NBA Players Entering Make-or-Break Seasons

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 15, 2018

NBA Players Entering Make-or-Break Seasons

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    The stakes are different for every NBA player.

    Some have the luxury of enjoying relatively carefree existences. LeBron James, for example, might be criticized if he underachieves with the Los Angeles Lakers, but his legacy is already secure, and most know the Purple and Gold are more focused on the 2019 offseason and beyond. Veterans such as Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki, among others, can also do no wrong.

    But these men, many of whom are still in the (relatively) early portions of their professional careers, have no such advantages afforded them. Everything they do in 2018-19 will be placed underneath the microscope.

    Their rotation spots, reputations and, for some, financial futures are on the line.

Willie Cauley-Stein

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Team: Sacramento Kings

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.9 blocks

    The Sacramento Kings may have picked up Willie Cauley-Stein's $4.7 million option for 2018-19, but a foray into the open market is looming. If he can't prove he has staying power on the current roster—staving off challenges from a horde of big men all eager to carve out bigger roles in the rotation—he'll have trouble earning a large payday on an open market that seems bound and determined to undervalue 5s. 

    Teams won't just be looking for the flashes of potential he's shown in a number of areas; they'll covet the consistency he can't yet provide. That could be even harder to showcase when battling for minutes with Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles, Skal Labissiere, Deyonta Davis and—if they wind up earning rotation roles as reliable veterans—Zach Randolph and Kosta Koufos. 

    Cauley-Stein can shoot mid-range jumpers, but he hit only 28.8 percent of his looks between 10 and 16 feet (admittedly, he was far better on longer twos) and doesn't yet boast range that extends beyond the three-point arc. He can translate his athleticism into quality rim protection, but adversaries still connected at a 60.6 percent clip when he was guarding them at the hoop. He can function as a capable passer from the blocks, but turnovers also cropped up in 2017-18. 

    Considering he'll celebrate his 25th birthday before the end of August, Cauley-Stein is quickly losing the temporal advantage. Untapped potential only remains appealing for so long, and he needs to get off to a quick start to avoid a minimized role that leaves him with an incomplete resume while heading into restricted free agency. 

Mario Hezonja

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    Team: New York Knicks

    Age: 23

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 9.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks

    Someone will likely give Mario Hezonja another shot if none of his potential materializes with the New York Knicks, but his opportunity won't be nearly the same. At that point, calling him a draft-day bust will be unavoidable, given his inability to break out with either the Orlando Magic or the Madison Square Garden residents during his four years in the Association. 

    But the Knicks are in position to hand Hezonja major minutes after agreeing to a one-year pact worth $6.5 million. 

    Kevin Knox, Tim Hardaway Jr., Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas may all be capable of handling some responsibilities at the 3, but this 23-year-old is a natural at the position (while proving able to justify run at the 4).

    He may even wind up with a starting gig during a season in which the Knicks have nothing to play for other than pure progress—a strategy to which they seem committed after prioritizing cap space for 2019 throughout this summer's free-agency period. Playing the youngsters makes sense.

    As Haley O'Shaughnessy penned for The Ringer:

    "Describing Hezonja as having 'lots of potential' is fair only if it's followed with 'and lots of flaws.' The hyped-up three-point shot he had entering the draft keeled over in the NBA; his career high in a season is 34.9 percent. Defense seems, no pun intended, foreign. But Hezonja is only 23. Now, he's in the hands of a forward whisperer, on a roster without forward depth."

    If Hezonja makes good on the potential and minimizes the flaws, he could become a sharpshooting mainstay with pick-and-roll/transition abilities for the Knicks. If he flames out, though, it'll be tough to see him earning such a prominent rotation spot anywhere else unless he first thrives in a smaller bench role. 

Reggie Jackson

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Team: Detroit Pistons

    Age: 28

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Are the Detroit Pistons really going to remain content trotting out Reggie Jackson as their starting point guard if doing so means they're incapable of maintaining strong positioning for the Eastern Conference postseason race? He may be under contract for another two seasons ($17 million in 2018-19; $18.1 million in 2019-20), but a trade or bench-binding role could be in the works if his play doesn't improve substantially. 

