The NBA is a star-driven league. The likes of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook will make most of the headlines. This is already known.
Though, in no way can we conclude that role players and surprise performers don’t play a role for contending teams and other squads looking to improve. From a former lottery pick in Brooklyn to a young rising star in Oakland, here is one player from each NBA team set to surprise this season.
Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell
Along with new backcourt mate Allen Crabbe, Russell will be tasked with taking on a larger role after being sent from the Lakers to Brooklyn. Even if it doesn’t lead to a progression in terms of consistency, there’s no reason to believe this still young 21-year-old guard won’t put up some strong numbers in 2017-18. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see his point-per-game total inch close to 20 after Russell put up nearly 16 for the Lakers last season.
Phoenix Suns: Marquese Chriss
Chriss started 75 games as a rookie last season, averaging 9.2 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting at a 45 percent clip from the field. While the focal point this year in Phoenix will be on Devin Booker and rookie Josh Jackson, don’t be surprised if Chriss ups his game big time in an under-the-radar manner. He was selected in the top 10 for a reason and will have ample opportunity to show off his two-way game as a sophomore.
Chicago Bulls: Kris Dunn
Now that Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo have moved on, the rebuilding Bulls will put the onus of running their offense on one of the players acquired from Minnesota for Jimmy Butler. Dunn, the No. 5 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, didn’t pan out as a rookie with the Timberwolves. He averaged just 3.8 points while shooting at a 38 percent clip from the field. But with an opportunity to actually see minutes, there’s no reason to believe he won’t live up to his pre-draft expectations.
Sacramento Kings: Buddy Hield
Hield can shoot. That was his calling card coming out of Oklahoma back in 2016. And he put this on full display after being traded from New Orleans to Sacramento as part of the package for DeMarcus Cousins last season. In 25 games with he Kings, Hield averaged 15.1 points and shot at a 43 percent clip from distance. Now that Sacramento has added veteran scorers in George Hill and Vince Carter, the onus won’t be completely on Hield this season. We’re expecting 20-plus points per game and a top-five three-point performance from Hield in 2017-18.
Indiana Pacers: Bojan Bogdanovic
If there’s one thing Bogdanovic proved last season in stops with Brooklyn and Washington, it’s that he can flat out shoot. The 28-year-old Bosnian shot at a 37 percent clip from distance last season and averaged nearly 14 points per game. With Indiana’s primary scorer, being Myles Turner, finding himself posted in the paint, the offense will need scoring out on the perimeter. As of right now, Bogdanovich is a much more consistent outside shooter than Victor Oladipo.
New York Knicks: Tim Hardaway Jr.
There’s very little reason to believe Hardaway Jr. is worth the $70.9 million New York handed to him. It was an absurd contract for someone who has yet to prove he’s more than a top-end role player. But on a Knicks team that’s now without Carmelo Anthony, scoring from the perimeter will be hard to come by.
The offense will run through Kristaps Porzingis, giving players like Hardaway an opportunity to score from the outside. Coming off a 2016-17 campaign that saw him average 14.5 points while shooting at a 46 percent clip from the field, expect 20-plus per game from Hardaway in his first season with the Knicks.
Atlanta Hawks: Dewayne Dedmon
The Atlanta Hawks are Dennis Schroder’s team. After losing Paul Millsap in free agency and trading Dwight Howard, a talent vacuum also needs to be filled inside. That’s where this underrated center comes into play. A defensive force inside, Dedmon averaged 5.1 points and 6.5 rebounds in under 18 minutes for San Antonio last season. He opted to sign with Atlanta because it gave him the best opportunity to play an expanded role. It’s in this that a double-double average in 2017-18 isn’t out of the question.
Orlando Magic: Elfrid Payton
A part-time starter for the Magic last season, Payton averaged career highs in points (12.8), rebounds (4.7) and assists (6.5). He also shot at a solid 47 percent form the field and tallied a wins share of 4.4. These are solid numbers for a player now entering his age-23 season. We’re definitely expecting further progression from the former top-10 pick in 2017-18.
Detroit Pistons: Avery Bradley
Bradley was a nice little get for Detroit in what ended up being a salary dump for the Boston Celtics. A former All NBA Defensive First-Team performer, Bradley has seen his offense improve leaps and bounds in recent years. Last season saw the 26-year-old guard average 16.3 points while shooting at a 39 percent clip from distance. With more scoring opportunities in Detroit, we’re expecting 20-plus points per outing in 2017-18.
Dallas Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr.
