Every NBA Team's Biggest X-Factor for 2021-22 Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 1, 2021

Every NBA Team's Biggest X-Factor for 2021-22 Season

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    NBA superstars are the biggest determinants of their team's success. Nothing matters more than the health and performance of a top option.

    But you didn't come here to read a rundown of the obvious. You already know Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo hold the fates of franchises in their hands. Instead, we're here to highlight a player that sits a lower in his team's hierarchy but has the potential to significantly influence the season. We're not quite at "as he goes, so goes the team" levels, but we're close.

    These are players who've shown flashes but still bring considerable uncertainty into the year ahead. Most have upside, some carry health questions and all will be critical in determining whether their team maximizes its potential.

    These are the NBA's X-factors.

Atlanta Hawks: De'Andre Hunter

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Do the Atlanta Hawks have one of those coveted three-and-D role players on a rookie-scale deal? A guy who could go for 20 points on solid efficiency more often than not, while also handling the toughest defensive assignment on the wing?

    De'Andre Hunter sure looked like that guy early in 2020-21 when he averaged 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists on a 51.4/36.6/87.7 shooting split before a knee injury effectively ended his season.

    Trae Young is an offense unto himself, so the Hawks could surround him with four limited support pieces and still score the ball without issue. But if Hunter is the defensively stellar, knockdown shooter with an expanding off-the-dribble game he appeared to be, the Hawks could have themselves an ideal running mate for Young.

    The Hawks have loads of wing depth, but Hunter reprising his pre-injury work from last year for the full 2021-22 campaign would take the team up a notch. And that's a big deal for a club that has already reached the conference finals.

Boston Celtics: Robert Williams III

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    Robert Williams III has an uncommon combo of size and athleticism, not to mention surprising court sense that contributes to the persistent feeling that maybe, just maybe, the 23-year-old center is poised to become something special.

    It's risky to put so much stock in Williams' vision and passing. Those are typically auxiliary skills, luxuries that are great to have but not as integral to the position as rim protection, rebounding and interior finishing. But if you view Williams' assist rate (80th percentile at his position) and assist-to-usage percentage (92nd percentile) as signs he sees and processes the game with advanced feel, those stats suggest the big man has the capacity to master other cerebral elements of the game.

    Combined with his physical tools, Williams' developing mental prowess could produce a terrifically potent center.

    There's no guarantee Williams, who averaged 15.2 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per 36 minutes last season, will put it all together. But the Boston Celtics extended him on a new four-year, $54 million contract this offseason, which indicates they believe his best is yet to come.

    A Williams breakout would give the Celtics a dominant interior force to support their star wings and nudge the team into the conference's top tier, not unlike Deandre Ayton did for the Phoenix Suns a year ago.

Brooklyn Nets: Blake Griffin

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Rumors of Blake Griffin's demise were greatly exaggerated.

    Signed by the Brooklyn Nets after a buyout from the Detroit Pistons, Griffin played over twice as many postseason minutes at center as any other teammate. He shot it well from deep, showcased great vision at a frontcourt spot and even held up defensively.

    With Paul Millsap aboard and LaMarcus Aldridge back, Brooklyn has options if Griffin's resurgence falters. That's without even mentioning rangy big man Nicolas Claxton who, if the Nets would ever give him a real chance, might deserve this X-factor spot over Griffin.

    Can Brooklyn survive in a switching scheme that involves Griffin for a full season? Will the former superstar continue to embrace a minor role? Might we be putting too much stock in his relatively short stint with the Nets, during which he looked nowhere close to washed, and not enough in the preceding couple of years that suggested the contrary?

    It feels appropriate to end the examination of one of the greatest dunkers in history with this note: Griffin slammed 18 times in 560 minutes with the Nets after registering zero flushes in 626 minutes with the Pistons last season. If he remains rejuvenated to that degree, or looks even better with his last surgery (Feb. 2020) fading further into the past, Brooklyn will have its answer at center and one of the most overqualified fifth options in the league.

Charlotte Hornets: Kelly Oubre Jr.

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Even the most charitable analysis wouldn't rate Kelly Oubre Jr. any higher than sixth or seventh in the Charlotte Hornets' roster hierarchy. He's not likely to start, and he won't ever take on playmaking duties with LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward around.

