The Crossover spoke with scouts from around the league in advance of the 2021–2022 season.
New York Knicks
I definitely think Julius Randle’s production last season is sustainable, and I think the reason why is just because he's an elite worker and I think they've built it around him, the roster and the team, even though they added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier and RJ Barrett kind of growing, and then Mitchell Robinson, but I think he's the first option. I think going through the struggle probably helped him last year. I think that first year with expectations with that team, and just him playing at an All-Star level, it just happened a year later and I think the year before really helped his development. … I don’t know if Kemba’s knee is going to hold up. No one does. I don't know how they're going to manage him. If you're getting peak Kemba, obviously that's a great point guard and a great second option to Randle. … With Barrett, everybody loves to see it right away and some guys take longer than others. Two years is not long. I think you saw the lottery pick, talent, potential kind of start trending upwards. I think he might not take huge leaps from Year 2 to 3. Maybe it's three to four, four to five, but if he just keeps trending upwards, I think he's going to be a really, really good player in this league for a long time.
Brooklyn, it just comes down to injuries and health. It just does. With their Big Three and an All-Star Hall of Fame crew that they've put around those guys, it's all going to come down to health and if they're going to be healthy in the playoffs. They were one foot away from beating Milwaukee in that series. Probably would have won the whole thing without Irving and with Harden in and out of the lineup. ... Durant looked like he never left, man. He's unbelievable. I think he's the greatest player in the world. I think he showed it once again. Just a scorer. He’s going to go down as one of the top scorers of all time, top shooters of all time, top players of all time. I think it was great to see, it's great for the game, great for him that he just looked like his injury never happened.
With Ben Simmons, it’s easy to say, "Dump him," but my thing has always been, who else are you going to get? One, he's an elite defender. I think at the point guard position, he was probably the most consistent defender the whole season. I don't think that gets talked about enough, even though I know more people talk about it, but he's an elite defender at his position. His offensive weaknesses show up and they show up during playoff time. If it is the end, which it looks like it's going to be, my question is what you get back in return, and whatever you get back in return, it might not be a better player than Simmons, but it's got to be a better fit around Joel Embiid, if that's the direction you're going to go. … Embiid and Simmons aren’t a championship duo. They've lost in the playoffs, and they did it with Embiid basically playing like the MVP. They still couldn't get it done in the playoffs.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, they've both gotten better every year. They both have gotten better as perimeter wings, defenders. But for the first time it feels, from the outside, like Boston is scrambling with its roster. It always felt like they had a core group of six or seven guys that had been together for a while and now, bringing Al Horford back, and it just feels like they're in scramble mode now, trying to build around those two guys. Signing Marcus Smart will obviously help, but I don't know if you see it without another guy there, how far they can go. … Tatum’s next step is carrying a team. I think carrying the team deep into the playoffs consistently. I think he's shown, offensively, he's really shown no weaknesses. He needs to take the challenge of being a better defender, a better rebounder and a better playmaker. He's a true scorer.
There are real issues with Pascal Siakam. I don't know what it is, but I think Siakam, just the past 18 months, has just been trending downward. Obviously them losing Kyle Lowry, them handing over the keys to Fred VanVleet, I think VanVleet's a great player, but I think they need Siakam to be really good. I could see them, if he gets off to another rough start, them trying to send him somewhere for another All-Star–type player. Who that player is, I don't know, but it'll be interesting to see if we get the Siakam that everybody fell in love with.
Detroit will still struggle. I would imagine you'll see a lineup at least to start the year of Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant and Isaiah Stewart to start games. You'll see a lot of switching from them defensively. Offensively it still doesn't really give them a playmaker. I think Bey will be a nice NBA player but right now is a little bit overrated. … Jerami Grant to me was one of the most overrated players all year. If you look at how the season went for him, he had the really good start when Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose were still there taking away some of the attention. … I don't see Hayes being a starter in the league. He's soft. He can't shoot. He's slow and he's arrogant. Cunningham seems like he's got a chance to be the real deal, but he's still a rookie who's got to figure it out.
Milwaukee needed Giannis to be able to deliver against really good teams and he did that. Khris Middleton had played better than I think everybody anticipated there. I mean, he was exceptional in a number of games in the playoffs, but Giannis delivered pretty much every game in the playoffs. That allowed those other guys to put in only two really good games or something like that. I knew they were going to try to switch some more than they did in the past. That obviously helped them some. … I would like to see Giannis shoot free throws and jump shots better than he did. I mean he was awful. Phoenix let him play one-on-one a fair amount. Brooklyn let him play one-on-one the entire time. Other teams in the past, that is one of the things like Toronto when they beat him, Toronto trapped him in the post every time. As a one-on-one player, I think he's been exceptional, but to me, the free throw shooting and the jump shooting obviously are things that he can add to his game. But beyond that, offensively, I don't see a ton more coming. Defensively, he's slowing down and will continue to slow down. To me, I would imagine you'll start seeing him at the five a little bit more and a little bit more as each year goes by.
