1 Player on Every NBA Team to Get Excited About for 2021-22 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 11, 2021

1 Player on Every NBA Team to Get Excited About for 2021-22 Season

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    Mark Black/Associated Press

    As we move into the dog days of the NBA offseason between the rush of free agency and the renewed optimism of training camp, maybe we need a reminder of the excitement ahead.

    Every team has obvious sources of anticipation, but we're not necessarily here to alert you to the breaking news that Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are going to be fun to watch in 2021-22. Instead, we'll mostly focus on players who'll enter next season with room to grow, a niche to fill, a new level to reach or some other opportunity to raise their and their team's profiles.

    Sometimes, we'll base the picks on flashes we've seen in the past. Others, we'll lean on faith.

    Finally, at some level, this is personal. We all have players we believe in or derive special enjoyment from watching. These are mine.

Atlanta Hawks: De'Andre Hunter

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    For the first month of the 2020-21 season, De'Andre Hunter was in full breakout mode. The second-year wing was averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game on a 51.4/36.6/87.7 shooting split when a torn meniscus shelved him, limiting him to just five more games during the regular season.

    The Atlanta Hawks are almost comically long on young wings and forwards, and that was true before Jalen Johnson used the Summer League to announce he shouldn't have fallen to 20th in the 2021 draft. Kevin Huerter, who continued to flourish in the postseason, and Cam Reddish, whose middle name might as well be "Keeps Showing Flashes," also have tremendous potential.

    But Hunter looked like an ideal three-and-D option, with the added bonus of a blossoming off-the-dribble game...right up until he got hurt.

    If he's healthy, and if that first month of his sophomore season was more signal than noise, Hunter could be a key to keeping the Hawks in the thick of the race for the Eastern Conference crown over the next half-decade or so.

Boston Celtics: Robert Williams III

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    The $54 million extension Robert Williams III got from the Boston Celtics this offseason means the organization believes he's ready.

    Ready to contribute like an above-average starter at center. Ready to prove his gaudy averages of 15.2 points, 13.1 rebounds. 3.4 assists and 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes will hold up when his playing time increases significantly. Ready to be known more for his dominant interior defense, clever passing and Velcro-mitted rebounding than being late for stuff.

    Returning vet Al Horford is a security blanket. If Williams isn't capable of avoiding foul trouble or doesn't tone down his jumpiness on D, the Celtics could turn to Horford and Enes Kanter in the middle. But if Time Lord reaches the potential his contract suggests is within his grasp, he could bring the physicality and athleticism Boston needs to reach another level in the East's hierarchy.

Brooklyn Nets: Cam Thomas

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Assign predictive value to a Summer League Co-MVP honor at your own risk, but at least acknowledge that Cam Thomas won it (along with Sacramento Kings rookie Davion Mitchell) by doing the exact thing every predraft evaluation said he could: get buckets.

    Thomas is the type of scorer who rolls out of bed halfway through a snatch-back crossover to set up a pull-up jumper. He's a born gunner, single-minded about that specific task in the best way. He averaged 23.0 points per game in his lone season at LSU, leading all Division I freshman, and then lit up Vegas with 27.0 points per game, the highest average recorded by a player logging at least four Summer League games.

    The Brooklyn Nets, if healthy, were already in line to field the most potent offense in league history, and the profoundly confident Thomas' skill is duplicative on their roster. But who cares? At the very least, Thomas is going to shred garbage-time defenses and should threaten for the league lead in points per minute.

    He'll make the dominant Nets worth watching for the full 48, even if the game is competitive for only the first 24 or so.

Charlotte Hornets: LaMelo Ball

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    Brian Westerholt/Associated Press

    LaMelo Ball had "it" from the moment he first took the floor as an NBA player last season. He had undeniable presence and a power to influence the tone of the game uncommon in players so young. The way he saw the floor, his audacity as a passer, his instincts—all of it felt special.

    He was also imperfect. Inconsistent as a shooter, Ball shot 40.0 percent or better from deep in December, February and March but was at 25.0 percent or worse in January and May. Some of that last month's inaccuracy could have been due to a six-week layoff for a wrist injury, but it still illustrates Ball's general streakiness.

