1 Player on Every NBA Team to Get Excited About in 2021
The 2020 offseason was another whirlwind of player movement in the NBA. Last year, it was the stars who played musical chairs. This year, with the exception of a few big names who are off to new teams, it was mostly role players who were reshuffled.
Whether it's a new role player, a holdover from last season or an incoming rookie, every team has at least one player to get excited about this season. And for many organizations, there is more than one who fits that description.
Here, we'll look at both the obvious choices for each team and what may be an under-the-radar selection.
The Obvious Choices: Trae Young and John Collins
The Atlanta Hawks have a franchise-altering offensive engine in Trae Young, who averaged an absurd 29.6 points and 9.3 assists as an NBA sophomore. Fellow youngster John Collins is already underrated, as a 20-10 guy who also shot 40 percent from three in 2019-20.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Danilo Gallinari
It may seem funny to call Atlanta's biggest offseason addition "under the radar," but Young and Collins will likely command most of the attention this season. Once they have it, they'll look better by simply sharing the floor with Danilo Gallinari.
Over the last two seasons, Gallo has been one of the best offensive players in the NBA. He's 15th in the league in offensive box plus/minus during that stretch, thanks in part to averages of 23.1 points and 3.1 threes per 75 possessions, as well as a 62.3 true shooting percentage that is 6.1 points over the league average.
Having a stretch 4 who can also attack a closeout and draw a foul puts loads of pressure on opposing defenses, especially if there's also a guard who can get into the paint.
Young obviously checks that box, as Chris Paul did for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. When the smaller guy gets inside, defenses are forced to choose between collapsing or staying home on someone like Gallinari. Either choice can lead to points.
Last season, OKC scored 119.9 points per 100 possessions when Gallo and CP3 shared the floor. It scored 110.8 when Paul played without Gallinari. And he's had a positive impact on that side of the floor for the overwhelming majority of his career.
Expect it to continue in Atlanta.
The Obvious Choices: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown
With Gordon Hayward gone and Kemba Walker dealing with knee problems, the Boston Celtics will be the Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show for much of 2020-21. Few teams in the league boast a wing-forward combo with as much two-way potential.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Aaron Nesmith
Tatum and Brown are likely to increase their scoring output this season, but probably not by enough to completely replace Hayward's 17.5 points (not to mention Walker's 20-plus during his absence).
Marcus Smart will likely get some of those shots, but incoming rookie Aaron Nesmith might end up being the better option.
First-year players are rarely ready to contribute right away, but on a team with Tatum and Brown, Nesmith may not be asked to do much more than catch-and-shoot. And his abbreviated sophomore season at Vanderbilt suggests that's well within his capabilities.
Nesmith only played in 14 games in 2019-20, but that was enough time to get 115 three-point attempts up. He hit a whopping 60 of those (52.2 percent).
As we just saw with Cameron Johnson on the Phoenix Suns, high-end shooting and a little size can be enough to help, even as a rookie. And at 6'6", Nesmith should be able to switch all over the floor with Tatum, Brown and Smart.
He'll likely get burned on some of those switches, but experience is often the best teacher. For now, it's mostly about how he can help on the other end.
The Obvious Choices: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving
After a year of waiting out Kevin Durant's recovery from a ruptured Achilles, we'll finally get the opportunity to see him play with Kyrie Irving. Having two of the league's top offensive talents is almost certain to give the Brooklyn Nets a top-tier attack.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Joe Harris
KD and Kyrie are 12th and 16th, respectively, in career usage percentage. Both have plenty of experience playing with other superstars, but there's still reason for slight concern about the number of possessions those two will use.
To make a partnership like that work, you need offensive weapons who don't demand the ball. Joe Harris is ideal.
During his four seasons in Brooklyn, Harris has averaged 12.0 points, 9.1 field-goal attempts and 5.0 three-point attempts per game. And the Nets have scored more efficiently with him on the floor in each of the last three campaigns.
With ball-dominant stars operating in the middle of the floor, it's important to have someone like Harris moving around off the ball and forcing defenders to move with him. And players who do that continually for four quarters, despite long stretches without shots, can be even more valuable.
