Happy Opening Day! It’s just a few hours now until the regular season begins, but we’re still pushing deadlines here at Hickory-High, bringing you one last pre-season post. As the NBA summer winds down there is always plenty of focus on players poised to take a leap forward, those who are ready to break out and become stars. Today I want to adjust the dial on your microscope down a notch and bring you a few other players poised to take a leap. Each of the five players below toiled in obscurity as rookies last year. None is ready to become a franchise leader, but each seems ready to jump from the fringe of an NBA rotation to playing actual meaningful minutes on a regular basis. Here are five to watch:
With additions like Mike Dunleavy, Beno Udrih and Monta Ellis, the Bucks have shed the grind-it-out, defense-first style they built during the Scott Skiles era. They have plenty of offensive weapons, but all have a decidedly perimeter tilt. With all due respect to Ellis and Brandon Jennings, they still haven’t found an elite offensive player to plug in and anchor their entire system. Second-year forward Tobias Harris may not be ready for that role right now, but I think this season will prove that’s where he’s headed.
As a rookie Harris was very efficient offensively in his 479 minutes. His per-36 minutes averages of 15.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists, on 46.7% from the field, are impressive. Even more importantly though, Harris showed the ability to score in a variety of ways. He averaged 0.81 points per possession on post-up opportunities last season and 1.14 points per possession in isolations (most of those isolations were post-up opportunities where Harris chose to turn and face, as opposed to backing his man down). He has great offensive instincts, knows how to find open space and uses his body like a veteran. All that added up to solid work around the basket – 68.2 FG% at the rim, with nearly 40% of his field goal attempts coming at the basket.
As Harris assumes more offensive responsibility this season, there is still plenty to work on. He attempted just 4.1 free throws per 36 minutes, a rate that his to increase if he is going to be a primary scoring option. Having made 10 of 24 shots last season from 10-23ft. there is the hint of a mid-range jumper, but showing the consistency that defenses respect will open up a world of opportunity for him and his teammates. Finally, settling into his strengths, being comfortable with his role and knowing that his place in the league is secured, should help Harris refine his shot selection and eliminate some of the forced possessions that often plague young players.
There are plenty of front court players scrambling for minutes in Milwaukee but none of his Harris’ offensive versatility or potential for refinement. Playing him on a nightly basis will mean good things for the Bucks, but also the opportunity for you to enjoy watching a young offensive talent learn by doing.
Leuer is another talented young big who couldn’t quite lock down regular minutes with the Bucks last season. This summer he made his way to Cleveland and has a chance to play a big role for the Cavs. He is an above average rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass, and although unseasoned, has a solid understanding of team defensive principles from his time at Wisconsin. However, his biggest value to his new team comes with his ability to space the floor and knock down mid-range jumpshots.
Last season Leuer shot 50.8% from the field, including 44.7% on shots from 10-15ft. and 40.0% on shots from 16-23ft. The Cavs have a huge shortage of outside shooting, especially in their frontcourt, which will make it much easier for defenses to collapse, closing off driving lanes to Kyrie Irving. Last season, Antawn Jamison filled that role and it made a huge difference for Irving. He shot 46.9% from the field on the season, with 47.8% of his field goal attempts coming from inside of 10ft. When Jamison wasn’t on the floor, Irving shot just 35.8% with only 35.9% of his field goal attempts coming from inside of 10ft.
Leuer’s potential to be, at worst, a net neutral defender, combined with his work on the glass, offensive acumen and reliable jumpshot make him an important piece for the Cavs this season. The starting frontcourt may be Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao, but Leuer will have plenty of opportunities to make a difference.
As a rookie, joining a deep wing rotation in Chicago, Butler had the opportunity to play just 359 minutes. In those few minutes he demonstrated plenty of areas for growth, but a few distinct strengths as well. At this point outside shooting does not fall on the positive side of the ledger for Butler, and it’s the biggest obstacle to him seeing regular minutes this season. He shot 40.5% last season, and went just 12 of 36 from outside of 10ft. Finishing at the rim was also a challenge, where he shot just 48.4%. However, most of his minutes came in garbage time when the pressure was on to make an impression, not necessarily execute with precision and develop an offensive flow. The opportunity to work through a complete training camp as well as play more meaningful minutes should help Butler find places in the offense where can contribute in ways that suit his strengths, without forcing shots and allowing time for his shooting to develop.
On the other side of the ball Butler is ready to make an impact immediately. He averaged 1.1 steals and 0.5 blocks per 36 minutes, compared to just 2.0 personal fouls. That makes his ratio of positive defensive plays to personal fouls 0.85, the 9th best ratio among the 44 rookies who played at least 300 minutes last season. Marco Belinelli, Kirk Hinrich and Vlad Radmanovic will all competing with Butler for minutes on the wing, but none has his physical tools or defensive intensity. The past two seasons, the Bulls second unit steadied the ship with top-tier defense. Ronnie Brewer, C.J. Watson and Omer Asik are all gone. But with Taj Gibson, Butler could help rebuild that defense first framework on the bench, helping keep things afloat until Derrick Rose and his offense return.
Moore gets the benefit of playing for the Orlando Magic, a franchise in full rebuilding mode, with plenty of minutes to offer young and developing players. Arron Afflalo is the only backcourt player the Magic seem to have a serious commitment to, and when playoff teams come calling in February trying to round out their playoff rotations J.J. Redick and Jameer Nelson could be on the move. In short, playing for a bad team will give Moore the opportunity to play regularly, an opportunity he may not have had with a better team.
Moore has some potential in the area of creating shots for his teammates, but primarily he’s an undersized two-guard. He has some work to do with making decisions in the pick-and-roll, averaging just 0.41 points per possession in those scenarios last year. But he’s a very good shooter when he gets his feet set, and has plenty of potential as a spot-up shooter and as an option coming off screens. He finished his rookie season with the Celtics having shot 37.8% on three-pointers. In terms of winning basketball games, Moore’s situation may leave a lot to be desired. In terms of having the opportunity to play, develop and beginning to carve out an NBA career he probably couldn’t have done much better.
Of the five players we’ve looked at here, Burks saw the most action as a rookie, playing 939 minutes for the Jazz. In that time he showed versatile well-rounded game, one that increased in effectiveness the closer he gets to the basket. Per-36 minutes Burks averaged 16.3 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steals, terrific production from the shooting guard position. However, he struggled to hit from the outside, and finished the season having made just 56 of 172 shots from beyond 10ft. (32.6%).
Even without a consistent jumpshot Burks provides the Jazz with a lot of value at the offensive end. He is very crafty at getting into the lane, finishing strong and drawing fouls – he shot 61.4% at the rim and averaged 5.5 free throw attempts per-36 minutes last season, the most of any Jazz player. He also turned the ball over on just 10.8% of his possessions, a terrific mark for a rookie, and shows some intriguing potential with his ability to create open looks for his teammates. The Jazz are opening the season with a point guard rotation that includes Mo Williams, Earl Watson, Jamaal Tinsley and Randy Foye, not exactly a murder’s row of offensive engines. That will leave plenty of chances for Burks to stand out with ability to create both for himself and others.