Seven NBA Players Primed to Take the Leap and Bring Their Teams With Them

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The development of Aaron Gordon, Myles Turner, Josh Richardson, Anfernee Simons, Jayson Tatum, D’Angelo Russell, and Kyle Kuzma could determine the fates of their respective teams

This season, we’ve got a wide-open title race, and that means we also have perfect conditions for the sudden development of an individual player to raise a team’s ceiling from pretender to contender. These are the swing players, guys with the capability to drastically change the fortunes of a team. It happens: Just last season, Pascal Siakam emerged and helped Kawhi Leonard win a championship for Toronto. Several years ago, Kawhi’s own rapid rise led the Spurs to a fifth title. Who’s next? Here are seven swing players who could determine how the upcoming season unfolds.

Josh Richardson, Philadelphia 76ers

Drafting Markelle Fultz was a mistake, but the idea of Fultz was not. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are star players with distinct flaws, most notably Simmons’s lack of a jumper and Embiid’s occasionally questionable conditioning. Fultz went bust, but that doesn’t eliminate Philly’s need for someone like him. Richardson, who the Sixers acquired this summer in a sign-and-trade with the Heat for Jimmy Butler, may not have Fultz’s no. 1–pick pedigree, but he could play the role the Sixers initially envisioned for the University of Washington point guard. Richardson checks nearly all the boxes. There’s no doubt about his defense: He’s long-armed, plays hard, stalks his man, slivers through screens, and alters shots from behind. He’ll also fill gaps on offense to complement Simmons and Embiid. With a career 38.2 percent rate on catch-and-shoot 3s, he can shoot from a standstill or off movement. He’s no J.J. Redick, but the Sixers can continue running the same dribble handoffs they did for their departed veteran sharpshooter. Rather than launch jumpers, Richardson will more often attack the basket for layups, floaters, and kickouts. His role will be simple: shoot and defend. So what makes Richardson a swing player? A box left unchecked: go-to scoring ability.

During his 2017-18 campaign with the Heat, Richardson debuted a newfound feel and shiftiness with his pick-and-roll ballhandling. A breakout 2018-19 seemed imminent, but results were mixed. He posted a career-best assist-turnover ratio and did a fair job of initiating the offense while Goran Dragic was sidelined, but he also committed sloppy turnovers and lived in the midrange. Put simply, he plateaued.

But keep in mind: Last season was Richardson’s first taste of being “the man.” In Philly, he’d be asked to be the lead ball handler only at the end of games, since there’s plenty of talent to go around to start. Come playoff time, though, he may need to take on a greater role like the Sixers hoped Fultz could have and Butler did.

According to Richardson’s trainer, Juan Villarruel, Richardson was working on isolation moves this offseason before he was traded to Philadelphia. “We were figuring he would have the ball with the game on the line in Miami,” Villarruel texted me. Their approach didn’t change following the trade. They’ve worked on tightening his handle and extending his range off the dribble. Richardson’s made a career 44.2 percent of his midrange dribble jumpers, compared with only 31.2 percent on just 170 dribble jumper 3s. If he can begin making pull-up 3s out of the pick-and-roll and isolations, the Sixers could become as hard to stop as they will be to score against.

Richardson just turned 26 and was a late bloomer. Now he’ll play on the best team of his career with a defined role: defend at an elite level and excel off the ball until your number gets called. Richardson isn’t arriving in Philadelphia with Fultz’s hype or Butler’s accolades, but he could be the one they needed.

Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers

Reading too much into summer league is usually a bad idea, but it was hard to watch Blazers guard Simons make defenses look foolish in Las Vegas and not think he’ll be special.

Allow yourself to get excited here. So much of what Simons did is translatable to the regular season and playoffs: He drained dribble jumper 3s with a hand in his face, broke down defenders with his smooth handle to pull up from midrange, and got to the basket. At age 20, he’s just a baby by NBA standards, but his Vegas performance was evidence that his 37-point, nine-assist game against the Kings to close the regular season wasn’t an aberration.