    Healthy, able to complete a full training camp as the league returns to its normal schedule, settled in as the face of the franchise and, critically, thoroughly scouted by the opposition, Ball has a chance to validate the "this one's special" vibes he exuded as a rookie...or prove those who think he's more style than substance correct.

    Bet on Ball providing substance with style.

Chicago Bulls: Patrick Williams

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Nikola Vucevic, Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan will do all the heavy offensive lifting for the Chicago Bulls, which means Patrick Williams won't be forced into the higher-usage role he often resisted as a rookie.

    Sam Smith of Bulls.com noted in a writeup of Williams' season that the 20-year-old forward "repeatedly has said scoring isn't natural for him and he actually prefers to be something of a helper, playing defense, passing, moving, enjoying the team concept. It's why he was the rare top-five draft pick who never started in college. And never complained about it."

    And then Williams hung a 30-spot on the San Antonio Spurs in a 92-89 Summer League win Aug. 10.

    It seems the scoring prowess is in there somewhere, along with more obvious gifts such as shutdown defense, athleticism and length.

    Williams is a key to the Bulls' present and future. If he can be the gap-filler on D, the mistake-eraser who makes an otherwise offense-first, defense-optional rotation work, he will not only help Chicago secure the playoff berth it craves, but he'll also give the franchise a bridge to the future. For a team that has leveraged so much cash and draft capital to add veterans, the No. 4 pick from the 2020 draft might be its last chance at a homegrown talent for a while.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Rookies are exciting by definition, doubly so when you're talking about a top-five selection such as No. 3 pick Evan Mobley. Even among that subgroup, Mobley is especially tantalizing.

    In theory, he's a 7-foot rim-protector who'll be able to switch on defense and—this is where it gets fun—create his own shots off the dribble. The ideal version of Mobley would be a bigger Bam Adebayo with much more scoring potential.


    The Ringer's Jonathan Tjarks wrote as glowing a profile on him as you're likely to read on any prospect, and you don't even need to suspend much disbelief to nod along.

    A player with game-changing upside like Mobley's would matter anywhere, but he's especially crucial for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They've been no strangers to high lottery picks in recent seasons, but those selections have mostly yielded complementary types—not transformative talents.

    Mobley has a chance to properly organize Cleveland's roster hierarchy, moving to the top of the prospect list and knocking Collin Sexton, Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro down into the supporting roles that fit them better.

Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    We won't go to the superstar well often, but there's really no choice for a Dallas Mavericks team that didn't add top-line talent over the summer. Reggie Bullock is a fine fit, and Tim Hardaway Jr. deserves the $75 million deal he got, but the Mavs aren't exactly overhauled.

    Luka Doncic was a preseason MVP short-lister last year and played like one. He lands here, despite that established level of excellence, because his 2020-21 didn't represent anything close to his peak. How could it have? He's only 22, and he's certainly not the type of coiled-spring athlete whose effectiveness will decline as he loses speed and bounce. If anything, as he continues to get into better shape, Doncic's athleticism could trend upward.

    And there's no doubt his already masterful feel and court sense will improve with more reps.

    If you flashed forward to June and learned Doncic's 2021-22 season included a triple-double average, a unanimous MVP and the Western Conference's top seed (despite less than stellar supporting talent), would you be shocked?

    I wouldn't.

Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Jamal Murray's absence while rehabbing a torn ACL will keep the Denver Nuggets out of serious contention, but it may also clear the way for Michael Porter Jr. to go nuclear for a full season.

    MPJ's progress toward stardom could hit overdrive this season as he steps into a much larger role. Last year, he averaged more points than any other player who took fewer than 14 field-goal attempts per game. Scale that up, price in the typical level of improvement you'd expect from a 23-year-old, and Porter could flirt with 30 points per game.

    Don't expect Porter to repeat his gaudy efficiency numbers—62.8 percent on twos and 44.5 percent on threes—as he adds more (and more difficult) shots to his nightly routine. But do anticipate that he will contend for the scoring title, hopefully while also making marginal progress in his defensive attentiveness, passing and synergy with Nikola Jokic.

    It's wild to imagine a team trotting out the reigning MVP and a scoring-title threat every night, but if Porter capitalizes on this opportunity, the Nuggets could live that luxury.

Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham

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    Chase Stevens/Associated Press

    It's hard to recall a top overall pick billed by so many as "can't miss," but Cade Cunningham's exceptionally well-rounded game and ideal big-wing size certainly give him one of the highest floors in recent memory.

