Six Eastern Conference teams failed to qualify for the NBA bubble this past season.
What will it take for one or more of these teams to rise up the conference? Here are the players whose growth is pivotal to their respective rebuilds getting over the hump.
Charlotte Hornets: PJ Washington
LaMelo Ball joins a wing-heavy Hornets core under head coach James Borrego (Gordon Hayward, Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk). They need an interior threat to step forward; that player could be Washington.
The Kentucky product had an encouraging rookie season in the NBA, notching 12.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while shooting 37.4 percent from beyond the arc. He finishes with conviction inside, can stretch the floor, and is a respectable defender. Having someone who can operate inside and out at a high level would give them a versatile scorer, as well as a player with tenacity to serve as an undersized center in a small-ball lineup.
Ball is going to take some attention off but also lessen the production of some of the Hornets’ preexisting guards given the frequency he’ll have the ball in his hands. The arrival of Hayward will also have an impact, if he stays healthy. However, Washington’s development will be especially crucial for this franchise to make a run at the playoffs.
Chicago Bulls: Patrick Williams
The Bulls swung for the fences, taking Williams with the fourth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. To their credit, this was the year to take a chance, as it was difficult to separate the bulk of the first-round talent. That said, the Florida State forward now becomes an indispensable aspect to any Chicago breakthrough.
Williams didn’t start a single game in his freshman season but flashed an ability to be a jack-of-all-trades type of player. He was a reliable inside defender, put the ball on the floor, finished inside, and showcased a jump shot that could improve at the next level. New head coach Billy Donovan has a core (Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White) that has, for the most part, been unable to grow as a collective whole from a record standpoint.
Williams brings a skill set to the table that the Bulls don’t possess. They need him to tap into his potential, develop into a two-way mainstay, and enhance their play on both ends of the floor. Him doing so would add a new dimension to their roster.
New York Knicks: RJ Barrett
Barrett is the best thing the Knicks have going for them, and he’s coming off a respectable rookie season. At the same time, New York needs the former No. 3 overall pick to become a force to be reckoned with.
Barrett averaged 14.3 points and 5.0 rebounds while starting in 55 of the 56 games he appeared in as a rookie. He showcased an ability to score in isolation and hold his own defensively. Next season and the ones that follow, he has to be more productive.
Yes, rookie Obi Toppin will assist in the scoring department and Mitchell Robinson is money on alley-oops, which will take some attention off Barrett. That said, the soon-to-be second-year player has to take advantage of their presence, making jump shots and scoring off the dribble at a higher rate while leading the scoring charge.
It’s a stiff road ahead for all rebuilding teams in the East, with the Knicks being no exception. The featured element of these teams are no exception, either. Barrett has the skill set to be a great NBA player. He has to turn potential into performance.
Detroit Pistons: Killian Hayes
The Pistons are looking for players to build around, and Hayes could be a pillar. Still, the point guard has to answer the bell.
Hayes is a magician. He finishes through contact, is a nifty passer, and shot 39.0 percent from beyond the arc in the EuroCup last season. With Derrick Rose on an expiring contract, Hayes is surely the floor general of the future in Detroit. Luke Kennard was dealt in a draft night trade that resulted in the Pistons getting Villanova forward Saddiq Bey, and the Pistons also drafted Isaiah Stewart with the No. 16 pick. With Blake Griffin’s future in question, Detroit needs a youth movement to take off.
Hayes is the featured youngster in Detroit. Hayes scoring off the dribble and finding the open man helps Bey, Sekou Doumbouya, and new Piston Jerami Grant. The Pistons need Hayes to play well to get some confidence brewing.
Atlanta Hawks: De’Andre Hunter
The Hawks were buzzing with young talent last season, but they still finished 14th in the East. Hunter, one of their two first-round selections in 2019, is a key piece alongside Trae Young when it comes to getting Atlanta out of the basement.
Hunter is a fundamentally sound two-way player who takes what the defense gives him and is a respectable outside shooter and defender. With familiar faces (Young, John Collins) and new faces (Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic) set to take on the bulk of the offensive workload, Hunter needs to be an ace in his role as a guy who can hit 3-pointers at a high clip while locking up the opponent’s best player on the wing.
You can have all the young and productive talent in the world (don’t forget about Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, Onyeka Okongwu, Clint Capela, etc.), but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t yield wins. The Hawks traded up for Hunter in the 2019 NBA Draft with the intention of him becoming one of the best 3-and-D players in the NBA, and perhaps even more. Atlanta is hoping to see that development after a busy offseason.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland
Collin Sexton has shown an ability to be a go-to scorer alongside a bevy of talented youngsters, with Garland being one of them. Concurrently, the Vanderbilt product has to establish himself as a go-to scorer.
Garland has speed, quickness, and a capable jump shot. Last season, the young guard put up 12.3 points per game while sharing a backcourt with Sexton. A dual point guard backcourt can work in the NBA as long as both players are on the same page and don’t get in each other’s way. Isaac Okoro will likely play off the ball and primarily improve the Cavs defensively in his rookie season, while Kevin Love stretches the floor and Andre Drummond lives in the paint. The isolation play has to be pinpoint.
Sexton has shown signs of stardom; Garland has to do the same. The Cavs have been one of the NBA’s worst teams since LeBron James left for a second time. Getting out of the sport’s cellar derives from their core taking the next step, and no one looms larger than Garland.