Each season we get a fresh batch of young players ready to put their imprint on the NBA. While some immediately burst onto the scene playing like seasoned vets, others take time to develop. Some make rapid progress, and others gradually make the climb, some benefit from being on the right team with the ideal system, and others just need a change of scenery, but they eventually come around.
So, here are 5 players to keep your eyes on heading into the 2018-2019 season despite a less than spectacular start to their professional basketball careers.
5. Zach LaVine:
Aside from his above-the-rim leaping ability and eye-popping dunks, Zach LaVine captured fans attention in more ways than one during the 2016-17 season, averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.0 assists, shooting 46% from the floor and 38% from three (7.3 attempts) in 47 starts before tearing his ACL and eventually being dealt to the Bulls in a trade package for Jimmy Butler.
But LaVine has recovered from his injury and battled back with an encouraging stint in his 24 games with the Bulls. He had a 9-game stretch where he averaged 22.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists and shot 45% from three on 5.3 attempts. During that stretch, he turned in a 35-point performance against his former team, the Timberwolves, in a 114-113 win where he had the last 11 points in the final three minutes of the 4th quarter that included a trio of clutch free throws to win the game. The game was a good sign for Bulls fans and a reassurance of just what LaVine is capable of.
Heading into the 2018-19 season, the Chicago Bulls have a nice threesome of young talent that includes Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. As he continues to recover and elevate his offensive game, LaVine could provide this up-and-coming Bulls team with much-needed scoring and boost their 3-point shooting, which the team finished 12th among the rest of the leagues deep shooting threats.
Consider this a redemption season for LaVine.
4. Jamal Murray:
Murray started off the season sluggish. From the jump, you could see how difficult the adjustment was for him, from an off the bench two-guard in his rookie season, to starting point guard on a team with tall expectations. Not only was facilitating and scoring the ball an issue for Murray, but he also struggled mightily to hit the outside shot, an area in his game that he specializes in.
But as the season progressed and the Nuggets started to find their groove, so did the second-year, sharp-shooter. Murray picked up the slack in the month of December where he played his best basketball of the season. He averaged 19.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists, while shooting 46(FG%)-46(3PT%)-92(FT%) from the floor in just 31 minutes during a 15-game stretch during the month.
From there on, Murray never looked back. He shot 41% from three on almost 6 attempts throughout the rest of the season, finished out the year at 38% from that distance, remained among the league’s best free throw shooters at 90% (5th in the entire NBA), and finished 2nd behind Joel Embiid among all second-year players in points per game (16.7).
Most impressively, Murray showed heroic traits late in 4th quarters, closing out games and giving his team key buckets whether it was at the rim, from three, or at the charity stripe, Murray found ways to give his team a lift when they were in desperate need of a lift. According NBA.com’s clutch stats section, Murray led his team with 1.5 points (46%FG) in the final 2 minutes of games when ahead or trailing by 5 points or less.
As the Nuggets look to make their first playoff appearance since 2013, they’re going to need every bit of Murray’s sniper accurate shooting and clutch scoring.
3. Brandon Ingram:
Is there anyone in the NBA with more potential than Brandon Ingram? He’s the embodiment of the “he has all the tools to be great” player. Size, length, athleticism, versatility, height etc, you name it and Brandon Ingram has it.
Coming into the league, Ingram received a lot of Durant comparisons for his long, thin frame and scoring abilities. Though his professional start was underwhelming to say the least, the NBA world was finally exposed to what he’s truly capable of. He improved his scoring, up’ing his PPG from 9.4 points on 40% in his first year, to 16.1 points on 47% the following year. He still isn’t a three-point specialist — only attempting just a little over 2 threes a game, but he does shoot nearly 40% from that area so it is promising.
But where Ingram really showed flashes of his potential was in his playmaking. When Lonzo Ball missed 16 games from January 15th to February 26th, Ingram took over point guard duties, averaging 5.0 assists plus 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 48% from the floor, giving us a taste of his playmaking abilities and leading the Lakers to a 10-6 record and three different 3-game win streaks.
While his name might currently be thrown around in trade rumors, fans could be in store for a big season from Brandon Ingram in the upcoming season. If he continues to expand on his offensive skill-set and develop his body, the sky’s the limit with him.
2. Dejounte Murray:
Let’s talk Spurs! No, not where Kawhi Leonard is going to play next season. Give the ESPN trade machine a rest , we’re here talk about Dejounte Murray. It was halfway through the season when Popovich decided it was time for Dejounte to become the team’s full-time starting point guard. Tony Parker’s time had come and he understood, the team was ready to move forward.
Unlike the rest of the players on this list, Dejounte Murray’s impact wouldn’t come from his offense, because, well, his offense is still a work in progress. It was his defense and rebounding that made him so special. At 6’5 with a 7’0″ wingspan, Dejounte has great length at his position to disrupt ball handlers, intercept passes, block shots and sky for rebounds. For 2017-18 regular season, he ranked 3rd among all point guards in total rebounds (459), 9th in total steals (97), and 8th in total blocks (31). Those numbers make him the youngest guard in NBA history to record 450+ rebounds, 95+ rebounds and 30+ steals in a season. He even had a game against the Cavs with 7 steals, a career-high.
Look at those quick hands!
It makes sense why he was named to All-Defense 2nd team, the youngest player since Kobe Bryant (2001) to make an All-Defense team. He’s only the 3rd guard in Spurs history to be selected for the accolade behind Alvin Roberson and Danny Green. Not bad for a 21-year-old who only started in 8 games the previous season.
Whether Kawhi Leonard sticks around or not, the Spurs know what they have in Dejounte Murray. It’s going to be fun to watch him blossom into a defensive monster and maybe even develop into a floor general for a Spurs team that could use both a playmaker, and a leader.
1. Julius Randle:
Still just 23-years-old, Julius Randle will be entering his 4th season in 2018-19, and expectations have never been higher. Randle turned a lot of heads late in the season with high-level production and all-star-like numbers.
Take a look at his month by month increase throughout the year:
October: 11.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.7 APG on 63%FG in 19.1 MPG
November: 13.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1.7 APG on 52% FG in 23.7 MPG
December: 14.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.1 APG on 56% FG in 22.9 MPG
January: 15.3 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 2.0 APG on 54% FG in 25.9 MPG
February: 19.4 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 4.3 APG(!) on 59% FG in 31.9 MPG
March: 22.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.6 APG on 56% FG in 34.8 MPG
Combine his run from February to March, and you’re looking at a 25-game stretch of 21-9-3 stat line on 57% shooting in 33 minutes per game. Remind me what this guy was doing on the bench for the first three months of the season again?
One thing that jumps out about Randle’s game is his knack for punishing defenders with his upper body strength by backing them down in the post, and muscling his way into easy buckets. His aggression under the hoop put him 9th in the entire NBA in points in the paint (11.5) and 17th in post ups (4.6). He epitomizes the term “bully ball.” Just watch one Lakers game and you’ll see what I mean by that.
Randle could be looking at a big payday this off-season as he is one of the most intriguing free agents on the market for 2018. Wherever Randle ends up, we can only hope that his full potential will be unleashed, preferably as a starter.
- Stats courtesy of ESPN.com/Basketball-reference.com/NBA.com
- All photos courtesy of Google Images