    On the surface level, Jackson's per-game numbers don't look too detrimental. But that's before you realize he shot just 42.6 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from downtown, failed to get to the charity stripe with much frequency and only pushed Detroit's net rating to 0.2 while on the floor. For all the previous glitz and glamour associated with his name, he's never returned to an upper-tier level since knee injuries starting plaguing him. 

    But that's exactly why this is the make-or-break year. 

    "When Reggie's been healthy over the last three years, this has been a good team," ex-head coach Stan Van Gundy said in May, per Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press.

    Still, that's a bit hyperbolic for a squad that's gone 70-54 when the starting 1-guard has been healthy during the last three campaigns, and Dwane Casey might not feel as loyal to the man brought aboard by the previous regime. Plus, the Pistons might have trouble counting on health from a 28-year-old who has missed 67 games in the past two seasons. 

    If Jackson's body is in working order, he could remind the world of his prior exploits with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which extended to the beginning of his Motor City tenure. But this may well be his last chance to do so, as the team can't afford to tread water or backslide while attempting to maximize the Andre Drummond-Blake Griffin frontcourt pairing.  

Jabari Parker

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Team: Chicago Bulls

    Age: 23

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks

    The Chicago Bulls structured their new pact with Jabari Parker in a manner that allows for a quick cut of the cord, knowing full well this is a make-or-break season for the Duke product who's struggled with injuries throughout his NBA career. 

    Let's say he plays well. 

    Parker, when not dealing with ACL tears, is a devastating scorer who can put up points from all over the half-court set. He may not be a defensive stalwart and doesn't often stand out as a facilitator, but his shooting acumen and ability to handle the rock from a bigger spot in the lineup would give Chicago a complementary scorer alongside Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. The Bulls would likely pick up his $20 million option for 2019-20 and think about making him a prominent part of the long-term plans. 

    But if he doesn't play well, trouble emerges. 

    If Parker's defense proves too detrimental or he's unable to rekindle his pre-injury slash line from 2016-17 (49.0/36.5/74.3), the Bulls will immediately extinguish their financial obligations to him. And if that's the case, the 23-year-old forward will have trouble finding another rotation slot in the Association that allows him to exercise his scoring habits with autonomy. He'll be an oft-sidelined commodity who can't perform on the preventing end and has submitted a negative offensive box/plus minus in four of his five professional go-rounds. 

    The margin for error is razor-thin when you're already getting the benefit of the injury-created doubt. 

Elfrid Payton

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    Team: New Orleans Pelicans

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 12.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks

    No, Elfrid Payton doesn't get to hit the restart button on his career because he shaved off the luscious locks that had become an integral part of his visual identity during the last few years.

    He's still coming off a disappointing 3.5-year stint with the Orlando Magic that saw him moved to the Phoenix Suns for nothing more than the second-round pick that turned into Jarred Vanderbilt during the 2018 NBA draft. Similarly, he can't erase the 19 games with the Suns in which he averaged 11.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.2 assists but shot only 43.5 percent from the field, 20.0 percent from downtown and 68.5 percent from the stripe.

    The New Orleans Pelicans are giving him a shot because his enduring defensive upside and underrated passing chops will allow him to fill the role vacated by Rajon Rondo while only making $2.7 million, but he may have trouble finding a long-term home if this doesn't work. After all, the continued absence of a reliable shooting stroke makes him innately unappealing in the modern NBA.

    Even minor strides in the marksmanship department would go a long way for this former top-10 selection. But if he stagnates or regresses from beyond the arc, it'll become far too easy for the Association's 30 franchises to turn up their noses at his defensive mediocrity in favor of point guards with games that aren't anathema to the present-day stylings. 

    In other words: The continuation of his stay in starting lineups relies upon the vision gains created by his offseason haircut.

D'Angelo Russell

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    Team: Brooklyn Nets

    Age: 22

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks

    D'Angelo Russell had an excuse last year. Just weeks into his Brooklyn Nets tenure, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee and missed over two months of action, forcing him to rebuild an individual rhythm while starting the chemistry process from scratch alongside his relatively new teammates. 

    But that excuse no longer flies as he enters his age-22 season. And if the point guard can't shore up the massive holes in his game, general manager Sean Marks could look to add significant talent to the Brooklyn backcourt while Russell hits the open market as a restricted free agent. 