    Nonetheless, Oubre can give the Hornets defensive tenacity and rangy athleticism, two qualities that figure to fit perfectly in an uptempo, free-flowing environment. Ball's transition genius is only more dangerous at high frequency, and Oubre is the type of aggressive, pick-you-up-full-court menace that naturally creates scattered situations on the floor.

    Once Charlotte establishes an up-and-down cadence, few teams have the personnel to keep pace.

    Oubre is also a relentless attacker on offense, hunting driving lanes and lurking for putbacks. Sure, he has crippling tunnel vision, but he's a hard-charging, high-rising play finisher. If all the Hornets ask him to do is create havoc on D and feast on the open looks his teammates generate, Oubre could force his way into Sixth Man of the Year talks and define Charlotte's run-and-gun second unit.

Chicago Bulls: Patrick Williams

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bulls are built around three substandard defenders, all of whom will see hefty playing time because of their undeniable offensive punch. But with a roster so dependent on Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan, somebody's going to have to pick up all that defensive slack.

    Patrick Williams could be that someone.

    Obviously, the second-year forward won't be able to cover for 60 percent of the Bulls' best lineup providing wet-paper-towel levels of defensive resistance. He's not prime Draymond Green. But he frequently guarded the opposition's toughest assignments as a rookie, and he relishes that role. The desire to be a stopper is half the battle.

    The 6'7" combo forward was above average in block and steal rate for his position as a rookie, not exactly a shock for an athletic 19-year-old with a high-revving motor. To reach the next level defensively, Williams will have to prove his grasp of positioning and improve his anticipatory reading of the floor. Considering his teammates, his help defense may matter even more than his one-on-one work.

    With Thaddeus Young gone and no other potentially elite wing defenders in line for major minutes, Williams might be the Bulls' only hope at slowing down opposing offenses. If his severe ankle sprain sets him back for the start of the season, the Bulls could be in real trouble. But if he thrives and helps Chicago field a defense anywhere close to league average, this is a clear playoff team.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    Darius Garland made one of the biggest leaps nobody talked about last season, putting up 17.4 points and 6.1 assists per game while hitting 39.5 percent of his threes. We're thin-slicing the data to make a point, but it's still compelling to note that the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard was one of just nine players last season to post a true shooting percentage north of 54.0 percent, a usage rate of at least 24.0 percent and an assist rate over 30.0 percent.

    The other eight are household names.

    The Cavs have had plenty of cracks at the lottery over the past several years, but none of their selections profiles as a clear cornerstone. Collin Sexton and Isaac Okoro figure to be in the league a long time, but neither seems ticketed for stardom, and it's way too early to tell what Evan Mobley might become.

    Garland, though, has a shot to establish himself as the force that makes Cleveland's offense go. He's the team's best facilitator, a 43.2 percent marksman on catch-and-shoot threes and much more of a pure point guard than the score-first Sexton.

    If Garland continues his growth trajectory, he could realign the Cavaliers' pecking order and priorities. Nothing gives a team clarity like a locked-in star at the point.

Dallas Mavericks: Kristaps Porzingis

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    If Kristaps Porzingis can play this year like he did in the Orlando bubble—28.2 points and 9.7 rebounds per game while shooting 42.4 percent from deep and moving well enough to function as a legitimate defensive force—the Dallas Mavericks could become a sneaky title contender.

    If he looks like the less dynamic and mobile edition of himself we saw during the 2020-21 season, and if he spends too much time stationed in the corner on offense and struggling to keep up on D, well...Dallas will be roughly where it was this past season, totally reliant on Luka Doncic's solo efforts.

    There are worse downsides than trusting in a future MVP to carry you on his own, but the Mavericks are so much more dangerous when Porzingis is healthy and impactful on both ends.

    Per ESPN's Tim MacMahon, the big man's mood is much better following Dallas' decision to replace head coach Rick Carlisle with Jason Kidd. The best version of Porzingis makes the Mavs a legitimate threat; anything less, and their two-way firepower just isn't potent enough to win playoff series against the league's best.

Denver Nuggets: Michael Porter Jr.

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Nothing Michael Porter Jr. does in what could be a massive breakout of a third season will make Denver Nuggets fans forget about Jamal Murray. But if MPJ hits a level this year above anything Denver's star guard achieved prior to tearing his ACL—and then the Nuggets get Murray back at something close to full strength—look out.

    Porter isn't a lock to ascend this season. He's been durable since missing his entire rookie year following back surgery, but it's still hard to cast off the worrisome shroud that lingers after a major operation so early in a player's career. In addition to good luck on the health front, Porter must continue to validate his gains as a team defender and passer. 