“It showed me that I really did get better since the beginning of the year, and that I could do it at a high level,” Simons told me over the phone this summer. “My coaches said I have a real opportunity to play this year, and I’m ready to take full advantage of it.” Simons says he’s ready, and the Blazers’ actions in the offseason suggest they agree with him. Portland swapped Evan Turner for Kent Bazemore, who’s productive but not a facilitator. Seth Curry left for Dallas, and no veterans were added. Simons now projects as the third primary ball handler in the rotation behind Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. It’s a tall task for a kid who can’t even drink legally yet.

Over the past two seasons, the Blazers have been outstanding with Lillard on the floor. It’s a different story when he’s not: Portland’s offense suffers with McCollum running the show (minus-3.7 net rating), and they suffocate when neither are in the game (minus-8.1 net rating). McCollum is at his best with another dynamic backcourt partner who can create shots. Turner was fine. Curry produced. But Simons can be much better than both; he’s the player who can make those minutes without Lillard tolerable.

Simons told me he trained this summer with Justin Zormelo, who he connected with before the draft, and with Phil Beckner, who works with Lillard. With Zormelo, Simons worked extensively on slowing down on drives and drawing fouls. With Beckner, it was about increasing his shooting range and orchestrating and scoring in the pick-and-roll. Being around Lillard for the past year has been particularly eye-opening. “He’s taught me everything I need to know about the NBA game, just by watching him,” Simons said. The lessons include everything from how Lillard attacks a scheming defense to practice habits during the offseason.

The Blazers have burned out in six straight postseasons. Simons would give them the three-headed monster they’ve never had. A chance is coming for Simons, it’s just a matter of what he does with it.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Fitting in has never been a challenge for Gordon. He’s 6-foot-9, beefy, and agile, giving him excellent multipositional defensive versatility.

Gordon hasn’t earned accolades for his defense, but he can be tasked with defending stars of all shapes and sizes, as well as skill levels—from James Harden to Kawhi Leonard. On offense, Gordon also has versatility: He can handle the ball on the perimeter and run pick-and-roll, and he’s transformed into a reliable spot-up shooter. Gordon shot 30.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s over his first three seasons, compared with 37.8 percent over the past two. He can mimic Draymond Green by setting screens, rolling, and playmaking. But the Magic didn’t pick Gordon fourth in 2014 to fit in; he needs to stand out.

Gordon can produce in different offensive roles, which is valuable, but in five NBA seasons—with five different head coaches—he hasn’t shined in any one of them. This summer was the first time both his head coach and front office remained in place, and Magic head coach Steve Clifford’s goal for Gordon was clear. Gordon’s trainer, Packie Turner, told me over the phone that Clifford wants Gordon to become a true post threat. Though the post-up has faded in the modern NBA, it remains a valuable tool if used as a playmaking hub, like it is for the Pistons with Blake Griffin, or as a place to destroy a switch like the Magic want for Gordon.

Teams have willingly switched small dudes onto Gordon because he’s been unable to punish them. Turner noted a particular instance when the Bulls put the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Ryan Arcidiacono on Gordon. Arcidiacono baited Gordon into two power moves, since that’s all Gordon had in his arsenal. It resulted in two charges.

The Magic scored only 0.86 points per possession when Gordon posted up or passed out of the post, which ranked 35th of 39 players who recorded at least 150 post-ups, according to Synergy Sports. These results have a domino effect. If small guys handle Gordon, it diminishes the need to send a double-team at him. If opponents aren’t doubling, Gordon can’t activate his passing. If teams are switching, then Gordon can’t screen and roll to the rim to do his Draymond or Blake impression. The Magic have a good D, but to be taken seriously in the playoff conversation their offense needs more punch.

So Gordon and Turner spent the majority of their summer working on the post. “For so long, he’s just been bigger, faster, and stronger,” Turner said. “He’s been used to just bullying people.” Gordon is working on his footwork so he’s not solely reliant on brute force, which involves focusing on his hip and feet movements and getting lower on catches and drives.

If Gordon progresses, everything else can fall into place: Gordon can draw doubles and pass, or beat smaller players to deter teams from switching, which would open up new scoring avenues in the pick-and-roll. Whether the hard work will pay off on the court remains to be seen, but it must for Gordon and the Magic to finally start standing out.

