In the final portion of this mini-series, we’re focusing on the best of the best, or what I have dubbed as “All-Stars” and “High-level starters”.
All-Stars is rather straightforward. These are the select players who are several marks above their peers. The All-Stars have obviously been on an All-Star team before and are expected to make it again this season. They are the best and most impressive players on their respective team’s roster.
The high-level starter is a bit different. They aren’t quite superstars just yet – although they certainly have the potential to get there one day – but are necessary assets to the team. If they weren’t there, their team would be considerably worse. These players aren’t going to immediately give their team a shot at a title, but they’ll be the reason for several wins throughout the course of the 82-game season. They are players that can be built around in preparation the future.
Joining me (Zack Geoghegan) for the third and final piece of this series will be someone you know very well, notorious LeBron James
stan hater, Jack Pilgrim. Let’s jump into it.
Anthony Davis – New Orleans Pelicans
The Brow is in a very unique situation in New Orleans, as this upcoming season has major implications on his future in the NBA.
With DeMarcus Cousins joining the dark side in Golden State, Davis has taken over as the team’s only shot at making the playoffs. The Pelicans made a solid move by bringing in Julius Randle to replace Cousins (we’ll talk about him later), but the former Wildcat star will be asked to carry quite the workload both offensively and defensively.
He averaged 28 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 2.6 blocks per game last season, but following Boogie’s Achilles injury, he took over as the most productive player in the league in the final 33 games of the season. Davis pushed his totals to a league-leading 30.2 points on 51.4 percent from the field, 11.9 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game. He also averaged 30.1 points, 13.4 rebounds, two steals, and two blocks per game in the postseason, when they shocked the world by sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round while stealing a game from Golden State in the next.
From a purely statistical standpoint, there’s little doubt Davis will be the most productive member of the BBNBA fraternity. But if the Pelicans are unable to convert that success into victories, we may see The Brow leave the Big Easy sooner rather than later.
– Jack Pilgrim
Karl-Anthony Towns – Minnesota Timberwolves
While the Jimmy Butler debacle has yet to conclude, there is one constant that isn’t going to change regardless of the outcome. Karl-Anthony Towns is a future Hall-of-Famer. Coming off his first All-Star and playoff appearance last season, KAT brings a uniquely unstoppable offensive attack. One that can beat any defender at any given time from literally any area on the court. Forget just big men, there aren’t many basketball players in the entire world that have the type of individual offensive impact that he does.
Whenever Butler does leave or is traded, KAT will once again become the sole focal point of the Timberwolves franchise. While consecutive playoff appearances might not be in the cards, the All-Star game certainly will be. So will the All-NBA first team. He’s only 22 and not even halfway close to realizing his full potential. It’s scary to think how good he’ll be at 28.
Not all is perfect with KAT, however. The two most notable knocks on him have been his leadership and poor defensive tendencies. Without Butler, the reigns of leading the team will be forcibly passed onto Towns, whether he likes it or not. He’s going to have to take responsibility going forward. This is his team and it’s going to be his team as long as Minnesota keeps him around. Improvement on the defensive side can still come around – he is only 22, after all – but time is fleeting in that regard. The Wolves were at their best when Butler was healthy and at their most mediocre when he was out. Without him, it’s going to be up to Towns to build this team back up.
– Zack Geoghegan
As Zack stated, the Jimmy Butler situation is very, very interesting for Towns’ career going forward. With the All-Star shooting guard on his way out, Towns is going to be the team’s No. 1 option on offense and should see his numbers spike. He has worked on his catch-and-shoot abilities from beyond the arc, and continues to build muscle for his already-distinguished skills in the post.
Defense is an issue, but there’s no denying Towns is one of the most dominant young players in the NBA and an All-Star for years to come.
John Wall – Washington Wizards
Wall is the leader of a Washington team many are wondering just what the future holds with their core and whether they’re actually a contender in the Eastern Conference. They have zero financial flexibility, and it doesn’t look any better going forward. They’re not good enough to win the East, let alone a title, but they’re not bad enough to blow things up.
So what does that mean for Wall?
Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal are dynamic together, one of the top backcourt duos in the league. Wall has the speed and playmaking ability, while Beal can create shots and score at an elite level. Beyond those two, there are major question marks, and serious changes could be made in the near future. Otto Porter took a step up last season, but his contract is still a mess. They brought in Dwight Howard to replace Marcin Gortat, who could just end up hurting locker room chemistry even further. He’s a shell of his former self, and judging by his career trajectory, there are questions centered around his attitude and passion for the game. He has jumped from (follow me here) Orlando to Los Angeles, and then Houston, followed by Atlanta. The Hawks then traded him to Charlotte, who then traded him to Brooklyn, who then cut him, where he then signed with Washington…
Wall has received criticism for not being the leader Washington needs him to be, something he has acknowledged on several occasions. With Howard manning frontcourt duties, it could be a big opportunity for the former Wildcat to right the ship and get the eight-time All-Star back to what he once was. The talent is undeniable, and he’ll earn All-Star honors yet again, but things could get very interesting if the Wizards stay in that 5 to 8-seed range. Do they break up the core? Is Wall moved? Do they find a star to trade for to push them back into contention?