    If enough breaks right, there'll be no stopping Porter, a second option at least until Murray returns, from surpassing 25.0 points per game on elite efficiency. He's got scoring-title upside—a fact made plain by the 19.0 points he averaged on just 13.4 shot attempts per game in his age-22 season. All MPJ needs is more looks, and he's going to get them.

    Denver may always struggle to build a championship defense around Nikola Jokic, but a big year from Porter would make it the most unstoppable offensive force in the league (non-Brooklyn division). That would create more margin for error on the other end, potentially giving the Nuggets a real title shot.

Detroit Pistons: Killian Hayes

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    What we don't know about Killian Hayes after an injury-hit 26-game rookie season outweighs what we do know by a factor of 10. Is his three-point shot, which fell at just a 27.8 percent clip, including a truly troubling 20.8 percent on pull-up treys, an indication he can't thrive in the off-ball, supporting role he's destined to play alongside Cade Cunningham?

    Is his value diminished if he's not a true point guard, and did his increased minutes at the 2 late last year suggest the Pistons don't believe in his skills as a distributor? Is it even remotely fair to make that assessment about a teenage rookie?

    Just as critically, how will Hayes handle the abrupt transition from lottery-selected franchise pillar and unquestioned focal point to second fiddle? Cunningham is the face of the organization now, a status Hayes enjoyed for, what, a handful of months?

    It's possible Hayes will validate his draft pedigree and that his promising combo of size (6'5") and vision (7.4 assists per 36 minutes) will pan out with a full season of health. Or, he might recede into the background behind a starrier, slightly younger new teammate. You'd better believe the Pistons hope it's the former and that they end the 2021-22 season a lot more certain they've got a promising one-two punch than they are right now.

Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole

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    You might argue Klay Thompson deserves this spot. The return of a five-time All-Star and historically elite shooter who was arguably the premier three-and-D force in the league for the better part of a decade is a big deal. But it kind of feels like we know what we're going to get from Thompson whenever he returns: a very useful wing who'll be somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of what he was three years ago.

    Expecting much more after two full seasons off and two devastating injuries is unrealistic. Expecting much less would discount the value of his shooting which, even if other skills are rusty, feels like a certainty.

    While we have a rough range of what Thompson should provide, Jordan Poole is a different case.

    Outside of Stephen Curry, Poole is the only Golden State Warriors player who can reliably handle the ball, make plays off the dribble and run the pick-and-roll at high volume. His role on this team is absolutely critical, particularly in light of last year's total offensive collapse whenever Curry wasn't on the floor.

    Can Poole be the player he was over the final weeks of 2020-21 after coming back from a stint in the G League, when he played like a Sixth Man of the Year candidate? Is he the smooth, three-level scorer he consistently appeared to be during that stretch? Or will he perform at levels that got him sent down in the first place? That the Warriors haven't shored up their guard positions with playmakers suggests they believe Poole is for real, and I tend to agree.

    But the fate of Golden State's non-Curry offense essentially depends on 22-year-old guard who's played about two good months of NBA basketball.

Houston Rockets: Kevin Porter Jr.

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    Cast as a wing during his rookie season and then cast off altogether by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kevin Porter Jr. somewhat surprisingly assumed lead playmaking duties down the stretch for the Houston Rockets last year.

    The new role suited him.

    A 6'4" lefty who glides around the floor, Porter thrived as a primary playmaker. His numbers are a bit inflated by a 50-point, 11-assist night against the Milwaukee Bucks on April 29, but the second-year guard averaged 16.6 points and 6.3 assists in 26 games (23 starts) for the Rockets. Boasting a step-back three that conjures memories of another left-handed offensive force from Houston's past, Porter also sees the floor extremely well for his age and is a willing passer.

    Currently a zero on defense whose presence on the floor coincided with a drastic spike in points allowed per possession last year, Porter is far from a finished product. But he's the youngest player to ever post a 50-point, 10-assist game, and he plays with the confidence of someone who expects to put up those kinds of numbers.

    Houston is in a full rebuild with No. 2 pick Jalen Green as the centerpiece. But with John Wall on ice this season as the team looks to trade him, Porter is set to have the ball in his hands more than anyone else on the roster. He'll get ample opportunity to prove last year's closing flourish was legit. If he does, the Rockets' backcourt of the future will be set.

