The Toronto Raptors made a quiet move on Monday that may have a lasting effect.
And it didn’t involve a player.
They hired former San Antonio Spurs assistant video coordinator Jeremy Castleberry as a player development coach, according to multiple media sources.
It’s noteworthy for the fact that Castleberry is a close friend of newly acquired, and elusive, Kawhi Leonard. Both played amateur basketball together and attended San Diego State University.
The hiring is no doubt meant to make the superstar more at home in Toronto and may have bearing on Leonard’s contractual decision next summer, as he can opt out of his contract and become a free agent.
As it stands, Leonard is very important to the Raptors fortunes this coming season. Especially in an Eastern Conference that is more up for grabs now that LeBron has left for L.A.
He is just one of 32 very important players. Here is every team’s salient hoopster, with honorable mentions in italics.
Atlanta Hawks – PG Trae Young
With team leading scorer, playmaker but locker room cancer Dennis Schroder gone to Oklahoma City, the mantle of floor general had to be passed on for the rebuilding Hawks. And the team has to hope that their draft gamble, trading the no. 3 pick, which turned out to be point guard Luka Doncic to Dallas, pays off in no. 5 pick Young. In this regard, veteran PG Jeremy Lin is co-most important player, as he will be tasked with mentoring the former Oklahoma superstar. In his lone NCAA season, Young averaged 27.4 points, 8.7 assists and 1.7 steals in 32 games with the Sooners. He is also a prolific three-point shooter, launching over 10 per game (328 total) last season and dropping 118 of them for a 36 percent efficiency rating. Building the team around him is a priority and Young will have to deliver down the road. Honorable mention: SG Kent Bazemore.
Boston Celtics – PG Kyrie Irving
We firmly believe that this is the Celtics’ year. Maybe not a lock to win it all, but to win the Eastern Conference championship and go to the finals for the first time since 2010. Victimized by Cleveland Cavaliers the last two years running in the conference final, they will no longer have to contend with LBJ, who has taken his brand to the Lakers. Which means the health and play of former Cavalier Irving will be paramount to whether the Celts can shake off contenders like Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Toronto and Indiana. When he was in the line-up last year, Irving was a force, leading Boston in scoring by a wide margin with 24.4 points per game. He also dished out 5.1 assists and shot over 40 percent from beyond the arc in 60 games. But the injury bug bit and he missed the final 15 games of the season and the playoffs. Honorable mentions: SF Jayson Tatum, SG Jaylen Brown and PF Al Horford.
Brooklyn Nets – SG Allen Crabbe
The Nets weren’t good last year and we predict they may not be all that great in 2018-19, either. Without a high first round draft pick, the Nets will be forced to make do with what they have. Crabbe, for the most part, proved his worth as a starter after spending four seasons as a back-up in Portland. He averaged a career high 13.2 points per game in 75 contests (68 starts) along with 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists. What makes the Los Angeles native most valuable to this Nets team, though, is his willingness to shoot from three-point range to create offence. Crabbe bombed 532 attempts from beyond the arc, with 201 finding the net (37.8 percent). If Crabbe can duplicate that kind of production, and be a little more successful — say closer to the 44.4 percent rate he had with the Trail Blazers in 2016-17 — he will help this team win more games than the 28 it had last year. Honorable mention: PG D’Angelo Russell.
Charlotte Hornets – PG Kemba Walker
Could the Hornets be poised to make a jump in the Eastern Conference standings this season? They finished 10th last year at 36-46 and with the Cleveland Cavaliers losing the LeBron James and a couple of other teams like Miami and Washington not far ahead of them, it’s possible. Elite floor general Walker will factor huge in any success, coming off the second of two All-Star worthy seasons. He led the Hornets in scoring with 22.1 points and 5.6 assists per game, while chipping in 1.1 steals and shooting 38.4 percent from beyond the arc. He and Nicolas Batum form a fairly dynamic back court and with the arrival of veteran PG Tony Parker will be spelled off ably. Walker also has the added incentive of being in a contract year. Stay tuned Charlotte hoops fans. Honorable mentions: Batum and PF Marvin Williams.
