NBA Youngsters Who Need Bigger Roles Next Season

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMay 20, 2021

NBA Youngsters Who Need Bigger Roles Next Season

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Planning in advance is important, so let's go ahead and demand more run for a handful of players next season, shall we?

    Plenty of youngsters can fall under this umbrella. The selections that follow are by no means the only candidates. The field of possibilities was narrowed by focusing on those who wrapped their age-22-or-younger seasons who averaged fewer than 20 minutes per game on the year.

    Late-season usage increases were taken into account. Players who saw a bunch of extra floor time for a large chunk of the year, like Malachi Flynn and Kira Lewis Jr., were bounced from consideration. Anyone who had their season derailed by injuries, such as Killian Hayes, was given the same treatment.

    Clear paths to more playing time weren't a prerequisite, either. On occasion, they were the impetus for selection.

    Kiddies who have shown something in limited action or cost a premium draft pick shouldn't be buried behind a more proven or superior option forever. In some cases, then, this call for extra playing time may infer the need to change teams.

    Mostly, though, this is an acknowledgement that "Hey, these dudes are or could be good and deserve noticeably more time to show it."

Nicolas Claxton, Brooklyn Nets

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Nicolas Claxton's usage with the Brooklyn Nets was all over the place this season. Some of it was unavoidable. He had left shoulder surgery over the summer and then dealt with a right knee injury earlier in the year. His minutes were bumped up around March, but then COVID-19 forced him out of the rotation.

    When unencumbered by injuries and the league's health and safety protocols, Claxton's value to the Nets is inarguable. He is their best and most versatile big man on the defensive end. This isn't just someone who can hang in space; he puts pressure on the ball when he switches and has the length and gait to recover on the off chance opposing players scoot by—which they seldom do.

    Defensive tracking data is imperfect, but Claxton ranks second in three-pointers contested per 36 minutes among all centers who have spent at least as much time on the floor. Out of every player who stands 6'10" or taller and logged 500 or more minutes in a single season since 2013-14, Ben Simmons is the only one who has seen more partial possessions versus point guards, according to BBall Index. He is a reliable help defender to boot.

    Claxton's utility is less bankable on the offensive end, though he's hardly too raw to play. He can set screens but is not the strongest diver. He's still learning to navigate the floor in front of him, a job made more difficult by pick-and-roll partners who attack open space at varying speeds and directions.

    He also suffers, at times, from a case of "doing too much." It is encouraging that he can put the ball on the floor, but his off-the-dribble jaunts are predictable. They stall out before point-blank range and aren't a means to table-set for others. He can be a little too hook-shot happy.

    That Claxton has tried varying his offensive finishes matters more than the results for now. He looks like so much more than a rim-runner on his best nights. It is not a stretch to consider him a center-of-the-future candidate.

    Whether the Nets feel the same isn't known. The playoffs will be a good litmus test. He has usurped DeAndre Jordan, but will they turn to him over Blake Griffin? Jeff Green? Pocket-sized units with Bruce Brown playing the part of big man?

    Even if they do, Claxton's role next year is not guaranteed. The Nets are among the foremost title contenders and will attract veterans at a discount. They may add someone more proved who further knifes into the center reps. But that's not a worthwhile excuse. Regardless of what Brooklyn looks like next year, Claxton has earned the chance to be treated like its No. 1 big man without exception.

Onyeka Okongwu, Atlanta Hawks

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Onyeka Okongwu's limited floor time during his rookie campaign is eminently explainable. A left foot injury delayed his NBA debut until the middle of January, and more than that, he entered what was already a fleshed out frontcourt rotation.

    Clint Capela eats up most of the Atlanta Hawks' center minutes and won't be surrendering any in the near term after playing well enough to warrant All-Defense consideration. Pepper in some John Collins-at-the-5 arrangements or the (very) lightly used small-ball combos with Danilo Gallinari in the middle, and that doesn't leave a whole lot of leftover ticks for Okongwu. It's a minor miracle he made 50 appearances this year.

    That small-burst model shouldn't fly next season. Okongwu's defensive tools are part of the calculus. He profiles as an extremely switchable big who won't get burned around the hoop. Barely half his defensive possessions came versus centers this year, according to BBall Index.

    This has more to do with the draft equity Atlanta committed to him. Sixth overall picks don't maintain their sheen forever. The Hawks need to get a better idea of what they have in him, either to establish his trade value or decide whether he has a future beside Capela and Collins or beyond them.

    Flipping him this summer could technically be on the table, but there's no rush unless the right blockbuster opportunity comes along. Okongwu has three years left on his rookie scale deal, Collins is headed for restricted free agency and Atlanta knows too well how injuries can throw the rotation for a whirl.

