Who are the key players poised to make an emphatic impact when the NBA season restarts? Sekou Smith lists his top players ready to make some noise come July 30 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Walt Disney World Resort.
Wednesday 15th July 8:00pm
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Wednesday 15th July 9:00pm
Who shows up in game-shape and ready to go from the start? How will basketball’s biggest stars respond in this unprecedented environment? And which group has the energy and stamina to survive basketball’s greatest reality show?
All 22 teams involved have to find the answers quickly, each playing just eight seeding games to finish off the regular season before the postseason begins.
In an effort to refresh the order for the restart, these are the 22 best players primed to compete in Orlando.
In this piece, we count down from 22 to 12. Players ranked 11-1 will follow in a separate feature.
22. Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans)
Zion’s 19-game preview before the shutdown is proof that he is on the fast track to being one of the most physically difficult match-ups to encounter in the NBA. If the physical transformation that took shape during the pandemic is any indication, he’s in some of the best shape of his young life.
The Pelicans have all the motivation to go all out in Orlando and Zion will lead the charge.
Number to know: Williamson has averaged 20.9 points in the paint per 36 minutes, the highest rate for any player (minimum 500 minutes played) in the 24 seasons for which points in the paint have been tracked.
21. Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors)
Lowry didn’t succumb to the dreaded complacency bug that often accompanies a championship run late in a veteran’s career. If anything, he is getting better with age.
The Raptors didn’t miss a beat after losing Kawhi Leonard in 2019 free agency, that that was due in a large part to Lowry stepping up to help fill that void. He is shooting 35.4 per cent on three-pointers this season and dialled his numbers up across the board, leading in words and deeds for the reigning champs.
Number to know: Lowry is tied for the league-lead with 30 drawn charges.
20. Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns)
Folks clamouring to see how Booker performs in meaningful games with the Suns will get their wish, even though the Suns are the longest of long shots in the Western Conference playoff chase.
Just getting the opportunity to perform and compete in this environment should provide valuable experience for both Booker and Deandre Ayton as the Suns try to craft a playoff contender around their two young stars. Booker has already shown himself to be a truly elite scorer, now we’ll find out if he has the rest of his game has levelled up.
Number to know: Booker has 20.3 assists for every 100 passes made, the highest rate among 285 players who have made at least 750 passes.
19. Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
Is there a player in Orlando under more pressure than Middleton? As the No 2 player on the best team (check the standings) with a time-sensitive component (decision time is near for Giannis Antetokounmpo), the All-Star forward is in the unique position of needing to play the best basketball of his career.
Middleton has the skills required, there’s no debating that. But does he have the make-up to deliver under such extreme conditions? Is he built for this moment? The answers could make the Bucks’ season and future.
Number to know: Middleton has shot 52.3 per cent from mid-range, the second-best mark among 79 players with at least 100 mid-range attempts.
18. Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)
Don’t let the fact that Gobert is the NBA’s patient zero for coronavirus distract from the routine business he does as the league’s premier rim protector and post defender. Gobert’s ability to change the game as the backbone of Utah’s defensive framework will make or break the Jazz’s Orlando experience.
If he is back to normal after the long layoff, the Jazz will have the chance to compete with the best of the best in the Western Conference. If he is anything less than his best, an already challenging proposition – the Jazz will be without Bojan Bogdanovic, who is out after wrist surgery – becomes near impossible. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year is that indispensable in coach Quin Snyder’s system.
Number to know: Among 137 players with at least 500 field goal attempts, Gobert has the highest effective field goal percentage (69.8 per cent), true shooting percentage (70.0 per cent) and free throw rate (72.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field).
17. Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)
The talent is undeniable. Simmons is a physical freak with his size at his position. But the back injury that slowed him down before the shutdown has left lingering questions about just how healthy he will be when reporting.
Head coach Brett Brown said he’ll “ease” Simmons back into action, which is probably the wisest course of action. The Sixers need Simmons on the fast track, though, given how little time there is between the seeding games and the playoffs.
