50. Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
One of the many reasons basketball is a beautiful game is how it allows its athletes to exhibit their personality. Whether it be the quiet confidence of Kevin Durant or the undeniable brashness of Swaggy P, you can get an understanding of a player’s personality just by watching how he performs on the court.
On or off the court, Orlando Magic guard Victor Oladipo exhibits a level of smoothness that is just so appealing to the eye. While his off-the-charts athleticism is enough to reign fans in, it’s the style in which he channels it that keeps them glued to their screen.
Similar to how he worked the crowd on All-Star Saturday night, crooning Frank Sinatra songs in front of the jam-packed Barclays Center, Oladipo is able to create beautiful music whenever he has the ball in his hands—whether he’s shaking off a defender and cutting towards the rim or throwing a slick pass to a teammate.
After entering the NBA as a relatively raw offensive prospect, Oladipo has made steady progress over two NBA seasons. During his rookie season, Oladipo showed flashes of what was soon to come, averaging 13.8 points, 4.1 assists, and 4.1 rebounds on a solid 51 True Shooting percentage. As he transitioned into his sophomore season, Oladipo was able to accomplish the rare feat of becoming more efficient while expanding his role, upping his usage rate from 24.4 percent to 25.2 percent while averaging 17.9 points and maintaining a 53 True Shooting percentage as the Magic’s leading scorer.
While his repertoire hasn’t greatly expanded, Oladipo has made gains to become more efficient from different spots on the court, especially around the rim as you can see here from BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Buckets tool:
As has been the case since his days as an Indiana Hoosier, the key to unlocking Oladipo’s vast potential begins with his work on the defensive end. According to Basketball-Reference’s On/Off numbers, Orlando’s defense was actually better with Oladipo on the bench (105.0 opposing OffRtg) than on the court (109.5), a rough start typical of many young players finding their way.
When you actually see him work on the court, Oladipo is able to transfer that quiet confidence over to the defensive end of the court. On that end, Oladipo works tirelessly to stick to his opponent like Velcro through pick-and-rolls and isolations—using his lanky 6’4” frame to guard multiple positions. With the addition of Scott Skiles, improved defensives schemes should provide a better structure through which to channel Oladipo’s obvious defensive potential.
Ever since he first stepped foot onto an NBA court, Oladipo has possessed that killer combination of natural athleticism and smooth, confident nature. As he embarks on a third NBA season, Oladipo will have the opportunity to transform from under-the-radar stud to bona fide star. Whether he capitalizes on it or not, the journey will be very entertaining.
49. Al Jefferson
While the sky’s the limit for Oladipo’s future, there’s definitely more concern and restraint regarding Jefferson. That worry is due to Jefferson continuing to suffer different aches and pains to his ankles and knees, mustering only 61 games last season.
When Jefferson was on the court, he was able to showcase his usual offensive wares, averaging 19.6 point and 9.9 rebounds per 36 minutes, right in line with his 19.7-point, 10.5-rebound per 36 minutes career averages.
One of the last of a dying breed, Jefferson’s offense rests solely on his post-up game, where 57 percent of his offense came from last year per Synergy Sports; averaging .93 Points Per Possession, which put him in the 74th percentile.
That efficiency is due to more than a decade perfecting his craft, honing an all-around arsenal that includes up-and-unders, spins, or a standard hook shot to keep opponents off balance.
Not nearly as effective has been his defense, which has been below average throughout his career. Although the struggles haven’t prevented the Charlotte Hornets from being one of the elite defensive teams in the NBA, it’s clear Jefferson struggles on that end. Whether it be due to conditioning or lingering injuries, Jefferson just doesn’t seem comfortable, especially when he’s asked to move away from the paint.
While Jefferson has been solid throughout his stint with the team, this upcoming season might be the best opportunity for the Hornets to truly benefit from his skills with a number of new perimeter threats. Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin and Frank Kaminsky should open up the Hornets’ offense, freeing Jefferson up from double teams opponents have been all too eager to supply.
On a Charlotte Hornets team lacking in star power, Jefferson’s offensive abilities bring structure to make sense of the assortment of limited pieces on the roster. On a Hornets team contending for one of the final playoff seeds in the Eastern Conference, Jefferson will need to carry the load once more.
48. Greg Monroe
Despite putting up solid numbers over the course of his career, averaging 14.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game, Greg Monroe has acquired the stench of playing for a consistently below average Detroit Pistons team.
In Milwaukee, Monroe looks for a fresh start on a three-year, $50 million deal with the Bucks. Like Jefferson, Monroe’s offensive abilities are being counted on to make sense of a directionless offense. Unlike the Hornets, the Bucks have an intriguing, young, and incredibly skilled core with high playoff hopes.
After the move initially went down in July, I took an expansive look at Monroe’s game and overall fit within the Bucks’ young core as a talented post scorer who can thrive in the pinch post and set fantastic screens while working as a threat to cut to the paint or dish the ball off to an open teammate.
