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Which unheralded young players could be key for contenders?

RealGM logo RealGM 10/6/2017 Brett Koremenos

After a frenetic summer filled with stunning free agent defections, big trades and exciting rookies, our heads are still spinning as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign. With so many new faces in new places, it leaves fans to wonder how things will shake out this year. Over the next two weeks, RealGM will attempt to ask (and answer) 10 of the more pressing questions you may have about the upcoming season.  

- Which rookies or second year players could step up and play a vital role for a playoff contender?

Boston Celtics forward Daniel Theis saves the ball from going out of bounds and passes past Charlotte Hornets forward Mangok Mathiang during the second half of the Boston Celtics 94-80 win over the Charlotte Hornets in a preseason game. © Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports Boston Celtics forward Daniel Theis saves the ball from going out of bounds and passes past Charlotte Hornets forward Mangok Mathiang during the second half of the Boston Celtics 94-80 win over the Charlotte Hornets in a preseason game.

Daniel Theis, Boston

Unless you’re a serious basketball junkie, you’ve probably never heard of Theis before he signed with the Celtics this summer. But if his first preseason game was any indication, you might get to know Theis well this season.

Calling Theis a rookie is definitely a misnomer. For the past three seasons, the 25-year-old big man has been a key figure on the best basketball team in Germany, Brose Bamburg. During his time at Brose, Theis has won a league championship, competed in Euroleague (the best “league” outside the NBA) and won the Basketball Bundesliga’s Defensive Player of the Year award. So Theis is not some unproven European prospect. He’s played (and won) at a very high level before joining Boston.

Because of both his experience and skill set, Theis has the opportunity to play a big role off the bench for the Celtics. Though listed at 6’9”, Theis offers has sneaky shot-blocking skills and, perhaps most importantly, is a legitimate dive-man Boston hasn’t really had under Stevens. Though players like the departed Tyler Zeller and free agent acquisition Aron Baynes can roll to the basket after screening, Theis puts real pressure on help defenders with his ability to catch and finish above the rim.

On top of that, Theis can switch out onto quicker guards defensively, catch early on the roll and attack the rim off the bounce while also possessing the foundation for a credible 3-point shot. Given how the league is trending, Theis fits the bill of what a modern NBA center needs to be -- a mobile, defensively versatile, shot blocker who can play equally well as a pop or roll man on the other end of the floor.

So if the talented Theis can adjust quickly to the NBA, he could make a big impact off the Boston bench.

Grizzlies guard Wade Baldwin © Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports Grizzlies guard Wade Baldwin

Wade Baldwin IV, Memphis

As a first round pick last summer, Baldwin was supposed to part of a youth movement aimed at replacing an aging supporting cast around Memphis franchise cornerstones Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. But in his rookie year, Baldwin could be only be considered an abject disaster. Despite the team struggling for depth behind Conley, Baldwin only saw 405 minutes of action over the course of the season. During that time, the Grizzlies were outscored by 16.5 points per 48 minutes which is obviously, ya know, not good. That’s partially how a player who shot 32.5 percent from the field (Andrew Harrison) was able to wrest backup minutes away from Baldwin.

Luckily for the second year guard, there are going to be plenty of minutes to be had in the Memphis backcourt this season. Veterans Vince Carter, Tony Allen, Toney Douglas and Troy Daniels all moved on from the organization over the summer. Those four combined to play 5,290 minutes on the wing or in the backcourt for the Grizzlies.

For a team in the midst of seven straight playoff appearances, that’s a big chunk of time to replace. Memphis did bring in Mario Chalmers (missed all of last season recovering from an Achilles tear) and Tyreke Evans (played in just 65 games the past two years due to knee problems) in an attempt to build a suitable backcourt rotation. Given the health issues of Chalmers and Evans, however, it’s hard to count on not only their availability, but their effectiveness.

At 6’4” with a crazy 6’10” wingspan, Baldwin has the physical tools to help an NBA playoff team. It’s a big reason why he was selected in the first round of last year’s draft. But in order to consistently get on the floor for Memphis this season, Baldwin can’t rely on his athletic gifts alone.

