This is Part II of a three-part series. Part I can be found here.
For the second portion of this mini-series, we’re going to focus on a group I’m dubbing as the “low-level” starters.
What I mean by that is these are the players who will consistently play a high number of minutes (in the 20-25 per game range) who are also essential pieces to their team’s rotation. These players are more important than the “off-the-bench contributors” and are required to bring more to the table each and every game. While they aren’t all necessary team players who will start every game, they will at least play a majority of it, especially when close games come down to the wire.
*Reminder: despite these players being listed from top-to-bottom, it does not imply that one is better than the other. While one player might be definitively better than another one from this group, they all have similar value to their team heading into the new season.*
Bam Adebayo – Miami Heat
- Adebayo’s rookie season statistics hardly tell the entire story about who he was as a player last season. There are few big men in the entire league with as much potential upside as Adebayo. His ability to switch 2-5 defensively (and hopefully soon, 1-5) and rim-rolling prowess is the ideal skill set for a modern-era big man, even if the jump shot isn’t there just yet. Despite starting only 19 games last season and averaging 19.9 minutes per game, Adebayo should expect to play a significant role on this year’s edition of the Miami Heat. All eyes will be on the $98 million man Hassan Whiteside as he enters the third year of his overvalued contract and no one will be watching him closer than Adebayo. You don’t have to talk to many Heat fans before you understand just how excited they are for the second-year man big out of Kentucky. Even if Whiteside plays well, Adebayo should soak up nearly 25 minutes per game. Don’t be too surprised if he starts to chuck up a three-pointer or two, either.
Eric Bledsoe – Milwaukee Bucks
- Behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, Bledsoe is the Bucks best player. This says more about a playoff hopeful Bucks team than it does Bledsoe, though. While still a starting caliber point guard, last season saw what could be the start of his decline. Often lackadaisical on both sides of the ball, you never knew which version of Eric Bledsoe was going to play on any given night. Perhaps a more fluent offensive system brought on by new head coach Mike Budenholzer will re-energize him (and it very well could. The Bucks were a dumpster fire on offense last season when the ball wasn’t in Antetokounmpo’s hands). Playing third-fiddle to Antetokounmpo and Middleton – the latter expected to make a run for the All-Star game – Bledsoe won’t be expected to average 15 points and 10 assists per night, but he is going to be expected to bring some sort of consistency to a backcourt that could have used it last season.
Willie Cauley-Stein – Sacramento Kings
- Cauley-Stein is in a boat similar to his teammate, Skal Labissiere. While WCS has clearly been the better overall player since Labisierre was drafted over two years ago now, they share consistency issues. The difference is Cauley-Stein is entering the second to last year of his contract and could be a restricted free agent in 2019. And he’s looking to get paid. However, his current track record doesn’t set him up for a generous contract offer. He went through a brief stint last year (about a month or so early in the season) where he looked like the Kings best player. Other times it looked like he was playing a completely different sport (did you know he was a wide receiver in high school???). He averaged 28 minutes per game last season but could see that number dip if he doesn’t take the type of leap the Kings will crave. Harry Giles and Marvin Bagley III will be more than willing to step in and steal those minutes.
DeMarcus Cousins – Golden State Warriors
- Had he not suffered the gruesome Achilles injury, Boogie would easily be listed as one of the “All-Stars” for this series. Instead, he could be out past Christmas. But honestly, it doesn’t matter. Whenever Cousins does return fully healthy (which he can take his time doing), he’ll immediately be a starter and bring the number of Golden State All-Stars to five. FIVE… There’s no telling what type of player Cousins will be when he ultimately does come back, but if he’s even 80 percent of what he was last season, he’ll have his picking of offer sheets once the summer rolls around. But that’s the unknown. This type of injury is notorious for taking star big men down a peg and although technology has allowed for some improvement in the treatment, this is still a giant question mark of a situation. Either way, Cousins is going to play and he’s going to play big minutes, it’s just going to be a matter of what he can do with them and how long it’ll take him to adapt to the Warriors championship style of offense (which shouldn’t take long).
