5 Players to look out for this NBA preseason

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Jaylen Brown, G, Boston Celtics

What to look out for: Jaylen Brown has built up a reputation of being one of the Celtics’ hardest workers, constantly putting in the time and effort to improve different aspects of his game. This was on full display during this year’s FIBA World Cup, where Brown showed off not only his offensive consistency, but his diversified bag of defensive tricks, guarding opposing bigs as he logged minutes at the center position. His recent haircut could also be an indication of a change in playstyle and overall improvement (a la Elfrid Payton?).

What’s still concerning: The Celtics are still stacked at the wing position. Brown will have to battle for minutes with Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward, all of whom have plenty of merit and the justification to earn significant minutes every game, not to mention incoming rookies like Romeo Langford and Carsen Edwards. Brown has also been a pretty poor shooter since his Cal days, lending credence to the notion that his ‘18 season, when he hit almost 40 percent from behind the arc, was an anomaly.

 

Justise Winslow, G, Miami Heat

What to look out for: Although Goran Dragic is still the Heat’s starter at the point guard position, he is entering the last year of his contract and the Heat’s front office has implied that Winslow is a significant part of their future. Winslow’s shooting averages have also steadily increased over the years, and his versatility immediately makes him a commodity in today’s league. The pairing of Winslow and Jimmy Butler should be one of the strongest defensive backcourts in the NBA, and Winslow’s size assures that he will get minutes at some position — even if it’s not at his preferred spot running the offense.

What’s still concerning: Perhaps the most glaring flaw of Winslow’s skillset is his inability to finish at the rim. Despite his growing efficiency from long range, Winslow has continually struggled from up close, hitting only 57 percent of his shots in the 0-3 feet range, and 46.7 percent of his layups in 2019. For context, the Miami Heat as a team (Winslow included) only made 63.7 percent of their shots from that same range and were ranked 24th in the league in that statistic. Winslow’s position in the Heat’s future is also in question. Despite their stated desire to make Winslow part of their future, the Heat’s front office has a track record of trading away young talent. Miami have also been linked to trade rumors for yet another point guard, Chris Paul, in return for Goran Dragic. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Paul could be traded for Winslow, a move that may end up favorable for the young player’s career.

 

Jerami Grant, F, Denver Nuggets

What to look out for: Jerami Grant is the perfect fit for the Denver Nuggets system. He can cover for weaker defenders on his team (such as Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray), while benefiting from the offense generated by Denver’s multiple facilitators. If he can continue being a threat from beyond the arc, he’ll add to the insanely good spacing the Nuggets possess — spacing that will open the paint for him to score off backdoor cuts. The pairing of Grant and Jokic is especially interesting, as their polar opposite playstyles seem to fit together like a two-piece jigsaw puzzle.

What’s still concerning: Unfortunately, Grant isn’t guaranteed a starting position, as Paul Millsap is still on the team. Millsap, a 13-year veteran, has shown that he is still a valuable member of the starting five, valuable enough that Denver head coach Mike Malone has named him a guaranteed starter before training camp even began. Despite this being Millsap’s final contract year, the Nuggets showed their appreciation by picking up his rather bloated team option. Theoretically, Jerami Grant could move down to the small forward position, but the Nuggets are already full there, with reports of an open competition for the starting spot among four players. Will Jerami Grant be able to replicate last season’s success coming off the bench? Or would being taken off the starting lineup cause him to revert to his less efficient former years?

 

Frank Ntilikina, G, New York Knicks

What to look out for: Ntilikina has shown off his fantastic defensive IQ, using his length (7’1” wingspan on a 6’6” body) to shut down even all-star caliber players. Players like Tony Allen and André Roberson have made entire NBA careers off of being defensive specialists, despite their offensive incapabilities. Ntilikina, however, displays an awareness on offense that gives him the potential of being something more — a defensive minded point guard with clear facilitation abilities and a dependable shot.

What’s still concerning: Ntilikina has yet to show that his success internationally will translate to the NBA. This preseason is especially important to Ntilikina; after such a strong showing at the FIBA World Cup this year, fans will no doubt be expecting offensive improvement from him. And yet, the amount of trust the Knicks as an organization have in him is questionable. In the last year or so, the front office has acquired Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr., two young point guards who show as much promise as Ntilikina. Although head coach David Fizdale has stated that Ntilikina would be getting a significant role this year, his prospects and his part in New York’s long term plans are to be called into question.

 

Alex Caruso, G, Los Angeles Lakers

What to look out for: Alex Caruso is constantly molding his game to fit the modern NBA. Despite entering college as a mediocre shooter, he has steadily improved until this past year, where he hit almost half of his three-pointers. Constantly hustling on defense, Caruso is a prototype of the player that Lebron James excels with, a player who can hit open shots and help cover on defense. The Lakers strangely have strayed from acquiring this specific type of player, although Danny Green and to some extent, Avery Bradley, do fit this role. Caruso, however, is much more well-rounded than either in overall productiveness — but especially in distributing the ball.

What’s still concerning: Caruso’s ideal position is point guard, one the Lakers have filled with the brilliant facilitation of Lebron James and veteran Rajon Rondo. In addition, the Lakers signed former Golden State Warriors standout Quinn Cook, another guard with something to prove. Yet, Caruso’s tendency to turn the ball over suggests that he is more suited to play the wing position, one that he does not excel at and the Lakers have already filled with veteran players like Green, Bradley, Jared Dudley and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Furthermore, the Lakers coaching staff seems to have little confidence in Caruso, sending him down to play for the Lakers’  G League affiliate for the majority of last season —  leading to questions of Caruso’s future with the team.

Teddy Park writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].