By Brandon Jefferson
35. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal took a huge step forward last season. The 24-year-old shooting guard had a career year across the board and saw his health and efficiency hit the levels many projected when he was coming out of Florida.
Teamed up in the backcourt with All-Star point guard John Wall, Beal played the role of second fiddle excellently. However, if the Washington Wizards are going to take a step forward, they will need Beal to be more co-star and less supporting actor.
Beal displayed an advanced ability to operate as the primary ball handler in pick-and-roll sets. New Wizards coach, Scott Brooks would often let Beal initiate the offense and lead the second unit as Wall rested. Beal’s main threat remains his outside shot. Defenders must play him tight because he’s capable of nailing a deep three at a moment’s notice. Last season, he used that aggressive defense to his advantage, taking his man to the rim when they played him too close.
With the extra journeys into the lane, Beal also saw a rise in the amount of free throws he shot a year ago. After being more of a perimeter-oriented player to begin his career, he scored 31. 4 percent of his points in the paint and 15.9 percent from the free-throw line according to nba.com.
The added dimension of a downhill attack enabled him to get better looks from outside too, where his percentage climbed back to 40 percent after dipping down to 38 in 2015-16.
Yet, Beal still needs to make improvements as a playmaker. He averaged a career-high 3.5 assists per game (APG) last year, but with Brandon Jennings’ 4.7 APG now in China, Washington is really lacking for facilitators. Beal should be a shoo-in for an All-Star selection this season, however, if he wants to claim hold to a higher slot on this list in the future he must continue to develop his all-around game.
There has been a lot of change and turnover in the Eastern Conference this summer, but Washington returns the bulk of their roster. After stumbling out of the gates to a 2-8 start a season ago, the Wizards should hit the ground running thanks to their roster continuity and being in their second season under Brooks.
Beal is just approaching his prime and if he shows there is more to his game than what we’ve already seen, he could easily be in the running for Most Improved Player this year.
34. C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
C.J. McCollum’s rise from Mid-Major to lottery pick was quite the ascension, but the former Lehigh stud is still finding ways to improve. McCollum and Damian Lillard make one of the deadliest backcourt duos in the entire league. Both are capable ball handlers and above average shooters. Terry Stotts’ four-out offense plays right into the strengths of his sharpshooting stars.
McCollum broke away from Lillard’s shadow this past season. His second consecutive season averaging 20-plus points exemplified the fact that McCollum is a dangerous marksmen in his own right.
But it’s far more than jumpshots that make McCollum deadly.
Listed at 6-foot-3, McCollum is below the normal size for a shooting guard, but his craftiness on the offensive end help to make up for his alleged shortcomings. He has a smooth handle and uses change of pace and patience to his advantage. He lulls his defender to sleep just long enough to allow him to squirt past and into the lane. Once there, he has an array of floaters and finishes in the paint to score over bigger defenders.
Where the biggest improvement is required for McCollum is defensively. C.J. isn’t the most athletic player. He has a tough time keeping quicker players in front of him and can get muscled by stronger opponents.
Adding functional strength is a way McCollum could help himself. He doesn’t need to bulk up, but being able to keep bigger guards from backing him down would help to take away easy looks. He allowed 30.7 points in the paint per game according to nba.com.
McCollum and the Trail Blazers didn’t have the season many expected after their unexpected rise to the fifth seed during the 2015-16 NBA season. The Western Conference has only gotten stronger since then. Being one of the eight playoff teams in the west is going to be a battle.
If C.J. can continue to show improvement and be more than just a body defensively, the pieces are there for Portland to be a tough out. Lillard is consistently in the running for an All-Star spot and Jusuf Nurkic looks to be in the best shape of his life. As long as a few of the ancillary pieces hit the mark, Portland should makes it way into the postseason.
Getting another chance to show his worth on the playoff stage –was one of the few positives in the Trail Blazers opening round sweep against Golden State a year ago– is the opportunity he needs to continue to prove his worth as one of the elite shooting guards in the league today.
33. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
DeMar DeRozan’s mastery of the mid-range area has made him one of the tougher covers for defenders in the NBA today. DeRozan’s advanced footwork allows him to get off good looks by the way of counters and slight adjustments he can make on the fly. DeRozan has come a long way from being Romeo Miller’s (a.k.a. Lil’ Romeo) high-flying sidekick on the AAU circuit.
In Toronto, DeRozan still shows off his aerial abilities, but he has become a more refined player; relying less and less on his athleticism and instead torturing opposing players with his deft skill.
DeRozan and his partner-in-crime, Kyle Lowry, have made the Raptors a relevant franchise in the Eastern Conference once again. Over the course of the Cavaliers’ three straight NBA Finals runs, Toronto has been one of the few teams to give them a challenge in the East.
The playoffs have tended to be the stroke of midnight where DeRozan and his teammates seemingly turn back into pumpkins. They consistently put up gaudy offensive numbers during the season, but in the postseason their methodical offense usually is easy to game plan against.