Indiana Pacers: T.J. Warren

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    The Indiana Pacers finished fourth in the East two years ago, propelled to those heights largely by a career year from T.J. Warren that helped establish him as one of the game's top two-way forwards.

    In 2019-20, Warren averaged 19.8 points on a 53.6/40.3/81.9 shooting split while committing to defense like never before. He was one of the superstars of the Orlando bubble, producing 26.6 points per game and embracing a leadership role. He's barely played since, limited to just four games last season by a foot injury that has yet to fully heal, rendering his 2021-22 debut uncertain.

    The Pacers were just 34-38 this past season, finishing ninth in the conference and slipping from seventh to 14th in defensive efficiency. Warren's absence and Indy's slide down the East hierarchy are undeniably related.

    Adding the 2019-20 version of Warren to this year's Pacers could bump them up into the conference's crowded second tier alongside the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and a handful of others. But if Indy either doesn't have Warren back for a large chunk of the year or only gets him in a diminished state, the lottery is a real possibility.

Los Angeles Clippers: Eric Bledsoe

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    Derick Hingle/Associated Press

    Terance Mann's upside is obvious in the wake of his playoff performance, particularly the 39-point explosion that triggered perhaps the most notable comeback in Los Angeles Clippers history. He was integral in eliminating the Utah Jazz, helping hoist the Clips to their first-ever conference finals appearance.

    Serge Ibaka, limited by injury to 41 games during the year and just two in the playoffs, is also key to a season that will require all hands on deck to compensate for what should be a protracted Kawhi Leonard absence. Ibaka's stretch skills and rim protection (still there, but waning) give L.A. a dimension it can't get from anyone else.

    All that said, Eric Bledsoe is the X-factor pick here. A dreadful 2020-21 season with the New Orleans Pelicans has Bledsoe's stock sitting near an all-time low. His shooting struggles feel a bit overblown; he hit 34.1 percent of his threes in New Orleans. That's hardly catastrophic, and Bledsoe still has plenty of other assets that could benefit the Clippers. He's exceptionally strong, which has long helped him get to the rim at high frequency (up until the Pelicans made him a spot-up shooter last year), and he landed on All-Defensive teams in 2018-19 and 2019-20.

    Tasked with defending, attacking the rim and fitting into a system in Los Angeles, Bledsoe could be in for a serious bounce-back year. There's no reason he can't come full circle, regaining fringe All-Star status through energy and effort in the place where he first established those traits as a young player a decade ago.

Los Angeles Lakers: Russell Westbrook

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    Sorry to go with such a big name, but it's not like selecting Russell Westbrook, who's no better than No. 3 in the Los Angeles Lakers' pecking order, violates the trend of not selecting a team's best player.

    Besides, Westbrook is sure to have a disproportionately large impact on Los Angeles' season.

    If Russ looks like the guy who helped haul the Washington Wizards to a 17-6 finish, and if he slots into a tertiary role built on playmaking, transition attacks and sound team defense, the Lakers could cruise through the regular season. The playoffs, where Westbrook's shooting has long been a hindrance, may be another story. But if part of Westbrook's contributions this season include eating up minutes so LeBron James and Anthony Davis hit the playoffs rested, he'll have indirectly improved the Lakers' postseason chances.

    The ugly side of the Russ-Lakers arrangement can't be ignored.

    Never useful as an off-ball threat, historically a gambler on D and repeatedly unable to tailor his style of play to fit with other star teammates, Westbrook could disrupt chemistry and actively diminish Los Angeles' two best players. Stranger things have happened, but trusting Westbrook to compromise for the first time in his career feels risky.

    Then again, with James playing out the last shreds of his prime, maybe this is precisely the time to take a risk on someone like Russ.

Memphis Grizzlies: Jaren Jackson Jr.

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Jaren Jackson Jr.'s shooting is a given, which feels like a bold assumption because the Memphis Grizzlies big man hit just 28.3 percent of his triples last year.

    Throw that number all the way out. It's meaningless, based on a tiny sample of a season lost almost entirely to injury. Focus instead on Jackson's historically good 2019-20 showing, which included a 39.4 percent hit rate on 6.5 deep attempts per game. The only other player 6'11" or taller to pull that off in a season is Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Jackson is going to be an elite floor-stretcher in the frontcourt. Book it. What's less certain is how he'll hold up on D.

