by Dustin brewer
The NBA is making its’ (kinda) triumphant return after a little over four months away. With so many variables and things unknown, Dustin runs down a few players to keep an eye on who may make a leap on this unique stage.
The NBA is back.
It feels really weird to read those words. On March 11, the NBA announced the shutdown of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert had just become the first pro athlete to be diagnosed with it and the league quickly decided that the best course of action was to freeze everything, send players home, and figure everything out later.
Now here we are. 133 days later the NBA will tip off the first scrimmages from their bubble inside Disney World. The plan hasn’t always made the most sense or seemed like the best idea but it’s always remained ambitious, with a desire to protect the players and ensure a finish to the season.
It’s no secret that dozens of players have opted out of this restart & sprint to finish the season. Whether it’s due to complications from having the coronavirus, concerns about the virus, or a desire to continue speaking out on social injustice issues and not wanting the game to distract from the message, the league has remained clear that those players declining to participate will not be subject to any punishment.
With players not coming to Orlando though, the timing is perfect for players to step up and showcase their abilities on a much larger stage as sports-starved fans will likely flock by the millions to finally see live sports. With that in mind, we’ll try to look past the Luka’s and the Zion’s of the league and suggest a few more breakout candidates for you to keep your eyes on as the NBA ramps back up and returns.
Rui Hachimura (Washington Wizards, pictured in top of article)
Hachimura, the 9th overall pick this year, was already showing flashes throughout his rookie season but now that Bradley Beal, John Wall, Thomas Bryant, and many more of Washington’s top players aren’t participating, the stage is set for an even bigger Hachimura breakout. For the year he has averaged 13pts & 6r while shooting a bit below 50% from the field. While the depleted Wizards may not be long for the bubble tournament, if Rui wants to continue to validate his draft position he needs to work on his three point shot. In the original regular season, he shot 27.4% from beyond the arc. Not exactly lights out but given the added time of a layoff and likely being one of the top scoring options for the team in this restart, it’s the perfect chance for him to continue to develop into the franchise piece the Wizards are hoping they have with him to complement John Wall & Bradley Beal.
Caris LeVert (Brooklyn Nets)
This is a bit of a cop out because Nets fans and the larger basketball fandom are already well aware of the talent possessed by LeVert. He’s a do-everything guard with strong defensive ability and a knack for creating/scoring from all three phases of the court. Injuries dropped his stock coming out of Michigan a few years back but the Nets have seen their patience through his recoveries and development well-rewarded. This year he has averaged career-highs almost entirely across the board (PPG, 3-pt shooting percent, steals, assists, rebounds) and heads into Orlando as one of the only regular season Nets that will be making the trip. For LeVert, he’ll have plenty of chances to score & facilitate for the team and with the Nets almost assuredly making the playoffs, he has a great opportunity to establish himself as a young star on the rise and a team leader as the Nets work without Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving. The only issue here are the rampant rumors that KD & Kyrie are wanting the team to bring in a third superstar to help them “win now.” Who knows how true that may actually be but if LeVert plays out of his mind like he was before March 11th, then there’s a good chance he becomes an even bigger trade piece for Brooklyn.
Bol Bol (Denver Nuggets)
For his NBA debut during the Nuggets’ first scrimmage game, Bol Bol looked like an absolute stud. With 16pts, 10r, and 6 blocks, he instantly showed flashes of great chemistry with Nikola Jokic. You may not think such size would work together in today’s game but what Bol Bol brings the Nuggets especially is a force at the rim and a much-improved defensive presence. If he’s able to score like he did in his debut, that would be found money for a Nuggets team already flush with potent scoring options. More likely, once the real, meaningful games start, he’ll be asked to anchor the defense and grab boards like a madman. All this potential isn’t bad for the 44th overall pick. Quick success on a title contender is a great way to breakout on a national scale and there’s a good chance that Bol Bol will have every team he faces regretting not taking him sooner.
