As the 2020-21 NBA season quickly approaches, it's time to do a quick dive into each team's most intriguing player. In many cases, this player doubles as the franchise's best player and most important talent. In other cases, this player might be the team's newest acquisition who will have a major impact on the win/loss column. And in other cases, it might be the player who has the ability to raise the ceiling of the roster from a lottery team to a playoff team, from a playoff team to a conference finals contender, from pseudo-contender to contender, or, in one case, from contender to blossoming dynasty. Be sure to check out your favorite team's most intriguing player heading into this upcoming season.
John Collins is the most intriguing player on the Hawks because it's unclear how the Hawks value him having traded for Clint Capela last trade deadline, drafted Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick, and signed Danilo Gallinari to a three year, $61M deal this offseason. All three are big men, and all three are going to play minutes this season as the Hawks are focused on making a push for the playoffs. Collins is a very good, young player who can do everything you'd want from a volume scoring, modern big man, including making three-pointers (40.1 percent last season), so it'd be bizarre of Atlanta to move on from him this early in his career. That said, he'd sure be an intriguing player on the trade market if the Hawks made him available.
No need to get clever with this one - Jayson Tatum is easily the most intriguing player on the Celtics. Tatum enjoyed a superstar leap last season and carried that momentum into the playoffs where he averaged 25.7 PPG., 10 RPG. and 5 APG. in 17 games. With Gordon Hayward departing for Charlotte this offseason, and Kemba Walker out for the start of the season with a lingering knee problem, Boston will rely on Tatum more than ever. Is he ready to be Boston's primary playmaker in addition to being one of the league's premier scorers?
Kevin Durant might be the most intriguing player in the entire NBA as nobody has any idea what he's going to look like when he returns. We know that Durant had arguably eclipsed LeBron James as the best player on the planet when he ruptured his Achilles in 2019. But we also know that Achilles injuries tend to rob players of their athleticism, especially players in their 30s like Durant (32). Which statement remains true when he sets foot on an NBA court again?
You could certainly argue that the Hornets most interesting player this season is Gordon Hayward... but c'mon , you know you want to see what LaMelo Ball looks like in an NBA game. Selected with the third overall pick, the youngest of the Ball brothers will be the new face of Michael Jordan's franchise. With a couple of decent guards manning their backcourt already, it'll be fascinating to see whether the Hornets hand the keys of the offense over the Ball this season or if they'll work him in slowly and let him learn the ropes. My guess is the latter.
Selected no. 7 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, Wendell Carter Jr. was expected to develop into an Al Horford-type big man with his defensive versatility, a knack for playmaking, and strong rebounding abilities. Though he clearly has the skill set to be such a player, his inability to stay on the court in his first two seasons (he's only appeared in 87 career games) has muted his development. This, his third season, will be a key year for Carter as the front office that drafted him is no longer in charge and the new regime will eventually look to move on from some of the key cogs of the forgetful Jim Boylen era.
It can often take young NBA guards a few years to develop into impact players as they have to adjust to the speed of the game and fill out a bit before they can take the pounding that comes with running an offense. At the same time, the good guards usually show some flashes of high-level play in their first year or two. We saw Collin Sexton flash some serious game during the second half of the season last year as he averaged 23.3 ppg. on 49-43-86 shooting after the team traded Jordan Clarkson. Cleveland can feel comfortable building around Sexton as a lead backcourt scorer if he maintains similar efficiency and begins to round out the rest of his game.
Blessed with unicorn talents, but plagued with injuries, Kristaps Porzings enters his fifth NBA season in a bit of a make-or-break season - if he continues to struggle to stay on the court, the Mavs could look elsewhere (like the loaded 2021 free agency class) for the Robin to Luka Doncic's Batman. Unfortunately, Porzingis will be out until at least January while recovering from knee surgery. Hopefully, he'll come back healthy and continue to improve on the 20.4 ppg., 9.5 rpg. and 2.0 BPG. that he averaged last season.
After flashing potential in the regular season, Michael Porter Jr. broke out in the seeding games inside the Orlando Bubble, averaging 22.0 PPG. and 8.6 RPG. on 55-42-93 shooting. And while he came back down to earth a bit in the playoffs, averaging 11.4 PPG. and 6.7 RPG. on 48-38-74 shooting, he clearly belonged on the court and wasn't afraid of the moment, hitting some important shots in the Nuggets run to the Western Conference Finals. With Jerami Grant departing for Detroit, MPJ will have ample opportunities to expand his game for Denver this season.