    Billed as a potential five-position defender with rim-protecting abilities coming out of Michigan State, the professional version of Jackson has played with precious little force inside and hasn't held up on the perimeter all that well. He's fouled too often, rebounded at alarmingly low rates and done more harm than good as a defender in each of the past two seasons.

    It's too early to give up on a player with this much talent. Jackson could take a major step forward defensively, if only because his shortcomings there have been so obvious that he has to have been working on that end all offseason. If he merely becomes adequate on D, Jackson and his almost unparalleled value as a spacer get to stay on the floor more often. The cascading effect of his presence on Ja Morant, who needs driving lanes to play his best, could be massive.

    Memphis has a chance to surprise if Jackson breaks out.

Miami Heat: Tyler Herro

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The age of the Miami Heat's updated roster seems to be the main concern going into 2021-22. With Kyle Lowry (35) and P.J. Tucker (36) joining 32-year-old (with the mileage of a 35-year-old) Jimmy Butler in the projected starting lineup, the Heat are no spring chickens.

    Tied to that potentially problematic collection of aging talents: a lack of depth. Older players break down and need more nights off even when relatively healthy. Who'll be ready to soak up major minutes in reserve—not just holding down the fort but actively increasing leads and taking over games?

    Miami has to hope Tyler Herro answers that call.

    Herro's 2020-21 season only felt disappointing because we were measuring it against one of the more memorable playoff stretches ever produced by someone his age. Herro was the youngest player to score 30 points in a conference finals game. He hardly has to apologize for failing to make history all the time. Besides, his age-21 season featured averages of 15.1 points and 3.4 assists on 54.3 percent true shooting. The few guys who've produced numbers like those have gone on to enjoy wildly successful careers.

    Herro should be the lead option on a thin bench, and his combination of youth and scoring prowess will be sorely needed on a Heat team that sacrificed future flexibility and depth to field a battle-tested contender. If he's up for the challenge ahead, Miami's ceiling increases considerably.

Milwaukee Bucks: Semi Ojeleye

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    This is a bit of a deep pull, but the Milwaukee Bucks lost P.J. Tucker to the Heat this offseason, and they're going to need someone to replace the veteran forward's defense.

    Held back by a nonexistent off-the-dribble game, Semi Ojeleye never carved out a major role in four years with the Boston Celtics. He defended wings and forwards ably, though, and his three-point shooting was within acceptable ranges the past two years, when the muscle-bound reserve hit 37.8 and 36.7 percent of his long bombs, respectively. At least on offense, Ojeleye can fill the Tucker role.

    The 26-year-old doesn't have Tucker's reputation on the other end, but then, few do. It's possible, however, that Ojeleye, a decade younger than Tucker, could perform at least as well as the guy he's replacing this year. Tucker is in that range where players' declines accelerate at light speed, while Ojeleye is in his prime.

    Milwaukee is the defending champ, which by definition means it has fewer unknowns and potential holes than most other teams. Ojeleye could be the guy to fill one of its only clear voids.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Jaden McDaniels

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    The Minnesota Timberwolves are likely to start four offense-first players this coming season, so they need a defensive presence in that fifth spot. That shortcoming is part of the reason Ben Simmons, a two-time All-Defensive first-teamer, should have such trade appeal in Minnesota.

    Assuming no blockbuster is imminent, Jaden McDaniels looks like the best option to start and play significant minutes at power forward.

    An outrageously good shot-blocker as a rookie in 2020-21, McDaniels has the tools—length, energy, springs—to be a tremendous all-around stopper. He showed plenty of flashes last season and will have every opportunity to earn playing time and game-closing rights this year. When the Wolves need a one-on-one stop or a bailout weak-side block, he's the guy they'll count on to provide it.

    McDaniels shot 36.4 percent from deep on good volume as a rookie, and he pushed his limits on offense during an encouraging summer league performance. Reliable fifth-option scoring would be a nice bonus, but McDaniels' impact on the Wolves will be greatest on D. Few teams need a young player to emerge like Minnesota needs McDaniels.

New Orleans Pelicans: Brandon Ingram

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    The "no alphas allowed" rule precludes Zion Williamson from appearing here, even if the revelation that he underwent foot surgery over the summer adds an X-factor-appropriate level of uncertainty to his upcoming third season. We'll go one rung down the ladder to focus on Brandon Ingram instead.

