Four Breakout Players in the Atlantic Division
D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
Two ingredients measure the formula for early development for a young NBAers: talent and opportunity. Russell’s talent has never been doubted. The third-year point guard has unlimited range, a lightning quick release, and connected on 35.1% of his 3s on 6.1 attempts per contest last year. Russell is crafty and shifty floor general, playing with a mature pace and control that you’d expect from a 10-year veteran. His physical profile is off the charts. At 6’5 with a 6’10 wingspan, he already shows evidence of growing into a switchy bothersome defender who can consistently disrupt passing lanes and pressure the ball.
Opportunity is where Russell’s development has been held back. His two seasons in Los Angeles were a systemic mess. Year one was the Kobe Bryant show, a nightly ordeal where Byron Scott allowed the Mamba to commandeer the entire offense as he slithered into retirement. In 2016-17, the Lakers had more incentive to lose than any other team, with fans fearing that their beloved Lonzo Ball would somehow end up elsewhere. Meanwhile, Russell, who was once coined as the Laker point guard of the future, was forced to absorb the persistent noise coming from an 18-year-old playing fifteen miles down the road at UCLA. Pair that with first-year coach Luke Walton’s new schematic installments, and Russell’s recipe for growth was severely hindered.
In Brooklyn, things will be completely different. Kenny Atkinson is now in control of Russell’s maturation. Atkinson is a vastly underrated coach who has become something of a point guard whisperer during his nine seasons in the NBA. He’s the man behind Lin-sanity, Jeff Teague’s All-Star season, and Dennis Schroder’s surprising emergence. Russell is a more talented prospect than any of those three ever were, and Atkinson’s creativity and structure should be a godsend for D’Angelo’s evolution.
The Nets are all in on progress and development. Brook Lopez’s 15.6 FGAs per game are gone. With Cleveland controlling Brooklyn’s draft pick, the Nets have no impetus to tank for at least one more year. After Jeremy Lin’s injury plagued 2016-17, the Nets expended heavily in Russell and will want to see a return on their investment as soon as possible. Taking on Timofey Mozgov’s albatross contact is a hefty price, but a prudent move by a team that can afford to waste capspace.
The Nets’ ascent back to relevance starts with Russell. Brooklyn’s camp is already showing more confidence in him than Los Angeles ever did, and that level of credence is critical for a young player’s mental state. The 21 year old will have the green light to fire away and should play well over thirty minutes per night.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
Three seasons in, Marcus Smart might be the most polarizing player in the NBA. You’ll find some that see brilliance in his pesky defense and imaginative playmaking, and others who see Smart’s lack of floor spacing as too glaring of a weakness to survive in today’s league.
The apologists point to Smart’s rarified defensive skills, which offer a unique combination of quickness and strength that allows Brad Stevens to unleash him in matchups 1 through 4. The 6’4 guard is a bulldog, who uses his anticipatory skills to rip the ball away from unsuspecting players, and his lower body strength to battle with players five or six inches taller than him.
On the negative side, Smart has been disturbingly bizarre offensive player. He’s grown into an intriguing playmaker and facilitator, but Smart has been historically awful shooting the ball, with a career 29.1% clip from distance on a hefty 5.2 attempts per game. That percentage won’t cut it as a combo guard in today’s NBA, and he’s shown no signs of improvement.
But the opportunity is there for Smart. The departure of Avery Bradley leaves a massive hole at the 2-guard position, and if Smart can fight off sophomore Jaylen Brown for minutes, he could fit seamlessly into a starting lineup chalk full of stars. Smart is a more versatile defender than Bradley, and could have enormous value playing next to the defensively irresolute Kyrie Irving. Playing alongside Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford, utilizing Smart in a defensive specialist role may be the key to unlocking his greatness. With so much offensive talent around him, Smart could find 12-15 points per night by cutting off-ball, attacking the occasional closeout, and hitting open catch-and-shoot jumpers.
