It feels like LeBron James chasing Andre Iguodala down from behind happened only a few weeks ago, but the offseason is over already. The NBA is back. The regular season stretches from the end of October to the middle of April, and it’s a long grind for everyone involved. There’s so much basketball going on that it’s almost impossible to keep track of everything. The key for fans is to monitor individual players around the league, because the fate of every team is going to come down to the play of one or two guys. These catalysts might be stars, but not all of them are. Sometimes it’s a young player being given more responsibility, other times it’s an athlete whose skill set helps them match up with another team. Here are 12 of the league’s most interesting players to keep track of this season.
The preseason doesn’t mean much, but it was hard not to be impressed when Towns rocked the Grizzlies for 31 points and nine rebounds in only 24 minutes last Wednesday. Last year, he had one of the best rookie seasons in recent memory, and he appears to only be getting better. Towns has no real holes in his game, and no obvious ways for other teams to match up with him. Twenty-year-olds just aren’t supposed to be this polished. The Wolves are counting on a lot of inexperienced players in their rotation, but it might not even matter when it comes to them making the playoffs. Towns could be that good.
Dwyane Wade is gone, and Chris Bosh isn’t going to be with the Heat this season. The corpse of Udonis Haslem is all that is left from Miami’s mini-dynasty. This is Whiteside’s team now, which is a scary thing to contemplate for a franchise that has placed such an emphasis on character and culture. However, if he can keep his head on straight after signing a max contract this summer, he could have a monster season. The offense is going to be built around him, and he will be playing in a lot more space. Whiteside’s closest comparison is somewhere between DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond, but in his two seasons with the Heat, he’s flashed more skill than either player has in their careers. He’s about to have a bigger role than either, too.
Seth can do a passable imitation of his older brother. He’s a career 45.1 percent 3-point shooter with unlimited range and the ability to shoot off the dribble. There are legitimate questions about his defense and playmaking ability, but it’s hard to believe there isn’t a place in the league for a guy with his skill set. He had a strong stretch of games at the end of last season as a starter in Sacramento, and he should finally get a real opportunity this season in Dallas, a team in need of a scoring punch from its backcourt, but with a dearth of playmakers on their roster. Is Seth closer to Dom DiMaggio or Billy Ripken? There’s only one way to find out, and the Mavs’ playoff chances might depend on the answer.
Jordan McRae and Jonathon Simmons
There are two schools of thought when it comes to matching up with the Warriors: play big men who can punish them for their lack of size, or try to downsize and beat them at their own game. The former approach has not worked in the playoffs, while the latter will be even more difficult with Kevin Durant in the picture. In McRae and Simmons, the Cavs and Spurs both, respectively, have a young player on their bench with the rough outlines of a 3-and-D wing, although neither has proved himself at the NBA level. Gregg Popovich didn’t trust Simmons enough to play him in the playoffs, even though the Spurs could have used his athleticism against the Thunder in the second round. McRae was a second-round pick in 2014 who spent time in Australia, the D-League, and with the Suns before catching on with the Cavs last season. He was great in Las Vegas over the summer, and he has lead the team in scoring in the preseason, but that doesn’t mean he’ll play much in the regular season. The development of McRae and Simmons will be an intriguing story line to follow this season, because they will both be needed in a potential playoff series against the Warriors.
It’s hard to imagine Durant becoming a better basketball player in Golden State, but it is possible. Up until this point in his NBA career, he’s largely taken turns in an isolation-heavy system that didn’t feature many secondary playmakers. Now, with the Warriors, he’ll be in a more free-flowing offense, sharing the ball among three and four other multidimensional players who can threaten a defense. It will require an adjustment from the way he played in Oklahoma City, but he should be able to get more open shots within the flow of the offense. Even if his per-game numbers go down, his efficiency could go through the roof. What happens if Durant makes the type of leap that LeBron James made in Miami?
By swapping out Jeff Teague and Al Horford for Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, the Hawks have removed the stable floor from their team in order to raise their ceiling. Schroder and Howard are more capable of scoring at the rim than their predecessors, but neither are natural fits in Mike Budenholzer’s motion-heavy offense. The Hawks will play to their new starting point guard’s strengths, and Schroder is at his best when he’s probing the lane with the ball in his hands. But that’s the trade-off in empowering Schroder: The Hawks are going to have less ball movement than in previous seasons. Schroder is a career 32.4 percent 3-point shooter, so will he be able to keep defenses honest when they go under screens? Can he balance looking for his own offense versus controlling the tempo of the game and setting up everyone else? It’s a lot of responsibility for someone who has never averaged more than 21 minutes a game.
Last year was a lost season for Nurkic, who spent a majority of the Nuggets’ 82 games on the injured list. In his absence, Nikola Jokic took the mantle of center of the future in Denver, turning Nurkic from cornerstone to spare part. Playing Jokic and Nurkic together goes against most of the trends in the NBA, but bucking the conventional wisdom might be worth trying for a team without any obvious paths to relevancy. It’s a European version of the Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor experiment in Philadelphia, and the difference in talent between the two frontcourts might not be as wide as you would expect given Denver’s draft pedigree. If it doesn’t work out, the version of Nurkic we saw in his rookie season would make him an interesting buy-low opportunity for another team.
There was no guarantee that Stephenson would make the Pelicans roster at the start of training camp, but the team’s complete lack of shot creators on the perimeter gave him an opening, and he forced his way through it. New Orleans will be his fourth team since leaving Indiana three years ago, but despite his reputation, he was a positive contributor in both Los Angeles and Memphis last season. And he’s still capable of bullying his way into the lane and creating shots for himself and for teammates. Until Jrue Holiday returns from an indefinite absence to take care of his family, Stephenson is easily the most dangerous ball handler on the Pelicans roster. Alvin Gentry is going to have no choice but to let Lance be Lance, and it should be glorious to watch, as it always is.
Embiid has gotten a lot of publicity in the preseason, but there’s no way you can leave him off a list like this. He is the walking embodiment of The Process, and he has enough talent to justify everything that has happened in Philadelphia over the past few seasons. He’s as athletic as any 7-footer in the league, with enough skill to conceivably pair with either Jahlil Okafor or Nerlens Noel in the frontcourt. He’s already one of the best social media follows in the NBA. Now he just has to stay healthy.
The Grizzlies’ youth movement has been dead on arrival for years, which is a serious problem for a team with so many key players in their 30s. Given the roster’s injury history, they are going to need some contributions from their recent draft picks. Martin barely played after breaking his foot before the start of last season, but he showed an interesting combination of skills in college. At 6-foot-10 and 239 pounds, he has the size of a traditional big man, and the athleticism to take the ball between his legs in midair and dunk it. He’s a natural scorer who can shoot off the dribble, and he would be an interesting complement to Marc Gasol. JaMychal Green is ahead of him in the rotation, but Martin is the young power forward with the upside to help push Memphis past the Grit ’n’ Grind era.
Before he ruptured his Achilles two seasons ago, Jennings looked like he had turned the corner running the pick-and-roll with Andre Drummond in Detroit. He played poorly in his first season back from the injury, both with the Pistons and the Magic, but that’s not unusual for a player who depends on his athleticism. While he’s not a great fit for the triangle, neither is Derrick Rose, the team’s nominal starter. And between Jennings and Rose, it’s Jennings who has had the more recent moment of relevancy in the NBA. If Jennings can regain the form he showed with the Pistons before his injury, and if Jeff Hornacek can persuade Phil Jackson to play more spread pick-and-roll, the Knicks could be a dangerous team. It’s a lot of ifs, but it’s still more hope than the Knicks have had in recent years.