It’s only the second week of the 2018-19 NBA season, but teams are already seeing their lineups shift. As players go down with injuries and circumstances (er, a fight) force starters to miss games, unexpected teammates have had to step up and fill big roles. Here are eight players getting golden opportunities to solidify their places on their teams and maybe even prove that they deserve starting spots.
Johnathan Williams and Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
Just five days ago, Williams, a rookie, wasn’t even on an NBA roster. Friday, he inked a two-way contract with the Lakers (whom he spent training camp with too); Monday, he shined in crunch time of the team’s 143-142 loss to the Spurs, finishing with eight points, four rebounds, and three blocks in 14 minutes. Lakers coach Luke Walton is still figuring out how to use his bigs most effectively, but the 6-foot-9 rookie from Gonzaga gives the team some much-needed size and athleticism in its otherwise inconsistent frontcourt, and Williams’s performance Monday night gave him a real shot to be in the rotation. At the very least, the team won’t be using the two-way portion of his contract any time soon.
In the backcourt, Ball has a prime opportunity to show his growth in Year 2. Rajon Rondo was suspended for three games following his fight with Chris Paul over the weekend, so Ball will take over as starting point guard, the role he filled his rookie year. Already this season, Ball has looked noticeably stronger and more confident, and his tweaked shooting motion seems to be working out: He’s made nearly half of his attempted 3s (8-of-19). In an ideal world, Ball would have been in the starting rotation from Game 1 to gain more experience, but given his lingering knee injury and Rondo’s level of experience, Walton’s choice was easy. These next few games could be Ball’s shot to reclaim his starting spot.
Josh Okogie, Minnesota Timberwolves
Eight minutes into Monday’s matchup against the Pacers, Andrew Wiggins exited the game with a right quad contusion. He didn’t return and is questionable for the Wolves’ game against Toronto on Wednesday, so Okogie, a rookie guard, got his shot. I can’t imagine that anything pains Tom Thibodeau more than having to reach deep into his bench and go to the 10th guy in the rotation—a rookie, no less!—to win a game. But there was the spry Okogie, who came in and played 24 minutes, scored 12 points, grabbed four rebounds, and swiped three steals.
Monday’s game wasn’t Okogie’s first chance at real minutes this season; he started for the Wolves in Saturday’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks, as Jimmy Butler took a rest day. It’s unclear how many more of those rest days Butler will have, and Wiggins is listed as day-to-day with his injury, but Okogie’s already shown that he’s a valuable contributor, especially on off nights for Wiggins (of which there are likely to be many). Though Okogie brings some much-needed energy and 3-and-D wing potential off the bench (something the Wolves don’t have much of), it’s unclear how long of a leash Thibs will give the rookie.
Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
Are the Heat Richardson’s team now? Barring a trade for Butler, which looks less and less likely by the day, Miami will have to win this season without a real star. They’re basically the Clippers of the East. Through three games games, Richardson has been the Heat’s top player—or at least their most used. The 25-year-old guard is leading all Miami scorers with 18.7 points a game. His percentages are poor (sub-30 percent from 3, 35.8 percent from the field) because he’s been wildly chucking shots. He’s averaging more than 17 field goal and nine 3-point attempts a game. But frankly, with Miami’s list of injuries, it doesn’t have a better option. By letting Richardson play the role of star on a star-less team, maybe we’ll find out whether he can actually be one.
Bryn Forbes, San Antonio Spurs
Forbes’s role with the Spurs was set before the season even began. Both Dejounte Murray and rookie guard Lonnie Walker IV sustained long-term injuries in the preseason, all but ensuring that Forbes will see major minutes this year. The third-year player has started all three of San Antonio’s games and will likely feature in the starting rotation the rest of the season. He’s playing 12 more minutes a game than he did in 2017-18 and is handling the uptick in usage well. He’s averaging nearly 15 points a game and shooting a scorching 47.6 percent from 3 (small sample size, grain of salt, etc.) on seven attempts per game. That’s nearly three more attempts than the next-closest Spur. San Antonio is riddled with midrange specialists (and will likely finish in the bottom of the league in 3s taken), so Forbes can separate himself by becoming the sharpshooter the Spurs need to survive high-scoring games.
Torrey Craig, Trey Lyles, and Juancho Hernangomez, Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets will be without Will Barton for five to six weeks as he has surgery to repair an adductor muscle injury, ESPN reported Monday. The day before, Hernangomez, a power forward, played crunch-time minutes with Denver’s starting four, finishing with two 3s, eight points, and two rebounds in 23 minutes. He also did this:
BALL GAME.— NBA (@NBA) October 22, 2018
Juancho Hernangomez defends the rim to give the @nuggets the home victory! #MileHighBasketball pic.twitter.com/oEFLlS2PYS
Hernangomez won’t be starting in Barton’s place; that spot will go to second-year small forward Craig, who is a more traditional 3. Craig will slot in alongside Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic, and Lyles will fill in as Craig’s natural backup. To hang on to their respective roles, Lyles and Craig will have to prove they can stretch the floor by shooting 3s (they are a combined 1-for-12 from deep). Hernangomez, meanwhile, has already shown he can hit from deep, as he’s 3-for-7 from beyond the arc this season. With Barton out, all three players will get opportunities to showcase what they can add to the Nuggets’ strong core. Craig and Lyles can carve out consistent roles for themselves, while Hernangomez has the skill set to be a key player in close games.