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

The Pacers are sneaky underdogs. They added Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren, bolstered their bench, and are anxiously awaiting the return of Victor Oladipo. But a lot of their hopes are riding on their young bigs, Turner or Domantas Sabonis. Let’s focus on Turner. He is legit. At only 23, his interior skills and ability to switch on the perimeter should make him a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Over the years, his progress has been steady yet significant. He doesn’t fall for pump fakes with regularity anymore. He’s reshaped his body. He’s rotates quicker. But there is still room to get better.

The Pacers got pounded by bruising centers like Joel Embiid, which … things happen, right? But you have a guy like Turner to neutralize Embiid. And it wasn’t just Embiid who gave him trouble.

Strength was always the hurdle for Turner. He still gets pushed around too much. Turner told me in a text last week that he spent the summer working to improve his lower body strength. He does yoga, which he said helps to strengthen his core, and he’s doing lifting exercises to strengthen his hips and glutes. With beefier legs, Turner could be better able to body opposing bigs, giving the Pacers a matchup-proof defense.

Turner’s stronger legs can also give Indiana’s offense a jolt. The Pacers had issues scoring against switching defenses last season, partially because of Turner’s inability to consistently bury smaller, leaner players on the post and when cutting or diving to the rim.

Going back to high school, Turner has always been more comfortable shooting from the perimeter. It’s a good skill to have, but when matched on a smaller player, like in the clip above against Tim Hardaway Jr., he should be mean instead of methodical. This summer, Turner connected with Kevin McHale and spent two days working with the NBA Hall of Famer on post moves and developing a decisive mind-set. “A chunk of my summer was about the post-up and just getting to my spots, not wasting time fighting,” Turner texted me.

Even though Indiana will have higher-usage players on offense, Turner’s offensive role shouldn’t be discounted. If he becomes problematic against teams switching screens or playing small, then it’ll prevent opponents from turning to those desired schemes. And if the Pacers become a team that dictates matchups, they suddenly won’t be so sneaky.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Tatum is only 21 years old and already a dang good player. He’s a multipositional defender with a nose for the boards, and on offense he’s shown major flashes. Through two seasons he’s hit 41.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s while displaying the same go-to scoring upside that made him an elite draft prospect. But for the Celtics to exceed expectations after two straight years of disappointment, Tatum’s development must accelerate. It all starts with improving his shot selection.

“Driving and getting downhill through contact and being able to finish around the rim is our no. 1 focus,” Tatum’s trainer, Drew Hanlen, told The Boston Globe. “And then consistency when he’s shooting off the dribble or off a full-speed move from the 3-point line.” That’s good news, but Tatum has a long way to go. He too often loses control of the ball on drives and fails to finish through contact. It shows in the numbers. Of the 126 players to log at least 300 drives last season, Tatum ranked 88th in true shooting percentage, 106th in fouls drawn, and 112th in turnover rate, according to Second Spectrum. During the FIBA World Cup, Tatum drove more often but the results were no better; he shot only 5-for-14 around the basket.

The fact that Tatum was a willing driver is encouraging, at least. It can take time for practiced habits to translate into live action. Attempting more layups and drawing more fouls would cause a dramatic uptick in his scoring efficiency. If he then starts sinking dribble-jumper 3s instead of stepping into midrange jumpers, it could make him the perfect scorer alongside Kemba Walker, while alleviating some of the pressure on Gordon Hayward to score rather than do what he does best as a playmaker. But through two seasons in isolation scoring situations, Tatum has remained inefficient.

Tatum becomes more reliant on midrange jumpers as the shot clock goes down, as the chart above shows. In a sample of 252 qualifying players, Tatum has the largest disparity in shot distribution for shots taken during the final six seconds and for shots taken between 12 and 18 seconds. Midrange shots aren’t always bad; they can be the most efficient shot late in the clock. But Tatum still takes too many, too early, shooting them at 43.9 percent. A pass to a teammate or a pull-up 3 rather than a deep 2 would lead to better results. The midrange jumper will always be a valuable tool, but the rim and behind the line need to be Tatum’s hot zones.