The Obvious Choices: Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball
The Charlotte Hornets' new acquisitions, Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball, are two 6'7" playmakers who'll likely have control over plenty of possessions in 2020-21. The infusion of passing—and in Hayward's case, shooting—should provide a solid boost to Charlotte's offense.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: DeVonte' Graham
DeVonte' Graham's sophomore campaign was one of the league's biggest surprises in 2019-20. He even garnered some All-Star buzz early in the season before finishing the campaign with averages of 18.2 points and 7.5 assists.
His effective field-goal percentage fell shy of the league average, though, which likely had something to do with the level of responsibility he carried. Last season, Graham, Terry Rozier and Cody Zeller were the only Hornets with at least 500 minutes and an above-average offensive box plus/minus. Defenses could focus intently on Graham without having to worry too much about other options.
With Hayward and Ball now on the roster, though, Graham should get more open catch-and-shoot opportunities. And that will almost certainly drive up his overall efficiency.
The Obvious Choices: Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen
Zach LaVine is one of the league's most explosive athletes and already looks like an annual 20-points-per-game guy. Lauri Markkanen, despite a statistical step back in his third year, is still a good complement to LaVine in theory as a big who can hit threes and open up the paint for the slasher.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Wendell Carter Jr.
Wendell Carter Jr.'s development with the Chicago Bulls stagnated under the guidance of former coach Jim Boylen.
As a freshman at Duke in 2017-18, Carter showed promise as both a passer and three-point shooter, two skills that are becoming increasingly important for NBA bigs. Those attributes led to Al Horford comparisons prior to the 2018 draft.
Since joining the Bulls, though, Carter has shown little of either skill. Perhaps under the tutelage of Billy Donovan (who coached two great passing big men at Florida in Horford and Joakim Noah), Carter will be cut loose in 2020-21.
The Obvious Choices: Collin Sexton and Darius Garland
Collin Sexton looks like he'll be a dynamic scorer for years to come. As an NBA sophomore, he averaged 20.8 points and shot 38.0 percent from three. If he improves his passing, he might even have All-Star potential.
His running mate in the backcourt, Darius Garland, could also stand to improve as a playmaker, but he too has shown potential as a scorer.
Passing bigs could be the key to reaching their ceiling.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Andre Drummond
You might be wondering: What else could we possibly learn about Andre Drummond?
Well, with a full season on this particular Cleveland Cavaliers team, he might be able to expand in a way he started to in 2017-18.
Those certainly aren't Nikola Jokic-like numbers, but it was evidence that Drummond was evolving. And unfortunately, the evolution stopped once Griffin entered the lineup. From that point forward, Drummond handed out 1.7 dimes per game.
On a team with shoot-first guards like Sexton and Garland, perhaps Drummond can now reintegrate the playmaking into his game. Kevin Love may reduce the assist output a bit, much like Griffin did, but Drummond has shown an ability to pass when given the opportunity.
And as we've seen on teams led by Jokic, Marc Gasol and other playmaking 5s, creation from a big can make life much easier for perimeter scorers.
The Obvious Choices: Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis
It took a bit for the Dallas Mavericks' top two stars to jell in 2019-20, but once they did, the duo looked like a potential juggernaut. From February 12, when Luka Doncic returned from an injury, to the end of the season, he and Kristaps Porzingis combined to average 55.0 points, 19.8 rebounds and 12.0 assists.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: James Johnson
Neither member of that duo is much a physical enforcer, though. They're far from "soft," the unfair label that used to follow European stars like Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, but their games definitely rely more on skill than physicality.
One of Dallas' offseason acquisitions, James Johnson, is sort of the inverse. He has plenty of skill, as evidenced by his nearly unparalleled combination of assists, steals and blocks, but the toughness he brings may be even more important.
Luka obviously wasn't scared of Marcus Morris Sr. in the playoffs—he averaged 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists in that series—but it was clear the Los Angeles Clippers forward was trying to rough up the young Maverick.
Johnson is exactly the type of forward who can respond to that kind of play with a little force of his own. Of course, he won't be called on to deploy his full-blown Bloodsport skills, but simply having a player who won't allow shenanigans from opponents can go a long way.
The Obvious Choices: Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray
Over the last three seasons, the Denver Nuggets have scored 116.7 points per 100 possessions when Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are both on the floor.
