Which players on lottery-bound teams will turn late-season opportunities – or late-season rest – into a breakout year next season?
For many teams in the NBA, the final few weeks of the season are an opportunity to prepare for the playoffs. That includes jostling for playoff positioning, making the final push to grab the final postseason berth, or even resting players (I would talk about this more, but ESPN has provided nonstop coverage of this “resting” topic so I’ll let it sleep).
For others, this time is an opportunity to evaluate talent for next season. Some teams are doing that subtly, changing rotations to increase minutes for young players. Others are being as obvious as possible, such as the Phoenix Suns trotting out a starting lineup Thursday night averaging just 21 years and four days, shattering the previous record held by the 2010 Los Angeles Clippers.
Many players take late-season playing time and use it as momentum into a breakout year the next season. Others take these weeks to rest from nagging injuries or have much-needed operations in order to return when the games matter again and play at their best. Every year has breakout young players whose success can be traced in some way back to the previous year.
For those teams currently heading for the lottery – or at least in danger of doing so – which players should fans keep an eye on for next season?
Yet To Make A Mark
This group of players will be dubbed the “Joel Embiid” group (other options: Blake Griffin, Nerlens Noel) of those players who provide little to no impact during their first season in the league – due either to injury or limited playing time – and then have a standout second season, whether that qualifies as their rookie year or not.
The top candidate for this group is Embiid’s roommate at the hospital, Ben Simmons. After breaking the fifth metatarsal in his foot and receiving surgery, Simmons missed the entirety of his rookie season to allow it time to fully heal.
While it may be easy to forget, Simmons was a deserving top overall pick and dominated Las Vegas Summer League before his injury. His ability to put the ball in the exact place his teammates need it will be a perfect fit on a Philadelphia team without many strong passers. Joel Embiid needs pinpoint entry passes, their shooters need accurate passes in their shooting pocket, and Simmons can provide it all.
Another top pick in last season’s draft, Dragan Bender will end up playing just 481 minutes in his rookie season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle. Bender averaged just 3.2 points and 2.2 rebounds per game for the Phoenix Suns. The Croatian native is just 19 years old, however, and will not turn 20 until after next season begins. He still boasts all of the upside and potential that made him the fourth overall pick in last season’s draft.
Thon Maker makes this list because he is making a featherweight impact for a team that was heading for the lottery just a few weeks ago. Although Maker is starting for Jason Kidd’s squad, he is averaging just 9.5 minutes per game in March. Maker has the potential to combine outside shooting (38 percent from beyond the arc this season) with elite rim protection, and the Bucks are confident he will take off in the next couple of years.
Bench To Rotation
Our next category includes those players who are hoping to turn season-long assignments to the bench into steady rotation minutes. Many of those players are receiving those minutes now that the playoffs are out of reach, and hope to flip that opportunity into real roles when the games start counting again.
Last year players such as Kelly Oubre and Cristiano Felicio took advantage of such opportunities. In past seasons Kent Bazemore, Kyle Singler and Ish Smith have done the same. This season a pair of third-string point guards are hoping to make their mark.
Briante Weber got to spend a few weeks hanging out in paradise, playing spot minutes for the Golden State Warriors on a pair of 10-day contracts. After they cut him loose to add a veteran player for the postseason, he caught on in Charlotte, where he has quickly become a fan favorite.
A graduate of the VCU full-court press defense, Weber is nasty as a perimeter defender. He has been shooting well this season to give him two-way value, and when he picks the pocket of an opposing guard he flashes that impact in a neat five-second burst. Charlotte has no trusted option lined up for backup point guard next season, and the last three weeks are Weber’s audition tape.
Tyus Jones is the third point guard on the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have played exceptionally well since the All-Star Break, but had too much ground to cover to make the postseason (less than a one percent chance to make the postseason per FiveThirtyEight).
Jones has outshined lottery pick Kris Dunn over the course of the year, as his ability to shoot the ball and find open teammates has been a boon to Minnesota bench units looking for shot creation. Dunn is a much better defender than Jones, so it may be a race to see who props up their biggest weaknesses sooner. But the former Duke player is giving it all he has this year and deserves minutes next season.
Turning Spark To Flame
Last season Otto Porter finally began making an impact for the Washington Wizards, perhaps as a representative of the former category. Porter earned a spot in the rotation with his effort on defense and average shooting.
This season Porter has ignited as part of a Washington squad that will not miss the playoffs again. He has increased his scoring, rebounds, steals and blocks this season – and his shooting from deep has gone from 36 percent last season to a league-leading 44 percent this year.
Other players across the league will look to make the same leap, from rotation player to impactful starter. Some are starting now and hope to keep the job next season; others are hoping to play their way up the ladder.
Seth Curry has been dynamic for the Dallas Mavericks over the past few months, including dropping 23 points on Chris Paul and the Clippers on Thursday night. Curry is shooting 42 percent from three-point range this season, but has added playmaking and defensive effort to a portfolio headlined by the family tradition of shooting.
Ivica Zubac is seeking to become a household name as the next great center to wear purple and gold. That may seem like a stretch – and it is – but he has been dominant inside for the Los Angeles Lakers since Timofey Mozgov was shut down for the season. The 7-1 center put up 25 and 11 on the Denver Nuggets earlier in the month, and he has scored in double digits in six of the last seven games.
Another big man taking advantage of a team sitting veterans in order to tank, Skal Labissiere has been showing the many teams that passed on him in June’s draft that they made a mistake. Although he spent most of his time in the D-League with the Reno BigHorns earlier in the season, Labissiere has been playing consistent minutes for the Kings recently – and really excelling.
The former Kentucky center dropped 32 points and 11 rebounds on the Phoenix Suns last week, one game after swatting away four shots against the Orlando Magic. Alongside fellow Wildcat alum Willie Cauley-Stein, the Kings’ young bigs are swatting shot after shot away from the rim.
Speaking of Cauley-Stein, the former lottery pick is taking full advantage of the absence of DeMarcus Cousins. In his first game after Cousins was traded, Cauley-Stein scored 29 points, a career high, and pulled in 10 rebounds. He has blocked four or more shots twice in the last two weeks, and narrowly missed a five-by-five game against the Phoenix Suns.
None of these players are going to take over the league next season, but each has the opportunity to make a much bigger impact than they did this year. Whether they go from zero to hero, or simply lock in another paycheck, these are the lottery’s breakout stars of 2018.