*Unless their teams crash and burn in the first round
The NBA playoffs are quickly approaching, and new heroes will emerge. Every postseason, we have breakout players who transform from promising young players into bonafide household names, and this year will be no different. Here are a few candidates to keep an eye on.
Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies, in case you haven’t heard, are here to make some noise. By this point, we all know what Ja Morant can do. But who can play Robin to Morant’s Batman?
Many might point to Jaren Jackson Jr., a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who has shown flashes of being a long-range threat in the past. But Jackson has struggled with his three-ball this season, and his complete inability and/or unwillingness to pass the ball can cause problems in a half-court offense.
Instead, look for Bane to come alive. This year, the long-distance sniper has played an unexpectedly enormous role for the Grizzlies, and he has often been Memphis’ second-best player.
Here’s a list of players shooting more accurately and more often than Desmond Bane’s 41.8% on 8.4 attempts per 36 minutes:
That’s right: nobody. No other player in the entire NBA is combining Bane’s volume and accuracy right now.
Bane is currently second on the team in scoring at 17.9 points per game. Bane is also third on the team in potential assists per game, behind only point guards Ja and Tyus Jones. The majority of his possessions are in spot-up or transition situations, but he can perform a functional pick and roll when necessary. He’s also getting better at using the threat of his shot to attack overaggressive defenders.
Watch how he fakes a hard cut to the basket, completely losing his man Kyle Kuzma, before going back behind the screen, receiving the ball, and pump-faking from his tippy-toes. Rui Hachimura, the other defender, lunges at him in a panic, giving Bane just enough opportunity to slip by and put up a shot that gets goaltended:
Bane is bigger than you think at 6’6”, and he’s finished well at the rim this year. He doesn’t have elite burst, but he’s strong and adept at knocking defenders off balance with his shoulder.
In the playoffs, the Grizzlies will need some offensive punch from people besides Ja, particularly given Morant’s recent cool shooting from outside. If Bane can’t provide it, the Grizzlies might leave this year wondering what could have been.
Bruce Brown, Brooklyn Nets
Just a few short years ago, there wasn’t much room in the NBA for guys like Bruce Brown. He’s a smaller guy (just 6’4”) who doesn’t possess traditional guard skills. He rarely initiates the offense, and he’s shooting fewer than two threes per 36 minutes (on poor accuracy).
Instead, Brown is just a basketball player. He’s always in the right place at the right time, and he fills in the cracks to do whatever a team needs. His stats (8.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists on 49% shooting) don’t convey the value he brings.
The Nets have Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and, until recently, James Harden (who’s been replaced by the injured Ben Simmons). They don’t need more ballhandlers. They need guys who can feel out a defense and use the unique gravity that superduperstars create to find vulnerable creases.
Most people believe the best thing you can do for ball-dominant stars is to surround them with shooting. But both Durant and Irving (and Harden, when he was there) are such shooting threats themselves that they benefit from someone out there pinballing around, causing mayhem and confusion.
Brown shoots more than half of his shots at the rim, a humongous figure for any non-center, much less a guy shorter than some point guards. He often cuts to the free-throw line, catches the ball, and then whips out one of an array of floaters, half-hooks, or finger rolls. I don’t even know what this is:
Brown is quite decisive but also possesses a strange herky-jerky arrhythmia with the ball that lets him wrong-foot defenders:
Brown is a versatile and aggressive defender. He’s also an adept passer; his first thought is always to attack the rim, but if that’s not there, he’s more than willing to give the ball up and get out of the way. He often has the ball in the middle of the paint, where he can find backdoor cutters or spray out to the Nets’ three-point shooters with ease.
Coach Steve Nash has messed around with rotations all year thanks to the Harden/Simmons weirdness, Irving’s vaccine situation, and a boatload of injuries, particularly to Kevin Durant. But Brown finally seems to have cemented his role in the rotation, and his stats in ten March games have been sparkling: 15.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game, plus his usual high energy and defensive intensity.
The Nets have more questions than anyone in the NBA as we approach the playoffs, but Brown will need to be the answer to some of them for Brooklyn to reach its ceiling.
Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors
Poole has been a revelation this year as a sweet-shooting combo guard who can take the pressure off of Steph Curry or run the offense on his own. After a rough rookie season, Poole showed some flashes in his sophomore campaign before blowing up this year in Klay Thompson’s absence.
He’s averaging 17 points on reasonable 46%/36% shooting splits, and he’s launching high-difficulty threes with (sometimes-reckless) abandon. Coach Steve Kerr has empowered him to punish defenses, and Poole needed no further encouragement.
Once relegated to a role as a spot-up shooter, Poole has steadily grown his share of unassisted makes all year long, and currently creates more than 40% of his own baskets. (Klay, by comparison, is assisted on three-quarters of his shots).
He performs dribble combos leading to step-backs that look positively Stephian:
Poole isn’t a deadeye shooter, but he’ll pull from very deep, which further stresses defenses stretched to the breaking point by Steph and Klay.
In fact, Kerr has recently turned to Steph-Klay-Poole lineups much more regularly, and they are destroying the league to the tune of +33.6 points per 100 possessions despite almost never sharing the court with Draymond. Lineups with those three, Green, and either Wiggins or Looney will be unguardable, and they’ve held up shockingly well on defense.
Before this season began, Poole seemed like a Klay stopgap, someone to space the floor for Steph until Klay was healthy enough to take over. But he’s been so good that he almost has to be on the floor even when Klay and Steph are both healthy (likely at the expense of the faltering Andrew Wiggins, whose All-Star selection is already aging like milk).
It’s hard to know what to make of the Warriors. Their big three have all missed significant time, and Wiggins is falling apart as the season comes to a close. If they want to regain their early-season form and make a true run to the championship, the Warriors will have to maximize Poole’s talents.
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