Their chemistry in the pick-and-roll and other two-man-game sets is one of the easiest things in basketball to watch right now.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Michael Porter Jr.
Much has been made of the loss of Jerami Grant this offseason. And that's understandable. He's a multipositional defender who hit 38.9 percent of his threes last season. He even had a few moments in which he appeared able to at least make LeBron James work for his numbers in the playoffs.
His move to Detroit may be overblown, though. He's averaged 9.3 points for his career, and the Nuggets were significantly worse with him in the game during the regular season.
If Michael Porter Jr. can develop into an even passable defender, Denver should be better in 2020-21. The offensive gap between he and Grant is massive.
MPJ's combination of size and ability to score from all three levels makes him one of the best young scorers in the league. More minutes with the top two players should help him continue to develop toward stardom.
The Obvious Choices: Killian Hayes and Derrick Rose
The Detroit Pistons had an interesting offseason in which they let Christian Wood walk while cobbling together a frontcourt that barely matched his 2019-20 production.
The highlight may well have happened during the draft, when they landed Killian Hayes, a good-sized point guard who headlined The Ringer's 2020 NBA Draft Guide.
Now, stories of Hayes' basketball education from the resurgent Derrick Rose are popping up all over the internet.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Josh Jackson
We're just three years removed from Josh Jackson being taken with the No. 4 pick of the 2017 draft. He's only 23 years old. And though he didn't live up to his top-five billing with the Phoenix Suns, in 2019-20, he started to show flashes of why he was once so highly regarded.
As a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, Jackson filled out box scores in the way many thought he might coming out of Kansas. He averaged 18.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per 75 possessions. The team's plus-minus was much better when he played.
Now, there's an obvious caveat to attach to those numbers. We're talking about 381 minutes there. It was enough to show that there's still some hope, though.
For a team that's still years away from contention, these are exactly the kinds of fliers worth taking.
Golden State Warriors
The Obvious Choices: Stephen Curry and James Wiseman
For the Golden State Warriors to reenter the tier of legitimate title contenders, Stephen Curry will have to look like he did during his two MVP seasons (easier said than done without Klay Thompson commanding defensive attention), and James Wiseman may have to be an immediately positive contributor.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Kelly Oubre Jr.
Curry had arguably the best individual offensive season in NBA history in 2015-16. He deserves all the credit and accolades that came with that campaign, but there's no question the presence of Thompson, Draymond Green and others helped.
Without other great offensive weapons on the floor, it's easier for opposing defenses to key in on Curry's exploits, whether on or off the ball.
So, with Thompson out for a second consecutive season due to injury, it's up to players like Wiseman, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Wiggins to make Curry's game a little easier.
Wiggins can certainly help pick up some of the slack in terms of volume, but Oubre may be likelier to help when you factor in efficiency. Neither posted an above-average true shooting percentage in 2019-20, but Oubre's career numbers are trending in the right direction.
And as a complementary player to Curry, he should get plenty of open looks in Golden State's pass-and-relocate system. His slashing and ability in transition should be put to good use too.
The Obvious Choices: James Harden and John Wall
There are probably more questions than answers with these two.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Christian Wood
If Harden is around to play with him, Wood has the potential to be an ideal pick-and-roll (or pick-and-pop) partner.
Last season, he hit 78.9 percent of his attempts from within three feet of the rim, the fifth-best mark in the league for players with at least 100 attempts. And none of the rim rollers above him on that list came anywhere near Wood's combination of volume (140 attempts) and accuracy (38.6 percent) from three.
Wood has the ability to feast off Harden's passes to the dunker's spot like Clint Capela did while also being able to spread the floor like P.J. Tucker.
It's almost like he was tailor-made to play with Harden. Now, Houston just has to convince Harden of that.
The Obvious Choices: Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis
The Indiana Pacers' two most recent All-Stars haven't played with each other at the peak of their respective powers. Will they jell right away? Or, will the Pacers have to think about moving Oladipo?
The Under-the-Radar Choice: T.J. Warren
T.J. Warren was one of the biggest stories to come out of the league's bubble in Orlando, Florida. He dropped 53 points in Indiana's first game there and averaged 34.8 over the first five games.