    Still, the logistics of the Hawks roster do nothing to dissuade this stance. Whether it's for them or another team, Okongwu needs to see more action as a sophomore. If his performance in the regular-season finale is any indication—21 points, 15 rebounds, three assists and endless locker-room praise—it'll be for them.

Obi Toppin, New York Knicks

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Obi Toppin's stints on the floor this year aren't the impetus for his inclusion. His movement and attention span on defense can be detrimental, and he buried under 31 percent of his three-balls during the regular season.

    His case is instead similar to that of Onyeka Okongwu. The New York Knicks burned a top-eight pick on him in the 2020 draft. They need to find out what they have on their hands.

    Granted, Toppin's argument doesn't solely rest on his draft stock. He looked more comfortable on the floor as the season soldiered on.

    His defense is still all over the place, but he can hold his own on standstill challenges. Opponents shot under 55 percent against him at the rim (32-of-59). His three-point clip didn't come on nearly enough volume to portray it as a red flag (85 attempts), and he closed the year on a relative tear, downing 44.4 percent of his looks from behind the rainbow over his final 12 games. He showed some functional flair when putting the ball on the deck and threw some nifty passes as well.

    Carving out a larger role for him next season could still be difficult. Julius Randle, the Knicks' cornerstone, plays his natural position, and New York seldom felt comfortable rolling out Toppin at the 5 as part of its bench-heavy units.

    Something has to give. If the Knicks are devoted to both Randle and the idea of his playing nearly 38 minutes per game, they have to at least gauge the market for Toppin, either in a standalone swap or as part of a larger blockbuster. Failing that, they need to somehow chisel out more time for him, most likely by dotting in a handful of minutes as a backup 5, no matter how defensively dicey they may be.

Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Devin Vassell's defensive stick-to-itiveness warranted a larger role this season for a San Antonio Spurs team trying—and succeeding—to crack the play-in tournament. He is smart and energetic, a lethal combination that translates to disruption.

    Listed at 6'5", Vassell gave the Spurs a capable body to match up against four positions. He rebounds like someone who is much brawnier. He contests shots around the rim, as the helper, like he's someone who is a few inches taller.

    Passing lanes aren't safe with him on the court, and his acceleration on the less glamorous end is off the charts. Among 251 players to log at least 1,000 minutes, he ranked third in average speed on defense, trailing only Danny Green and human gnat T.J. McConnell.

    It isn't yet clear whether Vassell can be that lockdown stopper who pesters the other team's best wing on a regular basis. He has the IQ, but his instincts shine brightest when he has more freedom to roam. And that's fine. He will be an impactful defender even he's not the go-to guy in one-on-one spots.

    Any extra minutes he receives next season should be used to plumb the depths of his offense. He canned a hair under 35 percent of his triples but was at 39.7 percent prior to the All-Star break. San Antonio needs to give him more volume, if not by testing out his ball skills then via more spot-up jumpers, cuts and touches in transition.

    Dejounte Murray remains the closest this team comes to a blue-chip cornerstone. Keldon Johnson and Derrick White are next up after him. But Vassell's development is just as important. Low-maintenance plug-and-play wings are a really good team's dream. Everything Vassell projects to do should be infinitely scalable to the next contender in San Antonio.

Robert Woodard II, Sacramento Kings

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    Randall Benton/Associated Press

    Robert Woodard II's lack of run with the Sacramento Kings this season is a mystery. Left hamstring (suffered in the G League Bubble) and lower back injuries account for some of the court-time warts, but nowhere near all of them.

    Rookies drafted No. 40 overall are not entitled to instant roles. Woodard might've been an exception. The Kings didn't have a deep—or particularly operable—wing rotation. Their options tailed off after Harrison Barnes, Louis King and, briefly, Glenn Robinson III. Terence Davis and Moe Harkless came along midseason.

    Sacramento was also buh-ad on defense for the entire year. Woodard, at 6'6", is not only a properly sized wing but plays like someone who has a Monster and Red Bull cocktail coursing through his veins. He hustles and is both strong and long enough (7'1" wingspan) to guard all five positions.

    Playing Woodard can—and probably will—come with an offensive trade-off. He shot 42.9 percent from beyond the arc during his final year at Mississippi State but just 64.1 percent at the foul line and 37.6 percent on all two-point jumpers, according to Hoop-Math.

    The Kings have enough offensive firepower at every other slot to get by if Woodard's three-ball doesn't hit, and the speed with which he plays in transition ensures he won't be unserviceable. He might have more to offer as a half-court on-ball attacker.

    The Kings presumably gave Woodard a deal with two fully guaranteed seasons because they believe in him. Next year, whether they're trying to remain in the playoff hunt or leaning into another reset, they should play him like it.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by Adam Fromal.


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