There was a moment this offseason, albeit a brief one, where it appeared that the Pistons and Nuggets had agreed to a sign-and-trade that would have sent Blake Griffin to Denver in exchange for Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee. However, when the dust settled, there were some salary cap issues with the deal and it never came to fruition. It's unclear what that means for Griffin as he enters his 11th season, but common sense would suggest that a departure from the Motor City is in the cards. He's the Pistons' most intriguing player because it's unclear what his trade value is and it's unclear which teams might be interested/desperate enough to make a move for him. We may be heading towards a Kevin Love-type situation with Griffin where he openly wants to be moved to a contender, but Detroit refuses to move him until they receive some type of asset in return.
James Wiseman ability to assimilate into the Warriors system will certainly be intriguing to watch, but Andrew Wiggins' ability to replicate Klay Thompson's production will be the only way the Warriors become contenders this season. As disappointing as Wiggins has been in his six-year career, there's no denying that he can score (21.8 ppg. last season). Perhaps Steve Kerr and the Warriors staff can teach Wiggins to differentiate between good and bad shots. And maybe the gravity of Steph Curry and the competitive nature of Draymond Green can unleash that special, special talent somewhere inside the former no. 1 overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft.
Fresh off of being traded for Russell Westbrook, John Wall becomes the most intriguing player on the new-look Rockets in 2020-21. Wall is coming off a number of injuries, most notably, a ruptured Achilles, and hasn't played in an NBA game since December 2018. Before his string of unfortunate injuries, Wall was one of the best and most athletic point guards in the league. He's an excellent passer (9.2 APG. for his career) and should at least retain that elite ability even though his speed may be zapped from his injuries and age. It'll be interesting to see how he fits alongside James Harden, both on and off the court.
Back in the spring of 2018, after Victor Oladipo nearly led the Pacers to a first-round upset over the LeBron James-led Cavaliers, that Oladipo would no longer be a top-50 (and maybe not even top-100) player in the NBA, I wouldn't have believed you. Through no fault of his own (he suffered a rare, freak knee injury), Oladipo has suffered quite the precipitous fall from grace. His numbers in the 19 regular-season games that he played in last season were miserable (14.5 PPG., 3.9 RPG., 2.9 APG. with 39-32-81 shooting splits), and his playoff performance was only slightly better. Will we ever see the player that made the All-NBA jump in 2017-18 again? Or will he go down as just another potential star who had his promising career dismantled by injuries?
Although he was banged up for some of last season, Paul George had a disastrous first season with the Clippers and deserves much of the criticism he's received this offseason, especially after recently throwing his former coach, Doc Rivers, under the bus on an All the Smoke podcast. In 13 playoff games, George averaged 20.2 PPG., 6.8 RPG., and 3.8 APG. on 40-33-90 shooting and was a minus-3, a minus-23, and a minus-20 in Games 5, 6, and 7 (all losses) of the Clippers second-round series against the Nuggets. Were the bubble playoffs merely an aberration for Pandemic P? Or was it a sign of decline as George will be in his 11th NBA season and turn 31 during the season?
Kyle Kuzma will probably remain the most intriguing player in Tinseltown until the last day he dons a Lakers' jersey. Kuzma was originally thought to be the third "star" in LA, but it quickly became clear that the Lake Show only needed two stars, LeBron and AD, to take home the crown in 2020. Was this a product of Kuzma hitting an artificial ceiling in his development or simply a product of James and Davis' greatness? The Lakers certainly hope that it's the latter, and are quick to point to Kuzma's dedication and improvement on the defensive side of the ball as a sign that he's still on his way towards being an elite role player. Can he continue to grow on the defensive end and effectively take over the Danny Green role? If he can, this 2020-21 Lakers team might end up being one of the best teams of the past decade.
Ja Morant took the league by storm last season, averaging 17.8 PPG. and 7.3 APG, on his way to winning Rookie of the Year and earning the approval of players like LeBron James. What does he have in store for Year 2? Given the fact Morant was immediately a plus-player in his rookie season (something you hardly ever see from rookie point guards), we must presume that the former Murray State star is on a Derrick Rose-like trajectory and could easily be an All-Star level player this season. If he makes that kind of sophomore leap, the Grizzlies should find themselves competing for a playoff spot yet again in the brutally tough Western Conference.
We know what the Heat are getting out of Jimmy Butler already. And we have a good idea of the type of Draymond Green-like star Bam Adebayo should continue to be. But what are we to make of Tyler Herro? The cocksure rookie had a solid regular season but returned to the bubble looking like a future star – highlighted by his 37-point Game 5 masterpiece in the Conference Finals. How recalibrating do we need to do on his career trajectory? Are we looking at another Devin Booker? Or could the bubble breakout more of a once-in-a-career kind of hot streak, and Herro’s ceiling is more along the lines of Jamal Crawford? This year should give us a clearer picture.
