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The NBA’s Second-Half Heroes

It’s not all about the postseason. Here are the nine players who have made the most of the league’s final stretch of games, regardless of how their teams have performed.

D’Angelo Russell, Lauri Markkanen, and Landry Shamet Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The end of the regular season can sometimes feel like a slog toward the playoffs and the offseason, but there’s a lot more at stake than wins or losses. It’s a time for development, a time for veterans to play themselves into richer contracts. It’s a time when the hardcore fans tune in just for the chance to catch a memorable moment. Here are nine players who are making the most of the second half of the season.

Lauri Markkanen, Bulls

Star players often have moments early in their careers that hint at their bright futures to come. Markkanen has had many of them over the past two months for the Bulls. Here’s the one that sticks in my mind:

Markkanen sets a screen for Zach LaVine, then the Bulls duo swaps roles. The Celtics switch, and with Marcus Smart draped all over him, Markkanen launches and sinks a 3 to ice the game. There aren’t many bigs who can do what Markkanen did here, from handling the ball to comfortably taking and making a 3 off the bounce against an elite defender.

Here’s one more:

Markkanen has been empowered this season to go coast to coast, and he shows off an array of advanced moves and ambidextrous Finnishing ability. Though he’s a “big” by definition, his shooting stroke, fluid athleticism, and footwork are all guardlike. The clip above is just one of his six made 3s off the dribble this season, but he has the ability to one day create a shot against any defender. The shot above is a sign of what’s in store.

The sophomore is averaging 22 points and 11.7 rebounds over his past 22 games. Otto Porter Jr.’s presence has made Markkanen’s life easier by opening driving lanes for scores or passes. In a short time in the NBA, Markkanen is already flourishing offensively and making progress on his college weaknesses—particularly rebounding. Many draft evaluators, including me, underrated Markkanen when he came out of Arizona, but it’s time to reevaluate; Markkanen can become the best player in his draft class.

Bojan Bogdanovic, Pacers

Raise your hand if you predicted that the Pacers would maintain home-court advantage in the playoffs without Victor Oladipo. Indiana lost the All-NBA guard to a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee on January 23 but finds itself in third place in the Eastern Conference heading into Thursday’s nationally televised matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks thanks in large part to Bogdanovic’s transformation into an All-Star-caliber talent. (If your hand is raised, you’re lying.)

Bogdanovic is averaging 22.1 points per game on a 63.1 true shooting percentage over the Pacers’ 18 games since losing Oladipo, in which the team is 10-8. Bogdanovic, 29, has averaged only 13 points per game over his career, but he’s always been an efficient player—last season, he scored 1.01 points per possession in the half court, per Synergy; that number is up to 1.05 this season, and a stellar 1.11 since Oladipo was lost. Now he just has more opportunities to showcase his abilities.

That he’s maintaining his scoring efficiency while shouldering a heavier load is shocking, though. Usually a player’s efficiency will regress a bit the higher his usage gets, but Bogdanovic has had no problem running through screens and dribble handoffs more often than he did before. The difference now is he’s been tasked with handling the ball more frequently in the pick-and-roll. Since Oladipo got hurt, Bogdanovic has finished 3.4 possessions per game as the pick-and-roll ball handler, up from 1.4 in the prior 47 games.

Down the stretch of Bogdanovic’s 37-point game against the Timberwolves last week, the Pacers turned to him over and over to generate buckets—including consecutive pick-and-rolls for scores to seal the win. Bogdanovic doesn’t have the quickest first step, and he won’t throw down dunks that appear on your Instagram feed. Heck, he’s not even a dynamic passer. What Bogdanovic does do is make the right play, almost all the time, and he can score from any angle and through any crevice.

Oladipo’s injury unfortunately limits Indiana’s upside in the playoffs, but Bogdanovic, an unrestricted free agent this offseason, may be earning himself a lot of money in the process. Once you get past the top tier of free agents on this summer’s market, you’ll find players like Tobias Harris and Khris Middleton. Is Bogdanovic really that much worse than them? He’s a versatile scorer, a good shooter, and a solid defender. He’ll be only 30 next season and doesn’t have an injury history. A player’s reputation and long-term track record will play into their market cost, but if Bogdanovic keeps this up over the final stretch and into the playoffs, keeping him in Indiana will get much more expensive.