Chicago improved offensively. I don't know how much they improved defensively. To me defensively they look like they're going to be pretty f------ bad again. You know, they all play hard. I guess Lonzo Ball is a good defender. To me they added another good scorer, but I don't know how good DeMar DeRozan is. He's good enough to start. I don't know that he's a top-line guy, but he's still pretty good at the end of games. He can get shots off. He can make tough shots. Now you've got him and Zach LaVine, who can both get some s--- done. The one question I still have with them is who's going to lead the charge in terms of this is how we play every night. They didn't have much leadership last year. LaVine's not that guy. Who is it for them? That'd be the big question I have with them. LaVine is a top-level scorer, but he's not a leader.
I think Collin Sexton is a backup and an a--hole. None of his teammates like him. I like Darius Garland. I actually like Garland. I think he plays hard. He puts pressure on you because he can shoot, he can pass, and he's a much more willing passer. He's not out there trying to f------ get his stats and go home in the same way that Sexton is. I don't think they can play those two small guards together and get a ton out of them. I thought they were on the right track last year until they traded for Jarrett Allen and basically told Andre Drummond we're not bringing you back, because defensively they were hanging around that top-10 area. … Evan Mobley, to me, seems like he's the real deal in terms of his talent, his skill set. Again, he's a rookie who floated some in college so we'll see how that goes. Not a big Jarrett Allen guy. He's fine but nothing crazy. Isaac Okoro seems like he's got the potential to be a pretty damn good defender, but I don't know how much more than that.
Well, defensively, Domantas Sabonis needs Myles Turner. He covers his a--. Offensively it hasn't really been great. Partly because Turner's a guy who can make a shot, but he's not a knockdown shooter. Sabonis offensively is pretty f------ gifted, I would say. They missed Nate McMillan holding those guys accountable, clearly. It's not great. I like Caris LeVert a lot. I think he's really talented. I liked him a lot in Brooklyn, too. That's a guy that they can use as a weapon. Malcolm Brogdon, he's fine. Good player but he's not a leader. He’s not a guy who can carry your team.
LaMelo is a star. He’s Jason Kidd, with a better jump shot. He’s among the best passers in the NBA already. He showed leadership last season that I didn’t expect from him. You saw the way that team fell apart when he went out. He has a chance to be an All-Star this season. He’s going to have to adapt to being at the top of every scouting report, but there is great talent there. … They need Gordon Hayward to be healthy. He’s the second-best playmaker on the team, behind Ball. Without him, the ball just stops.
Orlando is rebuilding. They are going to try to play up-tempo, but every team that doesn’t have half-court scorers says that. I’ll be interested to see how the backcourt comes together. Jalen Suggs looked like the real deal in Summer League. He will be a two-way player. But can they play him next to Markelle Fultz? Cole Anthony was a surprise last year, but that was a bad team. They love Jonathan Isaac, but he has had two serious leg injuries. I don’t know what to expect from Isaac this season. At his best he is a versatile, springy forward. But I don’t know how close he will be to his best. I don’t know how you look at this team and see anything but one of the worst teams in the NBA.
Everybody is excited about Kyle Lowry, but is he that big of an upgrade over Goran Dragić? Dragić could score and he had great chemistry with that team. Lowry is a leader, but he has a lot of miles on him. He takes a lot of contact, a lot of charges. I worry about injuries with him. Jimmy Butler is a stud. There aren’t many guys in the league I’d want to have the ball in key situations more than him. He needs to be more of a playmaker with this group. They don’t have a lot of shot creators. Butler has to be one of them. Duncan Robinson has to get his swagger back. He played with unbelievable confidence in 2020. I didn’t see that same confidence last season. I think he felt some pressure. Maybe now that he has his contract, he’ll play more relaxed. Same thing with Tyler Herro. He has to get back to the guy we saw in '20. The starting lineup is great. The bench is weak.
I like the direction of the Wizards. Spencer Dinwiddie is a better fit alongside Bradley Beal than Russell Westbrook was. And they have done a nice job collecting pieces, all around the same age, with potential. Kyle Kuzma will play well. He was unhappy in L.A. He didn’t like his role. He will get a bigger one in D.C. with plenty of opportunities to score. … This team should compete for a playoff spot. But the question is, will that be enough for Beal? Most of the league will be keeping an eye on Beal this season.
Atlanta is definitely a team on the rise. Trae Young is the real deal. He’s sort of mastered that Chris Paul ability to draw contact in the paint, which sends him to the free throw line a lot. He could be an MVP candidate this season. There are so many really good young players on this roster. And Nate McMillan is the right guy to coach them. He’s brought discipline to that team. You can see it in how they play. And when they don’t make mistakes, they are really hard to beat.
The Jazz are knocking on the door. I think they have a Phoenix-like run for the Finals in them. They are a model of consistency. Their full team is coming back. They were the No. 1 seed last year, and you can see them being the No. 1 seed again. … Donovan Mitchell can be the top guy on a title team. I don’t know why he gets criticized. I think he took a step toward doing that last season. His development is very similar to Devin Booker. He's proven that in the playoffs; he's a prime-time guy and he's carrying his team deep into playoffs. He’s gotten to a certain level, which a lot of these players have, especially a lot of these young players where their expectations skyrocket and we get spoiled with what they do in the regular season and we just want to see it in the playoffs. I think that's the tier that Mitchell falls under now. … A big question: Can Gobert stay on the floor in the playoffs? They committed to him. They've doubled down, and they beli