Let’s not make this any more complicated than it needs to be – Giannis Antetokounmpo is, by far, the most intriguing player on the Bucks this season. Why? Let’s start with the contract situation. At the time of this article, he has signed the supermax extension that he’s eligible to sign (until December 21 st) with Milwaukee. If he doesn’t sign, does that mean he’s going to leave the Bucks next offseason, or does it simply mean he’s keeping his options open and keeping pressure on the front office? Next, there’s his game. The reigning back-to-back MVP winner is the game’s best regular-season player, but even he concedes that he has some work to do before he’s supplanted LeBron as the league’s best player in the playoffs. Did Giannis add anything new to his game this offseason that will help him when teams wall-up the paint against him in the postseason? It’s shaping up to be a fascinating season in Milwaukee.
Minnesota’s most intriguing player also happens to be its best player: Karl-Anthony Towns. Despite landing his good friend D’Angelo Russell at the deadline last season and selected Anthony Edwards with the no. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, the T’Wolves will still have a very difficult time making a playoff push in the loaded Western Conference…unless, of course, KAT plays like an MVP candidate this season. What would that look like? The leap he’d have to make would come on the defensive side of the court as he’s already an elite offensive threat (26.5 PPG., 10.8 RPG., 4.4 APG. with 50-41-80 shooting splits). Can he become the switchable, rim-protector we saw signs of in his rookie season?
When he was on the court and in decent condition, Zion Williamson made an All-NBA level impact. In 24 games last season, Williamson averaged 22.5 ppg., 6.3 rpg. and shot 58.3 percent from the field in only 27.8 mpg. Zion is the most intriguing player on the Pelicans because there’s a chance he shows up to training camp in shape and is able to hit the ground running this season and make the kind of second-year leap we’ve seen from superstars like LeBron James and Luka Doncic.
Most people will be highly interested in bigger names like RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin, but the player that stands to benefit most from Coach Tom Thibodeau’s arrival is Mitchell Robinson. Yes, the gangly seven-footer has the potential to be a defensive superstar with his ability to protect the rim (3.6 blocks per-36 minutes in his career) and switch out onto the perimeter. We’ve seen Thibs build championship contending defenses around the likes of Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah in the past…could Robinson be his next stud defensive centerpiece?
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the most intriguing player on the Thunder almost by default. Gone are Chris Paul, Dennis Schröder, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams, leaving SGA as the lone major contributor left in OKC. The Thunder will look to rebuild around SGA's funky, off-tempo game that helped him average 19 PPG., 5.9 RPG. and 3.3 APG. last season despite having to share the rock with two other point guards (CP3 and Schröder) for large stretches of the game. I suspect we'll find out a lot about SGA's ceiling this season as he'll have the entire offense run through him and be given every opportunity to excel on the offensive end.
The Magic are the team with the most defined ceiling and floor in the league. Best case scenario, they finish in the 7-8-9-10 play-in tournament. Worst case scenario, they finish around 11th or 12th in the East - in other words, just good enough to not have great lottery odds. One of the only things Magic fans have to look forward to this season is Chuma Okeke's "redshirt" rookie season. If you recall, Okeke tore his ACL in the midst of an epic 2019 NCAA Tournament run by the Auburn Tigers. It was a brutal injury to watch because Okeke had been flashing some high-level stretch-four abilities in the tournament. He could score inside, he could shoot from the perimeter, and he could handle the ball well enough to drive on slower defenders. He could also defend college bigs well enough to allow Auburn to go small. Magic fans hope that all of those skills translate to the league and that he and fellow rookie, Cole Anthony, give this excite-less franchise something to finally cheer about.
No need to be cute here and pick some role player like Seth Curry or Shake Milton. The most intriguing player for Philadelphia doubles as its most important player: Joel Embiid. And the thing that makes him the most interesting player on the Sixers can basically be boiled down to whether he's in good shape or not. If he's in the proverbial "best shape of his life", then we could see him dominate literally every other NBA team the way we saw Anthony Davis overpower and overwhelm the undersized Heat in the Finals. He's been arguably the league's biggest deterrent around the basket for his entire career. But his effort on offense has waxed and waned depending on his conditioning. If he's low on stamina, you'll see him lazily jacking three-pointers and hanging out on the perimeter. If he's feeling good, however, he'll go through stretches during games where he resembles prime-Shaq, burying opposing defenders on post-ups. His 8.3 post-up possessions per game last season were by far the most in the NBA, and his 1.1 points per post-up possession were also the best in the league for any player averaging more than two post-ups per game.