D’Angelo Russell, Nets

Kobe’s Farewell Tour derailed Russell’s debut campaign, but the young guard showed enough encouraging signs for the future. It was all downhill from there for the next two years. Russell barely improved as a sophomore, and after showing some signs of life in his first season with the Nets, knee surgery limited him to only 48 games. Hope was oozing away. Fast-forward to today, and Russell is an All-Star and the driving force of Brooklyn’s run to the playoffs.

The past 25 games have been particularly special for Russell: Nets coach Kenny Atkinson is feeding him more opportunities to be a playmaker, and he’s delivering with averages of 24.4 points on 20.2 shots, plus 7.6 assists—up from 18.1 points on 16.6 shots. Russell’s efficiency has also improved, but more importantly, he’s starting to play like he’s back in college, making flashy passes with confidence and setting the game’s tempo with his smooth style.

Should we really be that surprised? Russell showed these types of flashes in the past, including just over four years ago—in a game Kobe didn’t play—when he dropped 39 points against the Nets and hit a dagger 3 that sparked his now trademark “ice in my veins” celebration. It seems like what Russell needed most was time. Plays like the ones above seem familiar now that he makes clutch plays regularly for the Nets. In his three-plus seasons, Russell has battled through adversity and matured on and off the court, and now he has a better supporting cast with an empowering head coach. At 23, he’s right around the age that All-NBA point guards first earn that distinction—which is an average age of 24 for current players. The age range is wide—Kyrie Irving was 22 when he made his first All-NBA team, while Kyle Lowry was 29—but Russell has taken a big step toward someday achieving that status.

Progress must continue: Going into next season, Russell will need to improve at finishing around the rim and drawing fouls. Of players that have attempted at least 27 shots per 100 possessions, Russell has posted the lowest free throw rate in league history, per Basketball-Reference. Developing this skill could supercharge his game, and turn him from an All-Star to one of the game’s elites.

Trae Young, Hawks

After a worrisome start that was partially fueled by the success of Luka Doncic, Young has exploded over his past 18 games by averaging 24 points and 8.9 assists (with only 3.7 turnovers). After scoring inefficiently early in the season, Young is prospering with a 58.2 true shooting percentage over this stint. Most encouraging of all is just how steady he’s been as a passer; even if his scoring isn’t manifesting, he can create for others. Of Young’s 511 assists over the full season, 466 have gone for layups and 3s. That’s a quant’s dream; now imagine how much easier his life will be when he’s surrounded by better teammates.

But just as it was foolish to label Young a bust, it would be equally silly to proclaim him a definite superstar. He has a lot of work to do defensively and needs to sustain his recent efficient scoring. The recent surge does, however, explain why Atlanta made the draft-day trade to swap Doncic’s rights to Dallas for the rights to Young and a future first-rounder. Trading Doncic was a calculated risk, but now the Hawks have one promising young player and a pick to add another. Young said that he hopes that he and Doncic can someday be so great that their friendly rivalry becomes the modern version of the one between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Let’s hope we get that, too.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Tom Thibodeau spent so long trying to appease his cranky B-level star that it was easy to forget that Towns had already made the leap from great young player to great player toward the end of his sophomore season. Towns again took a back seat when Jimmy Butler rejoined the team to start this season, but following more mixed results and the Butler trade to Philadelphia, Towns again began to surge in late December, when Thibodeau finally began feeding him offensive touches. It was too late for Thibs to save his job, but it did put Towns back on track as one of the league’s top offensive talents.

Towns has tallied six more frontcourt touches per game since December 28, a sample of 28 games. Over that stretch, he is averaging 28.1 points and four assists with a 65.6 true shooting percentage—numbers as dominant as the ones he put up in the latter half of his sophomore season. It’s about time: A big man who can shoot, has guardlike agility moving on the perimeter, and is explosive around the rim should be empowered as a featured scorer. Even now, under interim Wolves coach Ryan Saunders, there’s still more that Towns can show. Towns attempts only 4.7 3-pointers per game despite being a career 39.1 percent shooter from downtown. Brook Lopez shoots 1.8 more 3s per game, and Blake Griffin attempts 2.1 more; Towns should receive as many long-range chances as those guys. More pick-and-rolls and fewer post-ups would be a good way to funnel them his way. Towns has made strides as a passer, and he’s even more refined attacking closeouts and finishing inside, but it’s fair to expect his ascent to continue.