And this was on the heels of a campaign in which Warren finished at a career-high 19.8 points. That and back-to-back seasons over 40 percent from three suggest Warren is ready to be the team's top perimeter scorer, regardless of Oladipo's status.
Warren is something of a throwback too, which gives him added points for watchability. While many are understandably devoting much of their attack to three-point range, Warren still insists on scoring from all over the floor.
He has a deep arsenal of runners, flip shots and good old-fashioned mid-rangers. Last season, he was eighth in total two-point attempts from five feet and out and 10th in field-goal percentage from that range (among players with at least 100 attempts).
Los Angeles Clippers
The Obvious Choices: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George
The Los Angeles Clippers' star duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is one of the league's best, but they weren't quite enough to stave off the Nuggets' comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the postseason. A retooled bench may be able to help them reach the next level.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Serge Ibaka
The addition of Luke Kennard and Serge Ibaka to the Clippers' second unit should make that group a bit less predictable.
Kennard will add a little playmaking punch that wasn't provided by Landry Shamet. And though the loss of Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell may sting, there's a chance Ibaka fits this team a bit better.
For one, he's a better defender than Harrell. Ibaka is not the shot-blocker he was early in his career, but he's five inches taller than Harrell and a much more realistic option against Western Conference bruisers like Jokic and Anthony Davis.
He can also hit threes, which may be an even starker contrast. Harrell was 0-of-18 from three last season (and 5-of-50 for his career). Ibaka shot 38.5 percent on 3.3 attempts per game.
With bigs being forced to leave the paint to honor Ibaka's range, the middle of the floor should be more open for Leonard, George, Kennard and Lou Williams.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Obvious Choices: LeBron James and Anthony Davis
Fresh off the 2020 title, Los Angeles Lakers forwards LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the undisputed top duo in the league.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Marc Gasol
There are a bunch of directions we could go here. Dennis Schröder is coming off his best season in the NBA and brings a lot more firepower to the traditional point guard position than L.A. had last season. Montrezl Harrell is the reigning Sixth Man of the Year and one of the game's most prolific pick-and-roll finishers. Alex Caruso remains a cult hero whose placement here would surely satisfy plenty of Lakers diehards.
The choice, though, is Marc Gasol. Despite the fact that he turns 36 in January, Gasol's passing, defensive awareness and shooting range make him an excellent fit alongside LeBron and AD.
Getting LeBron more off-the-ball opportunities probably shouldn't be a huge priority, but anything to make his responsibility a bit lighter is worthwhile. And allowing Gasol to facilitate from the high post or top of the key would do just that.
His vision and passing ability opened up the floor for the Toronto Raptors, who scored 2.1 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor during his season and change up north.
The bigger impact came on the defensive end, though. He's not the most nimble big, and his swats won't be as highlight-worthy as those of JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, but Gasol is almost always in the right spot, doesn't miss rotations and is just flat-out huge. Taking up space can go a long way on defense.
And finally, there's the shooting. Obviously, McGee and Howard didn't provide that last season. So Davis had to be the floor-spacer. With Gasol, who shot 38.5 percent from three last season, AD can do more damage against single coverage in the post.
The Obvious Choices: Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr.
With the reigning Rookie of the Year in Ja Morant and a 6'11" forward with shooting-guard numbers from three in Jaren Jackson Jr., the Memphis Grizzlies have plenty of reasons to be excited for 2020-21.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Brandon Clarke
As was the case with L.A., we have options here. Draftniks would surely appreciate a shoutout to Jontay Porter or John Konchar. Justise Winslow still offers promise as a playmaking forward. Even Jonas Valanciunas probably deserves a line or two on how underrated he is.
Instead of any of the above, though, we'll focus on the likely future frontcourt partner of JJJ: Brandon Clarke.
Think back to the list of mid-range scorers from the Pacers slide. Clarke is No. 1 there. He has a better two-point percentage from five feet and out than anyone in the league.
His runners, floaters and flip shots make him a nightmare to defend in the middle of the paint. And that's not the only range where he can do damage.
He also has above-the-rim athleticism, soft touch around the basket and developing three-point range (he hit 35.9 percent of his attempts from out there in 2019-20).
