NBA's Most Overhyped Players Ahead of 2018-19 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 14, 2018

NBA's Most Overhyped Players Ahead of 2018-19 Season

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    The NBA hype machine isn't quite a perpetual motion device, but it's close.

    Input a breakout playoff performance or port a player from a decent situation to a better one, and the ball's rolling. Free agency and summer league are natural hype-creators.

    From there, expectations and excitement build upon themselves.

    It's especially easy for the momentum to get out of control when we don't have any opportunities to watch the player in question struggle. This is particularly problematic in mid-August, the time of year right between the end of the Finals and the start of training camp.

    It doesn't take much to create and build exaggerated expectations, because we all want to believe something special is going to happen. It's more fun to follow the league when you've convinced yourself magic is just around the corner, or that a young player ticketed for stardom is going to arrive immediately.

    No knock on the guys included in our list. Most are awesome. It's just that expectations seem to have outstripped reality.

    It's time to pump the breaks on the ballyhoo. 

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

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    I already slapped the franchise label on Jayson Tatum earlier this month, so let's start by acknowledging that the guy has immense potential. He showed it during last year's playoff run, when he led the Boston Celtics with 18.5 points per game.

    But consider the obstacles ahead of Tatum this season, and you'll see why we should hold off on crowning him a megastar right away.

    Kyrie Irving has never been one to take a backseat, and with him back on the floor, it'll be much harder for Tatum to build on his postseason takeover. Throw Gordon Hayward into the mix, and there will be even fewer touches for the 20-year-old wing. And that's to say nothing of Jaylen Brown, who's a superior defender at the moment and averaged 18 points per game in the playoffs on more efficient shooting than Tatum managed. He's due for an increased role as well.

    Aside from the personnel issues, Tatum is also unlikely to shoot a scorching 52 percent on corner threes again. If that seems unreasonable, consider that Klay Thompson has shot better than 47 percent from the corners only once in his career. He's never matched Tatum's 52 percent.

    If you believe Tatum is going to be a better shooter than Thompson, you've crossed the rubicon between optimism and pure fantasy.

    Much of the caution here boils down to skepticism about small samples. Tatum's hot shooting and relatively brief playoff excellence still count in his favor, but he's only 20. It's way too early to start taking the Kobe Bryant parallels seriously, even if some of the evidence is compelling.

    Tatum's going to be great. But let's not rush to anoint him as a superstar until he deserves it.

DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors

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    Outside of LeBron James' decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers, DeMarcus Cousins landing with the Golden State Warriors for the mid-level exception created the biggest shockwaves in free agency.

    Those lamenting Golden State's embarrassment of riches should take heart in knowing Cousins won't matter that much.

    The 28-year-old is coming back from an Achilles tear, which precedent forces us to assume means diminished athleticism and productivity. It's unclear when Cousins will return to the floor, but seeing as the Warriors haven't cared about a regular season since they went 73-9 in 2015-16, they aren't likely to rush him back out there.

    Even if Cousins returns to something resembling his old formgiven the history of Achilles tears, that's highly improbablehe still doesn't figure to play the postseason minutes that matter most. Those belong to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. That quintet is responsible for back-to-back titles, and they're much better equipped to execute switch-heavy defensive schemes.

    Cousins might offer a good scoring option against smaller opponents, but it's otherwise difficult to justify breaking up Golden State's best five-man unit.

    Clearly an upgrade over Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee or any other conventional center the Warriors might have employed, Cousins is still ticketed for spot use. Sure, he'll probably start, but maybe not until February. And he almost certainly won't close games.

    He's a luxury, not a game-changer.

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

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    It's hard to be certain of public opinion when you live inside the Basketball Twitter bubble, but it sure feels like expectations are high for Zach LaVine. If nothing else, the Chicago Bulls believe something great is on the horizon; otherwise, they wouldn't have matched the Sacramento Kings' four-year, $78 million offer sheet for him.

    LaVine's recovery from a torn ACL isn't even the primary issue, although you could start there if you wanted to be thorough.

    Instead, the real problem is that even if LaVine reaches his apex as an offensive weapon, there's little reason to believe he'll be a net-positive player. That's because he's one of the worst defenders in the NBA.

    In 2016-17, he ranked 441st out of 468 players in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus metric. Last year, he was 490th out of 521.

    According to Basketball Reference, he's never posted a defensive box plus-minus in positive territory. He topped out at minus-2.0 in his abbreviated 2017-18 season.

    Suppose LaVine shoots 40 percent from three and averages 20 points per game on decent efficiency—something like the career-best 54.4 effective field-goal percentage he managed in 47 games with the Minnesota Timberwolves two seasons ago. The Bulls will still have a guy who gives up more points on D than he gets them on O, and also one who hasn't demonstrated the ability to make teammates better.

    It's hard to justify rotation minutes for a player like that, let alone $78 million.

Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns

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    Everybody loves Josh Jackson's post-All-Star break numbers a bit too much.

    In 20 games after the break, Jackson averaged 18.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 30.9 minutes per contest. Because we're dealing with rookie production, it's important to avoid being too harsh. A rookie who does anything positive is rare.

    Still, Jackson's so-called breakout, which lasted less than a quarter of the season, comes with loads of red flags.

    For starters, the Phoenix Suns were in full tank mode down the stretch. It's always difficult to judge production in an environment where nobody's playing defense, the result doesn't matter and, most importantly, somebody's going to get numbers regardless.

    In addition, Jackson shot only 25 percent from three-point range in those 20 games. That means his greatest flaw, the one that stalked him throughout college and provided the largest point of caution in the predraft process, remained unaddressed. If Jackson's best stretch of ball featured a three-point conversion rate lower than Andre Roberson's career mark, how good was it, really?

    Jackson still profiles as a multiposition defender who can score in transition and make plays for teammates. But he can't shoot, and the hitch in his form suggests that may never change.

    If you're expecting modest improvements on Jackson's full-season stats—13.1 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists with a 44.8 effective field-goal percentage—fine. Just don't use his post-break breakout as a baseline.

Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

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    There's a school of thought that says the Toronto Raptors, who were the best team in the East last year, adding Kawhi Leonard, who immediately becomes the East's best player, means a Finals berth is in the cards.

    I enrolled in it here.

    Except...what if Leonard isn't Leonard anymore? What if the quad injury that cost him all but nine games of the 2017-18 season lingers? What if the disputed talk of a degenerative condition goes from being a worst-case possibility to reality?

    Alternatively, if Leonard was healthy enough to play last year but decided not to out of frustration/anger/whatever, can we be sure he'll buy in with Toronto as a rental? If the guy just spent a year sitting, perhaps partially out of spite, can any team trust him? Hypothetically, he could malinger for another year, rest up and be ready to join the Lakers with low mileage.

    If the outcome falls somewhere in between, perhaps Leonard has to rest frequently and is still a star-level player, but he isn't quite the two-way wrecking ball he once was. Does that get the Raptors to the top of the East?

    As has been the case for nearly a year, speculation is all we have available with Leonard. He could well be the same MVP short-lister he's been in the past. If that's the case, it's almost impossible to overhype him.

    This, then, should read as a sort of risk-assessment profile. Because we know so little about how Leonard will play and conduct himself with the Raps, we have to price that into his forecast somehow.

    The easiest way to do that is to lower expectations.

    The idea of Leonard and the Raptors combining to form a new superpower is exciting. It's also likely a bit too dismissive of the significant downside in play.