Amir Coffey (Los Angeles Clippers)
With the Clippers missing quite a few rotation players (Patrick Beverly, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet, Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac all have their status up in the air for if and when they may come to the bubble) and the team poised to make a deep playoff run behind the pairing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the stage is set for role players to emerge. Amir Coffey has a wonderful chance to quickly establish himself should the opportunity stay open. An undrafted rookie, Coffey signed a two-way deal with the Clippers and while he may not be asked to do as much as other players on this list, if he hits clutch threes and can stay on the court defensively, then in a market like Los Angeles and on a national stage, it’s easy to imagine him quickly becoming a fan favorite.
Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV (Basically Every Young San Antonio Spur)
The Spurs are always such an interesting case study. On the one hand, I don’t think anyone expects them to come from 12th to sneakily steal the final playoff spot away from the Grizzlies, Blazers, or Pelicans but, deep in your heart, would you really be surprised if it happens? No team has performed as consistently as the Spurs over the last two decades, with Coach Gregg Popovich at the helm, this current team is a basketball anomaly. LaMarcus Aldridge will miss the bubble after undergoing shoulder surgery but before the season stopped in March, he and DeMar DeRozan had the Spurs playing like it was 2005 with their mid-range game. The Spurs’ bench unit however, routinely came out shooting like their lives depended on it. Popovich is realistic. He knows it’s a longshot for this team to make some real noise in the standings but recognizes the restart as a chance to take a stand and use the platform, no matter the risk. This puts the team in an interesting spot and it’s extremely likely that the team will play the mid-range through DeRozan but hopefully this leads to an increase in up-tempo play led by the backcourt of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White. Look for that duo and Lonnie Walker IV to continue to prove themselves as the next generation of Spurs pillars.
Tyler Herro (Miami Heat)
Whether you love him or hate him, this Heat rookie has shot the lights out all season. Be prepared for the very real possibility that he will hit like 9 threes in a game on national TV against the 76ers or another Eastern conference team. Then, when pickup basketball is allowed to become a thing again, you will see his jersey in every colorway on gym floors all across the world.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
This is starting to veer away from players just breaking out and more into young stars who can take a leap into superstardom with good performances with this much media attention. Of all the young players in the bubble right now, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander may have the brightest future of them all. A second-year guard that the Thunder somehow wrangled from the Clippers in the Paul George trade (along with basically like every single Clippers draft pick for the next decade), Gilgeous-Alexander has grown tremendously alongside veteran PG Chris Paul. He’s improved in scoring, assists, and steals and on the defensive end has already pestered the stacked lineup of Western Conference guards on a nightly basis. The Thunder are a dark horse contender, a hybrid of veteran players and developing youth, they seem to be able to matchup against almost any team they may go up against. A large part of that versatility rests squarely on Shai’s shoulders. And lucky for NBA fans, it’s a burden that he’s already proven he’s more than ready to carry.
Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns)
Now again, this is less someone breaking out and more, a player taking a leap to superstardom/national recognition. Booker has been name-checked in a Drake song though so how much more notable can he get? Fair question. For this to come to fruition, a lot may have to break right. The Suns sit 13th in the standings, a full six games back from the 8 seed and will need a bit of a miracle to force any type of play-in type scenario for that last spot. BUT. Book is averaging career-highs in almost every statistic including, arguably most importantly, assists and shooting percentages (3pt, FT, and FG). Combined with his natural scoring talents, a development as a playmaker will go a long way towards pushing Booker’s name into the upper echelon of Western conference guards. So this isn’t like, he gets a signature sneaker and you see him in every commercial, it’s more, he continues to chisel away at the stigma that he’s only an “empty stats” player on a bad team and becomes a perennial All Star.
The NBA Bubble is going to be something fans have never seen before, but there’s still tons for fans to get excited about. The increased spotlight and added pressure will certainly help to create new stars that continue to help push the league forward. After 133 days the NBA season has finally resumed, all that’s left now is to see what happens.