    There's no bust in his profile, which means the only question is how big the boom might be. High floors are great, but the most exciting part of watching the Detroit Pistons rookie will be the indicators of his ceiling.

    Is the 6'7", 220-pound Cunningham a Khris Middleton clone (with better vision)—all polish and refinement without the kind of quick-twitch burst and downhill verve of the league's top-tier scoring threats? Don't mistake that question for a knock on Middleton, who just validated himself as the second-best player on a championship team. It's just that the hype suggests Cunningham is capable of being more than that.

    The difference between the Pistons mattering over the next several years will be whether Cunningham is great or merely very good.

Golden State Warriors: Jonathan Kuminga

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    Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

    Before the hype train gets rolling, understand that Jonathan Kuminga shot 39.7 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from deep against Summer League competition and might spend a chunk of the season in the G League. He's raw, inefficient and, well...still 18 years old. That third thing helps explain the first two, doesn't it?

    Shooting percentages and caveats aside, Kuminga, a 6'7", 225-pound forward, showed too many flashes of superstardom to ignore. Everyone saw him cross his defender up above the arc and take off from the dotted line, but only those who scoured every minute of his Summer League tape (raises hand proudly) know just how many other drool-worthy highlights he turned in.

    Kuminga also bullied theoretically elite defensive prospect Scottie Barnes on several drives, simply using his size and body control to put the No. 4 pick in the basket. It takes some players years to learn how to use strength like that, but Kuminga already understands he can succeed by initiating contact and trusting his ability to overpower who is in front of him.

    He sees the floor better than a teenager with his scoring instincts has a right to, surprises opponents with length around the rim and already has the frame and physical tools of a top-flight, All-NBA wing.

    If Kuminga sustains these flashes while improving his understanding of the game's finer points, the Golden State Warriors will have an ideal bridge to the future. Or a blue chip to put into a trade package for a superstar.

    Either one would be exciting.

Houston Rockets: Alperen Sengun (But Also Jalen Green, Obviously)

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Jalen Green is the easy choice. Everything about the No. 2 pick is exciting, from his style and confidence to a level of soaring athleticism probably not seen since early Zach LaVine. Just file it away that, yes, we all acknowledge Green is a walking highlight and might be a franchise-changer if he leverages his talent into more than empty scoring.

    But I just can't move on from the Houston Rockets without expressing the depth of my intrigue with No. 16 pick Alperen Sengun.

    Lacking what most would term NBA-caliber athleticism and a clear position (is he an undersized 5 or a slow-afoot 4?), Sengun entered the draft with a unique profile that prompted some to value him as highly as first among all prospects. The winner of the Turkish League MVP as an 18-year-old, Sengun has all the skill and craft in the world. If he proves his supporters right and further validates how translatable some overseas stats and achievements can be, the Rockets will have one of the best young cores in the league.

    Can Sengun's past productivity and skill hold up, outweighing his size issue and lack of conventional athleticism? Will teams lament passing on him like they do Nikola Jokic? Or will he be overwhelmed by the speed and strength of the opponents he'll face in the world's most competitive league?

    It'll be exciting to find out.

Indiana Pacers: Isaiah Jackson

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Goga Bitadze might want to look over his shoulder, as Indiana Pacers rookie Isaiah Jackson showed signs this offseason that he will push for those precious rotation minutes behind starters Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.

    Sure, Indy has a glut of bigs. But Jackson brings the above-the-rim bounce and high-energy activity that none of the three more established bigs can match. Jackson is raw, and right now he's just undersized at a willowy 6'10", 205 pounds. The mobility that comes with his frame will only become meaningful if he proves he has the discipline and fundamentals to survive on switches.

    Still, it's always worth paying attention to a player who can change the tone of a game defensively. Jackson did that in Summer League, and he did it with tools few other Pacers have. Indiana has some options up front, and playing time will be in short supply. But Jackson's potential makes him intriguing.

Los Angeles Clippers: Terance Mann

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Terance Mann was there when the Los Angeles Clippers needed him last season, stepping into the void created by Kawhi Leonard's absence and memorably burying the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the West semifinals.