Boston sees something in Smart. Headed into contract seasons for him, Bradley, and Isaiah Thomas, Smart is the one who remained safe from Danny Ainge’s chopping block. Smart lost twenty pounds over the offseason, trimming the baby fat that may have contributed to his conditioning struggles during his early tenure in the NBA. In preseason, he’s looked agile, running off of screens, pushing the ball in transition, and filling lanes on the fast break.
Smart could become the Draymond Green of guards if he shows even a palatable spot up shooting percentage. His facilitating skills and defensive utility are already on Green’s level, but the all-important floor spacing factor is the remaining litmus test. For all of his woes, Smart has never lacked in confidence, and should be up for any challenge as he tries to impress before his upcoming contract negotiations.
Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors
With Masai Ujiri parting ways with Terrence Ross, DeMarre Carroll, and PJ Tucker, Powell is primed for a massive bump in playing time this season. If you need more assurance that Toronto is all in on Powell, look no further than the four-year $42 million extension he just inked last week.
The plan is for the third-year wing to eventually step into the starting small forward role, and while sharpshooter CJ Miles may be momentarily standing in the way, Powell is a good bet to hover around thirty minutes per game and take an Otto Porter-type leap.
Powell is far and away the Raptors’ best wing defender, using his 6’9 length and fluid foot speed to bother opposing players. He probably the best athlete in Toronto’s rotation, and already levels ahead of CJ Miles on the defensive end (apologies to fellow OTG Writer and Miles fan boy Kory Waldron).
Offensively, Norm has grown into a well-rounded and versatile wing. After ranking in the 85th percentile in efficiency as a PnR ball handler (Per Synergy Sports), Powell will assume some facilitator duties as Kyle Lowry transitions to an off ball role and Corey Joseph adjusts to his new home in Indiana. In turn, I expect Powell’s on-ball role and usage rate to grow extensively.
The knock on Powell has always been his fluctuating three-point percentage. The Raptors have been haunted by a lack of floor spacing in the playoffs, and Powell’s eight percent 3PT% drop from his rookie to sophomore year is a big concern. It’s why they added CJ Miles as an insurance policy. But if Powell can return to his 2015 conversion rate (40% on 89 attempts), they’ll have no reason to keep the talented 24-year-old on a short leash. Regardless, Powell has a golden opportunity to take the next step.
Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers
The “trusting the process” portion of the 76ers rebuild is over. With back-to-back top picks now a reality rather than a dream, it’s time for Philadelphia to unlock their team around Joel Embiid and aim for the playoffs. Part of that formula will be to carve out meaningful role players to surround their young building block pieces, and Covington is one of the more underrated glue guys in the NBA.
After clawing his way out of the D-league, the 26-year-old combo forward has grown his game each of the past four years. His 3-and-D skill set is highly valuable in today’s league, but has been massively underutilized due to Philly’s overabundance of conventional bigs and lack of a true facilitator (although I love Mr. Hustle: Timothy John “T.J.” McConnell). Now, Convington will be a prime beneficiary from the additions of passing savant Ben Simmons, Harden-clone Markelle Fultz, and professional sharpshooter J.J. Redick. The increased spacing and playmaking will only draw attention away from Covington, who seems poised to expand his shooting percentages.
Covington has everything you want in a 4th or 5th option. He hits the three-pointer at a 35% clip and skillfully attacks closeouts to get into the paint. On top of that, his rebounding averages have ballooned to seven per game, and his glass cleaning will become increasingly more important as he consumes power forward minutes voided by Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel. Covington is also the Sixers’ most multi-faceted defender. He does a solid job using his length to impede the paths of ball handlers, yet maintains the strength to body up in the post and the agility to chase shooters around screens. Only four NBA players averaged 1.5 steals and 1.0 blocks per game last season; Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Andre Drummond, and yes, Covington. The Sixer wing also led the league in deflections last season. It helped him to a fourth place finish in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, and his unheralded versatility will be an enormous weapon for Philly this year. He may not have a major statistical breakout, but Covington is as important as any Sixer (sans Embiid) for Philadelphia to make a playoff run.