Last season saw a suddenly rebuilding Mavericks squad relying on the likes of Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry to handle the point. Both had their moments, but neither figures to be an above-average starting point moving forward. That’s why Dallas exhausted the ninth pick in June’s draft on this reigning ACC Player of the Year. A score-first guard, Smith averaged north of 18 points as a freshman for North Carolina State last season. Similar production as a rookie wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
Los Angeles Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Even after averaging less than 14 points per game last season, the Lakers gave Caldwell-Pope a one-year, $17.8 million deal. For Los Angeles, it’s all about finding a stopgap option prior to hitting it big in free agency next summer. For KCP, he wants to prove he’s worth a max deal after the Pistons renounced his rights. An elite-level wing defender, KCP shot at a career-best 35 percent mark from distance last season. He should see more open shots with Lonzo Ball calling the shots at point guard in LA this year.
New Orleans Pelicans: Rajon Rondo
There’s no reason to doubt that Rondo will be a solid contributor in New Orleans with the likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis inside. On the court, it really is the perfect fit. His addition moves Jrue Holiday to a more comfortable off-ball spot and could potentially lead to Rondo topping NBA players in assists for the fourth time in his career. This is all assuming that Rondo’s character issues don’t flame up again, especially with an equally volatile Cousins on the Pelicans’ roster.
Memphis Grizzlies: JaMychal Green
Despite some back and forth on his contract, Green returned on a two-year, $16.4 million extension. This comes after he replaced the recently departed Zach Randolph in Memphis’ starting lineup last season. The 27-year-old power forward responded by averaging 8.9 points and 7.1 rebounds in less than 28 minutes of action. We’re expecting an uptick in minutes and usage for Green this season. That should lead to a double-double average.
Miami Heat: Kelly Olynyk
When Olynyk had his rights renounced by Boston following the signing of Gordon Hayward, the expectation was that he’d get paid. No one envisioned it would be to the tune of four years and $50 million from Miami. But here we are. A role player expected to take on a larger role for a playoff-caliber team. Everyone will remember the 26-point performance he put up to close out Washington in the conference semifinals last season, but Olynyk is more than a one-hit wonder. A stretch big with outside range, he shot 51 percent from the field last season. Look for more open shots with Hassan Whiteside inside in Miami, which should lead to even more progression from the center.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic
Prior to going down with a broken leg late last season, Nurkic was absolutely brilliant following a trade to Portland from Denver. A skilled big if we’ve ever seen one, he averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 51 percent in 20 games in the Pacific Northwest last season. He’s the perfect inside threat to go with the dynamic back-court duo of C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard. It would in no way be a surprise to see him average north of 20 and 12 this season. He’s that good.
Los Angeles Clippers: Patrick Beverley
Beverley now takes over as Los Angeles’ starting point guard after being involved in the Chris Paul trade. Those are some large shoes to fill. But the annual Defensive Player of the Year candidate more than proved his worth with Houston last season, turning it up in a big way offensively. Beverley averaged 9.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists while shooting at a solid 38 percent clip from distance. With the Clippers’ prowess inside, look for more open shots this season. We’re expecting a career offensive season from this genuine all-around player.
Philadelphia 76ers: Dario Saric
All the focus here will be on the recently extended Joel Embiid as well as two youngsters set to make their regular season debuts, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons. But Saric quietly put up a heck of a rookie season for the talented young Sixers last year. Coming over from Europe, he averaged 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds. We’d like to see an uptick from the 41 percent he shot from the field, but that should come with Simmons and Fultz providing more of a perimeter threat than what Philly has had recently. Look for a huge sophomore season from the 23-year-old Croatian in 2017-18.
Charlotte Hornets: Malik Monk
Charlotte finally got another elite-level perimeter threat to go with All-Star Kamba Walker. And it’s going to help the team contend for a playoff spot immediately. The 19-year-old Monk makes his way to the NBA after just one season of college ball, but he’s more than ready to make an impact. Monk averaged 19.8 points and shot at a 40 percent clip from distance as a teenager for Kentucky. He’s instant offense and will prove that out of the gate as a rookie. Monk is an underrated bet for Rookie of the Year.
Milwaukee Bucks: Malcolm Brogdon
Speaking of rookies of the Year, Brogdon earned that honor against all odds last season. The second-round pick averaged 10.2 points and 4.2 assists while shooting at a stellar 40 percent clip from three-point range. He was so effective that the Bucks went away from their original plans of starting the freakish Giannis Antetokounmpo in the backcourt. Brogdon will now team up with Khris Middleton for a full season to form a stellar duo for a suddenly contending Bucks team. It should be fun.