Defense will always be an important topic when it comes to Towns, since he’s been slow to develop on that end because of a lack of effort and discipline. At Kentucky, Towns looked like a potential All-NBA defender. That hasn’t been the case in the NBA, but he’s been better overall this season; Towns is trying, at least. Maybe someday Minnesota will make Towns’s life easier by replacing its papier-mâché guards, who allow easy paint penetration. That time won’t come soon. For now, we’ll have to settle for another reminder of how formidable of an offensive force Towns is, and the promise of what he can become.

Landry Shamet, Clippers

I have a thing for shooters, maybe because it’s something I could never do well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a legend like JJ Redick or a journeyman like Troy Daniels—I can watch video of shooters on loop. Shamet is entering that stratosphere because of plays like these off-screen snipes:

Look at his footwork—he plants his feet then turns to balance himself in midair. It’s gorgeous. Shamet is playing 8.4 more minutes per game than he did with the 76ers before the Tobias Harris trade, and he’s producing at an even higher level (12.4 points in L.A., 8.3 in Philly) on a larger dose of shots (8.7 field goal attempts, 6.4). With the playoffs on the horizon, Shamet will get to show star free agents that he’s a perfect complementary player, or the type of high-end asset the Clippers can trade for more veteran help. Or maybe the Clippers will view him as a keeper.

Deandre Ayton, Suns

The concerns about Ayton’s defense before the draft were understandable. Sometimes it felt like his eyes were shut when he was off the ball on defense. His deft feet on the perimeter, stout frame, and long arms gave him upside to be an enforcer, though. Ayton has made progress on defense every month as a pro, and as of late he’s shown he can lock down against the game’s best.

In consecutive games, Ayton was assigned to guard LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Suns won both contests, largely because Ayton passed the test. He played with consistent effort, and displayed his rare blend of fluidity and strength. As the years go by, his awareness off the ball should only improve, too. In the meantime, Ayton is having a tremendous offensive season. In Ayton and Devin Booker, the Suns have two cornerstones.

Mitchell Robinson, Knicks

Is Mitchell Robinson the best prospect on the Knicks? It may seem silly considering New York has countless former lottery picks on its roster—including Kevin Knox, last year’s no. 9 pick—but it’s plausible. Robinson, the 36th overall pick last year, has the core skills to have a fruitful career in the NBA: He’s a ferocious at-rim finisher with an appetite for blocking shots.

The second half of the season has provided Robinson a platform to show what he can do with a heavier dose of minutes. Over his past 14 games, he’s playing 22.7 minutes and averaging 10.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks. Robinson is flying, and Knicks fans are swooning. Robinson could be the next DeAndre Jordan.

Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

Development is rarely linear, but for Harrell, it’s been a steady ascension ever since he was at Louisville. In three years playing under Rick Pitino, Harrell posted 102 assists and 145 turnovers, a negative ratio that represented his shoddy feel for the game. Reading the floor was a challenge for Harrell. He’d struggle to cleanly complete basic plays such as dribble handoffs, he’d set sloppy screens, and he’d miss open teammates when posting up and rolling to the rim. Harrell made subtle progress each collegiate season, but his calling-card skills as an energetic rim runner and shot blocker didn’t improve enough to overcome his fundamental limitations.

Harrell declared for the draft in 2015 and fell to the second round, where the Rockets selected him with the no. 32 pick. His steady growth has continued since. Now 25 and in his second season with the Clippers, his feel-for-the-game gene has apparently been uploaded into his nervous system. Whereas before Harrell would barrel into a clogged paint, he’s now setting cleaner screens, quickly calculating reads, or kicking the ball out accurately to open shooters. Harrell has posted 122 assists and 100 turnovers this season, which won’t fool anyone into thinking he’s a passing savant, but suggests he’s become a reliable fixture of the Clippers’ rotation.

Harrell and Lou Williams have logged the fourth-most total pick-and-roll possessions in the NBA, per Second Spectrum’s Clippers CourtVision. It’s no wonder why: Harrell is an elite finisher, scoring 1.4 points per possession on rolls, and Williams is as dynamite as ever—the Clippers score 1.1 points per possession when Williams shoots or passes out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy. The cherry on top is Harrell’s development: He’s avoiding careless fouls, and locating shooters on short rolls like he does in the clips above. Harrell has gained the trust of his coach, Doc Rivers, and has been assigned more and more responsibility and minutes as the season has progressed. He’s become less a bull in a china shop and more of a bull with table manners.