    This former Ohio State standout must learn how to score in efficient fashion; he can't afford a repeat of 2017-18, during which he nailed only 41.4 percent of his looks from the field, connected from deep at a 32.4 percent clip and shot 74.0 percent from the free-throw line. In fact, among the 123 seasons over the last two years that have seen an individual player score at least 15 points per game with no fewer than 40 appearances, Russell's true shooting percentages rank No. 115 (2016-17) and No. 118 (2017-18). 

    He must also prove he can do more than score. 

    The assists are nice, but Russell's turnover percentage trended in the wrong direction last year, settling in at 16.8 percent and finishing 17th-highest among the 103 guards who logged at least 1,000 minutes. And even improvement there might not matter if he can't avoid functioning as a turnstile on defense. 

    This 22-year-old remains intriguing because of his age and pedigree (No. 2 pick in 2015), neither of which has been dampened too drastically while he's changed locations and dealt with injuries. But if he doesn't start making distinct progress soon, it'll be too late. 

Dion Waiters

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    Team: Miami Heat

    Age: 26

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.3 blocks

    If Dion Waiters can't become more than an inefficient gunner, he'll be doomed to the tail end of head coach Erik Spoelstra's rotation, relegated to playing out his gaudy contract (four years, $52 million with an escalating structure) with minimal run while the Miami Heat turn to superior options scattered throughout their deep roster. 

    But fear not, because we have indeed seen him morph into a more valuable commodity before ankle issues ended his 2016-17 campaign and limited him throughout the follow-up season. During the 27-game stretch between lengthy absences in which he featured as a starter for the 2016-17 iteration of the Heat, he fully bought into the drive-and-kick schemes, averaging 17.8 points, 3.5 rebounds and 5.0 assists while slashing 45.0/42.6/63.2. 

    That time alone earned him the aforementioned contract. But was it a fluke? 

    The free-throw percentage is troublesome, indicative of unsustainable work from outside the arc. So too are the follow-up efforts, which saw him regress as a shooter and distributor while playing arguably the worst defense of his career. But we're still dealing with a small sample—30 appearances in 2017-18—while he was fighting through a balky ankle, which makes it hard to draw ironclad takeaways. 

    As such, the 2018-19 season should be a referendum on Miami's decision to extend the volume-shooting 2-guard. He'll either fight past Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson, Derrick Jones Jr. and Rodney McGruder to earn significant run on the wings, or he'll shoot his way into a semi-permanent spot on the pine for the remaining three years of his current pact. 

Andrew Wiggins

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    Team: Minnesota Timberwolves

    Age: 23

    2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 17.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.6 blocks

    Perception is catching up to reality. 

    Andrew Wiggins has been providing "empty" points for a while now, and the world at large seems to be realizing he's not adding much value to the Minnesota Timberwolves' cause. And even though he's now operating on a massive extension that will pay him $146.5 million over the next five years, he's not going to alter his reputation until he starts rebounding better, showing some semblance of distributing ability, playing beneficial defense or scoring with efficiency. 

    In fact, take a look at the actual payouts he's receiving compared to his projected value through 2022-23, courtesy of FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO model:

    • 2018-19: making $25,250,000; worth $12,100,000
    • 2019-20: making $27,270,000; worth $17,100,000
    • 2020-21: making $29,290,000; worth $16,700,000
    • 2021-22: making $31,310,000; worth $17,400,000
    • 2022-23: making $33,330,000; worth $16,500,000
    • Total: making $146,450,000; worth $79,800,000

    That would be troubling enough if we weren't also dealing with attitude concerns. Per Sean Deveney of SportingNews.com: 

    "Sources familiar with the situation told Sporting News that [Jimmy] Butler is uncertain about playing with Wiggins—Butler had problems last season with Wiggins, his work ethic and his approach on the defensive end of the floor. [Head coach Tom] Thibodeau has had similar problems with Wiggins in the past, too, and he had some hope that bringing a tough-minded veteran like Butler into the locker room would spur Wiggins to improve. It didn't."

    Wiggins is still young enough to turn this around. He's certainly talented enough. Additionally, his financial future is 100 percent secure, which differentiates him from the other players populating this article. 

    But if he doesn't start providing value in expeditious fashion, his star will have fallen so far that a recovery is nearly impossible. 

          

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

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.