1 Sam Dekker, Los Angeles Clippers
The 2016/17 NBA Season was Sam Dekker’s first crack at the big time, as a back injury ruined his rookie season a year ago. Perhaps that time watching served him well as he became a vital part of the Rockets rotation, being the first forward coming off the hardwood.
In the Rockets’ pick and roll system where threes and shots at the rim were prioritized, his physicality provided the necessary yin to the yang that was the three-point shooting to Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and the other shooting wings on the roster. That said, Dekker shot respectably from behind the rim too (32% overall behind the arc, but 39% from the corners).
This season he’ll be playing for the Clippers, having been sent to LA as part of the Chris Paul super trade. Some of the Rockets’ best lineups featured Dekker, but how he fits into the Clippers is yet to be determined; he will likely come off the bench with Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan both starting in the frontcourt. He may be shoehorned into the small forward position to keep Jordan and Griffin on the court. If Doc Rivers can adapt and play a small ball lineup with Griffin at the center with two physical, shooting wings in Gallinari and Dekker, it could be a secret weapon for the Clippers.
2 Jerami Grant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Jerami Grant joined the Thunder last year in what was labeled as a confusing trade; the Thunder seemed to be hoarding athletic non-shooters to create the worst shooting team of all time (they were at least the worst three-point shooting team in the league last year). But it became clear what GM Sam Presti saw in Grant with his athleticism creating some highlight reel plays (his dunk on Durant in the first GSW/Thunder matchup last year), and his length aiding the Thunder’s impressive clutch time defense. His three-point shooting also improved as it rose from 24% in the season before at Philadelphia to a useful 37.7% last year.
Though the addition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder squad will likely decrease the time he sees on the court, it opens up some interesting lineups for the year ahead. With three excellent scorers in Westbrook, George, and Anthony on the court, Billy Donovan has flexibility in what he can fit around them, and one intriguing option could be Jerami Grant at the 5 for an ultra-athletic lineup.
He won’t be a big minute-getter on the squad, but as an impact player and highlight reel frequent (no small task on a squad featuring Westbrook and George), he has an important place on the OKC roster.
3 Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
Most NBA fans know Aaron Gordon, but his household name status hasn’t particularly come from anything he’s done in competitive basketball. Though he hasn’t put it all together yet, his Dunk Contest exploits have shown he has all the physical tools to become an NBA star. That may be due to a lack of opportunity to do so though, and finally, the runway is clear for him to take flight, after the frontcourt logjam in Orlando has finally disappeared.
Being forced to start at Small Forward to accommodate Serge Ibaka undoubtedly hurt Gordon, an unreliable shooter (28.8%) last year meant that living on the perimeter didn’t suit him. Since Ibaka was traded, he moved to the power forward slot after the All-Star break and finished the season well, averaging 16 points, 6.2 rebounds and shooting 50% from the floor.
Though his shooting is still problematic, he now has a clear run at showing off his skills, and his supreme athleticism makes him a nightmare for bigger, slower opponents. That’s a welcome change for Magic fans, who haven’t had much to be excited about lately, but they’ll be hoping Gordon can power their rise up the standings.
4 Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
Last season Julius Randle made great strides in his development, showing the potential that saw him start college and enter the NBA as one of the most highly touted prospects in the country. Tagged as a mini-Draymond Green, the main question was whether Randle has the dedication to take his game to the next level, though he certainly can affect the entire game.
This off-season Randle looks to have laid down a marker that he can, with the Lakers raving about his improved physical condition. Though the ‘Lonzo Effect’ has been joked about, there is something to be said about how the inclusion of top-line talent and willing passers can take the performance of everyone on a team to the next level. That’s good news for the 22-year-old, if he can improve his efficiency while scoring, which has been average at best so far, then he can become one of the best big men in the league.
5 Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks
After a woeful 2016 NBA Finals with the Golden State Warriors, eyebrows everywhere were raised when the Dallas Mavericks offered Harrison Barnes a max contract. Those laughs quieted though as Barnes showed he could shoulder a team’s offensive load. Though not his most efficient season, it was a good sign that Barnes' shooting splits didn’t flunk, as he became the lead scorer on a team.
His three-point attempts took a notable step back along with the shooting percentage; Barnes was forced to create off the dribble for himself, with nowhere near the level of creative talent around him like he had in Oakland.
With a year under his belt, we can expect Barnes to be far more comfortable in his new role, while that contract looks increasingly valuable to Dallas. With rookie Dennis Smith Jr. on the squad (and looking to be a steal at pick 9 in the draft), Barnes now has a running mate for the years to come.
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