    Mann, who entered the 2019 draft and slid to 48th in part because of questions about his three-point shooting, went 15-of-21 from the field (7-of-10 from deep), scoring 39 points in that career-defining game. That, after hitting 41.8 percent of his threes during the 2020-21 season. Whatever questions remained about his shooting have been answered.

    So now, with Leonard likely to miss significant time due to a torn ACL, Mann may find himself playing a sixth-man role and possibly closing games for the Clips. Even without Leonard, Los Angeles has a positional glut at the guard and wing spots with Paul George, Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard back plus additions Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow.

    But Mann's growth and demonstrated comfort with big moments could be a signal he's ready to seize major minutes. If he plays with the same intensity and shoots the ball like he did during the postseason, the Clippers won't be able to keep him off the floor.

Los Angeles Lakers: Russell Westbrook

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Talent rules in the NBA, and Russell Westbrook has a ton of it. From that simplistic perspective, the Los Angeles Lakers were right to trade for him. There's even some logic to the acquisition if you view it through a more nuanced lens. Russ can be the energetic innings-eater who reduces LeBron James' playmaking responsibilities and leads second units to break-even stretches while James and Anthony Davis rest.

    If all goes well, that plan gets the Lakers to the postseason with low mileage on their two best players, giving the franchise a shot to win its second title in three seasons.

    The excitement lies in the uncertainty tied to all of the above.

    How talented is Westbrook in the ways that matter most to a team chasing a title? Postseason opponents have exploited his lack of shooting for years, and his off-ball movement and defensive reliability have been disappointing for a player with his tools. And about those tools: Westbrook took a career-low 19.4 percent of his shots from inside three feet last year, and he dunked less frequently than ever. Ahead of his age-33 season, clear signs abound that a player more dependent on athleticism than most is, inevitably, losing explosiveness.

    There's no guarantee Westbrook can succeed in the ideal, somewhat reduced role the Lakers need him to play. And based on his track record, it's unlikely he'll be a clear positive in the playoffs.

    Westbrook seems to run on defiance and an uncompromising style. It'll be thrilling to watch him try to prove these doubts wrong.

Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Ja Morant, as athletically incendiary as human beings get, is among the most objectively exciting players in the league. But his trajectory toward stardom is a known thing; he's the Memphis Grizzlies' North Star, and it's almost impossible to bet against his becoming an icon and leader.

    Pencil him in as a Grizzlies great, basically.

    Jaren Jackson Jr.'s impact is tougher to gauge, and his development in 2021-22 will go a long way toward determining Memphis' near- and long-term ceilings.

    His age-20 season in 2019-20, which included a 39.4 percent hit rate on 6.5 three-point attempts per game, was among the best long-range shooting years ever recorded by a player 6'11" or taller. It was brilliant enough to overlook the fact that Jackson wasn't living up to his draft billing as a transformative defender. Memphis allowed more points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and Jackson's defensive rebounding has been awful for his position every year.

    Jackson played only 11 games in 2020-21 because of a torn meniscus, so it's not fair to judge him on that sample. This season, though? This is the season in which he'll return to long-bombing at high volume and prove he can survive defensively, thereby unlocking a five-out look that should allow Morant to wreak havoc in space...or not.

Miami Heat: Bam Adebayo

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Bam Adebayo's mid-range attempt frequency and accuracy have trended steadily upward in every year of his career. While a penchant for two-point jumpers normally earns an eye-roll in the era of "dunks and threes only" shot-profile optimization, that growth is critical for Adebayo and the Heat.

    But only if that growth culminates with the multi-skilled center stepping beyond the arc.

    That could happen this year, as the Heat pursue a championship with an already fight-ready roster further toughened by the additions of Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker.

    Adebayo provides immense value as a facilitator and switchable defender. Very few centers tick the as many postseason-must boxes as he does. Throw in the three-point shooting that feels like it's on the way, and the 24-year-old big man could hit a new level, taking the Heat with him.

Milwaukee Bucks: Donte DiVincenzo

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Donte DiVincenzo had plenty of motivation last season after he was traded, and then not traded, to the Sacramento Kings for Bogdan Bogdanovic. It's possible that uncertainty produced more distraction, though, as DiVincenzo made incremental progress in three-point shooting and assist rate but slipped in others, most notably his finishing inside the arc and defensive consistency.

