Monday 18 December 2017 / 08:39 AM

NBA 2017-18 PREVIEW: IMPROVEMENT INDEX

Highlighting the individuals whose potential development will have significant effects on the direction of their team’s season.

Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers)

Nurkic made a real difference in his short time after being traded to Portland. The offence was unlocked: the role admirably filled by Mason Plumlee was now in better hands, the ample space created from Lillard and McCollum in the pick and roll allowing him to become a dive threat whilst flashing on-the-move playmaking skills far beyond expectations. He was the perfect third fiddle to the scoring duo. With a full pre-season together, continuity should be there alongside hopes they’ll be able to pick up where they left off.

The offence was smooth, but scoring was never the problem — the Blazers desperately need an inside presence, and whilst Nurkic has flashed competency in that area before, he isn’t an elite defender at his position, although he’s never been a starter for a long period of time. If he can, at the very least, become serviceable patrolling the paint, it’ll go a long way to pushing Portland over the hump of mediocrity.

Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns)

We know Booker can score. But he is fast amassing the reputation of a high volume, low-efficiency scorer that doesn’t create for others, a tag completely unwanted in the modern landscape of ball-movement and team basketball. Points per game is an outdated way to evaluate scorers, and Booker will quickly become hard to justify as a star prospect if he remains stagnant in the ‘shoot-first, shoot-second mould’.

The hope is Booker begins to trend more towards James Harden than DeMar DeRozan, with an uptick in efficiency and playmaking help shoring up his weaknesses and improvement in the lowly Suns’ offence. His defence is a whole other issue, but we won’t get greedy. Baby steps.

Austin Rivers (Los Angeles Clippers)

Essentially, and unlike the other candidates on this list, the question isn’t how much Austin Rivers will improve, but whether or not he really has any improving to do. Rivers has the speed and agility to blow-by defenders, but lacks the skill to do anything once he arrives in space, whether that’s at the rim or in mid-range.

With the likelihood he starts at the two, he’ll also be asked to defend some bigger bodies, something he’s flashed some proficiency in before. The Clippers’ thin depth at small forward might see him playing plenty of minutes there, where the defensive assignments will only get tougher. Rivers will need to improve on both ends, not only to take a leap personally, but to remain a functional option on a team that could desperately use it.

Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers)

Turner was the lone bright spot after Indiana tore down the buildings, removing the final remnants of a successful era and ushering in a complete rebuild. Now, their hopes are pinned to the explosive, crafty 7-footer who will look to take another step forward, this time handling a significant increase in offensive load.

There is plenty of intrigue around Turner, the prototype of a modern center: a soft three-point stroke, ability to leverage mismatches and a ferocious presence in the paint. The Pacers will desire all of these to continue improving, especially the latter — Turner was spotty in defence, often reactive and overzealous where he needed to be measured and poised. In the absence of any substantial surrounding talent, any errors will be magnified. Whether or not he can assume the mantle of the No.1 seems less definitive, but just as important to the Pacers.

Elfrid Payton (Orlando Magic)

A run of triple-doubles down the stretch of last season helped rebuild some faith that there is, somewhere deep down, a consistently good NBA player in his wiry 6’4 frame. But the lack of shooting, and the unfortunately inevitable backcourt partnership with Hezonja, means Payton will again have to orchestrate an offence void of spacing. His starting partner, at least initially, appears to be Fournier, a competent ball-handler in his own right, meaning Payton may find himself dwelling off-ball yet again.

At the most optimistic, we want to see him improve his pick-and-roll propensity, but we’ll settle for competent defence and an improved jumper. Extension looming, this is the year the consensus decision about Elfrid Payton will be made.

Dante Cunningham (New Orleans Pelicans)

Despite finding new ways to burn money (Rajon Rondo, anyone?), the Pelicans failed to address the need at small forward, an issue yet to be solved since drafting Anthony Davis, in spite of it becoming the most important position on the floor.

It means Dante Cunningham, a stretch four who just doesn’t quite stretch far enough, will be tasked with holding down the wing spot, and problematically on his lonesome: the Pels intend on starting Rondo alongside Holiday in the backcourt, so Cunningham will be assigned the opposition’s toughest offensive contributor, despite not being a noted defender this far into his career. If he is unable to take a pretty excessive leap, it will quickly become a weak spot.

Justice Winslow (Miami Heat)

The Heat, after overcoming their slow start, were a well-oiled machine last season. A barrage of 3-and-D role players, happy to swing the ball and play gritty defence. Taking that on face value, Winslow should make for a great fit. Except, well, he can’t shoot, and his inability to stay healthy is at risk of robbing him of his athletic tools.

That harsh assessment comes with a precursor: Winslow is a noted hard worker, and there is every chance his shooting is at least serviceable once the season gets underway. If that’s the case, and he can remain the active defender he previously was, then he offers an edgy Heat team real upside and becomes the prototype of player they’ve built their post-superteam era on.

Also keep an eye on….

Buddy Hield: Will the shooting dry up when he becomes the focal point for defences to target?

Thon Maker: All the tools to become a difference-maker and an apparent lock to start, we’ll see if all those courtesy minutes last year amount to anything (and whether he really has put any weight on).

Bradley Beal: Proven superstar potential, but the Wizards need superstar output. Also has to stay healthy, being yet to do so in his career to date.

Nerlens Noel: He has to become a starter, right? Forget all this contract nonsense, defensive-orientated and athletic, he is an obvious foil for an ageing Dirk.

JJ Redick: Redick isn’t as young as the others featured on this list, and has been on a consistent upswing since leaving Orlando. The fascination comes with the new role: Redick is no longer just a side-piece, he’s the leader, the glue guy that could bring everything together in Philly. If their young pieces stay healthy, he could be the difference, and they couldn’t be counting on a better guy.

Dejounte Murray: The Spurs have questions marks at point guard for the first time in a long time, not to mention an uncanny knack of hitting on these types of moves. Will this be another notch in their dynastic belt?

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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