Devin Booker – Phoenix Suns
Like Davis, Booker lost his best friend and former Wildcat this offseason, as the Phoenix Suns decided to part ways with Tyler Ulis. (Oddly enough, Ulis has joined Cousins in Golden State, where they’ll likely both end up with championship rings this year. Funny how that works.)
With Ulis gone, along with fellow point guard Elfrid Payton joining Davis in New Orleans, Phoenix is extremely limited at the one. As a result, the Suns are expecting Booker to take over the main guard duties and have the offense run through him at all times. It’s a bit of a gamble, but with how talented the former Wildcat is offensively, it’s a risk they’re willing to take.
With the ball in his hands more often than not, you better believe Booker’s numbers are going to rise. He averaged 25 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game in his third season, and there’s a chance he can push those totals to around the 30-point mark when he finally returns from his surgically-repaired hand injury. Add in a frontcourt stud in DeAndre Ayton to throw lobs to, along with another year of development for Josh Jackson, the Suns definitely have some young talent to work with going forward.
Make no mistake about it, they’ll suck this year in the win-loss column and will likely find themselves in the top-five when the lottery comes around. But the foundation is there, and the future is bright with Booker as the star of the show.
Julius Randle – New Orleans Pelicans
The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t want him. The New Orleans Pelicans were more than happy to swoop in and sign him for themselves.
As the unofficial replacement to DeMarcus Cousins, Randle will fill out the deadly frontcourt trio of this season’s version of the Pellies. The fit couldn’t be more ideal for Randle. Last season in LA, Randle was the team’s best player for the majority of the season – especially the second half – but with all the focus on him emerged his deficiencies on the defensive end along with a subpar jump shot that became more and more exposed.
In NOLA, alongside Davis and the sharpshooting Nikola Mirotic, Randle’s weaknesses will be covered in nearly every area. Randle plays mainly the 4, which will slot him next to either Davis or Mirotic more often than not. The Pellies will be able to surround Randle will shooters that will open up driving lanes for himself, using his brute strength and God-given talent to terrorize his way through the paint. New Orleans will emphasize playing a fast-pace – as they did last season and into the playoffs – which will make Randle a multi-faceted offensive weapon. He’s an underrated passer, but something tells me he’ll be well-known as a playmaker by the season’s end, dishing out lobs to Davis and corner threes to Mirotic on a regular basis.
One thing I found very interesting was just how quick New Orleans was to announce Randle would start at the five with Davis manning the four-spot, despite Davis being a solid two inches taller. The Davis-Cousins frontcourt worked so well last year, and the Pelicans obviously feel Randle can fill that void to keep that finesse/bully system intact.
Jamal Murray – Denver Nuggets
Go ahead and buy your ticket to hop on the “Jamal Murray for Most Improved Player” train. I’ll be your guide all season long.
While the Denver Nuggets as a team could have as many as three or four players in contention for the MIP award, Murray is going to be one of the league favorites going into the season. No longer a combo guard, Denver’s solidified point guard is in position to have an explosive year. After narrowly missing the playoffs last season, the Nuggets are determined to not only break that barrier, but make a deep run. Murray taking a leap will be crucial to achieving that more-than-reasonable goal. His numbers skyrocketed from his rookie season to year two and his ceiling is too high to even try and grab for.
Only 21-years old, there aren’t many players in the entire league who can score with the efficiency and creativity that Murray possesses. His defense isn’t as bad as some might think, but there is still plenty of work to do on that end. Continuing at the rate he is on offense and an uptick in defensive awareness are going to set Murray up for a monster season. Buy League Pass. Move to Denver. Do SOMETHING to ensure you can at least catch one tiny glimpse of Murray this season. There won’t be many players more exciting than him.
Enes Kanter – New York Knicks
This entire mini-series has grouped players specifically by their play on the court. Enes Kanter is the outlier, for many reasons. But first, let’s start with the basketball specifics. While Kanter may not exactly be a “high-level” starter compared to some of the other names in this group, he’s in a situation where he has to play like one. With Kristaps Porzingis out until at least December and surrounded by youth and the corpse of Joakim Noah, Kanter is going to have his hands full.
The Knicks are going to be bad. Like, awful. One of the two or three worst teams in the league. Which is fine, because they’re currently in the business of developing talent and acquiring assets. But Kanter – the 26-year old veteran – is going to be the go-to man on offense. At this point, his defense is all but a lost cause, but he’s an elite rebounder with an expansive offensive skill set (and may even add the three-pointer to his arsenal this season). I’d bet he has the best statistical season of his career this year.
But as I previously said, basketball isn’t the only reason Kanter is in this group. Another major point: the quip about his erect nipples during media day. Not just that specifically, but the fact that Kanter is a social media savant and loves to
Kanter banter with reporters makes him a necessary follow. You’d be hard-pressed to find an individual who enjoys life more than Kanter. He’s not going to let a negative season deter him from having fun.