One of the great things about the NCAA Tournament is the urgency that each game brings. The tournament is single-elimination which brings a do-or-die scene that is only rivaled by the NFL. In these games, stars are born and players cement their status as studs while playing against the nation’s other elite teams. Steph Curry was just an undersized shooter until he dropped a 40 point atomic bomb on Gonzaga in 2008. Kemba Walker led a Uconn team that was 9-9 in conference play to a national championship after hitting what is still the cleanest step-back of all-time. The NBA race to the finish will give the professionals a sense of urgency that is rarely seen in the regular season. These are the highest stakes and we are guaranteed to get performances from currently unsung heroes. Here are a few players to watch that will need to come up big in order for their teams to see success.
The 23-year-old Milton will be key to making the transition of Ben Simmons to power forward effective for Philly. Simmons can be devastating as the roll option if Milton can continue what was a ridiculous nine-game stretch before the season shut down.
As the season concluded Milton averaged 17.7 ppg during that stretch on 55.6% from the three-point arc. His coming-out party included a 19 point game against the Knicks where he made all five of his three-point attempts and a 39 point shredding against the Clippers, who may have the best perimeter defenders in the league.
Milton’s shooting ability may enable the 76ers to unlock the pick-and-roll, a staple of NBA offense that has been noticeably absent from Philly’s arsenal in the past with non-shooters Simmons and Markelle Fultz previously at the helm. Brett Brown seems to be encouraged.
“It feels like it’s pointing in that direction,” Brown said Thursday in a video conference call with reporters. “I think ball handlers that people are forced to go over and there is punishment if it’s switched — like sometimes Tobias (Harris) and Ben (Simmons), it’s just an easy switch and at times it’s not easily exploited. I think when you’ve got a legitimate guard like Shake and people chase, I hope to be able to do that more, really, than we have in the past.”
Milton may not be dropping 40 balls on the regular in the playoffs, but his presence could be a reason for a Philadelphia offensive ascension.
The departure of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo’s broken thumb have understandably thrust the Lakers’ backcourt depth into the spotlight. We will be looking forward to seeing what Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso will do with their increased roles. However, neither player was projected to be the teams’ third scorer. That distinction belongs to Kyle Kuzma, who is coming off of a season where he averaged career-lows in every major statistical category.
Some of Kuzma’s statistical decline should be attributed to the arrival of Anthony Davis which reduced his role on offense as a scorer. He was forced to come into this season late after battling an offseason injury, all while trying to figure out how to produce in a new role on a legitimate title contender.
Others in Kuzma’s draft class have enjoyed breakout years in more prominent offensive roles on teams with less top tier talent. Bam Adebayo, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum are already NBA all-stars, and many thought that Kuzma’s ceiling would have him breakout by now in a similar fashion. To be fair, neither of those guys play on teams with two top-five players in the league, and none of their respective teams carry the expectations that the Los Angeles Lakers have headed into this bubble. Jared Dudley recently put his predicament into context.
“He can get a lot better. He’s a young player but he brings a lot to the table right now,” Dudley noted. “He’s in a difficult predicament because a lot of his counterparts at his age, they’re on teams without established superstars and are getting bigger roles. He certainly is capable of that, but his role is going to be different on this team.”
Kuzma is buying into his supplementary role by posting a career-best net rating of 5.3 to go with a career-best defensive rating of 104.5. His three-point percentage (29.7) will need to improve, but perhaps that may come as he gets more comfortable with the catch-and-shoot situations that are essential for secondary scorers playing around elite talent. The Lakers need someone now more than ever to relieve the offensive burden when James and Davis sit. If the talented 24-year-old can provide a little more firepower it may change his perception of being an underachiever heading into a contract year.
Bleacher report made some waves when they posted their top-100 NBA players with Khris Middleton holding the 10th spot sandwiched between Jimmy Butler at nine and Jayson Tatum at eleven.
Most of this comes from the perception that Middleton is a super shooter that benefits from Giannis Antetokounmpo’s gravity to hit open spot-up threes at a high clip. He does do that at a blistering 41%, but he is also Milwaukee’s lead pick-and-roll initiator where he converts at an efficiency that rivals the best orchestrators in the league.
Middleton’s on/off offensive stats are actually better than Giannis’s. This isn’t to say that he’s a better offensive force, but it does show that his presence holds a ton of merit for Milwaukee offensively and that they will need him to deliver throughout the playoffs if they are to achieve their lofty goals (and hopes that Giannis will stay.) With eight regular-season games remaining, Middleton has a legitimate chance to post the 12th 50-40-90 season in NBA history. One made basket as of right now puts him in that territory.
Middleton’s otherwise excellent season last year fizzled out in their series against the Toronto Raptors where he averaged just under 14 points on 41% shooting from the field in a six-game series loss. All of the East’s contenders are better this year, so the Bucks will need Middleton to maintain his efficiency throughout in order to avoid another disappointing exit.
The main difference between the Portland Trail Blazers that made the Western Conference Finals last season to the team that will be fighting for their lives in the bubble was the absence of Zach Collins and their best post presence in Jusuf Nurkic.
Nurkic was in the middle of a career-year before going down with a nasty leg fracture in 2018-2019. Many people have pointed to the Trail Blazers of having the best chance to take down the Los Angeles Lakers from the eighth seed. In order to do that, Nurkic will have to hit the ground running on both ends to compete with the massive frontcourt that Los Angeles employs. As far as his health, Nurkic is feeling good.
“I have no restrictions. Feeling great. Excited to play the game,” he noted confirming he is cleared to return following the injury suffered in March 2019, “I am looking forward to playing. It’s going to be fun.”
It is unlikely that Nurkic won’t at least see a minutes restriction, but even with 20 minutes a game his playmaking could make a big impact for a team that can end up just waiting for CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard to win games in iso down the stretch. Nurkic boosted his assist numbers and became one of the top playmaking bigs in the league before injury. His vision will open up Portland’s offense even if he plays in short spurts.
Hassan Whiteside had a lukewarm season filling in for Nurkic and Collins but the Blazers having a deeper frontcourt will give them a much better chance to overwhelm teams that go small ball and to match up against larger teams that attempt to overwhelm in the paint.