Last season, DeRozan saw his points per game drop nearly five points (27.3 PPG in the regular season and 22.4 PPG in the postseason) along with both his field goal percentage (46.7 percent in the regular season compared to 43.4 percent in the postseason) and three-point percentage (26.6 percent in the regular season and 6.7 percent in the postseason) saw a decline despite him taking less shots per game in the playoffs.
For multiple seasons, there has been a call from basketball Twitter and others to get DeRozan to extend his range out to the three-point line, but he has yet to succumb to the pressure. He has said that he is working on stretching his shooting back to beyond the arc, but until it shows on the court it remains just lip service from the nine-year veteran.
The Raptors have often been the forgotten team in the East and that is the story line once again heading into this year. Boston and Cleveland are the talk of the town and no one else is really considered to be on the same tier.
With another strong performance, DeRozan could help the Raptors leap up to the top tier in the East. If it doesn’t happen soon, at 28-years-old, we are closer to the end of DeRozan’s prime than to the beginning of it.
32. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Following an upstart season in 2015-16 that saw Charlotte push the then Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat to a seven-game-series in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, things went very poorly for the Hornets in 2016-17.
For his part, Kemba Walker wasn’t the main cause of the problem in Charlotte. He made his first All-Star appearance in 2017 with career-highs in points per game (23.2 PPG), field goal percentage (44.4 percent), and three-point field goal percentage (39.9 percent).
Yet, the team and Walker took a step back on the other end of the court. Steve Clifford built the Hornets into a top 10 defensive unit (ranked ninth in defensive rating in 2015-16), but they dropped down to 14th in defensive rating last season. With the amount of stellar talent out there at the point guard position, Walker is going to need to fortify the team at the point of attack if they want to rebuild their defensive identity this year.
Getting a healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will help, but in most matchups, Walker is still going to be matched up head-to-head with the likes of Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, John Wall and many others.
The team also added Dwight Howard and, while he’s not the same player that Clifford had when he was on Stan Van Gundy’s staff in Orlando, he could be a huge plus for Walker. On defense, Howard is still mobile enough to be an effective rim protector and offensively a Walker-Howard pick-and-roll should give the former UCONN product open lanes and driving angles he hasn’t seen since he was playing in Storrs.
As the primary initiator of the Hornets’ offense, Walker is a threat to score at all three levels of the court. Teams must react to Walker coming off the screen or risk letting him get downhill and either knifing into the paint for a basket or finding an open shooter on the perimeter.
Kemba’s biggest growth must come as a playmaker. Aside from Nic Batum and rookie guard Ahmad Monk, there really aren’t any players on this roster that should be relied upon to create their own shot. Walker has teetered around the five-to-six range in assists for the duration of his career. Bumping that number up to around eight a game will not only make his team better, but makes himself a tougher guard to defend as well.
Since returning to Charlotte, the Hornets franchise has been lacking a true star player, the time is now for Walker to step to the plate and take that mantle for his own. He’ll need to make himself and those around him better if Charlotte is to have steady success this season.
31. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
From draft night jeers, to opening night cheers, Kristaps Porzingis has quickly become a fan favorite in New York. The Knicks struck gold when they selected the Latvian forward fourth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft. The 7-foot-3 forward truly lives up to his unicorn moniker when on the floor. He can handle and create shots like a guard, but his size is imposing and he makes the most of it with monster rejections and ferocious tip-slams.
Porzingis’ love affair with New York is looking like it will be coming to an end. With the Knicks dealing Carmelo Anthony to the Oklahoma City Thunder this offseason, Porzingis is now the man in New York City. New York media, and their fans, will have no qualms with blasting into the soon-to-be 23 year old when his performance is anything less than unicorn-level.
The hope is the rousing success Porzingis had on the court as the face of the Latvian National Team this summer at the 2017 FIBA EuroBasket– 23.6 PPG (third-highest in the tournament), 5.6 RPG, and 1.9 BPG– is on display for the Knicks this season.
With the ball-stopping Anthony gone there should be more of a free-flowing system in place for Jeff Hornacek’s team that allows Porzingis to use his unique combination of size and skill to his advantage. His usage rates of 24.4 and 24.5 in his first two seasons should definitely skyrocket this upcoming season. When Tim Hardaway Jr. is the second option, the best choice might be to force feed the number one guy.
Porzingis has let it be known that he prefers to play the bulk of his minutes at power forward, but when he plays the center or as the lone big on the court it opens up the floor for the rest of the team. Opposing teams will have to decide between keping a true center out there to try to impose his will physically on Porzingis or they can size down to match Porzingis’ perimeter skill. Porzingis should log a decent amount of minutes as the only big man on the floor so the Knicks can see what they have.
That is going to be the theme of this season for Porzingis. He was placed upon a mantle early –rightfully so– and now he must show that he has not peaked yet and that the potential is still running rampant through his game.
Taking the step from star to superstar is not easy, only a few players in the NBA today are true superstars. Porzingis needs to use this year to showcase that he has the ability to be a franchise player. With another lottery pick likely coming, there’s a chance real help could be on the way for Porzingis.
Depending on how he plays this season we will see just how much help Porzingis will need to turnaround a Knicks franchise that’s been pulling on a push-to-open door for far too long under James Dolan.