With the start of the 2019/20 season showcasing some of the most talented rookies, the NBA has welcomed in a long time, the fanfare surrounding certain favourites has unfortunately overshadowed other equally-deserving athletes – including those who have flown under the radar for multiple seasons now.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
I think we all know where fans dropped the ball with their recognition of the 23-year-old guard. His absence from the initial 2020 All-Star roster was recognised as one of the biggest snubs in recent years until a last-minute injury replacement for Damian Lillard saw him finally claim his moment.
Booker’s first four NBA seasons were ironically both exceptional and unproductive as his big number games drowned in the misery of Phoenix Suns’ losses (241 to be precise). He totalled 5,820 points in that stretch, the 81st most in league history for a player’s first four seasons, including nine 40-point games as he tied with LeBron James for the 13th-most.
But outside of the numbers, critics picked at his game like birds of prey, squawking about his lack of substance and poor defence. Just because Booker’s production wasn’t accompanied by team wins, the media effectively wrote him off and highlighted his downfalls.
However, this season has brought a slight give for Booker and the Suns with his true shooting percentage, win shares and defensive box plus/minus all smashing career highs. Before the NBA coronavirus-related suspension Phoenix had already hit 26 wins, matching its best statistics since Booker joined.
The Michigan-native is one of just eight players averaging at least 26 points, six assists and four rebounds per game as he carries the weight of the Suns almost single-handedly. If these reasons do not point towards a star in the making, then I am at a loss.
Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Duane Rankin wrote an article for AZ Central where he described the 21-year-old guard as bringing a ‘different type of energy’ to the Suns and we do not disagree.
“Mikal Bridges says he no longer needs to give Deandre Ayton a motivational pep talk to play at a high level.”
The second-year is steadily racking up points, averaging an impressive 19 per game, with 12 rebounds and 1.9 assists. In one of his most dominating performances this season, Ayton slammed down 25 points against the LA Clippers on Feb. 27, wrapping up the night with 17 rebounds and three blocks.
Teammate Booker said:
“He’s being dominant. He’s being how big his size is. He’s tough to handle.”
Shooting at 56.5% in February alone, Ayton posted seven double-doubles in nine games, with six 20-point games which include two 28-point fixtures coupled with 19 rebounds. But the aspirations of this Arizona graduate don’t end here as he initiated a conversation with point guard Ricky Rubio about wanting to become the best pick-and-roll offensive duo the NBA has witnessed.
Out for 25 games at the beginning of the season with a suspension and an injury, Ayton is now proving to the Sun’s why they drafted him No. 1 in 2018 – even passing over All-Stars Luka Doncic and Tre Young. He was averaging more than 20 points and 12 rebounds over a 15-game stretch in February – the only other player in the NBA putting up these stats over this span is Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It is entirely possible that Ayton will make it to the 2021 All-Star roster if he keeps up the same pace, works hard over summer and concentrates on becoming bigger and stronger. He is taking his battle to the rim and to anyone foolish enough to contest him.
CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
The 28-year-old guard was giving the 2019/20 season everything he had and the world ought to go back and watch very closely.
Prior to the league suspension, McCollum sat on a steady 22.5 ppg, shooting at 45.3% from the field and 38% from beyond the arc. He’s upping his game by putting up around six more shots and three more free throw attempts per game.
The Ohio-native also took on his fair share when distributing the ball, dishing out 268 of the Blazers assists this season – only behind point guard Damian Lillard who has 453.
McCollum is stepping up as a strong support system for the team’s most high-calibre athletes, particularly when they are all injured on the bench. Lillard benefits considerably from having McCollum by his side; he handles the ball on possessions, provides relief when Lillard is double-teamed and even cushions the brunt of the force for guards on the defensive end.
#3 has also taken a slice of the fast-break pie we’re witnessing for Portland recently, increasing his runs from 3.5 to 6 per game as the team moves to an average of 13.7 fast-break points per game. This places them thirteenth overall between Golden State and San Antonio.
We have to acknowledge that when McCollum STEPS IN, not up, for Lillard, he is without a player like himself to ride alongside him and he copes surprisingly well.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
We all remember the bold claim uttered by the second-year OKC shooting-guard shortly before training camp when he stated he was winning every shooting competition against 15-year veteran Chris Paul. CP3 disagreed.
It was undeniable that the chemistry between Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul was already something special with the latter stepping up to the position of a mentor.
But despite an impressive rookie season, Gilgeous-Alexander’s potential was not fully certain or even known when the Clippers sent him packing to the Thunder. Today, however, he is honing in on his skill set and we’re sat here wondering whether this could be OKC’s next break-out star story.
Averaging 19.3 points per game this season on a field goal percentage of 47.3, his stats are steady and he even got a shot at the All-Star skills to challenge when he stepped up to replace Derrick Rose. Although Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t walk away with the trophy, he has proven an ability to consistently increase his game.
With OKC sitting comfortably at a fifth-place within the western conference, only one win behind fourth-place Utah Jazz at 41, it is apparent All-Star point guard CP3 is carefully moulding Gilgeous-Alexander into another success story and we are here for it!
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Averaging 20.4 points this season, Boston’s fourth-year shooting guard is pulling in serious points and minutes these days, with his five most recent games before the suspension consisting of 20+ points.
For his 6’6″ frame, Brown is fending off the bigs on the court like the mismatch doesn’t even exist. Most notably, he challenged both Anthony Davis and Lebron James in the recent Lakers v. Celtics matchup and actually stood his ground, exceeding both fan expectations and his own ability.
However, his defence is yet to be considered elite as he does make the occasional mistake be that taking his eye off his man or not reacting quickly enough. But Brown continues to demonstrate a consistent improvement, particularly during Boston’s most recent road trip.
Brown has considerable room for improvement with his skill set; he has the foot speed to switch onto guards, the strength to clash with them and a decent awareness to help off the ball. His strength will definitely pull him through, particularly against more physical teams like the Rockets, and help cover his weaknesses whilst he improves upon them.
But most importantly, Brown has the discipline and work ethic to ensure these improvements are made.
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