    P.J. Tucker, who played a significant and starting role during the Bucks' title run, is gone. While new additions Grayson Allen, George Hill and Rodney Hood should all see minutes in what will likely be a downsized rotation, DiVincenzo is still the one with the most opportunity to thrive.

    He was a full-time starter prior to the ankle surgery that ended his season, and he's the one who, theoretically, provides the most two-way balance as part of the closing unit.

    This is a put-it-all-together year for DiVincenzo, and the stakes are high. The Bucks are in the East's top tier, but the Brooklyn Nets loom large alongside them, and that's to say nothing of the Heat, Hawks and Sixers.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards

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    Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Timberwolves weren't playing for much late last season, so it's risky to put stock in most of the individual performances during the stretch run. Most, but not all.

    Anthony Edwards closed with a bang, putting up ascending numbers—both in volume and efficiency—in March, April and May. To keep it tidy, let's just focus on his post-All-Star numbers: 23.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists with a 56.7 true shooting percentage. Only 14 players posted those numbers for the full 2020-21 season, and all but one of them were All-Stars. Edwards' teammate, Karl-Anthony Towns, was the 14th.

    Edwards' first half was rough, marred by inefficient shooting, defensive inattention and most of the usual  shortcomings you'd expect from a 19-year-old rookie. Those games still happened, and they count just the same, but Edwards' progress was undeniable. By the end of the year, he was playing like a high-end first option—which is exactly what the Wolves need their top overall pick to become.

    Edwards has all the tools to be a spectacular star, and he seemed to figure out how to use them as his first season wound down.

    If he starts next season playing like that and enjoys another upward trend during the 2021-22 campaign, watch out.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    An easy choice, sure, but at least we can add some specificity by saying "Point" Zion Williamson is the New Orleans Pelicans' player most worthy of excitement.

    If he occupies the on-ball role he took over toward the end of January last season for 2021-22, who knows what might be possible? It's undeniable that Williamson's altered role changed the Pels' attack for the better. Tasked with initiating the offense more often from February on, Williamson's assist rate climbed (with negligible growth in hist turnover percentage). The key: New Orleans' offensive efficiency exploded right in tandem with Williamson's takeover.

    In January, the Pelicans posted a 112.6 offensive rating, which climbed to a gaudy 122.7 in February and held strong at 116.3 in March. New Orleans' overall scoring slipped in April and May, but its offensive ratings with Zion on the floor during those months were 119 and 113, respectively. The connection is hard to miss.

    Williamson's physical dominance and unprecedented package of size, skill and athleticism are what make him special. Now, he'll get the chance to leverage all those gifts at his best position for a full season.

New York Knicks: Kemba Walker

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Start with the homecoming angle.

    Can you imagine the vibe in Madison Square Garden whenever Kemba Walker, a New York City legend who starred at Rice High in Harlem, has a big scoring run? This is a guy whose signing drew tears of joy from local coaches and fans who remember him coming up in one of the nation's most hallowed youth basketball circuits.

    Has MSG stress-tested its roof lately?  Because if a player who means this much to the city hits, say, a game-winner, that thing might lift off of the building.

    Less sentimentally, Walker also represents a missing ingredient in the New York Knicks' makeup. He and Evan Fournier will increase the team's shot-creation options, especially in the pick-and-roll. If healthy enough to play regularly (an admittedly big if), Walker could improve the Knicks' offense enough to offset what might be some imminent regression in the luck factor on D. It's unlikely New York will hold opponents to the lowest three-point hit rate in the league again; those numbers are notoriously fickle year to year.

    You just have to love the possibilities here with Walker—both as a venerated icon and sorely needed on-court contributor.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

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    Garett Fisbeck/Associated Press

    If Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had played 100 games last season, I still would have wanted to see more. The aesthetic appeal of his unique pace and craft is that strong. The way he hesitates, weaves, refuses to rush and caps whatever multi-step dance he's performing with some kind of off-time, deceptive finish conjures images of the league's great practitioners of guile.

    He's part Dwyane Wade, part Manu Ginobili, even part Kevin McHale if you want to find historical precursors for his patient fakes and spins near the bucket.

    Thirty-five games wasn't nearly enough—not when SGA was clearly breaking all the way out. His skill was mixing with production like never before, as the guard (now rightfully maxed out on a new deal) posted 23.7 points, 5.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds on a 50.8/41.8/80.8 shooting split during his abbreviated season.