You could go in a lot of directions with the Suns' most intriguing player this season. There's obviously Devin Booker, the franchise superstar, and his quest to become one of the NBA's premier offensive threats. There's also Chris Paul, the team's newest acquisition and lynchpin for Phoenix's playoff optimism. But I'm going with Deandre Ayton, the talented and physically gifted third-year big man who has the chance to be the Suns' second franchise superstar if he continues to round out his offensive game and develops into a good defensive player. Ayton is already a good offensive big man (averaged 18.2 ppg. and 11.5 rpg. last season) with great hands and pretty decent touch for a big man (he shot 40.2 percent on jumpers last season). If he can become a league-average three-point shooter on wide-open threes, it'll make him an All-Star level big man. On the defensive side of the ball, he's started to block some shots (1.5 per game last year) and will need to keep improving on his ability to move his feet laterally on the perimeter.
Portland is a team with the floor of a play-in tournament team (seed 7-10) and the ceiling of a conference finalist. The only way they can become a true contender, based on how their roster is currently constructed, is if Jusuf Nurkic takes a leap this season. Nurkic is only 26 years old, and, after an impressive return in the Orlando Bubble that saw him average 17.6 PPG., 10.3 RPG. and 4 APG., we could see the Blazers run even more of their offense through him. I suspect that if we see Nurkic averaging five assists or more per game this season, it will mean that he's taken a leap from a good big man to an All-Star caliber big man, and it'll mean that the Blazers are fighting for the top overall seed in the Western Conference.
Fair or not, Marvin Bagley is entering Sam Bowie/Darko Milicic territory. Not only did Sacramento select him over a generational talent in Luka Doncic, but they also drafted him over studs like Trae Young, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If he has another injury-plagued season, the mental anguish that comes with being labeled a monumental "bust" might start to hurt his chances of even being a solid NBA player. The skills and athleticism are there with Bagley (have you ever watched him run the court? He runs like a young Kevin Garnett), but he has to stay healthy (he's only played 75 games in two seasons) this season for the Kings to have any shot at being a playoff team.
We originally expected Dejounte Murray to take a leap two years ago. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL, and then took some time to shake off the rust last season as he averaged a pretty paltry line of 10.9 PPG., 5.8 RPG. and 4.1 APG. in a little under 26 minutes a night. No matter how much of a leap he makes, Murray's never going to lead a team in scoring, but his 36.9 percent three-point shooting last season suggests that he has some super-George Hill potential as an awesome defender and good secondary playmaker and off-ball shooter. If the Spurs make a surprising run towards the playoffs this season, it'll most likely mean that Murray has, at last, made the leap San Antonio had been expecting before his injury.
Pascal Siakam rode the roller coaster of burgeoning NBA stardom last season. Through the first third of the season (27 games), he looked like an MVP candidate, averaging 25.1 PPG., 8 RPG. and 3.6 APG. with 46-39-81 shooting splits. After an injury kept him out the next 11 games, he played like an All-Star caliber player for the final 33 games of his season, averaging 21 ppg., 6.7 rpg. and 3.3 APG. with 45-33-78 shooting splits. In his 11 playoff games, he played like an overpaid third banana, averaging 17 PPG., 7.5 RPG. and 3.8 APG. with ugly 40-19-72 shooting splits. Will the real Pascal Siakam please stand up this season?
In one of the more surprising twists, Jordan Clarkson went from being the epitome of an overrated, inefficient player to being one of the best sixth men in the league as he averaging 15.6 ppg. on 46-37-79 shooting for the Jazz. What's more, he kept producing at a decent level in the playoffs in Utah's back-and-forth seven-game series loss to the Nuggets (16.7 ppg. on 46-35-100 shooting). He's the Jazz's most intriguing player entering this season because, if he can continue to be an elite scorer off the bench, and Bojan Bogdanovic returns to form post-injury (20.2 ppg., 45-41-90 shooting), the Jazz will have one of the more complete rotations in the Western Conference and might finally be able to make some noise in the playoffs.
The newly acquired Russell Westbrook is the Wizards most intriguing player because it's unclear if his style of play is going to mesh with and help franchise player Bradley Beal take his game to the next level (like it did for Paul George in OKC) or if his historically high usage rate is going to clash with Beal's vastly improving offensive game. My gut feeling is that Westbrook will help turn the Wizards into a playoff team, Beal will again flirt with the scoring title (30.5 ppg. last season), and the team will give a higher-seeded team a run for their money in the first round of the playoffs next spring.