The Obvious Choices: Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo
Over the course of the regular season, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo quietly became one of the league's most dynamic duos. They became a lot louder in the playoffs, when they led the Miami Heat on an unexpected run to the Finals.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Tyler Herro
If 2021 free agency doesn't yield a superstar signing for Miami, it'll still be on a trajectory for long-term contention. Butler is in his 30s, but Adebayo is just 23, and sophomore Tyler Herro is 20.
After a strong rookie campaign, Herro truly made his mark on the national scene in the postseason. He reached double figures in all but the Heat's final game of that run, which included a 37-point masterpiece against the Celtics.
Over the course of that entire six-game conference finals, Herro averaged 19.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.5 threes. He showed enough playmaking chops to suggest he could assume Goran Dragic's role sooner than later.
That, his outside shooting and the steely nerves he displayed on the game's biggest stage have made him a prized player within Miami's front office. Earlier this week, 5 Reasons Sports' Greg Sylvander reported that the Heat were "unwilling to include Tyler Herro in any package" to land James Harden.
The Obvious Choices: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday
The Milwaukee Bucks pushed all their chips in, grabbed a few more from under the table and threw those in and then topped the pot off with the car keys for Jrue Holiday, a one-time All-Star (in 2013) who has one season in his career with an above-average true shooting percentage.
Holiday's size and defensive versatility should help the Bucks on that end of the floor, and his three-point range will likely demand more respect than Eric Bledsoe's, but this is as "title or bust" as trades get. If it doesn't work out, giving up three first-round picks and two pick swaps will feel like a colossal overpay.
"If" is the operative word, though. Bledsoe's playoff struggles didn't appear to be going anywhere, and Holiday was a force in his last playoff appearance. This team is clearly still a title contender with Holiday joining Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Donte DiVincenzo
At one point this offseason, it looked like Donte DiVincenzo was headed to the Sacramento Kings as part of a deal that landed Bogdan Bogdanovic in Milwaukee. That cat getting out of the bag before Bogdanovic's restricted free agency doomed the trade, though.
And now, DiVincenzo's development becomes crucial for a contender that surrendered much of its depth this offseason. If his offense progresses just a bit, the Bucks may look back on that deal and be thankful it never went through.
DiVincenzo is four years younger than Bogdanovic, and multiple catch-all metrics already pegged him as the better player last season, thanks in large part to his defense.
The Obvious Choices: Karl-Anthony Towns, D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Edwards
Injuries robbed us of the opportunity to see how Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell would work together last season. And now, they have No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards alongside those two stars.
The offensive upside with those three is immense, but they could also be the core of a disastrous defense.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Malik Beasley
The "great offense, questionable defense" theme continues with Malik Beasley. Decent athleticism suggests he should be able to help as an on-ball pest, but his teams have surrendered more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor during his two seasons as a rotation player.
Still, his outside shooting ability could make him a net positive for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
With KAT and Russell likely dominating the middle of the floor and Edwards boasting a questionable (at best) jump shot right now, spacers on the wing or in the corners will be important. Beasley can ably fill that role.
He's a 38.8 percent three-point shooter for his career, and his efficiency actually ticked up in a bigger role for the Wolves last season. Following his trade from Denver, Beasley averaged 20.7 points and 3.5 threes while shooting 42.6 percent from deep with Minnesota.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Obvious Choices: Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram
Brandon Ingram made his first All-Star team in 2019-20, and Zion Williamson doesn't appear to be far behind. They make up an outside-inside combo that has the potential to devastate opposing defenses for years to come.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Lonzo Ball
The sample size is too small for broad takeaways, but the New Orleans Pelicans were plus-91 in the 360 minutes Zion and Ingram shared with Lonzo Ball. They were minus-17 in the 48 minutes those two played without Lonzo.
It wouldn't be surprising to see those trends hold over longer stretches, because Lonzo's fit alongside those two makes so much sense on paper.
Williamson and Ingram are going to soak up loads of possessions over the next few years, so it will be important to surround them with ball movers. And few players keep the ball moving quite like Lonzo.