Utah Jazz: Rodney Hood
Utah will definitely have to get scoring from other sources with Gordon Hayward in Boston. While Ricky Rubio and Rudy Gobert do a lot of good things, neither can be seen as a No. 1 scoring option in today’s NBA. Hood, 24, fits that bill to a T. He’s a career 36 percent shooter from distance and has a shoot-first mentality, both of which are a necessity for a two-guard at the professional level. And despite inconsistency, Hood did find a way to put up 18-plus points in 20 of his 59 games last season. Out of necessity, we expect his usage and scoring to rapidly increase in 2017-18.
Denver Nuggets: Juan Hernangómez
We could easily focus on young guards Jamal Murray and Gary Harris here. But we know both are going to be All-Star caliber players moving forward. Center Nikola Jokic also has the talent to morph into that type of player. Instead, Hernangómez has continued to prove himself to be a capable role player. Last season saw the rookie average just 4.9 points and 3.0 rebounds in under 17 minutes of action. With that said, has range extends to the three-point line and the Spaniard is already a good defender. Look for major regression from the 22-year-old center as a sophomore.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Taj Gibson
To those who don’t follow basketball at an expert level, Gibson has continually proven himself to be among the most underrated players in the game. A tenacious defender inside, he’s also averaged at least eight points and six boards in each of the past four seasons. Now in Minnesota, Gibson will team up with Karl-Anthony Towns to form a solid low-post duo for the Wolves. We’re not expecting his stats to increase a whole lot, but look for stellar production from a veteran on a suddenly contending Timberwolves squad.
Toronto Raptors: C.J. Miles
Signed from Indiana after Toronto traded DeMarre Carroll to the Nets, Miles will take over as the Raptors’ starting small forward this season. He’ll also be tasked with being the team’s third scorer behind DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. After averaging 12 points and shooting at a 37 percent clip in three seasons with the Pacers, we’re looking for the 12-year veteran to have a career-best season. He has the perimeter help to find opens shots, and with a 47 percent mark in like situations last season, the writing is on the wall here.
San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray
As a rookie last season, Murray took on a larger role in the playoffs once veteran Tony Parker went down to injury. With Parker now minutes-limited and likely out until December, Murray will now play even more minutes as a sophomore. Sure the recently extended Patty Mills will be the starter here, but there’s no reason to believe Murray won’t see a dramatic increase in usage. He was yet another tremendous late first-round add by GM R.C. Buford, which will be proven in 2017-18.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Smart
Now that Avery Bradley is in Detroit, Smart will find himself playing a much larger role for the contending Celtics in 2017-18. After after what we saw from this former top-10 pick last season, that might not be a bad thing for Boston. Having improved in each of his first three seasons in the NBA, Smart averaged career highs in points (10.6) and assists (4.6) last season. He’ll definitely find more open shots with Kyrie Irving handling the rock in 2017-18. Look for big things here.
Washington Wizards: Otto Porter Jr.
How can a max player surprise? Well, when you have John Wall and Bradley Beal teaming up in the backcourt, it becomes reasonable to believe other members of the team will be lost in the fog. Washington knows what it has in Porter, and that’s why the team matched Brooklyn’s offer to the then restricted free agent during the summer. Porter, 24, averaged career bests in points (13.4) and rebounds (6.4) last season. He also shot at a torrid 43 percent from distance. There’s no reason to believe Porter can’t become a part of the big three in Washington this season, averaging north of 20 points per tilt.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Jae Crowder
It’s pretty obvious that the previous version of the Celtics lacked a solid perimeter game to go with Isaiah Thomas. Now that Thomas and Crowder are in Cleveland with King James, look for this constantly improving wing to see a ton of open shots. And that will do wonders for his numbers. Here’s a guy that shot 40 percent from distance last season. Imagine how effective he’ll be with James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Love on the court with him.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Patrick Patterson
Rightfully so, most of the focus in Oklahoma City this season will be the additions of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. We expect the Thunder to primarily show a small-ball look with one of those stars playing power forward. But when it comes to going up against the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge and Draymond Green, a thumper down low will be needed. That’s where Patterson and his plus-level defensive game should make a dramatic difference in his first season in OKC.
Houston Rockets: Clint Capela
With the focus on James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon out on the perimeter, team’s are not going to be scheming to stop what Capela brings to the table. That will help the 23-year-old center continue to improve his offense. Taking over for Dwight Howard as the team’s starter last season, Capela averaged 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting at a 64 percent clip from the field. Look for further progression in 2017-18.
Golden State Warriors: Patrick McCaw
As a 21-year-old rookie last season, McCaw actually saw himself play substantial minutes for one of the most-talented teams in NBA history. He dropped 18 points in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Spurs and actually played 12 minutes in the team’s NBA Finals clinching Game 5 win over Cleveland a few weeks later. Already a plus-level defender, McCaw’s offense is set to take off as well. It will be interesting to watch Steve Kerr continue to work this youngster into the rotation as a sophomore.