Indiana Pacers

Who is this year's Victor Oladipo?

russell-wiggins-oladipo-gordon-randle-ftr-split
D'Angelo Russell, Andrew Wiggins, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle (NBA Getty Images)

Last season, Victor Oladipo became the league's newest star. After an offseason filled with second-guessing and projections that had Indiana picking in the lottery, Oladipo led the Pacers to within a game of knocking off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1st Round while becoming one of just four players to make both an All-NBA and All-Defensive team.

Oladipo's massive leap forward in 2017-18 proved to be a product not only of ability, but also circumstance. And even if nobody could have predicted the degree to which Oladipo's star brightened, there's no question the move from Oklahoma City to Indiana placed him in prime position to at least have the opportunity to make that leap.

So who will it be this season?

While the players on this list shouldn't be expected to immediately contend for an All-NBA team, each individual is at the point in their careers where they are ready to take their games and - for some - their teams to the next level…

D'Angelo Russell - Brooklyn Nets

Somehow, it's been just three years since Russell became the Lakers' prized asset, but a lot has changed over that time. Los Angeles has since selected two more second-overall picks, completely rebuilt their roster, trading Russell to the Nets. Today, the time of Russell being Kobe Bryant's heir apparent seems a distant memory.

Though Russell had moments of greatness in his first season as a Net, injuries slowed him down and he didn't make the strides many were expecting. While he showed signs of becoming a better distributor and tallied an extra assist and a half per 36 minutes, his scoring stagnated and the Nets managed just a 104.6 ORtg when he was on the court .

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Still just 22, there's no question Russell at times flashes star potential. As one of the leaders of the best roster Brooklyn has had since at least 2014, this could be the year Russell puts it all together.

Although the Nets are likely to fall short of the postseason, a jump from Russell - along with some luck and the potential addition of Jimmy Butler - could surprisingly propel the Nets to their first postseason in four years.

Andrew Wiggins - Minnesota Timberwolves

Speaking of Butler, Minnesota suddenly finds itself in a precarious position. Currently, the Timberwolves aren't sure who is going to be coaching or playing for their team to start the season, much less by the end of it.

Some form of change happening over the next few weeks seems likely, but regardless of the outcome, a lot of the pressure to build opon last season and return to the playoffs will fall on Wiggins' shoulders. After Minnesota ended its 13-year playoff drought in 2018, falling right back into the lottery would be a let down for the franchise.

Despite the franchise ultimately taking a step forward last season, Wiggins took a step back. What once were promising signs of brilliance from him as a 20-year-old, have now illuminated his lack of consistency at age 23.

Pts/36 eFG% Ast/36 Rbd/36 PER Win Shares
2017-18 17.5 48.1% 1.9 4.3 13.0 2.1
2016-17 22.8 48.4 3.9 2.2 16.5 4.2

Over the course of last season, it became clear the trio of Wiggins, Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns struggled to coexist. Even as the Timberwolves were winning, the individual success of one would come at the expense of another.

While Butler's trade request is a dark moment for the franchise, it could be a blessing for Wiggins. Even if a trade isn't made, this presents an opportunity for Wiggins to re-ignite his career. Whether or not Minnesota can get back to the playoffs in an incredibly daunting West remains to be seen, but Wiggins will have the opportunities to grow and lead them there.

Aaron Gordon - Orlando Magic

With the Magic consistently outside the NBA spotlight, Gordon's improvement over the past few seasons has gone underappreciated. Nevertheless, it was enough for Orlando to offer the 23-year-old a 4-year, $80 million deal this summer.

The Magic will likely remain in the depths of the East this season, but Gordon is in a position to elevate his game to a level Orlando hasn't seen since Dwight Howard left in 2012.

The team is slowly accumulating as much length and frontcourt athleticism as possible with Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, but the growing pains for the two young big men - with an average wingspan of 7-foot-6 - will be apparent for at least the next year.

In the meantime, this season presents the perfect opportunity for Gordon to seize control of the offence. With DJ Augustin as the only veteran point guard on the roster, Gordon can become more of a focal point. His vision and passing have room for improvement, but his perimeter jumper took a massive stride last season and he's become a versatile offencive weapon, averaging career-highs with 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game last season.

A reasonable jump in his fifth year could see him reach 20 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists, a stat line only achieved last season by four players: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins.

Though he likely won't have a major impact on a title race, Gordon could very quietly become one of the league's true stars.

Julius Randle - New Orleans Pelicans

Lost in all the drama in Los Angeles last season, Randle quietly had a fantastic season. He led the Lakers in scoring and rebounding and was clearly Los Angeles' best player for much of the season. In a league that is becoming more defined by stretch forwards and three-point shooting, Randle has become the perfect counter as one of the league's more dominant interior presences.

As the only player on this list joining a new team this season, Randle's situation is also the most unknown. His role with the Pelicans and chemistry with teammates will undoubtedly evolve over the season, but on paper he fits in wonderfully. His inside scoring combined with the perimeter threat of Nikola Mirotic and All-World do-everything-ness of Anthony Davis give New Orleans the most versatile - and probably best - frontcourt in the league.

There may be games were Mirotic and Davis put the Pelicans in a more advantageous position, but having Randle to punish small-ball teams is a huge weapon for Alvin Gentry. With superior talent around him, Randle should build on his great 2018 season and can potentially help New Orleans grow into a legitimate threat to the top teams in the West.

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