Opening night for the 2020-21 NBA season is just two weeks away, meaning preseason projections and predictions are coming in left, right and centre.
While picks to win the title, reach the playoffs and claim major awards are the go-to, what about the under-the-radar players? Who are the players poised to take to the next step in their careers?
Let's take a look at some of the prime candidates.
Michael Porter Jr.
The Denver Nuggets unexpectedly underwent a roster overhaul during free agency, losing key rotation players in Jerami Grant (26.6 mpg) and Mason Plumlee (17.3 mpg) to the Detroit Pistons, while Torrey Craig (18.5 mpg) is now a Milwaukee Buck.
The departures of Grant and Craig, in particular, will boost our first breakout player: Michael Porter Jr., who is seemingly set to become the Nuggets every night starter on the wing.
Starting in just eight games last regular season, Porter is an explosive offensive talent who should see a serious bump in both minutes and production, in what would be a continuation from the postseason.
Nuggets head coach Michael Malone increased Porter's court time from 16.4 to 23.7 minutes per appearance in the postseason with the 22-year-old responding to average 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds on 38 percent shooting from the outside.
It wasn't just the box score numbers that checked out either.
|OFF Rating||DEF Rating||NET Rating|
|On Court (451 mins)||116.3||110.4||+5.9|
|Off Court (466 mins)||106.9||116.2||-9.3|
Even more importantly was Denver's net rating climbing to +10.5 when Porter was on the floor with Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.
While the Nuggets were rumoured to be a team looking to make a splash in the offseason, they weren't able to acquire a marquee star. Perhaps they don't need to ... maybe he's already on the roster.
The Milwaukee Bucks will once again enter the NBA season as one of the favourites - if not the favourite - to escape the Eastern Conference and reach the NBA Finals.
Adding Jrue Holiday to their roster via trade gives the Bucks a supremely talented four-man starting group alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez.
The one question that remains is who will not only be the fifth starter but the fifth player in the closing lineup. With the additions of D.J. Augustin, Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig and Bobby Portis, Mike Budenholzer will have plenty of veteran options to choose from, but none of those names have greater upside than Donte DiVincenzo, the third-year guard out of Villanova.
After an injury-interrupted rookie season that saw him appear in just 27 games, DiVincenzo became an every night player as a sophomore, averaging 23 minutes per game across 66 outings.
|At the rim||78.8% (33 FGA)||62.4% (189 FGA)|
After starting just 28-for-51 in the restricted area during November, the game appeared to slow down for DiVincenzo and his shooting percentages steadily rose. A constant factor on defence with his disruptiveness and penchant for creating chaos, it was offensively where he was beginning to show vast improvement.
In the four games prior to the season shutdown in March, DiVincenzo averaged 15.7 points per game, well up from his season average of 9.2.
In order to become a key factor on the Bucks this season, he will need to regain pre bubble form. If he does, it bodes well for Budenholzer's squad.
The Chicago Bulls enter the season as one of the more fascinating squads to watch in the league.
With young talent up and down the roster, it will be intriguing to witness the impact Billy Donovan can have in a city desperate for winning basketball to return.
Still just 20 years old, White flashed the ability to get buckets in quick succession like not many in the league can as a rookie, and will be looking to build on that initial campaign. Averaging 13.2 points in 25.8 minutes per game, White saw that number explode to 26.1 across the last games before the shutdown.
With Kris Dunn leaving for Atlanta, the opportunity is there for White to move into the starting lineup after beginning the game on the court just once in his first season.
The 25-year-old Wood is an interesting inclusion to this list for not only his age, but for the fact he just cashed in on a $41 million deal with the Houston Rockets. However, he makes this list because we are yet to see the former UNLV big man unleashed across a full NBA season.
Wood's 62 appearances last season more topped his previously combined 51 since going undrafted back in 2015. Despite that, he was still limited to 21.4 minutes per game in the Pistons big man log jam that included Andre Drummond, Thon Maker and John Henson among others.
Once Drummond was eventually traded to Cleveland, we got a small glimpse into what Wood can provide for the Rockets, as he averaged 21.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.0 assists on .560/.408/.734 shooting splits as a starter.
Although the Pistons finished with a 20-46 record on the season, they possessed a positive net rating of 2.0 in Wood's 1,300-plus minutes of court time, while languishing with a negative of 8.4 when he was on the bench.
Complicating factors in Houston is the uncertain future of James Harden, which is a shame because Wood's ability to roll to the basket and stretch the floor is actually an enticing thought. Regardless, Wood should start with the Rockets and finally get the extended opportunity he deserves in the league.
It's time for the Cleveland Cavaliers to find out what on earth is going on at the guard position.
With Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Dante Exum, Kevin Porter Jr., Dylan Windler, Isaac Okoro and Matthew Dellavedova on the roster, minutes at the guard position are somehow even more congested than they were last year.
Sexton will once again start for Cleveland, coming off a season where he averaged 20.8 points on .472/.380/.846 shooting splits. The 21-year-old can score, we know that, having witnessed him top 30 points on five occasions, including a 41-point outburst against the Boston Celtics back in March.
But what else can he do?
According to Cleaning the Glass, Sexton's 14.4 assist percentage is in the sixth percentile for players at his position, which is simply not good enough. Too often, the Cavaliers offence ground to a halt when the young guard had the ball in hand, but a change in coach may have turned the tide.
Sexton topped five assists just 11 times during the 2019-20 season, but four of those came in the final 10 games with J.B. Bickerstaff manning the sidelines. Sexton will put up points this season, but if Bickerstaff can also get him distributing, you can expect him to have a more impactful season in Cleveland.
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