In transition, he always seems to be aware of the first good look-ahead option. In the half-court, he almost never isos his matchup or pounds the ball. Quick, smart passes are the norm for Ball, and that will lead to more open looks for the top scorers.
New York Knicks
The Obvious Choices: RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin
There is plenty of potential to be tapped from the New York Knicks' last two lottery picks, RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin.
The former can develop into the type of playmaking forward that is in vogue in today's positionless league, and the latter, who has drawn comparisons to Amare' Stoudemire, can be his finisher.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Mitchell Robinson
New York has had numerous shots at the draft lottery over the last few years, but its most promising young player may be the second-rounder it selected in 2018.
Skills like passing and three-point shooting are becoming increasingly important for centers, but there's still room for those who fit the Rudy Gobert archetype. And Mitchell Robinson definitely fits.
Over the last two seasons, Robinson has averaged 14.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per 75 possessions, with an astronomical 71.0 true shooting percentage.
With that kind of efficiency rolling down the lane, defenses are often forced to collapse, which opens things up outside. And as Robinson becomes more aware of when to chase blocks and when to stay home, his defensive impact will increase.
His presence already affects a sizable change in the Knicks' plus-minus, and there's still plenty of room to grow.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Obvious Choice: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander showed All-Star potential in his second NBA season, averaging a well-rounded 19.0 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 threes and 1.1 steals for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Now, with Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Steven Adams all gone, he'll have even more responsibility.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Aleksej Pokusevski
Aleksej Pokusevski is a 7-footer with a 7'3" wingspan who plays more like a guard than a big. His 190-pound frame probably has a lot to do with that, but there's also an intriguing skill level here.
If the frame fills out a bit, a player of his height who can dribble, pass and shoot should hold tremendous value. Granted, it's not against the highest levels of competition, but those skills really pop in video of Pokusevski. The "moves like a guard" cliche really applies here, especially as it relates to his shooting form.
And he landed in the perfect spot for his body to catch up to his skill level. Few teams appear as invested in patience as OKC, which is also allowing Pokusevski to develop where he'll eventually enjoy his biggest physical advantages.
"We're starting him on the perimeter with those sorts of defensive skills," Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said during training camp, per USA Today's Logan Newman. "That's not to say that that won't change. It's not to say that as time goes on, he won't end up guarding different people, but as of right now, we're focusing more on perimeter skills.”
Time will tell whether that developmental strategy leads to the next Detlef Schrempf or Nikoloz Tskitishvili. For now, the 18-year old is a bundle of intrigue.
The Obvious Choices: Nikola Vucevic and Markelle Fultz
Media coverage of him doesn't reflect this, but Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic has quietly become one of the best and most well-rounded big men in the NBA.
Over the last two seasons, he's tied for 13th in the NBA in box plus/minus. In the same stretch, he averaged 23.4 points, 13.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.5 threes, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions.
He just needs a little help.
Jonathan Isaac looked ready to do that till injuries derailed his 2019-20 and 2020-21 campaigns. Evan Fournier does offer some assistance, but mostly on one end of the floor. And Aaron Gordon has hovered right around average play for his entire career, according to box plus/minus.
The brightest hope on the roster may be 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, who finally showed flashes of why he was drafted so high. Fultz's size at the 1 made him a solid defender, and his passing is coming along. If he can become even a league-average shooter, he'll be a clear plus.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Cole Anthony
Inefficiency for an underwhelming North Carolina squad caused Cole Anthony to slide quite a bit down draft boards over the course of his freshman season, but he entered 2019-20 as the No. 3 recruit in the nation.
Pre-college scouting reports on Anthony were effusive in praise of his athleticism and skill level. He was supposed to be the kind of point guard who could play above the rim, pick you apart as a passer and rain jumpers from the outside. But again, that underwhelming 2019-20 tempered expectations.
Now, he heads to an Orlando team that just lost a rotation cog in D.J. Augustin. Can Anthony assume that role and recapture what made him so intriguing coming out of high school?
The Obvious Choices: Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid
Talent has never been the question with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The problem (or perhaps, more appropriately, the perceived problem) is the fit.
Both are at their best with the ball in their hands. And both do plenty of damage inside, which can shrink the floor for the Philadelphia 76ers offense.
We have plenty of evidence to show that it can work with the proper complementary players, though.
