We’re less than two months removed from the conclusion of the 2019–20 season, and there’s been plenty of change around the NBA in recent weeks. The Lakers have retooled, and the Bucks have added an All-Star guard. The Hawks went on a spending spree, while the Thunder have fully embraced the tank. The league landscape is far different than what we saw two months ago. The title chase in 2020–21 will be fascinating after teams jockeyed for position this offseason.
So which players should you keep your eye on as the season kicks off in less than two weeks? We at The Crossover highlighted a handful of the league's most interesting players entering 2020–21.
John Wall, Rockets
The James Harden melodrama is likely to drag on through the start of the 2020–21 season, and a fascinating team will take the floor at the Toyota Center on opening night. The Rockets acquired their third star point guard in as many years on Dec. 2, swapping Russell Westbrook for Wall in one of the offseason’s most head-scratching deals. Harden’s trade demand has already defined Houston’s season. But it could be Wall who dictates the on-court product.
What exactly will we see from Wall when the season begins? The answer is hard to parse. The Kentucky product hasn’t played since December 2018, but he appears in shape and ready to roll after his first few practices with Houston. Wall should be a strong fit in Houston if both All-Star guards share the floor for at least a portion of the season. He’s more of a true point guard than Westbrook, and Wall’s predilection for finding shooters in the corner should be a godsend for the likes of P.J. Tucker and Ben McLemore. There is no shortage of uncertainty in Houston at the moment, but perhaps Wall can be a steadying force. Toss the injury concerns aside, and Wall should contribute heavily to a high-octane offense in 2020–21.
Bogdan Bogdanović, Hawks
The Bucks pursued Bogdanović heavily this offseason, and it’s not hard to see why. The former Kings guard has emerged as a quality secondary scorer in recent seasons, sporting impressive shooting percentages along with a versatile offensive game. Bogdanovic shot 37.2% from three on considerable volume last season, and he’s more than adept at putting the ball on the floor and driving to the rim. Bogdanović is a fierce competitor and a vocal teammate. He appeared to be well-suited for a run to the Finals. That’s unlikely after he signed with Atlanta, but Bogdanović should still make a marked impact with the Hawks.
Bogdanović projects to be an idyllic fit next to Trae Young in Atlanta. He should take a sizable share of playmaking duties, providing some much-needed variance for the Hawks’ attack. Atlanta grew weary of the Young show for stretches last season, and its point guard’s turnover rate was downright alarming. Placing Young off the ball in spurts could work wonders for Atlanta. With Bogdanović now in the fold, expect a more balanced and efficient attack in 2020–21.
Deandre Ayton, Suns
Ayton turned in one of the most efficient rookie campaigns in league history in 2018–19, and last season featured a serious refinement for the former No. 1 pick. Ayton paired his prodigious scoring power with greater physicality on both ends, flashing the potential of a future All-Star. There’s still an element of rawness to Ayton’s game, especially on the defensive end. But entering 2020–21, there are few big men with a more impressive skill set.
Ayton’s range hasn’t extended quite beyond the three-point line, though he still sports a varied scoring profile. The Arizona product has a soft touch around the foul line, and he can be downright dominant as a roll man. Ayton averaged 1.16 points per roll possession in 2019–20, and he’ll now get to run his two-man dance with Chris Paul in 2020–21. The expectations are high in Phoenix entering next season, and rightly so. Led by Ayton, Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns could very well see their 10-year playoff drought end in 2021.
Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets
Porter’s tantalizing offensive talent jumps off the screen. Few players his size sport such a smooth jumper, and Porter’s quick release makes for a nearly unblockable shot. And the Missouri product is much more than a stationary shooter. Porter is a master of the one-dribble pull-up, and he’s increasingly adept at weaving around defenders as he barrels downhill. Denver could sport a legitimate Big 3 if Porter fulfills his potential in 2020–21.
The young wing is a polished offensive force, but it seems as though he’s yet to fully gain the trust of head coach Mike Malone. Porter is a subpar defensive player at this point in his career, and his offensive talent is at times marred by frustrating shot selection. Porter can afford to be selfish to a degree given the unique talents of Denver’s superstar center. But there’s a fine line between being aggressive and monopolizing the offense. Striking the right balance remains critical for the Nuggets in 2020–21.
LaMelo Ball, Hornets
The Hornets aren’t hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy anytime soon, but are we sure this can’t be a playoff team in the beleaguered Eastern Conference? There was a modicum of young talent on last year’s roster, and Gordon Hayward should make a marked impact given a healthy season. If Ball lives up to his billing as the No. 3 pick, perhaps Charlotte’s 2020–21 could extend a few weeks longer than one would expect.
There’s obvious reason to proceed with caution regarding Ball. Most rookie point guards are below replacement level, and Charlotte’s lottery pick hasn’t exactly faced the stiffest competition to date. But perhaps we’re underrating Ball’s immense talent. His range extends beyond 30 feet, and he should make an instant impact as a passer. Ball is a legitimate 6' 7". He plays with a confidence that’s infectious. There will be ugly nights, to be sure, as the threes don’t fall and the turnovers mount. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Ball’s arrival in the league will be an impressive one. Paired with Hayward, Ball and the Hornets could make an unexpected leap in 2020–21.
Paul George, Clippers
Paul George’s playoff failures shouldn’t be ignored, but the criticism surrounding the six-time All-Star has made him a touch underrated entering 2020–21. George remains one of the NBA’s most impactful two-way wings. He’s a destructive force in passing lanes, and he’s tallied nearly 900 threes in the last four seasons on an impressive 39.6% from beyond the arc. George’s third-place MVP finish in 2018-19 was no fluke. He's a legitimate All-NBA talent.
George’s skill is undeniable. His offensive habits deserve further scrutiny. He continues to criticize Doc Rivers for his usage in 2019–20, stating the need for more control of Los Angeles’s offense. But the metrics don’t exactly back up George’s theory. He averaged an ugly 0.75 points per isolation possession last season. He posted less than a point per possession in the pick-and-roll. George is too talented to be used as a glorified spot-up shooter, but at some point, you have to play to your strengths. Perhaps a full season alongside Kawhi Leonard will place George in a better position to succeed.
Mike Conley, Jazz
Mike Conley’s contract appeared to be a major albatross for Utah in 2019–20 as he struggled out of the gate with a new franchise. The former Grizzlies’ point guard turned in a dismal first 20 games with Utah, shooting just 36.9% from the field as he saw both his scoring and assist numbers plummet. Conley appeared slow snaking around screens. His jumper abandoned him. Did a new location zap Conley’s impressive skill set?
The reports of Conley’s demise were greatly exaggerated. He shot 45 percent from the field and 38.6% from three in his final 25 regular-season games, and he was effective against Denver in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
As we now look ahead to 2020–21, a healthy and productive Conley is critical for the Jazz. Conley provides necessary secondary playmaking next to Donovan Mitchell, and he’s a far more reliable option than Jordan Clarkson in the backcourt. The Jazz don’t sport the superstar talent of either Los Angeles team, but their depth makes them a legitimate contender for the Western Conference crown. A strong season from Conley could very well result in a top-three seed entering the postseason.