    Just 23, Gilgeous-Alexander is already an All-Star-level talent. That his game is also among the NBA's prettiest to watch only makes him more of a draw.

Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Just be healthy, please.

    Jonathan Isaac has been out since tearing his ACL last August in the Orlando bubble, and his comments to Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel suggest his return at the start of the 2021-22 season is far from certain. The caution is understandable given the length of the 23-year-old's injury history.

    Previous knee and foot issues have cost him more than half of the games he could have possibly played during his four-year career. Luck like that makes Isaac one of the league's easiest players to root for.

    If he returns to the floor, flashes his DPOY-level impact and continues to develop as a three-point shooter, the switchable big man would warm a lot of hearts and give the Orlando Magic someone to build around besides rookie Jalen Suggs.

Philadelphia 76ers: Paul Reed

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Paul Reed has now smoked the competition at two NBA-adjacent levels. Last year's G League Rookie of the Year and MVP, Reed subsequently ran wild in Summer League. He averaged 17.4 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.2 blocks across five games in Las Vegas, highlighted by one of the most dominant single Summer League games in memory.

    Whether his efforts in the NBA's equivalent of the minor leagues will translate to the big show remains to be seen. That the Sixers brought in Andre Drummond to replace Dwight Howard as Joel Embiid's backup suggests they're not sold on Reed as a rotation fixture just yet.

    Some of that is understandable. Reed is a tantalizingly switchable defensive option, but he's not quite center-sized at 6'9", which limits his ability to deter shots inside. Still, if his three-point shooting (44.4 percent on 3.6 attempts per game) holds up, it's going to be difficult for the Sixers to justify keeping him off the floor—if only as a change-of-pace option at center against backup units.

    The talent is there, and so is the productivity at the lower levels. Reed can give the 76ers an intriguing dimension—if he gets a shot to play.

Phoenix Suns: Mikal Bridges

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Mikal Bridges wasn't a full-time starter until last season, a fact helps offset whatever lack of improvement you'd normally expect from a player who's already 25.

    It's not like Bridges has to get any better to make a major impact. His three-and-D skill set is basically ideal in the modern NBA. But the 6'7" wing has improved, expanding his game to include more shot-creating aptitude. Last season he added an array of useful one-dribble attacks against aggressive closeouts, and Bridges also excelled in converting the types of shots those pump-and-go moves create. He hit 50 percent of his attempts in the 3-10 foot range, a huge improvement over the 33.9 percent he shot in 2019-20.

    Nothing matters more than Bridges steadily climbing three-point accuracy—from 33.5 percent as a rookie to 36.1 percent in 2019-20 to 42.5 percent this past year—but don't sleep on the quiet steps he's taking in other areas.

    Bridges is an elite specialist, but he could become an even more complete two-way threat this season.

Portland Trail Blazers: Larry Nance Jr.

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    At the risk of overstating the importance of a player who's never sniffed an All-Star game and might not even be in the starting lineup, Larry Nance Jr. feels like a solution to many of the Portland Trail Blazers' problems.

    Though he hasn't played much center over the last two years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the 28-year-old actually spent the majority of his time there in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. For a Blazers team that could use a downsized, skill-based change of pace at the 5 when matchups don't favor Jusuf Nurkic, Nance is a fantastic option.

    Portland also needs some defensive disruption and competent passing from its roll man, and Nance is the only active big man with a career steal rate above 2.5 percent and an assist rate above 11.0 percent. Two more boxes checked.

    Nurkic is a valuable piece, but you've got to like the potential of a Blazers closing five made up of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Nance. That group could tie defenses in knots and flummox opposing offenses with a switch-heavy look—all made possible by Nance's unique game.

Sacramento Kings: Davion Mitchell

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Very few teams are good enough to draft for positional need, and the Sacramento Kings aren't in that small category. So, just as a general principle, there was nothing wrong with them grabbing 6'0" Davion Mitchell at No. 9, despite already having De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, two smallish guards, on the roster.

    There will be a whole lot right with that decision if Mitchell's All-Defensive shutdown capacity against guards extends to wings.