Whether it’s in the pinch or low post, Monroe displays incredible court vision, consistently throwing picture-perfect passes to cutters and shooters. The 6’11”, 250 pound Monroe averaged 2.3 assists on a shooting-deprived Pistons team, which put him as one of the best 10 centers in that category.
Offensively, Monroe shows solid quickness for his size, capable of freeing himself on rolls to the basket and getting good position on either block. Monroe’s bread-and-butter is in his word in the post, where 41 percent of his possessions came from per Synergy Sports. Monroe rightfully displays a lot of confidence from either block with a wide array of drop steps, spins, and an 8-10 foot hook shot.
Similar to Jefferson, Monroe’s biggest question marks come on the defensive end. While he appears to work hard the majority of the time, Monroe has spent the last few years away from his natural center position, next to Andre Drummond. He’s not really quick enough to guard the more athletic power forwards, and can get overwhelmed by the best centers in the paint.
However, the Bucks are much better equipped to cover for his deficiencies with a roster full of young, athletic, and long defensive-minded players. Working with the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Michael Carter-Williams, and occasionally flanked by John Henson (four blocks per 36 minutes last season), Monroe should grow defensively in a simpler role.
After being constrained in Detroit, Monroe will enter his prime with one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA.
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47. Khris Middleton
After arriving to the Milwaukee Bucks as little more than an afterthought in the Brandon Knight-for-Brandon Jennings deal, Middleton quickly developed into one of the finest three-and-D wings in the NBA—shooting 41 percent from three-point range in his two seasons with the Bucks.
His ability to spread the floor breathes a little life on a roster otherwise strangled with spacing issues, as the Bucks’ offense was six points better with Middleton on the court (102.9 points per 100 possessions) than off (97 points per 100 possessions).
For all the development he’s shown on the offensive end, it’s his growth as an elite defender that has ultimately put him on this list. From the moment Jason Kidd joined the Bucks as the head coach, Middleton installed himself as the defensive anchor. In a defensive system that relies heavily on perimeter pressure, Middleton embraced his role as the team’s main ball hawk, averaging 1.5 steals per game.
Kidd’s schemes call for scrambling rotations and an ability to adapt to matchups on the fly, and with enough quickness to stick with guards and wings on the perimeters, and enough length to work inside against some power forwards, is one of the biggest keys to the Bucks’ elite defense.
For his defensive brilliance and burgeoning perimeter efficiency, Middleton was awarded with a five-year, $70 million extension. Though Middleton’s name may never attract headlines, he’s come a long way from being an afterthought as helps the Bucks move into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference for years to come.
46. Andrew Wiggins
Among the players on this list, Andrew Wiggins is undoubtedly the most likely to make a huge climb over the next 12 months. Selected with the first overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wiggins was sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love.
From the moment he put on a Timberwolves jersey, Wiggins was looked at as the unquestionable face of a new rebuilding process. Amidst the upheaval, Wiggins was able to immediately implement himself as a promising two-way forward.
In a rare case for NBA rookies, Wiggins’ immediate strength came on the defensive end of the court, where his combination of size, length, and sheer athleticism show tremendous promise and the ability to defend multiple positions. Wiggins displayed tremendous intensity on that end, working his ass off to harass opponents on each possession.
His promise came to fruition on a February night against the Houston Rockets. James Harden would finish with 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, but shot just 2-12 with Wiggins defending him. Over the course of the game, Wiggins continually frustrated Harden, cutting off lanes to the pain and mirroring Harden’s jerky dribble—one of the most difficult tasks for any NBA defender.
According to Synergy Sports, Wiggins held opponents to .79 Points Per Possession, which put him in the 61st percentile. Among the 15 players that defended at least 100 isolation possessions, Wiggins finished eighth behind Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton, Draymond Grene, Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Boris Diaw.
For all the potential he has on defensive end, Wiggins’ continued development on offense was more intriguing. Over the course of his rookie season, Wiggins showed the ability to score in a variety of way, from off-ball cuts to post-ups. That evolving skillset became most evident during the second half of the season, in which Wiggins averaged 20 points and 4.9 rebounds per game while shooting 44 percent from the field.
Though lacking in off-the-dribble nuances inherent to most slashing scorers, Wiggins’ quickness and sheer athleticism allowed him to relentlessly attack the rim, where he shot 63 percent and produced some of the most earth-shattering dunks of the season:
The most undervalued part of Wiggins work on offense was in the post. For a player that never really displayed this ability in college, it’s incredible how comfortable Wiggins looks with his back to the basket. Whether from the left or right block, Wiggins channels his athleticism through drop steps, spin moves, and a turnaround jumper. Those traits allowed him to be a pretty effective post presence, averaging .83 Points Per Possession, which put him in the 51st percentile.
As the Timberwolves rebuilding continues with the additions of Karl-Anthony Towns and Nemanja Bjelica, Wiggins will be looked at to push the team closer to its ultimate goal of making it back to the playoffs.
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