There reaches a point in every successful NBA players career where the game begins to “slow down” for them.
For Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox, it took a rookie season filled with clanked jumpers and unforced turnovers to reach that point. Back in Nov. 2018, Dave Joerger, who was the coach of the Kings at the time, had this to say about Fox’s massive improvement in just one offseason, according to the Desert News:
“The game has slowed down for him.”
A simple, yet important sentiment.
You don’t even need to dissect the nuances of that phrase to understand what it means. Fox’s numbers skyrocketed from year one to year two in nearly every statistical category. He began to learn how to break down an NBA defense; how to use his speed to his advantage without blindly flying out of control. Repetition helped, as did a lenient coaching staff who were willing to let him take the reigns and learn on the fly.
It led to a disastrous first season, but a franchise-altering second one.
“One thing that I don’t think people really think about in development is a player’s comfort level,” Fox told Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype back in May of 2018. “At the end of the year [the 2017-18 NBA season], I felt extremely comfortable with the ball in my hands and running the team. It was just a learning process.”
Heading into his third season with the Kings, Fox has changed everything about basketball in Sacramento. They aren’t a laughing stock anymore. They have a core worthy of paying attention to. Playoff hopes aren’t just a pipe dream anymore. And all it took was one offseason in the summer of 2018 to shift the tide of an entire franchise.
Which transitions us perfectly into what I would like to discuss.
Which former Wildcat could have his “De’Aaron Fox” breakout season in 2019-20? Well, I have plenty of candidates that I’m going to go over, with only a few who I believe can actually take a giant leap in production. So let’s start with the players less likely to have “Fox-like” breakout seasons, but should still improve overall in important ways. We’ll put them in “Tier 3”.
Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns)
- Devin Booker has long-been the Suns best player and top overall prospect. And until the franchise adds another superstar or goes back in time to draft Luka Doncic instead of Deandre Ayton, it’s going to stay that way. At only 22 years of age, Booker still has plenty to improve upon and I imagine he will. He’s become a much more efficient shooter at the rim despite being the team’s primary ball-handler. With the additions of players such as Ricky Rubio, Aron Baynes, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, and rookie Cameron Johnson, the need to push Booker to his limits won’t be as necessary. Bringing in Rubio might have been a bigger short-term deal than locking in Booker to that long-term extension. With a pass-first lead guard, Booker should be put in much more favorable positions that can build off his elite shooting. It’s hard to improve on 26.6 points per game on a 52.1 percent effective field goal percentage (as he posted in 2018-19), but he should have more space this season to at least give it a go. He’ll be ready for those double-teams, as well, don’t you worry about that.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder)
- This one is tricky because unlike Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a magnificent rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers. After being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder as the key piece to the Paul George trade puzzle, SGA enters year two alongside veteran point guard Chris Paul (this is all very weird to type out. Three months ago this would have been NBA fan fiction). He’ll have expectations to improve, however, not necessarily make the playoffs. Playing next to Paul (for however long he’s on the roster) will surely benefit SGA’s develop and even if there is pressure to make the playoffs, we should see him continue his uphill improvement. Gilgeous-Alexander ran through a rookie wall briefly last year, but finished the regular season strong and going into the playoffs. His stats weren’t too flashy, though (10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assists per game), which he should easily be able to improve on with added minutes and a solid roster around him. I wouldn’t expect a massive leap for SGA, but I’d be shocked if he isn’t noticeably better at the early stages of his sophomore campaign.
Kevin Knox (New York Knicks)
- A few months ago, Kevin Knox would have been in “Tier 2” or even “Tier 1” for this article. Now, however, after the New York Knicks went out and overcrowded the hell out of its frontcourt, I’m not sure how many minutes the team will be able – or willing – to spread out amongst them and Knox. The Knicks went out and signed FOUR power forwards this offseason on short-term deals: Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson, and former Wildcat Julius Randle. Knox regularly split time at the 3 and 4 positions as a rook (44 percent of his possessions were spent playing power forward, according to Basketball-Reference) playing nearly 30 minutes per game, but shot exactly 37 percent from the field all year. Knox finished the season strong – scoring double-figures in 13 of his last 16 outings – but never found a real rhythm throughout his rookie run. An early-season ankle injury surely affected that critical development period. Knox is now in a somewhat similar spot that Fox faced after his inaugural year. There were expectations coming in that Knox did not meet and now he has a fully healthy offseason under his belt. If he can manage to carve out enough playing time to make an impact, then he could very well have his own “Fox year”. But if he gets stuck behind the flooded bigs and hype of RJ Barrett, he might be in for another long season.
Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets)
- Jamal Murray is on the cusp of being a multiple-time NBA All-Star. He’s steadily improved over each of his first three seasons but didn’t quite meet the (admittedly lofty) expectations that were hoisted upon him to start last season. That isn’t to say he wasn’t stellar, because his 18.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.8 rebounds per game would prove otherwise. But there was hope from Nuggets fans that Murray might be the lead candidate for another run at Most Improved Player (he finished eighth in 2017-18). Even though that didn’t happen, Murray was the second-best player on a team that won 54 games last year. The Nuggets were one of the few teams at the top of the Western Conference that didn’t make a significant roster change this summer. A lot of that is due to the faith that the Denver organization has in Murray and his co-star Nikola Jokic. Consistency will be key for Murray in year four. Jokic will run the offense, but everything bounces off of Murray and his ability to space the floor and attract defenders away from the Serbian big man.
Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves)
- Looking at Karl-Anthony Towns’ stat line from last season, it might almost seem unfair to ask that he produces at an even higher level, but the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves relies on it. After the Jimmy Butler trade, Towns posted 25.3 points and 12.7 rebounds while shooting nearly 53 percent from the field and just a hair under 40 percent from deep last season. Which, are like, INSANE numbers for a 23-year old seven-footer, even by the modern NBA’s standards. But his issues on defense are no secret. In fact, its been very well-documented and the one thing that has held critics back from proclaiming him as one of the top-big men in the entire world – which he already is. We won’t see massive improvements from Towns – mainly because there isn’t much more he can improve on in regards to his elite offensive skill set – but this is the year he needs to come out and dominate in all aspects of the game if he wants to contend for Most Valuable Player status.
Trey Lyles (San Antonio Spurs)
- The two players in “Tier 2” are about to enter “make-or-break” type seasons. Which is somewhat unfair considering Trey Lyles is only 23 and Malik Monk is 21, but that’s [insert cliche about how the world works]. Lyles got stuck behind an incredibly deep Nuggets rotation last season and now has a chance in San Antonio to showcase the promise he displayed in the 2017-18 season. He should find himself as one of the first few players off the bench for the Spurs, playing behind All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, especially early in the season. But Lyles needs a breakout season sooner rather than later. Entering his fifth year in the league, he’s never been able to command more than 20 minutes per game throughout an entire season. He signed a two-year, $11 million deal with S.A., but only his first year contains guranteed money. Basically, if Lyles doesn’t carve out a role in the rotation, he might be looking for work outside of the NBA in 2020-2021. The good news is we have evidence to support that Lyles can be a productive player. From Dec. of 2017 through Feb. of 2018, Lyles averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 assists for Denver while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep while playing nearly 25 minutes per game. This was in the absence of Nuggets All-Star Paul Millsap, who was injured at the time. That’s my biggest reason for not putting much stock in Lyles shooting a mere 25.5 percent from deep last season. Bad shooting seasons happen, but they also can’t happen two seasons in a row. If the Spurs are known for anything, it’s taking mid-level players and turning them into multi-millionaires. Yes, some are a result of the Spurs “system”, but they have shown time and time again that they can take a good player and turn them into a great one. Lyles is going to have plenty of opportunities to show out in 2019-2020, and if he does, there might be some light talk of being in the running for MIP.
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Posted by ?????????? on Wednesday, July 17, 2019
Malik Monk (Charlotte Hornets)
- I’m still not quite sure what to make of Malik Monk as an NBA player just yet. Luckily, he’s only played two seasons and those have been as a member of horrendous rosters, but he isn’t receiving much help in that area going forward. Now that Kemba Walker is in Boston and Terry Rozier has shifted to Charlotte, the only position that the Hornets once had faith in is now a gigantic question mark. I’m not even sure Charlotte has an actual long term plan in place. 30-year old Nicolas Batum – somehow still a member of this team, highly overpaid, and a shell of himself at this point – could keep minutes away from Monk. But even if it wasn’t well-documented (because the Hornets never are), Monk did improve from year one to year two and there is reason for encouragement in some of the numbers, although he mainly went from “very bad” to just “not as bad”. The coaching staff will surely try to incorporate Monk into the offense as quickly and as often as possible. He had a couple of stretches last season that proved his worth, but the consistency was never there. I’m not sure being paired with a chucker like Rozier, who has been highly inefficient and turnover-prone, is what the Hornets should have moved toward. That Rubio fella now in Phoenix sure would have made some a bit more sense next to Monk and at a cheaper price point. There’s a good possibility Monk might be victimized by the situation that surrounds him rather than contributing to his own downfall. Anyone wanna start the #GetMonkOutOfCharlotte movement?
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
- Now, let’s talk a bit about the player I am convinced will explode into the national media for the upcoming season: Bam Adebayo. With Hassan Whiteside out of the picture (traded to the Portland Trail Blazers this past offseason), Adebayo is now the face of the Miami Heat alongside the insatiable and controversial superstar Jimmy Butler. And even though Adebayo is only entering his third year at 22-years old, you won’t find a much more versatile defender among any position in the NBA. He can switch onto a speedy guard and stay in front of them just as easily as he can body a 250-pound bruiser in the paint. On offense, he made sizable leaps from year one to year two. He became a more efficient finisher at the rim, catapulted his jump shooting abilities, and beefed up so he could finish through all different kinds of contact. His defense is damn near elite already and his offense is steadily coming along. Adebayo will absolutely be in the hunt for Most Improved Player this season, and, dare I say, an All-Star bid? (okay I’ll calm down a bit) He should come out as the starting center for a team expected to make the playoffs. If he can cut down on the turnovers, his ceiling becomes so high I’m not sure it actually has a peak. If a big man like Adebayo can get the game to slow down for himself, imagine what his otherworldly athleticism will make him capable of.
Bam Adebayo: Future Star pic.twitter.com/ImhkJOeUVZ
— Mr. Clutch (@ClutchNBA_) August 6, 2019
Can we just start the season already?