During JJ Redick's two seasons in Philadelphia, the Sixers were plus-14.4 points per 100 possessions when he shared the floor with Embiid and Simmons. They were plus-3.4 when those two played without Redick.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Seth Curry
Seth Curry isn't just a great three-point shooter and candidate to fill the role once occupied by Redick. He's one of the best three-point shooters in NBA history.
To put that in perspective, Curry scored roughly 1.42 points per catch-and-shoot attempt last season. The league average for points per possession was 1.11.
With this level of shooter moving around the perimeter, it'll be significantly more difficult for opposing defenses to focus in on Simmons or Embiid inside.
The Obvious Choices: Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Chris Paul
Last season, the Suns were plus-7.6 points per 100 possessions (91st percentile) when Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio were all on the floor.
And the leadership, passing and defense Rubio brought to that mix have all been upgraded, at least on paper. Chris Paul is undoubtedly the more efficient scorer too. This is a top three that should push the Phoenix Suns into playoff contention.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Mikal Bridges
When you have a top three that controls the ball as much as Booker, Ayton and CP3 will, low-usage difference-makers like Mikal Bridges are key.
In 2019-20, 15 Suns played at least 180 minutes. Bridges was 15h in that group in usage percentage. Even without many touches, he had a comfortably positive influence on the team's plus-minus because of solid defense and a way-above-average effective field-goal percentage.
He could probably stand to take another shot or two per game, but his willingness and ability to be a gap filler will be more important on this particular roster.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Obvious Choices: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic
During Jusuf Nurkic's three-plus seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, they're plus-7.6 points per 100 possessions when he shares the floor with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (that backcourt combo is plus-1.8 without Nurk).
As long as that well-balanced trio is on the floor, Portland will be tough to outscore.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Robert Covington
The Blazers landing Robert Covington was one of this offseason's most underrated moves. He would fit just about anywhere in the league, but that's especially true of him in Portland.
He can defend all over the floor, protect the rim a little bit and shoots more than enough threes to force opposing 4s to follow him around the perimeter.
Over the last five seasons, Covington is 13th in the league in three-point attempts per game.
The Obvious Choices: De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield
Buddy Hield's inclusion here may be contested, given recent unhappiness with his role on the Sacramento Kings, but there's no question he's one of the game's most dangerous shooters. That and the kind of top-tier explosiveness De'Aaron Fox brings are starting components for a solid NBA offense.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Marvin Bagley III
We're only two years removed from the Kings using the No. 2 pick on Marvin Bagley III. Since then, he's appeared in 75 games, averaged 14.8 points and posted a slightly below-average effective field-goal percentage.
It's way too early to give up on his potential to be a star, though.
Over the course of his two seasons, Nurkic and Valanciunas are the only players in the league who match or exceed Bagley's per-possession averages for points, offensive rebounds and blocks. And if he can add a semi-reliable three-point shot, he'll be much closer to a positionless player than either of those bigs will ever be.
"I think Marvin is obviously an incredible talent, but just another guy who can play in multiple situations," Kings general manager Monte McNair told reporters. "So I think wherever Luke decides to use him and however he decides to implement him, I think he’ll be a force. ... I think there are plenty of opportunities for how he can be utilized."
Assuming the development of those perimeter skills, frontcourts with Bagley and Richaun Holmes would enjoy advantages in size and athleticism over plenty of opponents. Shifting Bagley to the 5 and having someone like Harrison Barnes at the 4 opens up five-out possibilities.
The point is that Bagley brings versatility to Sacramento in a way few other Kings do.
San Antonio Spurs
The Obvious Choices: Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV
Gregg Popovich finally gave his three young guards a chance to play extended minutes together in the bubble, and the results were encouraging.
The San Antonio Spurs were plus-10 in the 97 minutes those three shared the floor, and they went 5-3 in those eight games.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Devin Vassell
The combination of defense, playmaking and explosiveness those three bring makes this one of the league's more dynamic and intriguing young trios. Reliable shooting is missing, though.
No. 11 pick Devin Vassell can hopefully satisfy that need. Over his two seasons with Florida State, Vassell shot 41.7 percent from three. His career mark at the free-throw line (72.0) may be cause for slight concern, but there's enough evidence to be comfortable with taking him 11th.