It’s shocking to see where Boston is today, considering it was only two years ago that Kyrie Irving and Hayward joined Al Horford to form a new Big Three. Tatum and his fellow young wing Jaylen Brown were supposed to be additive, projects for the future. The Celtics looked like the NBA’s next potential dynasty. But Hayward broke his leg and may never be the same, Irving and Horford are now gone, and Tatum and Brown have yet to achieve stardom. Boston’s extraordinary team ended up ordinary. It’s a new season, though: Kemba is a great replacement for Kyrie, and Hayward is now two years removed from the injury and reportedly looks more like his old self in summer workouts. But Boston needs more scoring juice. It’ll have to come from Tatum.

D’Angelo Russell, Golden State Warriors

“Lot of new beginnings, new arena, new roster, and probably some new things, style of play, strategy,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr told The Athletic after a summer of change by the Bay. The key words from that quote are “style of play, strategy.” The Warriors hope to build a sustainable winner like the Spurs, and a hallmark of San Antonio under Gregg Popovich is their adaptability. Pop tweaked his system to maximize the strengths of his roster. Washing up in Golden State in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure, Russell gives Kerr a new versatile weapon. He’s a good 3-point spot-up shooter, at 37.2 percent in his career. But he’s at his best generating buckets in the pick-and-roll.

During the Kerr era, however, the Warriors have run fewer ball screens than any other team in the NBA, despite the fact that Steph Curry is a nuclear pick-and-roll scorer, in possession of two of the most efficient pick-and-roll scoring seasons of any player to log at least 200 possessions the past five years, according to Synergy. It’s also despite the fact that the Curry-Green pick-and-roll, particularly with Green at center, has long been one of the game’s most unstoppable attacks. Curry-Durant may have been even better. To be fair, the Warriors didn’t need the pick-and-roll to win three titles and go to five straight Finals. Kerr said in 2016 that he didn’t use it much because it could alienate playmakers like Green, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston, relegating them to a spot-up shooting role. He prefers players cutting, screening, and keeping the ball moving instead of the stasis that a pick-and-roll can breed. “You’re losing a lot emotionally from what makes the team tick,” Kerr said. “So that’s the balance we always try to find with our group to get everybody involved and energized.”

Kerr had a point, but the personnel is drastically different now. Russell becomes the key to sustainability for Golden State; he can be the ball handler who takes pressure off Curry, especially while Klay Thompson is out. Russell will fill that role for Golden State if he and Kerr meet somewhere in the middle philosophically, with Russell growing within a motion scheme that highlights more of his pick-and-roll strengths. And whether Russell keeps improving or not, he’s a candidate to be involved in a trade package for a proven star. No matter what, Russell is central to Golden State’s five-year plan: He’ll prove to be a keeper or the piece they use in a trade to prolong their run.

Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are a strong NBA Finals contender, but most executives consider the Clippers a superior team. I agree, but the Clippers don’t have a young player like Kuzma, someone who’s flashed upside to develop into a third star.

Keeping in mind that Kuzma could miss training camp while nursing an ankle injury, let me just say this: He is a confident attacker with a decisive style. His 41-point game against the Pistons was a master class in scoring without ball-stopping. He’s a good offensive fit next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but not a great one because of his one notable flaw: 3-point shooting. Over his career he’s shot 34.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, which dropped to 31.7 percent this past season—a continuation of his struggles in three college seasons at Utah.

Shooting coach Chris Matthews took Kuzma under his wing this summer to improve his release and balance. “Reversing old muscle memory isn’t easy, but with his dedication we will get there,” Matthews tweeted. One of Kuzma’s problems is that he doesn’t have muscle memory; he has changed his shooting form six times, which makes it tough to develop regularity in form or mind-set. If he can become a more consistent shooter, driving lanes will be more open for LeBron and AD. And if Kuzma is left open, a reliable jumper would make the Lakers more lethal.

But remember the simple, wise words of Magic Johnson:

We know Kuzma can score, perfect jump shot or not. But Kuzma needs to impact the game in more ways beyond scoring. Effort has never been a question for Kuzma on defense. He hustles! But he lacks quickness to defend guards and strength to contain big guys. He’s aloof off the ball. And he doesn’t rebound enough. Now’s the time for Kuzma to start to change. The Finals race is open; a leap by Kuzma could separate the Lakers from the pack.