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Finding the Next Kent Bazemore

There is plenty of untapped potential hidden at the end of NBA benches, but which players are destined to break through?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

NBA teams are in constant pursuit of untapped resources. Tell them there’s an undiscovered prospect who can complete a roster, and they’ll ask you who, where, and how. Tell them he’s on the moon, and you’ll witness a new space race. Organizations would invest in intergalactic travel if it expanded the league’s talent pool, but that’s for another age. With so many treasures still buried on NBA rosters, teams don’t have to stray far to find what they’re looking for. They just have to know to look.

Kent Bazemore went undrafted in 2012 and in his season and a half with the Warriors, in which he averaged just five minutes per game, was known more for his bench celebrations than his play. After a short but impressive stint with the Lakers, the Hawks gave him a shot. That’s all he needed. This summer, he signed a four-year, $70 million contract with the team. Had his circumstances been different, he might be playing overseas or still waving towels for the Warriors.

Will Barton’s career arc was less direct. He appeared in 73 games as a Blazers rookie, quite a lot for the 40th pick in the draft. But then Portland quickly became a contender, and Barton’s minutes vanished overnight. Will the Thrill was gone, until Denver plucked him and gave him an adrenaline shot of playing time. Barton excelled, then signed a three-year, $10.6 million deal in 2015 — and would’ve received a lot more had he signed after the cap jump occurred.

The next Bazemore or Barton will likely get his shot on a contract near the league minimum, making him a precious commodity that allows teams to maintain flexibility. This is especially important for teams with multiple max-contract players, no lottery picks, and a shortage of cap room since they’re forced to comb through the scrap heap for complementary talent. Pokémon Go enthusiasts will capture thousands of Pidgey before ever coming close to a Charizard, and it’s the same for NBA teams; there are more swings and misses than hits, but acquiring one makes the hunt worthwhile.

The league is swimming in money, but not all owners are stashing it in a crawl space like Walter White. They’re spending it on pro-personnel scouting to replicate the college- and international-scouting processes at the NBA level. The Spurs were ahead of the curve over a decade ago, and other organizations have expanded their front offices to follow the blueprint. But it’s not about finding the next Tim Duncan, it’s the next auxiliary piece like Bruce Bowen, Danny Green, or Patty Mills.

Here are three players they could have eyes on now:

Robert Covington, 76ers

Watching the Sixers over the past few seasons hasn’t been an enjoyable experience. But look closely and you’ll find Covington blazing nets with his sweet 3-point stroke. Squint, and you’ll see the prototypical sharpshooting forward that is found on all modern championship contenders. Covington could be that guy, but right now he’s playing out of position on a crappy team with no floor spacing and a lack of playmaking.

Still, Covington produces: Even in cramped quarters, he’s hit 38.6 percent of his spot-up 3s over the past two seasons, per SportVU. These aren’t wide-open looks though. A chunk of them comes from deep downtown.

Covington played mostly big at Tennessee State, but he’s been almost exclusively a wing for the Sixers, largely because their roster is full of traditional bigs. But Covington isn’t a wing; he’s 6-foot-9, a beefy 215 pounds, and should be playing as a stretch forward. Instead of stressing the defense by forcing bigs away from their rim-protection duties, he has wings accustomed to defending the perimeter — like Jimmy Butler in the video above — breathing down his neck. If Covington were a stretch 4, he wouldn’t have to launch 3s from 30 feet, and he’d also create spacing for his teammates.

Covington isn’t getting what he needs to blossom on offense — or on defense. He’s built to handle different types of assignments with his bulky frame and long wingspan, but he’s much better defending forwards than wings because of his average lateral speed. He won’t get bullied on the post, but he’ll get blown by on the perimeter.

It’s only a matter of time until Covington experiences his big come-up. Maybe it happens with the Sixers, but if it doesn’t, teams will be lining up for when he hits free agency in 2018. I’d hit up Bryan Colangelo to try to pry Covington loose long before he hits the market though.

Jeff Withey, Jazz

Rudy Gobert was the glue that held Utah’s defense together last season. But when a knee injury sidelined Gobert, the Jazz defense didn’t fall out of tune, thanks to Jeff Withey’s emergence. With Gobert at center, the Jazz allowed 102.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBAWowy, compared with 101.4 with Withey. However, when neither were in, that number ballooned to 108.7 — a defensive rating comparable to the Nets and Lakers.

Withey was an afterthought when Portland drafted him 39th in 2013 and traded him to New Orleans, where he rode the pine for two years before signing with Utah. Teams attacked when Gobert was out, but all it took was a chance for Withey to turn the paint into a no-fly zone.

The Kansas product isn’t extremely long or athletic, but he uses his pristine timing and reaction speed to alter or block shots. He does a good job of contesting without fouling, and is especially potent as a help defender. Opponents shot a paltry 43.1 percent on shots at the rim when defended by Withey, per SportVU, which ranked fourth in the league (players shot only 41 percent versus Gobert).

But Withey’s opportunities dwindled after Gobert and Derrick Favors returned from injuries. That’s partially because Withey doesn’t offer much offensively, with his role on that end condensed to setting screens and rolling hard to the rim. This summer, Utah added Boris Diaw, and if the team plays more small ball, Trey Lyles could be used more at center, so Withey might even have fewer minutes this season. Withey could soon find himself in a position similar to Barton, with Utah’s success passing him by. But all it takes is one team to believe he can replicate his performance filling in for the Stifle Tower.

With the league placing an increased emphasis on versatility and shooting, traditional centers are fading away. But when Ian Mahinmi and Timofey Mozgov can make it rain, it’s clear they’ll never go fully extinct. If Withey doesn’t play much, he’ll be a low-cost bargain on his next contract. But if he does play and continues to shine, he could be in for a big payday in 2017.

K.J. McDaniels, Rockets

McDaniels resembles a young Gerald Wallace: an elite athlete who throws down thunderous dunks, and grinds on defense. But, like Wallace, McDaniels doesn’t shoot well. That wasn’t much of an issue in his era, but if Wallace were in today’s league, he might be plastered to the bench like McDaniels is. But it’s too soon to give up on McDaniels after just two years in the league. He’s 23 years old, and just needs to learn how to shoot; the rest of his game already resembles an impact player.

Any progress he’s made as a shooter has been subtle. Including shots taken in the D-League and summer league, he’s shot 33.6 percent from 3 over his last 140 attempts, but it’s far too small of a sample to read into — and he still needs to get to at least 36 percent to be a real threat. On film, it’s clear he’s quickened his mechanics with the Rockets, but he’s still a flat-footed shooter that needs space for a clean release.

But there are few athletes who can cause a crowd to holds its breath in anticipation of something incredible happening. McDaniels is one of them.

To put McDaniels’s career into perspective: He has more dunks (52) than he does 3-pointers (50). He also has more blocks (76).

McDaniels makes flashy plays on defense, but he also plays hard and fights through screens. With his long arms and lateral quickness, he’s a versatile man-to-man defender capable of locking down three positions. He does suffer mental lapses resulting in missed rotations, but that could be symptomatic of the teams he’s played on. If he played consistent minutes on a squad with a defensive identity, then his performance could elevate.

The Rockets’ depth might force McDaniels to play the majority of another season in the D-League, but he needs the opportunity to work through mistakes and focus on his development. Wallace spent three seasons stashed on the Kings’ bench before the expansion Charlotte Bobcats let him find his footing. That’s what can happen for McDaniels in the D-League, and maybe someday in the NBA.