We are at the end of another offseason where we have been assaulted with open run videos of players around the league in the lab. Offseason is the best time for players to work on their games and make targeted improvements. It is impossible to know how videos of Ben Simmons (actually taking?) making threes or Trae Young torching the Drew League will translate to the regular season. What we do know is that each year brings a handful of guys that ascend to another level after a summer’s worth of hard work.
Many NBA superstars are crafted through the years and may not pop from day one. One of the NBA’s point gods Steve Nash didn’t even average double-digit scoring until his fifth season. This year Pascal Siakam notably dominated for the Raptors during their championship run while guys like Bojan Bogdanovic and first-time All-Star Khris Middleton played their way into shiny new contracts.
The following is a look at a handful of players that will not only improve but may crack the All-Star game for the 2020 campaign.
1. Rudy Gobert
When I sat down to do the research for this article I completely forgot that we had this moment from Rudy Gobert during the season after being snubbed from the All-Star game in Charlotte. The man has a point. He is now the two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year and made third-team All-NBA this season. Even if he does nothing all next season they should give him a spot just on that merit alone.
Part of it could be the NBA’s transition from non-perimeter big men. However, Nikola Vucevic was in the game last year with a fraction of the resume that the Frenchman possesses. One could also argue that he is a more impactful player on a more successful team than Karl Anthony Towns who was also selected to participate.
That aside, the Utah Jazz will have their best roster since the days of Stockton and Malone this season. Mike Conley will join Donovan Mitchell in the backcourt where they also have landed microwavable sniper Bojan Bogdanovic as previously mentioned. This will be the most dynamic Jazz offense we have seen in quite some time so it is reasonable to expect Gobert’s numbers to improve on that end as a result. Mike Conley is an upgrade at point guard who has a history of getting the ball to his bigs and Bogdanovic will create gravity to increase one on one opportunities down low.
Defensively? You know what it is. The man is world-class. A healthy Rudy Gobert makes the all-star game this season.
2. Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both failed to take the giant leap forward this year that many expected after their surprising run falling just short of the finals in 2018. I mean, who didn’t think that Tatum was going to be a star sooner than later after this?
The chest bump and LeBron’s face afterward will always be a cherished NBA memory for me. Tatum’s shot at the throne and work with Kobe Bryant over the summer had many thinking the had the mentality and game to excel in his sophomore season. He was only the fifth rookie in the three-point era to lead his team in scoring while winning a playoff series.
He didn’t pop and struggled with his percentages at times but still managed to improve quietly during the season by cleaning up his shot profile. Tatum began the season taking low-efficiency deep twos (Kobe?) which hurt his numbers and the flow of the Celtics offense. He can make these shots, but he and the team are much better when attacking the rim and making the extra pass. Tatum shot less 30 free throws this year than in his rookie campaign and – while a small margin – that is the number that will need to go up in order for him to ascend offensively.
With Kyrie Irving out of the picture, Tatum will likely command a larger role in the Celtics’ offense this season. Team USA’s weaker-than-average roster will give him a chance to showcase his skills in international competition in preparation for the season. It should not be overlooked that there are three other Celtics on the roster including new teammate Kemba Walker. When the season hits these guys will already be cohesive and ready for action after playing together all summer. Look for Tatum to come into the season with an attack mindset and break the 20 ppg mark.
3. Pascal Siakam
Siakam had quite the year winning the Most Improved Player award to compliment his NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors.
He is no stranger to a championship pedigree and rapid improvement. He lead the Toronto G-League affiliate Raptors 905 to a championship as a rookie where he earned finals MVP honors. Last year he was a key cog in the Raptors second unit before truly breaking out this season. In college, he averaged 12.8 points and 7.7 rebounds as a freshman at New Mexico State before becoming a double-double machine 20.3 points and 11.6 rebounds as a sophomore before making the jump to the pros.
Kyle Lowry had a strong year and shook his playoff demons but make no mistake, Siakam was the second-best player on the Raptors all year. He dominated during the regular season with a lethal blend of size and perimeter ability. When he gets going he can look like the best player on the court with the ability to hit from the outside and the way he uses his body to get easy shots inside with his soft touch.
He battled injury in the playoffs and his offensive game – particularly his ability to shoot from deep – suffered. However, in game one of the NBA Finals he showed the world what he looks like at max potential when he BBQd a future Hall of Fame defender in Draymond Green. There is no reason to expect that a healthy Siakam could not duplicate that level of performance on a weekly basis so long as he can handle the psychological rigors of being a number one option with Kawhi Leonard gone. If he is up to the challenge he may very well be a top-five player in the East.
4. Trae Young
Part of this is because of lesser star power in the West, but Trae Young has the offensive upside and will have the usage to threaten for an all-star spot out of the East. Doubters were feeling themselves in the fall when he sputtered out of the starting gates (24% from three in the first two months) in the fall. His game came around though and Young joined Damon Stoudamire as the only rookies to finish with 19.1 points and 8.1 assists per game in the modern era. In 23 games after the all-star break, Young averaged 24.7 points and 9.2 assists. That’s a decent sample size that should be sustainable especially after an offseason of work.
The reason Trae Young projects as an offensive savant is because of his world-class vision. Young has a dynamic passing game that will be a catalyst to Atlanta’s young athletic roster. He already has a special relationship with John Collins who will continue to finish plenty of lobs during their time together. Atlanta also added a pair of multi-purpose wings in De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. Playing with a passer like Young will optimize the skillsets of both players and potentially give Atlanta a strong home-grown core going forward if things pan out.
Trae can truly take over if he gets better at the rim. He is tiny and easily gets swallowed up in the forest in the paint. Few players got more shots blocked last year than Young, who can benefit from using his body and the rim as a shield more on his finishes. If he comes out with a few more counter moves in the paint to either get cleaner looks and get to the line more we could truly be in for something special.
5. Donovan Mitchell
I was tough to pick between Mitchell and Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic for the 5th slot. Both have the ability to make the case for an All-Star nod but Mitchell will be playing on the better team. Mitchell also has stated numerous times that he has a strong desire to pick things up on the defensive end of the floor. And it seems that playing for Team USA in the world cup under Gregg Popovich is elevating his mentality tremendously.
Adding a defensive edge to an already impressive offensive game could be the difference between the Jazz being an above-average team or a legitimate darkhorse title threat. Like Tatum, Mitchell began the season in a slump before picking things up after the turn of the calendar year. He is he has pogo stick athleticism and a crafty array of moves to get to his spots on the floor.
The Utah Jazz front-office did an incredible job of patching up the holes in its roster after an anemic offensive showing in the playoffs. Mitchell’s struggles in the postseason came from a combination of his tendency to take tough shots and the lack of dynamic threats around him. With Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, the floor will be more open for Mitchell to take advantage of opponents one on one and give him the opportunity to maximize himself as a drive-and-kick playmaker. The Western Conference can be crowded in the backcourt for all-star selections, but Mitchell will be playing on one of the best rosters and will be surrounded with capable playmakers. He is due.