Number to know: Simmons leads the league with 221 assists on three-pointers, 49 per cent of the 452 triples his team-mates have made while he has been on the floor.
16. Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors)
Siakam punctuated his steady rise up the ranks this season with his first All-Star nod. His next-level work in the Raptors’ championship run last season wasn’t just a flash – it’s his new normal. He has shown that in addition to being one of the league’s most versatile defenders, he is also a capable No 1 option on offense.
No one was sure of that when he was drafting off the presence of Leonard last season. But Siakam is legit and that’s a huge reason why the Raptors have a chance to win the East again.
Number to know: According to Second Spectrum tracking, Siakam has an effective field goal percentage of 67.4 per cent in the first six seconds of the shot clock and just 47.4 per cent thereafter. That’s the biggest drop among 71 players with at least 100 field goal attempts in the first six seconds.
15. Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Adebayo’s transformation from promising prospect to All-Star and one of the best young bigs in the league is one of the reasons the Heat were able to crash the Eastern Conference playoff party in Jimmy Butler’s first season with the franchise.
Adebayo is all the things former center Hassan Whiteside never was and more. His fundamentals are sound and his instincts, particularly on defense, are next level. Just watch him against the best competition and you’ll understand how his competitive edge fuels his fire and helps elevate the Heat to another level.
Number to know: Among 234 players who have played in at least 40 games in each of the last two seasons, Adebayo has seen the fifth biggest jump in minutes per game (from 23.3 to 34.4), the 11th biggest jump in points per game (from 8.9 to 16.2), the second-biggest jump in rebounds per game (from 7.3 to 10.5) and the third-biggest jump in assists per game (from 2.2 to 5.1).
14. Russell Westbrook (Houston Rockets)
One half of the highest-scoring duo in the league, Westbrook has silenced any doubters who wondered if he’d be able to thrive in his role-playing alongside his good friend James Harden.
Westbrook knows how to play to his strengths and clearly understands how to play effectively off the ball when Harden is in attack mode. His energy will be crucial on campus, where the Rockets’ small-ball approach could be a wrinkle teams won’t have the chance to prepare for given the compressed schedule.
Westbrook revealed on Monday he had tested positive for coronavirus and will have to quarantine for 7-14 days before travelling to the Orlando campus to join his team-mates.
Number to know: Westbrook leads the league with 20.5 drives per game and ranks second with 15.2 points in the paint per game. He is just the fifth different player to average at least 15 points in the paint per game (minimum 40 games played) in the 24 seasons for which points in the paint have been tracked. At 6ft 3in, he is seven inches shorter than any of the other four.
13. Jimmy Butler (Miami Heat)
Say what you want about Butler’s successful and somewhat chequered past in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia. However, there is a strong argument that his free-agent choice might have had the biggest bang for the buck of last summer’s moves.
Butler elevated the Heat to another level, his arrival coinciding perfectly with the rise of guys like Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Butler’s relentless, grimy work on both ends of the floor provides the perfect edge for a blue-collar Heat bunch that is poised to make some serious noise in Orlando come playoff time.
Number to know: Butler has a free throw rate of 67.9 attempts per 100 shots from the field, the second-highest rate among 229 players with at least 300 field goal attempts and up from 40.4 last season.
12. Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
Tatum’s star turn after the All-Star break (when his scoring average went from 22.4 points per game to 29.9 over a nine-game stretch) was the game changer the Celtics were looking for. Their core four of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward is as potent a group as there is in the league when they’re all healthy and locked in.
Tatum appears to be the alpha there, with his ability to score at all levels and his unshakable confidence. There’s a reason LeBron James praised Tatum as an “ABSOLUTE PROBLEM” in an Instagram shoutout.
Number to know: Tatum has an effective field goal percentage of 61.1 per cent in the clutch (score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime). That’s the second-best mark among 28 players who have attempted at least 50 clutch shots.
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.