5 NBA Youngsters with a Chance to Shine During Season's Final Stretch

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 22, 2016

Jan 16, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) dribbles the ball during the second half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 109-82. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

For young players, everything can change in a heartbeat after the NBA All-Star break.

Some see opportunities emerge on competitive teams gearing up for stretch runs. Others are playing for squads quickly falling out of the playoff race, which leads to more minutes for the young, unproven commodities on the roster.

Either way, there's often an increased chance to excel. 

Here, we're not worried about the contributors who will make small improvements—plentiful as they may be. Instead, we're concerned with the young men who will seize the moment and make significant strides toward unabashed stardom during the stretch run. 


Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

Feb 20, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) shoots and is fouled by New York Knicks forward Kyle O'Quinn (9) during the fourth quarter at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Age: 20

2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 17.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.8 blocks, 22.8 PER 

The presumptive Rookie of the Year favorite has already begun breaking out, and he's currently posting the No. 12 player efficiency rating among all qualified first-year players in NBA history. But that doesn't mean he won't get even better down the stretch, especially as head coach Sam Mitchell continues realizing the best option for the Minnesota offense involves getting Karl-Anthony Towns the ball whenever possible. 

Over his last 10 games, the first-year center is averaging 21.8 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.5 steals and 2.2 blocks while shooting 54 percent from the field. It's abundantly clear he can handle a larger workload, and the Wolves are adjusting accordingly. 

Just take a look at how his usage rate has trended upward throughout his initial professional go-round:

Ever since the middle of January, Towns has become a more integral part of the Minnesota offense. His usage rate currently sits higher than it's been since Nov. 12—when the effects of a small sample were still very much in play.

That should only continue as the Wolves test the full extent of his powers while playing for top odds in the Ben Simmons sweepstakes. Whether he's spotting up from the perimeter, creating his own looks in post-up situations or taking what the flow of the offense gives him, he's making a positive impact.

Already, he's become a true building block. 

"Less than four months into his NBA career, Towns is already a top-10 value," ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton wrote while granting Towns the No. 6 trade value in the NBA, behind only Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook and Draymond Green. "He has put together one of the best seasons ever by a 20-year-old player in terms of box-score stats, surpassing what [Anthony] Davis did as a rookie."

Those box-score stats should only go up as Towns shatters the proverbial rookie wall. He's sure to continue playing hefty minutes—of his 12 games logging at least 35 minutes, eight have come in 2016—while earning limitless touches. 

By the end of the season, the world will realize what was already true at midseason: Towns is playing like an All-Star, even if he didn't get to represent the Western Conference in that interconference clash. 


D'Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers

Feb 21, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell (1) goes to the basket between Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis (5) and center Pau Gasol (16) during the first half at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Age: 20

2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 13.1 PER

Finally, D'Angelo Russell is set to be a consistent starter for the Los Angeles Lakers. According to his head coach, he's earned the right to be present for the opening tip after improving throughout his rookie season. 

"It was just time," Byron Scott told ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes after inserting Russell into the starting five for a Feb. 21 game against the Chicago Bulls. "Each month he has seemed to get better. He's really starting to understand what this game is all about. He still needs to pick it up at times. Obviously on both ends he needs to continue to work, but I like what I saw, and I like what I've been seeing from him over the last couple months."

The dirty little secret here is that Russell hasn't been that bad throughout his first professional campaign—certainly not as atrocious as you'd expect, were you only privy to Scott's near-endless comments on the matter

Turnovers have been problematic. He's failed to shoot with sterling efficiency. He occasionally falls asleep on the defensive end of the floor.

What rookie point guard doesn't experience those issues? 

After logging 15 points and six assists against the Bulls, Russell saw some of his advanced metrics creep up to more respectable levels. Take his offensive and defensive box plus/minuses (OBPM and DBPM), which show how many more points an average team would produce on each end of the floor with him instead of an average player. 

Russell's minus-0.2 OBPM and minus-1.5 DBPM are nothing to celebrate, but don't be deterred by those negative scores. A mark of exactly zero indicates league-average play, which is already a lofty goal for a first-year player attempting to learn what's arguably the NBA's most difficult position. 

This year, five rookie guards have spent at least 1,000 minutes on the court—Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay, T.J. McConnell, Devin Booker and Raul Neto. Russell's minus-0.2 OBPM is the best of the bunch, as you can see below:

The Ohio State product hasn't been great. He doesn't deserve a voice in the Rookie of the Year conversation. 

But he's been more effective than advertised, is improving as he gains more experience operating against NBA point guards and is now being granted another opportunity to start for the Lakers. 

The best is yet to come. 


Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Dec 8, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) shoots the ball during the first half against the Orlando Magic at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Age: 21

2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 9.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks, 21.9 PER

How efficient has Nikola Jokic been in limited minutes? 

My total points added database (TPA, which is explained in full throughout this article) shows how many points players have provided their teams on both ends of the court, as compared to what league-average contributors would in the same amount of playing time. Despite the fact Jokic has recorded only 19.9 minutes per game, he's been good enough to produce a top-10 TPA score among all true big men:

That's what happens when you shoot 53.2 percent from the field, 39.5 percent from beyond the three-point arc and 79.2 percent at the free-throw line. It's also the result of impressive passing skills and a level of defensive awareness no 21-year-old should possess. 

And it has the Denver Nuggets awfully excited about his future. 

As Christopher Dempsey of the Denver Post recently detailed, Jokic is still working on turning his body into one that can handle other NBA bigs: 

Jokic dropped 30 pounds by the time training camp started. Right now he’s playing at a svelte 258 pounds, and takes all kinds of good-natured ribbing from the team.