In order to break through and be a real, impactful contributor, Baldwin must find something offensively he can hang is hot on. That could either be showing an improved feel for making plays out of pick-and-roll or shooting the ball better from the perimeter, whether it’s off the bounce or off the catch. If he does one of those two things, the young guard will likely find himself firmly in the Grizzlies’ rotation. And if he doesn’t, Memphis could see their playoff streak in greater danger of being snapped.

Chicago Bulls: Luke Kennard, SG, Duke (Sophomore): Pistons rookie Luke Kennard © Getty Images Pistons rookie Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard, Detroit

After being knighted as one of the rising teams in the Eastern Conference last fall, the Pistons stumbled to a disappointing 37-win campaign. While there were a number of issues plaguing the team last year -- from Reggie Jackson’s health to Andre Drummond’s inconsistency -- one of more subtle factors was the Pistons lack of wing depth. Behind the established rotation cogs of Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Ish Smith, Detroit had a rotating collection of underwhelming youngsters attempting to fill out their backcourt.

Stanley Johnson, Darrun Hilliard and Michael Gbinjie all had opportunities last year to cement a consistent spot in the rotation. Each one failed to impress, especially in one key area: perimeter shooting. Last year, the Pistons ranked 28th in 3-point accuracy, something that dragged them all the way down to 25th in their overall offensive efficiency. While the additions of Langston Galloway and Avery Bradley help, the Pistons backcourt rotation is far from set.

This is where Kennard comes in.

The Duke rookie has the potential to not only be a threat from behind the 3-point line, but a generally versatile and effective offensive player. Though it’s never a guarantee that a college player’s 3-point accuracy carries over to the pro’s, the fact that Kennard shot 43.8 percent on 5.4 attempts per game from the college line is certainly promising. So too is that Kennard’s time at Duke saw him operate plenty off-screens, meaning Detroit can use their rookie wing in the same play packages they’ll design for Bradley (who thrives in those situations).

Thankfully with the depth in Detroit, Kennard doesn’t need to step in and be a massive contributor right off the bat. But especially if Jackson struggles with injury again, the Pistons will need someone to step into the rotation and help boost an underwhelming offense. If Kennard shows he’s ready for that, it will mean the Pistons have the firepower for a serious playoff push.

Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots a layup against the Golden State Warriors during Game Two of the NBA Western Conference Finals at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2017 in Oakland, California. © Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images Dejounte Murray #5 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots a layup against the Golden State Warriors during Game Two of the NBA Western Conference Finals at ORACLE Arena on May 16, 2017 in Oakland, California.

DeJounte Murray, San Antonio

At just 21 years old, Murray is the youngest player on the Spurs roster by over two years. Surrounding Murray in the locker room are plenty of established veterans, future Hall of Famers and current All-Stars. Yet despite the NBA wisdom and star power around him, Murray could wind up being a crucial piece to the Spurs championship puzzle.

With Tony Parker recovering from injury until at least December, Murray is likely to nab the “nominal starter” role in order to keep Patty Mills as a spark plug off the bench. Though it appears that Murray will just be a water-carrier until Mills comes in to do the heavy lifting, the young guard possesses a skill that is noticeably lacking on this San Antonio roster: he attacks the basket.

For all the talk centered on the Spurs gorgeous, whirring combination of ball and man movement, a key component of an elite offense is some form vertical penetration. Over the course of the past decade plus, San Antonio has relied on Parker to provide that for them. With his quickness and whirling dervish approach, the diminutive point guard was constantly getting into the paint and causing problems for an opposing defenses. But now Parker is 35, coming off a serious quad injury and likely to be far from the player he was at his peak.

Look up and down the roster and there isn’t a player expected to be in the rotation that can provide that type of attacking presence in Parker’s stead. Manu Ginobili is 40 (!!!) has already fully transitioned from the reckless slasher of his youth to the savvy playmaker he is now. Mills is a pure jump shooter who almost never gets to the rim. Rudy Gay was a rim-rattling slasher at one point, but now 31 and coming off an Achilles tear, he’ll (smartly) transition his game. There isn’t even a single Spurs big man that excels at rolling to the rim to finish after screening.

That makes Murray, with his herky-jerky drives and crafty finishes, something of a unicorn on this San Antonio roster. So while his main job may just be biding time -- both for Parker’s return from injury and Mills’ entrance into games -- Murray could actually wind up being far more valuable  for this championship contender.


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