    Ingram's growth stalled last season, which is only a problem if you embrace the fallacy that progress is linear. An All-Star and winner of the Most Improved Player award in 2019-20, Ingram essentially replicated the numbers that earned him all that recognition last season—yet his performance somehow felt like a disappointment. We all wanted the breakout to continue, to gain steam, culminating in All-NBA status.

    There's still plenty of time for the 24-year-old to deliver on those lofty expectations.

    The 4.9 assists per game he averaged last year were a career high, and even more improvement as a playmaker could elevate Ingram's game. A step forward on defense would be just as meaningful—both to Ingram and the Pels. Despite great length and mobility at 6'9", Ingram's steal rates have always been disappointingly below average. And whether he starts disrupting defenses with steals or deflections, he also has to become a more reliable piece of his team's efforts in basic ways: staying in a stance, reading the opposing offense and making the requisite efforts to help teammates.

    Williamson is the transcendent star, but there's no reason Ingram can't keep pace and help New Orleans end this season with the league's undisputed best young duo.

New York Knicks: RJ Barrett

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    RJ Barrett progressed nicely in his second season, taking more threes and hitting them at a 40.1 percent clip after canning just 32.0 percent as a rookie. His steal and block rates declined, but he was more positively impactful on the New York Knicks' defensive bottom line. That tradeoff could mean Barrett gained a better understanding of the nuances of team defense while relying less on gambling and athleticism.

    Though he still shoots entirely too many two-point jumpers and, because of that penchant, ranked in the 37th percentile of points per shot attempt at his position, Barrett is still on pace to be a special player. Only two others in league history matched his combo of 17.6 points per game on at least 40.0 percent shooting from deep as 20-year-olds: Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal.

    Nobody's saying Barrett is locked onto a superstar track, but past precedent says he could be in line for a major leap in his third season. If he explodes, it'll offset possible regression from 2020-21 overperformers Julius Randle and Derrick Rose, not to mention an opponent three-point percentage that has to come up from 30th in the league.

    Barrett fits the coveted big-wing-who-can-score-and-defend prototype, and fulfilling his potential in that role won't just help the Knicks sustain last season's gains in the standings. It would give them a shot to climb even higher.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Darius Bazley

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are one big grab bag of X-factors, which may just be a polite way of saying there's no way to know what anyone outside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will do this season.

    Theo Maledon (20), Josh Giddey (18), Luguentz Dort (22) and especially Aleksej Pokusevski (19) all have breakout potential—in some cases because merely not doing massive damage while on the floor would count as a breakout. Darius Bazley is in a slightly different situation, and his higher immediate upside earns him the nod here.

    Bazley shot 39.6 percent from the field and 29.0 percent on threes as a 20-year-old last year, wildly inefficient figures that earned him the second-worst true shooting percentage among the 93 players who attempted at least 12 shots per game in 2020-21. Despite that, the lanky forward showed enough as a straight-line driver and on-ball threat to inspire confidence he'll eventually be a high-functioning scorer at one of the forward spots. Ideally, Bazley would flash some small-ball center chops, but he's just not quite big enough to profile as a real option in that role yet.

    Gilgeous-Alexander was the only OKC player to average more than Bazley's 31.2 minutes per game last year, and we should keep in mind that even modest numbers like Bazley's 13.7 points per game are noteworthy in an age-20 season. Generally, guys who see significant playing time and scoring chances this young amount to something. Bazley, boasting real defensive potential and in line to build on all the experience he's gained at such a young age, could quickly join SGA as a long-term keeper in OKC.

Orlando Magic: Jalen Suggs

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    The Orlando Magic are starting all the way over, so it's only right that the youngest high-profile addition to their rebuild has the most bearing on the franchise's outlook.

    No, Jalen Suggs may not have the greatest impact on Orlando's record this season. Jonathan Isaac, Terrence Ross and even second-year guard Cole Anthony (among others) could make bigger differences this season. But through the longer lens of Orlando's big-picture goals, Suggs is the key.

    The combo guard came into the league with the defensive acumen to be a plus on that end right away, and if his off-the-dribble shooting is consistent enough, the Magic may have themselves a potential All-Star in a couple of years. Suggs' floor is unusually high; he's smart, plays hard and has enough variety and intangibles in his game to survive for a long time as a rotation player. But the Magic's most exciting future is built around a version of Suggs who becomes much more than that.

    We won't see anything close to the full picture of what's possible as Suggs works through the inevitable growing pains of a rookie year on a losing team, but a few flashes here and there will give hints as to whether he's a franchise-lifter or merely a good pro.

Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons

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    Will the Philadelphia 76ers have a three-time All-Star who can make plays, single-handedly forge a devastating transition attack and guard all five positions in their starting lineup...or won't they?

    Ben Simmons' refusal to report to camp and radio silence with the Sixers suggests Philly will not have a player who can make all the aforementioned contributions, but that leaves open the question of what it'll have instead. Who knows what goodies might come back in a Simmons trade, or when they'll be inbound? It's not exaggeration to say whatever happens with Simmons will fundamentally alter the character of the Sixers organization.

    Even when it's someone like Simmons, who seems wholly unlikely to suit up for the team, he has to be the X-factor. No other player has his franchise in such a state of limbo, with so many possible futures laid out ahead.

    You can't overthink these.

Phoenix Suns: Jalen Smith

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    Only suckers put their full trust in summer league, but maybe Jalen Smith did enough in Las Vegas to deserve a little bit of faith that he's ready to validate his draft status. With averages of 16.3 points and 12.5 rebounds, Smith looked far from being a lost cause.

    The 6'10" forward went to the Phoenix Suns with the 10th pick in 2020 and then averaged just 5.8 minutes per game in 27 appearances. Smith is still best known for not being Tyrese Haliburton, whom the Sacramento Kings selected two spots later, but he can change that. 

    The Suns could certainly use the defensive energy and rebounding Smith could bring in the frontcourt, whether paired with or in relief of rising star Deandre Ayton. Smith's shooting potential was a factor in his draft position, and if that aspect of his game pans out, Phoenix could field some intimidating five-out units against backups, replicating a lot of what Dario Saric brought to the table in 2020-21.

    JaVale McGee is newly aboard as Ayton's likeliest backup, but this will be the veteran's age-34 season, and his game is mostly just a watered-down version of Ayton's. Smith has a chance to broaden the Suns' options, adding athleticism and stretch (he took 7.0 threes per game in Vegas) as they try to defend their West crown.

Portland Trail Blazers: Nassir Little

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Jason Quick's reporting in The Athletic left little doubt about whom to watch during preseason play: "As I’ve asked this month about the offseason progress and work ethic of players, there was no hemming and hawing. This was an offseason when a player clearly separated himself. The player? Nassir Little."

    It's not just that Little, a powerfully built wing, changed his diet and spent the summer working on his shot, per Quick. It's that the Blazers stand to gain so much from having a young, developing forward who can hit an open three, attack off the dribble and be a positive on defense.

    The ideal concept of the Blazers features supporting threats who can do more than just catch and shoot at a standstill. Little has a chance to be a dynamic contributor—like the younger, cheaper version of teammate Norman Powell who came up in exactly that role with the Toronto Raptors.

    If he shows enough in camp, Little could leapfrog veteran signee Tony Snell and be the first wing option off the bench, which would mean first crack at a ton of catch-and-shoot or catch-and-go opportunities playing alongside either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, depending on how the Blazers stagger their two guards.

Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley III

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Normally, a team would prefer to see signs that a former No. 2 pick has a future as a relevant NBA player long before his fourth (and possibly final) season with the franchise. But the Sacramento Kings will gladly take a "better late than never" career-establishing season from Marvin Bagley III.

    Hindered by injuries that have cost him an average of 34 games during his first three years as a pro, Bagley hasn't had the best opportunity to succeed. Throw in the losing ways and constantly iffy managerial situation in Sacramento, and you could forgive Bagley for failing to impress.

    Still, even when on the floor, Bagley's game hasn't screamed anything close to "cornerstone." He's positionless in the bad way, lacking the ability to stay in front of wings on the perimeter or defend the rim. He's been a high-usage, low-efficiency player on offense since joining the league, and he has 175 career turnovers against 115 assists. All the intangibles—feel, vision, court sense—have appeared only in the faintest flickers. That makes it hard to trust Bagley has more to give.

    The Kings could find themselves declining to make a qualifying offer or happily letting Bagley walk in restricted free agency next summer, either of which would be a shocking development for a player picked second overall. But that's only if Bagley flops again. If he finally converts all his considerable talent into production that helps his team win, or if he really stuns by starring like a No. 2 pick should in his fourth season, Sacramento's prospects would get significantly brighter.

San Antonio Spurs: Keldon Johnson

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Keldon Johnson has never had a problem getting to the rim. And even when the bulldozing forward doesn't convert close-range looks at a high rate, as was the case last season, Johnson's aggressive style results in enough drawn fouls to prop up his overall efficiency.

