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15. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
Lauri Marrkanen’s sophomore season should not be remembered as a total letdown. All things considered, he made a year-long tumult.
A sprained right elbow sidelined him until December, at which point he struggled to recapture his offensive form. But then he hit his stride more often. From Dec. 21 to March 1, a span covering 31 appearances, he averaged 21.2 points and 9.9 rebounds on 59.1 percent true shooting.
This mini-tear culminated with a 31-point performance in a four-overtime slugfest against the Atlanta Hawks, after which Markkanen tailed off. Chicago shut him down because of fatigue before April.
It should be easier for Markkanen to stand out this year. Better point guard play might help him more than anyone on the roster. Too many of his possessions last season seemed to end in late-shot-clock post-ups to nowhere. Having Coby White and Tomas Satoransky to push the pace and manage the clock should spare him from similar misuse.
Granted, Markkanen still has to to expand his game. The Bulls aren’t exactly working from a position of strength at point guard just yet. They need him to be more of a passing threat on his drives, and it’d go a long way if he could get comfortable with taking more jumpers off the bounce.
14. Julius Randle, New York Knicks
Julius Randle’s defensive struggles are tough to overlook. He has sufficient moments in one-on-one situations, but he fouls like it’s his job and is a near-nonexistent helper.
Running Randle out at the 5 is akin to throwing a parade at the rim. It is that hole that most warps his value, lending itself to an absence of definition: You can’t hope to use him as a defender at the 5, but is he really fit to play the 4?
The answer after last season is a resounding yes. Randle has always been a wrecking ball with dancer’s feet, but he’s exerted better control over the outcome of his possessions. He can lead the charge on fast breaks, barrel through defenders in the half court, spin through traffic, cross over lumbering bigs, hit the occasional step-back and annihilate the rim.
Working through so much variety is a magnet for inefficiency, but Randle is exempt. He’s shot better than 68 percent at the rim in each of the past two seasons while subjecting himself to difficult finishes over sky-scraping bigs. Last year was the first time he fully dipped his feet into the three-point pool, and it went well. He hit 34.4 percent of his long balls on 2.7 attempts per game and was even better off the catch (35.8 percent).
Watching Randle is still a roller coaster ride. He is both savant and saboteur. But he’s a legitimate offensive stud—the type of player who can stat-stuff his way to All-Star consideration in the East.
To wit: Randle was one of just seven players last season who cleared 24 points and 3.5 assists per 36 minutes with a true shooting percentage above 60. His company? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James.
13. Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Domantas Sabonis played well enough to curry favor over Myles Turner for half of last season. He was—and still is—someone the offense can run through. His play around the basket is a mixture of physicality and grace, he works the hell out of dribble handoffs, and he’s a pinpoint passer on the move and out of traffic.
That player is only so valuable at power forward if he’s not shooting threes. And so far, the Pacers haven’t put him in that position. He needs a spacing buffer to be at his most effective—in addition to a primary ball-handler. Indiana’s offensive rating dropped to the 38th percentile last season when he played without Victor Oladipo.
Criticism of Sabonis’ defense is overdramatic. He moved around well last season, and he’s looking svelte this year. The combination of his playing power forward and losing Thaddeus Young hurts, but Sabonis is more than capable of anchoring the back line in bench-heavy units. Indiana scraped together impressive minutes with him in the middle and Young on the bench last season.
Something else must give for Sabonis to be worth the money he is seeking and will probably get in his next deal. Playoff-proofing himself by uncorking more threes is a good place to start—if head coach Nate McMillan allows it.
12. Robert Covington, Minnesota Timberwolves
All-NBA defenders who toe the line of being positionless and hit threes at above-average clips are a rotation’s dream. They do not always work in an offense without a star, but part of their appeal is they fit alongside every star.
Robert Covington is one of those players: a billboard for three-and-D specialists who make more than a niche impact.
He isn’t a deadly shooter in the conventional sense. Pin-balling around screens isn’t his thing. He needs more time to get his shot off than a Danny Green or JJ Redick. But he’s hitting 37.2 percent of his treys over the past two seasons, mostly on zero-dribble shots that hint at an understanding of his limitations. What he lacks as a ball-handling option and lights-out finisher he makes up for with hard-run beelines toward the basket without the rock.
Covington’s wheelhouse is broader at the other end. Defensive impact is not solely measured by steals and blocks, but he has a knack for amassing both. Over the past three seasons, no other non-big has matched Covington’s steal and block percentages in comparable playing time.
On or off the ball, he’s always in the middle of breaking up possessions. His willingness to help around the rim is uncommon for a wing. The way he guards is surgical. It is the kind of defense that makes the team better. Minnesota ranked in the 86th percentile of points allowed per 100 possessions with him on the court.
A right knee injury looms over everything. Covington made just 35 combined appearances with Philadelphia and Minnesota and underwent surgery in April. This is the same knee in which Covington tore his meniscus at the end of the 2016-17 season.
Expressing concern is fair. So, too, is Covington’s placement. If he’s anywhere near normal this season, the Timberwolves have a contender-friendly core piece on their hands.
11. John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
John Collins’ offensive game is so much more than rim runs and putbacks. Atlanta has him shooting threes—he hit 49 percent from the corners last year—and he looks more comfortable while making plays with the ball in his hands.
Don’t be surprised if he’s given more responsibility off the dribble this year. The Hawks seem to be pushing him in the direction of Blake Griffin. He may be tasked with running a few pick-and-rolls.
Atlanta might find out this is an overextension. That’s OK. Collins is still a useful offensive player if he’s not jump-starting pick-and-rolls and dribbling into above-the-break triples. His ceiling will be more impacted by what he becomes on the defensive end. As Early Bird Rights’ Jeff Siegel said on the Hardwood Knocks podcast (14:23 mark):
“There was like a six-week stretch right after the [All-Star] break until the end of the season, where all of a sudden he was making rotations and being vertical at the rim. All of those basic rim-protection things at the 4, where you’re sort of the weak-side shot-blocker, none of those things were in his game for the first year-and-a-half of his NBA career.
Things are starting to turn around, but if he doesn’t continue to make massive improvements defensively, there’s going to be a real question of whether he is a part of this team’s long-term contending future. You can get away with having one bad defender on a high-end, contending playoff team, and that’s gonna be Trae Young … But if you also have to scheme around a bad power forward on defense, that’s not going to work long term.”
For now, especially in the Eastern Conference, Collins’ combination of pogo-stick offense and floor spacing puts him right at the cusp of being a top-50 player. Without turning into Detroit Pistons Griffin 2.0 or a close-to-average defender, he doesn’t have the headway to climb much higher.