The NBA Draft is designed to help the worst teams in the league strengthen their rosters with the brightest stars from college Basketball. However, as more and more college players leave after a single year of collegiate ball, many of the players drafted by the teams most in need of reinforcement are not ready to make a direct impact. As a result it can often take players a year or two to settle into the rigours of NBA play. Today I want to look at 3 players at the beginning of their careers in the NBA, all of whom I believe are players to watch in the coming season.
Lavine will be entering his 3rd season in the league having been drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the 13th pick of the 2014 Draft. The 21 year old UCLA product’s on court play has been overshadowed by his exploits in the All-Star Weekend Dunk Contest, which Lavine has won in both his NBA seasons, and by his young teammates Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns. Wiggins already looks to be a solid player with elite scoring ability, although questions remain about his defensive capabilities. Towns looks like a perennial All-Star and a future league MVP, Lavine has by comparison flown under the radar. He has the tantalising blend of length, athleticism and shooting range to be an outstanding wing in the NBA. Lavine spent most of his first season coming of the bench and last year played significant minutes at point guard, which many felt was cramming a square peg in to a round hole. Under new head coach Tom Thibodeau Lavine should revert to his natural position of Shooting Guard where he should be an excellent piece in this young, exciting, Timberwolves squad.
Coach Thibodeau will be crucial in Lavine’s development. Last season the Wolves flashed electrifying offensive potential but were consistently let down by defence as robust as wet tissue paper. Thibodeau comes in with a reputation for creating teams committed to playing strong team defence and he is surely the right man to unlock the potential of Lavine as well as Wiggins. Lavine has often talked about his need to improve defensively, suggesting himself that the problems stem from concentration and effort. As a defender Lavine has all the tools to be excellent, he is athletic with the long arms required to disrupt passing lanes and he has the required quickness to to stay in front of his man. At 21 he still growing into his frame and is not quite strong enough to defend the more powerful wing players in the league, but this will come with time and his defensive awareness will only improve under the watchful gaze of Thibodeau. If Lavine can make the leap forward defensively the offensive improvement should happen naturally. With opposing defenders focused on Wiggins and Towns, Lavine will get the open looks to continue improving his 3 point shooting and his scoring. Last season Lavine averaged 14 points per game look for that to be closer to 20 this year and look for Lavine to become more than a star of the Dunk Contest.
Drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 13th pick of last years draft, Devin Booker entered the league with a reputation as polished scorer with a lethal 3 point shot. However, for the first half of his rookie year Booker’s opportunities were limited by Phoenix’s starting guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight. An injury to Bledsoe in December saw Booker elevated to the starting line up, a chance he seized with both hands recording six 30+ point games and becoming the Sun’s primary offensive threat. What was especially encouraging was the variety with which Booker attacked defences, developing a solid mid range game as well as scoring at the rim. His 3 point shooting, what he was known for coming out of Kentucky, was actually fairly average, but as he showed by going to toe to the with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in the 3 point shooting contest in Toronto, Booker has the potential to be a truly elite shooter.
Much like Lavine there are defensive issues to iron out in Booker’s game. He was part of a Phoenix team that ranked third worst in points allowed per game, the defensive issues were not Booker’s alone but something the entire team will need to address under new head coach Earl Watson. The focus for Booker should be on continuing to develop as a key piece of the Sun’s offence. It will be interesting to see how Booker adapts to playing with Eric Bledsoe, who is back from injury, both are guards who’s primary instinct is to score and combining them in the Sun’s backcourt could be problematic. In an ideal world pairing Booker with Bledsoe will help the young guard improve as a facilitator to complement his scoring prowess. Equally the pairing could bog down the Suns offence with isolation heavy sets with both players more interested in getting their own buckets, sacrificing balanced team offence in the process. The ability of Bledsoe and Booker to learn how to play together will be crucial in Booker’s development. The addition of veteran guard Leandro Barbosa, adding much needed basketball intelligence and experience to the backcourt should also help Booker fill the gaps in his game over the coming year.
It is unlikely that the Suns will be any good next season, there are still significant holes in the roster and they will again be trying to integrate young players. However, Booker should be a bright spot and someone that the Suns can begin to build around for the future. What Phoenix must not loose sight of is advancing their young talent, sacrificing development for a few extra wins next year will see them continue into a spiral of losing seasons, fired coaches and talented players, such as Booker, seeking pastures new.
In many ways Winslow is the polar opposite of Booker. Since being drafted by the Miami Heat with the 10th pick last year the young forward has gained a reputation as a serious defender who is trusted with assignments usually considered well beyond the talents of a rookie. This was typified by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s decision to play Winslow at centre during the playoff series against the Raptors. Winslow was not exceptional but he did a passable job, the fact that a coach of Spoelstra’s experience thought that Winslow had the toughness and defensive nous to guard a player 6 inches taller than him, in a key playoff game, speaks volume about Winslow’s potential to be a lock down defender able to guard every position on the floor.
The issue for Winslow is that his offensive game is truly horrible. His shooting motion is disjointed and he is not a good enough ball handler to be a threat of the dribble. If he is going to make the step from defensive specialist to two way superstar he has to develop some kind of offensive weapon. Winslow only need look at two time defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard for inspiration. Leonard came into the league with a similar reputation and has developed an exceptional 3 point shot as well as an above average handle. Winslow must look to make similar strides over the next year.
The Heat will be going through somewhat of a transitional season, having traded away their leader in Dwyane Wade and a key starter in Luol Deng. Someone will have to pick up the slack offensively and fill the 20 point per game hole left by Wade’s departure. Whilst Winslow may not be able to fill this void immediately the fact that he is such a good defender will mean Spoelstra will keep him on the floor, giving him plenty of time to develop the skills he so desperately needs. With the pressure of this season Spoelstra and the Heat should grant Winslow the freedom to make mistakes and expand his game, because if he can become a half decent offensive player to complement his outstanding defence the Heat will have a serious player on their hands.
So there you go 3 players to watch this coming season, we can all look back in a years time and laugh at how wrong I was.