His presence should help those three-guard lineups on the other end too.
"He's an elite team defender who's almost never caught out of position," Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley wrote. "He consistently runs through the tape on defense, emptying the fuel tank each possession and never quitting on the play."
Adding that kind of defense from a wing increases San Antonio's switchability, which is increasingly important in today's NBA.
The Obvious Choices: Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry
Over the course of Kyle Lowry's eight seasons with the Toronto Raptors, his team is plus-2,443 with him on the floor. There are only 11 players with a better raw plus-minus over that time. One of those players is LeBron. Five were part of the Warriors dynasty.
Lowry has been one of the league's steadiest presences for nearly a decade, and 2020-21 may be the year he finally passes the baton to Fred VanVleet.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: OG Anunoby
Serge Ibaka took 12.2 shots per game last season. Marc Gasol attempted 6.3. Aron Baynes will obviously pick up a big portion of those looks, but OG Anunoby should see an increased responsibility, as well.
Last season, his contributions were mostly made on defense, but Anunoby's 39.0 three-point percentage suggests he's ready for more catch-and-shoot opportunities.
He's attempted 3.0 threes per game over the course of his career, a number that could reasonably be expected to double in 2020-21.
With Lowry and VanVleet slashing to the rim, those kickouts should be available.
The Obvious Choices: Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert
There may be questions about the relationship between Utah Jazz stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, but the on-court mix is tough to beat.
Over the course of Mitchell's three seasons, Utah is plus-8.3 points per 100 possessions when both are on the floor.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Derrick Favors
For the first two seasons of the aforementioned stretch, Derrick Favors was the Jazz's starting power forward. And despite plenty of analysis on the lack of shooting provided by the Favors-Gobert frontcourt, it was plus-9.5 points per 100 possessions when it played with Mitchell.
With Bojan Bogdanovic now in the mix, the bulk of Favors' minutes may be at the backup 5 spot, but going big is an option again.
And when Favors is anchoring reserve units, he should feast against opposing backups. In 2018-19, when Gobert was on the bench, Favors averaged 21.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per 75 possessions with a blistering 67.1 true shooting percentage.
There was also an undeniable pick-and-roll chemistry between he and Joe Ingles in those Gobert-less minutes. When those two shared the floor and Gobert sat, Utah had a whopping plus-14.5 net rating.
Many of those minutes were played against backups, but it's an impressive rating nonetheless.
The Obvious Choices: Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal
The partnership between Russell Westbrook and Harden only lasted a year, and many of the issues that plagued that duo could surface between Westbrook and Beal.
Both will want the ball. Both have plenty of experience as No. 1 options. Beal spent years honing his off-ball game alongside John Wall, though.
If he can find a happy medium between that and what he did last season, when he averaged 30.5 points, this backcourt could be much more dangerous than analysts are letting on.
The Under-the-Radar Choice: Thomas Bryant
From a statistical standpoint, the Harden-Westbrook experiment didn't start working until Houston abandoned traditional 5s and basically had Russ play point center. Clearing out the middle of the floor and surrounding him with shooters was the most obvious strategy to deploy with Westbrook. It just took Mike D'Antoni to really give it a shot.
Of course, the Rockets' micro-ball strategy left them exposed in other areas. The lack of size hurt them in the rebounding and rim-protecting departments. So the natural conclusion would be to pair Westbrook with players who can sort of satisfy both ends of that equation.
Thomas Bryant is potentially that kind of player.
Last season, he shot 40.7 percent from three on 2.0 attempts per game. He's also 6'10" and averaged 1.1 blocks in just 24.9 minutes. Can he space the floor for Russ? Check. Do the Washington Wizards concede the paint by playing him? No (or, at least, they hope not).
The jury's still out on Bryant as a legitimate defensive anchor. Despite the solid block numbers, he has a negative career defensive box plus/minus, and Washington surrendered more points per 100 possessions when he played in 2019-20.
You can't coach size, though. And Bryant is five inches taller than Houston's micro-ball starting 5, P.J. Tucker. If the Wizards can even coax average defense out of him, he'll be a nice fit with this backcourt.