Due to the coronavirus, 22 NBA teams are set to make a trip to Orlando in lieu of the traditional 16. Eighth regular-season games will precede the postseason, which is scheduled to accompany the usual seven-game format. With six extra franchises gifted an opportunity to make the playoffs, 20 members of the BBNBA will grace the compounds of Walt Disney World when the 2019-20 season resumes on the final day of July.
We’ve already gone over which former Wildcats made the cut, starting with the top 16 teams and followed by the six additional organizations. But with this post, we’re going to dive a bit deeper and discuss a handful of BBNBAers who we should all be on the lookout for. I’ve chosen three, in particular, who are going to have a considerable load on their shoulders. They don’t ALL high have expectations, but their roles are going to be critical to their team’s success. These aren’t necessarily the individuals I believe are the best among the group, but the ones I believe have more to gain from a breakout performance than most.
Eric Bledsoe – Milwaukee Bucks
If you followed the 2018-19 NBA playoffs, then you likely remember the narrative surrounding Eric Bledsoe and his subpar postseason performance for the Milwaukee Bucks. Actually, the last two postseasons have not favored well for Bledsoe, to the point where he publicly addressed that he was prioritizing his mental health this past offseason. His numbers have plummeted across the board over the course of the Bucks’ previous two postseason appearances and so did his team’s chances at winning in the process. The numbers alone speak for themselves.
Bledsoe’s averages during regular season (2017-19)
16.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.5 turnovers
Shooting splits (FG%/3PT/FT%): 47.9/33.8/77.6
Bledsoe’s averages during playoffs (2017-19)
13.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.0 steals, 2.2 turnovers
Shooting splits (FG%/3PT/FT%): 42.0/25.5/70.4
Once the postseason begins, Bledsoe, for some reason, doesn’t play anywhere near his capabilities. This is the year he can change that perspective. Milwaukee is – for the second season in a row – the top team out of the Eastern Conference. Not too much of the core has changed since last season, although starting shooting guard Malcolm Brogdon was shipped off to Indiana during the previous offseason. Bledsoe was left to fill in the gaps, and as a result, he posted one of the most efficient shooting seasons of his nine-year career. He assumed a more prominent role and, behind the motivation of a sparkling new $70 million contract extension, allowed Milwaukee to remain dominant in the East.
Bledsoe’s shot at redemption is still alive and the timing couldn’t be more critical to the future of the Bucks. Keeping reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo happy in Milwaukee is only possible with winning. The sooner Bledsoe can help lead them to the promised land, the more hopeful the franchise will be they can keep a hold of Antetokounpo, whose contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 season.
Trey Lyles – San Antonio Spurs
Two days ago, Trey Lyles likely isn’t on this list. But after the San Antonio Spurs announced on Monday that starting center LaMarcus Aldridge will miss the remainder of the season following shoulder surgery back he underwent in April, Lyles will be thrust into a new role. Aldridge was the backbone of this Spurs team and its most lethal weapon; now they’ll now be without him as they try to scratch and fight into the playoffs.
When the Spurs do finally convene down in Orlando, they’ll be one of six franchises that will have to make up ground in order to force a potential play-in tournament for the final playoff seed. Since San Antonio are currently four games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, they’ll need to at least maintain that distance in the standings. If they fall down to even 4.5 games behind the Grizz after the final eight regular-season games are over, they are eliminated from a play-in tourney. With that being said, every minute of every game is going to be vital if the Spurs wish to continue its 22-year postseason streak. Without Aldridge in the mix, every second is going to be key, particularly for Lyles.
Lyles is going to pick up a majority of the slack for Aldridge. Luckily, the one-time Wildcat has been the Spurs starting power forward since the middle of December. His numbers have been respectable at 6.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per outing on a 44.6 percent shooting clip from the floor and 38.7 percent from the perimeter. However, he was never a high-impact player. His production varied throughout the year and he finally began to put the pieces together right before the season was put on pause. His last six games saw him average 15 points and nearly seven rebounds on impressive shooting numbers. He was constantly hovering over 30 minutes per game, and I should note that Aldridge did not play in five of those six games.
Those six games are a small sample size and Lyles’ on/off numbers from that short period of time isn’t anything that should carry much optimism. But San Antonio doesn’t have many other options and Lyles was hot before the hiatus. The Spurs can fill Aldridge’s minutes with backup center Jakob Poeltl or one of the other big men deep on the Spurs bench. Head coach Gregg Popovich could even go small and slide Lyles to the center with his teammates sliding down one position. Either way, I think we should expect 30-plus minutes on a game-by-game basis from Lyles.
Of the five Western Conference teams currently on the outside looking in, I don’t project the Spurs as the “team to watch”, but Lyles is going to have a chance to shine on a bright stage.
Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers
There is no argument that Anthony Davis isn’t the most talented former Kentucky basketball in the world right now, but the reason I still chose him to make this list is because of his unique circumstance.
Davis can change his public perception with an All-Star level showing in the upcoming playoffs. The fallout that followed his departure from New Orleans has cast a shadow of distrust over his career. He’s not the first NBA superstar to go through something like this (although his situation was fresh to the new era) and he’ll hardly be the last. The usual treatment for a bad reputation within the public eye, especially in sports, is to simply start winning. Davis was playing at the top of his game before the season was suspended and doing so next to an established legend with the Western Conference’s best record; this was – and still could be – his season for quick retribution.
His squad, the Los Angeles Lakers, is sitting atop the Western Conference standings with a comfortable 5.5 game lead over the second-place L.A. Clippers. Davis’ teammate, LeBron James, will likely finish with more MVP votes than him once the season concludes, but the one-time Kentucky great is what makes the Lakers so dangerous on both ends of the floor. It’s going to be near-impossible to turn on the TV and not see Davis on the screen once July 31 rolls around. The local fans down in NOLA might not change their mind about Davis if he makes it to the NBA Finals, but his status as a future Hall of Famer wouldn’t be in doubt.