have breakout potential and could — eventually — wrangle fortune away from the Bay Area.
Heartbreak, Potential & Kyrie Irving
Well, at least one star left the West? Unfortunately for Boston, Hayward promptly broke his leg less than six minutes into his Celtics career. Before the season, it looked as though Boston GM Danny Ainge had finally assembled a team built to outlast Cleveland in the playoffs. Now? Well, we’re most certainly going to find out if Ainge swapping Thomas for Irving was worth it. Aside from the rookie Jayson Tatum, the core of this roster is now essentially the same as last year’s. We’ll soon find out if Irving can carry a winning franchise.
Subplot: Jaylen Brown and Tatum were already starting alongside Hayward, but his absence means even more minutes for the young guns. Tatum is the first Celtics rookie to post a double-double in his debut since Larry Bird in 1979, and Brown is averaging 17.3 points and 6.3 rebounds through three games — a vast improvement from his rookie year. Keep an eye on Abdel Nader: Last year’s NBA Development League Rookie of the Year can fill up a box score. Nader is a mature player who consistently exceeds expectations. He’ll be a second unit difference maker.
Game to Watch: 10/30, San Antonio at Boston
Sixteen years ago, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich handed the keys to a young point guard with All-Star potential. Now, history repeats itself. Is Murray the next Tony Parker? Kawhi Leonard will keep the Spurs in contention for a top seed out West, but Murray could be the difference maker. His insane athletic ability rivals any opponent, and his court vision is fantastic. With Parker injured until January, Murray’s maturation will take place on the court. So far, he’s off to a great start, posting 16 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in the Spurs season-opening win. He’ll be a dangerous compliment to Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Subplot: By regularly resting healthy starters during the regular season, Popovich has famously employed an effective tactic of ensuring the health of his aging stars. Now, though, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has the option to fine teams for resting healthy players. Something tells me that Popovich doesn’t much care, but it may force a bump in minutes for young players like Murray, Bryn Forbes and Joffrey Lauvergne.
Game to Watch: 11/2, Golden State at San Antonio
Magic Johnson says he expects Lonzo Ball’s jersey to be retired in Los Angeles one day. Those are wild expectations but, considering his father’s antics, it’s nothing Ball isn’t used to. LaVar Ball’s loud mouthed marketing onslaught has already made his son loved — and hated — by many. Will the teenager live up to the hype? It’s hard to imagine not. Still, his debut was ugly. Ball was held to just three points by one of the best defensive guards in the league, the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley. Ball rebounded on Friday night, coming one assist shy of a triple-double (29 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists) in Game 2. The Lakers are a definitely in rebuilding mode — Ball will help them improve quickly.
Subplot: Meanwhile, Ball’s rookie supporting cast is stacked. After averaging over 17 points per game this preseason, can previously unheralded forward Kyle Kuzma maintain that pace? Meanwhile, Josh Hart, a first-round pick and national champion at Villanova, is the forgotten rookie in Lakerland. He’s nowhere near as flashy as Ball, but sound defense, steady ball control and versatile scoring make him a valuable commodity.
Game to Watch: 11/2, Los Angeles at Portland
Dennis Smith Jr.
Was DSJ the steal of the 2017 NBA draft? That’s what we’re hearing. At OZY Fest in July, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban gushed over Smith’s promise. Recently, Warriors guard Shaun Livingston backed up the praise, telling OZY that Smith could be the Dwyane Wade of his draft class, possessing an uncanny ability to play best on the biggest stage. Dallas won’t threaten the top teams in the West this season, but Smith will gain invaluable insight as the Mavs’ starting point guard from Day 1. The rook posted a double-double (16 points/10 assists) in his debut.
Subplot: Yes, I just wrote that Dallas won’t contend in the West. Only an ageless Dirk Nowitzki can change that. Entering his 20th season, it’s assumed that the GOAT German baller will retire after this season, but not because he can’t play. Dirk had a down year while battling injuries through 54 games last season, but with Smith taking over the scoring burden, is a bounceback in store? I’m rooting for a “new puppy–old dog” scenario.
Game to Watch: 10/23, Golden State at Dallas
“Biggie” burst onto the scene as the best forward in college last season, earning unanimous first-team All-American honors at Purdue. So why is everyone still sleeping on Swanigan? The knock on Portland’s first-rounder is his below-average athleticism and height. At 6′8″, what he lacks physically he makes up for with a brilliant basketball IQ, exceptional work ethic and uncanny swagger. Swanigan understands exactly how to position himself for rebounds, regularly feasting on more athletic players. Plus, his silky jump shot will stretch the floor like no Portland big man since LaMarcus Aldridge.
Subplot: With a total of four guards on the roster, the Blazers’ frontcourt is loaded. Coach Terry Stotts now must balance the minutes of veterans like Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis and Moe Harkless with a crop of young studs in Swanigan, Noah Vonleh and Zach Collins. Vonleh is nursing a shoulder injury, but he and Swanigan could easily be starting come playoffs.
Game to Watch: 10/24, New Orleans at Portland