    In Johnson, the San Antonio Spurs already have one of the more effective blunt instruments around. But if the hard-charging Kentucky product can be a little more scalpel and a little less sledgehammer in his third season, he could move to the head of a deep class of Spurs youngsters.

    It's not that Johnson should ever switch out of attack mode; it's that he could benefit by capitalizing on his driving skill by broadening his passing vision and honing his in-between game. Barreling into the chests of waiting defenders has worked well for Johnson so far, as evidenced by his 12.8 points per game as a 21-year-old, but learning to exploit the defensive contortions his game causes could open up other opportunities for him and his teammates.

    Head coach Gregg Popovich indicated at media day that the young Spurs would play fast and without a defined star. Johnson, with some improvement in his shooting and change-of-pace craft, is well positioned to take on whatever passes for a starring role in San Antonio this season.

Toronto Raptors: Precious Achiuwa

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Khem Birch played well enough down the stretch last season to retain the inside track on a starting job with the Toronto Raptors, but Precious Achiuwa is the big man to watch at the 5.

    The young, undersized center came over in the sign-and-trade exchange that sent Kyle Lowry to Miami, bringing with him the potential for Toronto to play a fluid, positionless style that takes advantage of its big wings and versatile forwards. Achiuwa is an extremely active big with the ability to guard opponents of all sizes.

    Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown worked with Achiuwa on the Nigerian national team and half-jokingly raved about his defensive prowess, per Cody Taylor of USA Today's Rookie Wire: "Precious Achiuwa two days ago, on one possession, guarded seven guys. Only five were on the floor; he was guarding two other guys on the sideline and then got the block at the end of the possession."

    Achiuwa is a high-wire finisher at the rim and can push the pace after corralling a defensive board. If he develops his shot and gets more comfortable further from the bucket offensively, he'll give Toronto a wealth of lineup and strategic options.

    Birch is a steady, conventional choice. But Achiuwa could unlock the best version of the Raps. 

Utah Jazz: Mike Conley

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Rudy Gay was an option here because of his potential to play some small-ball center, giving the Utah Jazz a dimension they've chosen not to embrace during Rudy Gobert's tenure. But Gobert plays big minutes every year and doesn't seem likely to sit any meaningful playoff stretches—even if some are convinced his limitations cap Utah's ceiling somewhere below title-winning range.

    That leaves us with the player who was quietly one of the Jazz's biggest bellwethers a season ago: Mike Conley Jr.

    Only Gobert (plus-14.6) had a greater positive impact on Utah's on-court net rating than Conley (plus-11.9), and the Jazz went 2-5 in the last seven games Conley missed, spread over the end of the regular season and playoffs.

    You can even pin some of Utah's postseason elimination, which stemmed from its inability to keep penetrating guards out of the lane, on Conley's injury.

    At some point, Donovan Mitchell will thrive as a de facto point guard, running the show on his own. But if last year is any indication, the Jazz still desperately need what Conley provides at the position.

Washington Wizards: Spencer Dinwiddie

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Even if Spencer Dinwiddie doesn't knock everyone's socks off as a shooter and playmaker, the Washington Wizards could still improve on last year's 34-38 record. Their wing depth is greatly improved with Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope coming over in the Russell Westbrook trade, Davis Bertans should bounce back after a moderately disappointing second year with the franchise, and the center position is more stable with Daniel Gafford, Montrezl Harrell and Thomas Bryant.

    But if Dinwiddie's ACL is fully healed, and if he provides the kind of spacing, foul-drawing and shot creation he's flashed when healthy in the past, the Wizards could really make some noise.

    Bradley Beal might not even know what to do with himself alongside a point guard defenses respect beyond the arc. He's used to life with John Wall and Westbrook, two guards opponents practically begged to shoot. Don't be fooled by Dinwiddie's ho-hum 31.8 percent career three-point percentage; that's dragged down by his steady diet of pull-up threes, which are always more difficult. Dinwiddie's willingness to fire off the bounce is all it takes to pull defenders out toward him. We're learning that the threat of firing away has real value on its own. Plus, he shot a perfectly acceptable 37.3 percent on catch-and-shoot treys in 2019-20.

    The Wizards can solidify themselves as a playoff team and field one of the league's best offenses, but only if Dinwiddie is his best self.


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


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