1 Alex Abrines, Oklahoma CIty Thunder
While Russell Westbrook threw Oklahoma City on his back and marched towards the MVP award last season, there was one structural problem he fought on a nightly basis: his teammates didn't know how to stretch the floor. A lack of offensive efficiency haunted the Thunder, and the side became over-reliant on scoring from the interior. Victor Oladipo, Jerami Grant, Steven Adams and Andre Roberson only compounded a traffic jam that nobody but Mr. Triple Double could overcome. That’s what made Alex Abrines’ role crucial last year, and so too this year as likely the best three-point shooter the Thunder have.
Abrines shot 38.1% on 3.6 shots per game from behind the arc last year; that was the highest shooting percentage on the Thunder, a team that was the worst three-point shooting outfit in the league. When considering the gravity of Paul George who’s been added to the roster, expect Abrines to take far more open shots, and shots, in general, this year.
Though not a great defender, Abrines should expect his minutes to rise from the 15.5 per game he played last year. As he matures into an elite three-point shooter, his value will rise to the Thunder, and the excellent defenders he will play with (Paul George and Andre Roberson) should cover his defensive frailties.
2 Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
Though Zach LaVine may have become a semi-household name via his exploits in the Dunk Contest, he hasn’t reached his potential in an NBA game yet. He headed the opposite way in the trade that reunited Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau.
An explosive athlete, his potential depends on his recovery from an ACL injury, which cut his season short last year. Having been through a similar situation with Derrick Rose, the Bulls management are committed to caution with LaVine, though expect him to be firing on all cylinders around Christmas time.
Last year was LaVine’s most consistent season before the injury, having maintained his 46/39/83 shooting splits while increasing his scoring volume up to 18.9 points per game. While the Bulls roster is somewhat of a logjam in the backcourt, having added LaVine and Dunn to their stocks, players such as Cameron Payne and Jerian Grant won’t compete with LaVine for a starting role once healthy.
On a team expected to be bad, LaVine will be given time to continue to grow and become the leader of what the Bulls hope is a burgeoning young core.
3 Pat McCaw, Golden State Warriors
Talk up Steph Curry and Kevin Durant all you want, the Warriors are where they are today because no team in the league has drafted better in the last 10 years. Aside from snagging a two-time MVP at pick 7; they took a two-time all-star, two-time All-NBA player Klay Thompson at pick 11; and found a reigning DPOY who’s redefined the center role in Draymond Green at pick 35; that’s all the track record you need. It also speaks volumes to the chances of Patrick McCaw turning out a star too. Taken with the 38th pick from Maryland in a 2016 draft that’s beginning to resemble a second-hand store, McCaw was one of the steals of the draft along with Malcolm Brogdon.
Likely still going to be in a limited role thanks to the abundance of elite talent, McCaw should make leaps and bounds in efficiency as the defense’s focus on the court continues to be elsewhere (can you blame them?). McCaw looks to be developing into another of the assets that the Warriors have in the droves, while the rest of the league stumbles over themselves trying to find; a pesky defender and reliable shooter from three and those players always have a place in the league.
As the Warriors continue to dominate the league, the spotlight will stay on players one through 13; McCaw included. As Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston continue to age and the Warriors manage them, McCaw is only going to play more minutes. A fan favorite with the Warriors faithful, his cult hero status with all NBA fans is only going to rise.
4 Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets
While the Nuggets have lived in the back of your casual NBA’s mind for the past few years, they look set to be firmly in the race for the Western Conference playoffs this year. One of the young players vaulting into their consciousness is Gary Harris, taken with pick 19 in 2014. Although a relatively weak draft, Harris has become one of the top prospects in retrospect along with Nikola Jokic who the Nuggets took 22 spots later. Their partnership looks set to take the league by storm this year, with Harris being among the preseason favorites for the Most Improved Award.
Harris made significant strides on the offensive end last year, finishing in the top 10 for three-point percentage, and finishing with 50.2%/42%/77.6% shooting splits, making him a 50/40/90 candidate for the upcoming season. An excellent player off the ball, Harris will benefit greatly from the addition of Paul Millsap and his passing to the squad, just as he has efficiently paired with Jokic. That combined with his excellent defensive capabilities makes him one to watch for the upcoming season.
5 Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Kings' owner Vivek Ranadive might be heaping on the pressure with his Steph Curry comparisons, but there’s no reason Buddy Hield can’t continue to grow off a much improved second half of last season. Having joined the Kings via trade mid-year, he showed the potential that saw him picked 6th by the Pelicans in the 2016 draft as a 22-year-old, having won the Wooden and Naismith Awards in his senior year at Oklahoma.
While one of the great disappointments in the first half of the season, his shooting splits rose from 39.3%/36.9%/87.9% to 48%/42.8%/81.4% after being traded as he averaged 15 points per game in 29 minutes after joining the Kings. He will link up with De’Aaron Fox, who the Kings drafted this year and become what the Kings hope is a star backcourt to lead them into the future while learning from experienced NBA veterans in George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter.
For once, Sacremento is a stable NBA environment, and should he continue to improve on the form he displayed in the second half of the season, he’s a prime candidate for a breakout year.
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