Jokic had his shirt off as he got his nagging left shoulder iced after last Wednesday’s shootaround in advance of the Nuggets' game against the Pistons that night in Detroit.

'Look at that body,' said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, who leads the chop-busting brigade on the team. 'He’s got to get rid of that one-pack and get a two-pack.'

His conditioning has already improved, but it could stand to keep trending in the right direction. So too could his relatively low level of muscle mass, as it's been easy for bigger centers to bully him around the basket during his rookie season. 

But the 6'10" Serbian has an astronomical ceiling, and it's on full display when he stays out of foul trouble and receives hefty minutes. On Feb. 21, that was the case against the Boston Celtics when he poured in 23 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and two steals while shooting 10-of-15 from the field. The blend of savvy distributing, innate spatial awareness, perimeter touch and interior craftiness is too much for most defenders to shut down. 

How could Malone not display even more trust when he knows his burgeoning star is capable of performances like that?

Jokic will continue to sit against the league's powerful 7-footers, and minutes are always tough to come by in a frontcourt that includes him, Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne. But the stretch run will surely feature the Nuggets figuring out just how high his ceiling might rise, and that means lots of minutes and even more production. 

Nylon Calculus' Seth Partnow isn't the only one. We're all intrigued. 

If he's made a top-10 impact while playing less than 20 minutes per game, imagine what might happen when he's in even better shape and earning more run. 


Cameron Payne, Oklahoma City Thunder

Jan 27, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Cameron Payne (22) dribbles in the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Age: 21

2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 5.5 points, 1.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, 16.9 PER

D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak and a pair of second-round picks weren't traded away at the deadline simply so the Oklahoma City Thunder could acquire Randy Foye. That was part of the reason for the swap, but opening up minutes for Cameron Payne was just as important.

The rookie floor general has made the most of his sparse playing time, averaging a scorching 16.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.2 steals and 0.4 blocks per 36 minutes. And those are by no means pedestrian numbers for any player, much less a rookie. 

This season, Curry, Manu Ginobili, James Harden, LeBron James and Westbrook are the only qualified players matching the scoring, rebounding and assist rates. Throughout all of NBA history, the lone qualified rookies to do so are Alvan Adams, Michael Carter-Williams, Steve Francis, Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson and Westbrook. 

Granted, Payne hasn't yet played enough to qualify for the leaderboards. But he's still putting up those ridiculous numbers, and his amount of involvement will only increase now that he's the bona fide backup 1-guard. 

He's proved himself a capable perimeter marksman, depressed his turnover numbers and helped minimize the damage when Westbrook needs a breather. Now, he needs to show he's improving on the defensive end, where he's often struggled against weaker matchups. 

As Nick Collison recently explained to the Oklahoman's Erik Horne, the NBA is just a different ballgame:

If you're an NBA player, in college there's probably very few guys that you're not more talented than, so you can get away with not as good of play. The teams are more talented, the ball moves faster, the coaches are good at running actions that are difficult to guard. It's an entirely different sport you need to be able to adjust quickly to.

Payne asserted himself as a slightly above-average defender during his final season for Murray State. Throughout that sophomore year, he posted a 99 defensive rating and a 0.3 DBPM, which stands in stark contrast to his freshman mark of minus-0.2. 

The skills are there, even if they often remained dormant while he filled a predominantly offensive role for the Thunder. But now, he's tasked with serving as a true backup, and that means two-way production is necessary. 


Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Jan 31, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon (00) drives past Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) during the second half of a basketball game at Amway Center. The Magic won 119-114. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sport
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Age: 20

2015-16 Per-Game Stats: 7.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.7 blocks, 16.6 PER

Aaron Gordon's biggest claim to fame is now his spectacular showing against Zach LaVine in the Slam Dunk Contest, even if his efforts only led to a runner-up finish. But this 20-year-old forward is bound for bigger and better things, and he'll start continue proving as much during the second half of the season. 

Much like Payne, Gordon now has a tremendous opportunity in front of him. The Orlando Magic may have replaced Channing Frye with Ersan Ilyasova at the trade deadline, but it's the second-year incumbent forward who's getting the first chance to slot into the starting lineup next to Nikola Vucevic. 

Right away, he was tasked with defending Dirk Nowitzki. And he did it quite well, as Josh Robbins wrote for the Orlando Sentinel

Gordon played perhaps the best defensive game of his NBA career Friday in the Magic's 110-104 overtime win over the Dallas Mavericks. He guarded Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki, and Gordon did a good job of not biting on Nowitzki's arsenal of shot fakes. Gordon recorded six steals and he helped hold Nowitzki to 4-of-16 shooting.

The next game didn't go so smoothly, as Gordon struggled to defend a combination of Paul George and Myles Turner. But speed bumps are to be expected for a young player learning on the job. 

"It's not that he's been poor on [small forwards], but the next step for him is that. [Small forwards] tend to run off staggered screens and move around more and Aaron is big up top and sometimes you have to make yourself small," Orlando head coach Scott Skiles told NBA.com's John Denton. "So that's kind of a next step for him."

Gordon is now getting a chance to take those steps, and he's simultaneously developing on the offensive end. He's continuing to take and make shots from beyond the arc, and his passing numbers are beginning to trend in the right direction.

After recording four assists on Feb. 21 against the Indiana Pacers, he'd dropped 15 dimes in a five-game stretch—a new high-water mark for the sophomore in any five consecutive contests. Even more telling is the fact that his previous best came from Jan. 22 through Jan. 31, when he produced 14 assists in five outings. 

Gordon is improving, and the floor is his in Orlando. 


Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam Fromal's own databases and are current heading into games on Feb. 22.