We’re still over two months away from the start of the 2018-19 NBA regular season, but there isn’t anything else I can think about. The list of former Kentucky players building successful careers in the NBA continues to grow with those early Calipari-era players now entering their prime and new-age Calipari guys just now getting their feet wet. Some have already established themselves as multiple time All-Stars (John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis) while other, younger players are already on a similar path (Karl-Anthony and Devin Booker). Last season, we saw players such as Julius Randle, Jamal Murray, and Trey Lyles take serious leaps in production and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Randle and Murray take another step in the upcoming season towards becoming potential All-Stars.
But not every player is an automatic “hit”, even when dealing with Calipari products. The superstardom of the elites distracts us from the mediocrity of the G Leaguers and overseas prospects. But stuck in the middle there are some former Kentucky players currently in the NBA who have shown potential but haven’t quite made the necessary adjustments (whether it be to their fault or not) to take things to the next level. These are the players I believe are primed for breakout seasons in 2019.
Malik Monk – Charlotte Hornets (20 years old)
Malik Monk is one of two NBA sophomores on this list. Monk was a forgotten lottery selection last season, although not exactly to his own fault. His team, the Charlotte Hornets, have been uninspiring for what feels like a decade and a half now. They continue to ride the line of NBA purgatory, with aspirations to make the playoffs every season only to receive a disappointing late lottery pick nine months later.
Charlotte is now attempting to rebrand itself for the modern NBA, which started with a new head coach. James Borrego, a Gregg Popovich disciple, has taken over as the new head coach and one of his main points of emphasis this offseason has been set on making Monk a primetime contributor.
In his rookie year, Monk could never find his footing. On the year, Monk averaged 6.7 points per game while shooting 34.2 percent from three. In the first 12 games of the season, Monk averaged over 21 minutes per game but shot only 34.1 percent from the field. Following the early season trial run, Monk was relegated to the bench – and even spent one game in the G League, shooting 7-21 from three – where he would not see consistent, extended playing time until an injury to Michael Carter-Williams in March gave him another opportunity. The Hornets head coach at the time, Steve Clifford, is a notoriously defensive-minded head coach, one that did not favor well for Monk.
Monk was given a much looser leash after MCW was ruled out and he was allowed to play more like the shot-taking ultra-athlete that he is. Monk is hardly a player who can play completely under his own control at this age, but that is also what makes him so special with promise. His spontaneity can unleash scoring outbursts. A three-game stretch from April 3-8 where Monk averaged 23 points in under 25 minutes while shooting a total of 12-27 (44.4 percent) from three showcases the positives that can come from him having the ball in his hands more often than not. He’s as pure a scorer as they can come, with the ability to drop in buckets from literally any area of the court. Being a bigger focal point on a team with limited scoring options outside of Kemba Walker is only going to help everyone involved, especially Monk. No more Dwight Howard helps the entire situation tremendously, too, both on and off the court.
Monk is going to be given one hundred times more opportunities than he was last season. There’s no denying his ability to go scorched earth on opposing defenses and if he lines up right next to Walker, that’s a lethal scoring backcourt. Honestly, Jeremy Lamb is the only competition keeping Monk from being named a starter. He may only be entering his second season, but Monk is poised for a huge breakout year.
Brandon Knight – Phoenix Suns (26 years old)
Brandon Knight’s situation isn’t nearly as straightforward as Monk’s. Knight hasn’t played in an NBA game since Feb. 2017 and there are plenty of major question marks concerning his potential for another injury and lack of in-game experience over the last year and a half. Knight may not exactly be “poised” for a breakout season with the Phoenix Suns, but it’s looking like he’ll at least have the chance to return to form.
The big issue with the Suns is this: they have no suitable point guard. They could have traded down in the 2018 NBA Draft and picked up someone such as Trae Young or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander but opted to go with the potential franchise cornerstone piece in DeAndre Ayton. The decision was incredibly reasonable and expected, but it didn’t fill their void at lead guard.
The Suns picked up Elie Okobo from France with the 31st pick in the same draft and there is reason to believe he could one day become a reliable NBA point guard. But at 20 years old, he’s in no position to step in and immediately make a major impact. The only point guard on the Suns’ roster capable of doing so as of right now is Knight. (And no, Tyler Ulis would not have been a favorable option here, either)
Matched up with Ayton, Devin Booker, T.J. Warren and the addition of Trevor Ariza along with other young and still raw talent such as Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender, and Marquesse Chriss, Knight is going to have players capable of scoring around him. He’s not going to have to bare a massive load, which will be critical in his ability to regain all that he’s lost since early 2017. Booker and Ayton are the focal points. Those are the Suns’ players for the future and Knight can help get them to the point they need to be at.
Luckily, Knight has yet to enter the prime of his career, although he is getting close. He doesn’t have to come back and be the contributor he was in Milwaukee or even during his early years in Phoenix, but he does need to come back as a leader for this team. At this point, he and Tyson Chandler are the bonafide team veterans. They’re the most tenured and have the most experience within the culture of the team. If given the reigns to run the offense – one that will mainly feature feeding the ball to Booker – he just needs to play with confidence. The roster will surely shake up a bit before the regular season begins, but at this moment, Knight is in a position to remind everyone just how good he was less than three years ago.
Bam Adebayo – Miami Heat (21 years old)
Bam Adebayo joins Monk as the other second-year player to end this list. Unlike Monk, Adebayo was given plenty of minutes to succeed in a backup role behind Hassan Whiteside (Adebayo played 1,368 total minutes while Monk played only 854). With those minutes, Adebayo was overly impressive compared to what his believed output would be before the 2017-18 season began. Heading into next season, there is a legitimate argument of whether or not the Miami Heat should move on from the seemingly disgruntled Whiteside in favor of giving Adebayo all the minutes he wants. That’s how good he was in limited action last season.
Adebayo played in 74 total games, which included 19 starts with averages of 6.9 points and 5.5 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game. He proved himself to be one of the most agile big men in all of basketball. He has unlimited potential as a multi-positional defender due to his size, quickness, and high basketball IQ. He showed signs that he could one day morph into an elite rebounder on both ends of the court. And by the way, he shot 51.2 percent from the field. He’s a bully on the block and posted one of the highest percentages among big men when being fouled on a shot (94th percentile, according to Cleaning The Glass).
There is so much to love about Adebayo and his versatility is number one on that list. The next step for him is extending his range and becoming a more perennial shot blocker. His upside is already twice that of Whiteside.
The Miami Heat are compiled of mostly average to slightly above-average players but they will still be favored to make the Eastern Conference playoffs as a top five or six seed. Mixing in Adebayo more and letting him defend the now pick-and-roll happy NBA will be essential to both his and the team’s end-of-season projection. If Whiteside’s limitations prove to be holding this young team back, Adebayo will be atop of the pecking order to steal those minutes.
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