De’Aaron Fox – Sacramento Kings
- Fox had a rough rookie season. He struggled to shoot, finish, and play defense at consistent levels. The advanced stats do him absolutely zero favors. But there is still so much that fascinates me about Fox’s potential that it would be irresponsible to write him off. And since the Kings are going heavy on the frontcourt, they’ve created a path for him to be the lead guard for years to come, one that will allow him to take his time and make mistakes. However, year two should be a night-and-day improvement for Fox compared to an unforgiving rookie season. What we should expect from Fox this season is him slowly filling the holes in his game. His outside shot is going to demand improvement. More positional awareness on defense. A dedication to the weight room (although it could take several offseasons for any noticeable improvement in that area). While Fox’s current game mirrors someone who should be slotted into the “off-the-bench contributors” section, his situation in Sacramento has forced him to adapt as a starter.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Hornets
- Kidd-Gilchrist can often be the forgotten former Wildcat superstar in a league now cluttered with Big Blue connections. Playing in the Charlotte market for a team that has won 36 games each of the last two seasons and refuses to tank despite every signal pointing to them doing so hasn’t helped him one bit. Because the reality is that Kidd-Gilchrist is still one of the league’s top perimeter defenders. I say still because it feels like he’s been around for decades, just kind of plodding around down in North Carolina. In reality, he just turned 25 in late September (Anthony Davis – the man selected just one pick before MKG, turned 25 in March). This season, the Hornets are running it back again with a few minor tweaks. Malik Monk will be more involved. Rookie Miles Bridges is expected to receive early season minutes. Dwight Howard and his corny “candor” are thankfully gone, too (sorry, John Wall). MKG’s overall numbers were down last season from the previous year (including his minutes) and the inclusion of Bridges, Monk, and a revamped Jeremy Lamb will make for a crowded wing. The odds of him adding a three-point shot aren’t completely dead, but they’re definitely on life-support. Continuing to be a defensive bulldog is how he’ll stay on the court. Showcasing some semblance of an offensive game outside of cutting backdoor should be his year-long goal, but even if he doesn’t, he’ll always have a spot in the league because of what he brings to the other end.
Patrick Patterson – Oklahoma City Thunder
- Hallelujah!! Carmelo Anthony is gone! It’s time to free Patrick Patterson! After a successful three-year run in Toronto as one of their most efficient role players, Patterson was brought in to replicate that production in Oklahoma City. But a stubborn/washed Anthony devalued Patterson to the point where he didn’t look anything like the player that Raptors fans were infatuated with. Now he’ll slide into that role left wide open by Anthony’s departure and hopefully split time with Jerami Grant. Patterson, even at 29, has clear value. He can stretch the floor and is a capable switching defender. The Thunder have legitimate potential to threaten the Warriors and Rockets for a top-two spot in the West and Patterson returning to form would be crucial in accomplishing that. I expect him to do so. If he can continue to shoot at the above-average clip from deep that he did last season (38.6 percent, although taking 1.8 fewer threes and playing nearly half as many minutes in OKC than he did in his last season in Toronto), he’ll be guaranteed 20-plus minutes every game.
Rajon Rondo – Los Angeles Lakers
- From Anthony Davis to LeBron James. That’s not a bad transition as Rondo enters his 13th NBA season. Rondo has been tabbed the starter for the Lakers preseason, but a healthy Lonzo Ball should supplant him by the time the regular season begins. This doesn’t mean Rondo isn’t going to be a major factor, though. His role on this team will go well beyond what we see on the court. Rondo is going to be a vital component to a playoff run for the Lakers. He and LeBron are the two most brilliant basketball minds playing on the court right now, there are things they can teach to the young core that the 20-something-year-olds wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. As far as impacting the game action, he’ll still be dishing out 6-7 assists per game while leading his team by example. He’s poised to help another team make a lengthy playoff run.