    There aren't many on-ball pests more committed or intimidating than the Baylor product, but if he can check the larger opponents at the 2 and 3 that neither Fox nor Haliburton have the heft to handle, the Kings can confidently play all three guards together. Nobody has ever complained about too much primary playmaking on offense, and what would effectively be a three-point-guard lineup could give Sacramento all kinds of scoring flow. It'd be a true luxury, not to mention a boon to what needs to become one of the league's most high-frequency transition attacks.

    Mitchell looked capable of guarding up during Summer League. It will be thrilling to see whether his intensity and strength allow him to do that in the regular season.

San Antonio Spurs: Devin Vassell

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Devin Vassell only averaged 5.5 points per game and shot a touch below the league average from every where but the foul line as a rookie, but he was clearly doing something right. It's not easy for young players to earn plaudits from Gregg Popovich, and Vassell was the recipient of plenty of them.

    "As far as basketball goes, he’s a good shooter," Popovich told Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express News following Vassell's career-high 18 points against the Grizzlies on April 17. "He's long. He understands how to play. Defensively, he is starting to figure out the physicality of the game. He’s coachable. He’s pleasant to be around. He's just a wonderful guy."

    Pop usually waits until a player ages into his 30s before praising him that effusively, but Vassell's exciting future is about more than earning the rare "atta boy" from his coach. He's an ideal-sized wing who readily shoots the three, rebounds pretty well for his position and holds up just fine on defense. Just 21, Vassell could be in line for a much larger role this year and, potentially, more praise.

Toronto Raptors: OG Anunoby

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    OG Anunoby has a legitimate chance to finish the 2021-22 season as one of the top two-way forwards in the league and the Toronto Raptors' best player.

    He's made incremental progress as a ball-handler and three-point shooter during his first four seasons, setting new career bests in three-point percentage (39.8 percent) and volume (6.1 attempts per game), assist percentage (10.1) and finishing a ridiculous 75.9 percent of his shots around the rim last year.

    Anunoby's defensive prowess hardly requires mention. He's impossible to overpower, handles centers often in the Raptors' schemes and might be the most complete one-on-one defender in the league.

    It's possible Anunoby will continue to make small strides offensively. Even a tiny step forward should earn him All-Star consideration. But there's also the potential for a full-on breakthrough. The Raptors will take either scenario, but they'd prefer the latter, which is absolutely on the table.

Utah Jazz: Donovan Mitchell

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    With some exceptions, this exercise has put the focus more on breakout candidates than established stars who could still level up.

    Donovan Mitchell fits into that underrepresented group, though his nomination here also owes to a Utah Jazz team that hasn't undergone much change. It's mostly a known commodity.

    An All-Star for the second time last season, Mitchell finally got his true shooting percentage up above the league average, while also developing as a facilitator. Mike Conley's presence means it's not often necessary, but Mitchell is rapidly going from being a theoretical option at the point to a practical one. He was one of just eight players to average at least 26.0 points per game while also posting an assist percentage north of 26.0 percent.

    Utah was notably worse on defense with Mitchell in the game during the year, and though his postseason D might deserve a pass because of an ankle injury, he was complicit in the Jazz's fatal inability to keep perimeter threats out of the lane. That's where the real progress could come for Mitchell, who at least needs to round out his game to keep up with Devin Booker in the unofficial "No, I'm the best young shooting guard in the league" competition.

Washington Wizards: Spencer Dinwiddie

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    It's been a minute since we saw Spencer Dinwiddie in the type of role he'll have with the Washington Wizards. Though he won't be the top option with Bradley Beal on the floor, he'll run the show for long stretches and operate on the ball frequently, regardless of who else is playing with him.

    After logging just three games last season and sharing lead guard duties with with Kyrie Irving in 2019-20, Dinwiddie is in position to prove he's a top-flight offensive engine.

    He'll certainly have to do better than his career 31.8 percent knockdown clip from deep, but his willingness to take treys at high volume off the dribble has value in itself. Defenders play Dinwiddie tight on the perimeter for that reason, which affords him more opportunities to get into the lane and utilize his excellent foul-drawing craft. He doesn't have to shoot all that well from the perimeter to score efficiently overall. Lots of free throws take care of that.

    The best version of Dinwiddie will be a more positively impactful player than Russell Westbrook was in Washington.


    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Spotrac.


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