Chicago Bulls – PF Lauri Markkanen
The Finnisher was easily the Bulls best player during a down year, which looked at one way doesn’t seem like much. But, in one of basketball’s biggest markets with one of the NBA’s most storied teams, Markkanen’s rookie campaign was remarkable. In 68 games, all starts, the 2017 no. 7 overall selection out of the University of Arizona averaged 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The seven-footer showed a deft touch from three-point territory too, sinking 145 of 401 three point attempts for a 36.2 percent success rate. The big Finn also recorded 14 double doubles, which was third among all rookies and helped him earn a spot on the 2017-18 All-Rookie Team. The Bulls front court should be pretty solid in 2018-19, with the arrival of SF Jabari Parker from Milwaukee and veteran center Robin Lopez manning the middle. Honorable mentions: C Wendell Carter, Parker, PG Zach LaVine.
Cleveland Cavaliers – PF Kevin Love
The 2018-19 season is going to be one of upheaval in Cleveland. LeBron James is gone, again, leaving Kevin Love as the de facto face of a franchise that may not make the post-season. Love was second banana to LBJ and will now have to wear several hats, like leading point producer and floor captain. Adding to his newfound duties will be the fact he suffers from anxiety, as he has detailed in off-season interviews. The UCLA product is coming off an injury-plagued season where he played just 59 games, averaging 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds. Where he did excel was from beyond the arc, shooting 41.5 percent (137-for-330), his second best career average. Love also had 31 double-doubles, which is noteworthy considering the low number of games he played. The Cavs will be in tough and newly re-signed Love will have his hands full keeping this team on an even keel. Honorable mention: SF Kyle Korver.
Dallas Mavericks – C DeAndre Jordan
The Mavs were pretty miserable across the board in 2017-18, which led to them securing the third overall pick in the draft, which could be a steal in European PG Luka Doncic. But, as he will apprentice under decent PG Dennis Smith Jr., the player most important to the Mavericks’ season is free agent signee and elite defensive center DeAndre Jordan. The durable 10-year veteran escapes the L.A. Clippers for a fresh start in Big D with Dirk Nowitzki and gang. He started 77 games last year and averaged 12.0 and a career high 15.2 rebounds for the Clips. He’s been on the All-Defensive team twice and was the NBA’s rebounding champ in back-to-back seasons between 2013-14 and 2014-15. If anything, the Mavs front court looks to be pretty exciting this season, as shooter Nowitzki signed on for a 21st season. Honorable mention: Doncic and Nowitzki.
Denver Nuggets – C Nikola Jokic
The Joker just keeps getting better and better. And as he goes, so do the Nuggets. In each of his first three seasons, Denver has improved to the cusp of contention, missing the 2018 post-season by one game at 46-36. Contrast this to the big Serb’s first year when the Nuggets were 33-49. In those three seasons, he saw an uptick in just about every major statistical category. In 2017-18, Jokic posted career highs in points per game (18.5), steals (1.2), assists (6.1), rebounds (10.7) and three-point shooting percentage (39.6). The Nuggets 2014 second round steal also posted 38 double-doubles, including a career best 10 triple-doubles. The Nuggets starting five is very athletic and dynamic and will only help Doncic to become an All-Star. Good things ahead in the Mile High City, we say. Honorable mentions: Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Jamal Murray.
Detroit Pistons – PF Blake Griffin
The huge trade that brought Blake Griffin to Motown last season didn’t have the desired effect. And, adding insult to injury, Pistons fans didn’t exactly flock in droves to the spanking new Little Caesars Arena. The veteran power forward was good, but not great, in his first 25 games in a Pistons uniform. The eight-player deal was meant to push Detroit to just its second playoff appearance in nine years and end a post-season losing streak that extends back to the 2008 playoff season (they were swept in 2009 and 2016 by the Cavaliers in the first round). For his part, Griffin averaged decent totals of 19.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.2 assists in his 25-game debut. However, the Pistons were ninth-place fodder, finishing a full four games back of eighth-place Washington. To the team’s credit, it is young and should contend for a spot this season. Honorable mentions: Reggie Bullock, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond.
Golden State Warriors – PG Stephen Curry
The rich, it seems in the NBA, just keep getting richer. No team in the East, or most in the West for that matter, can hope to match the largesse of the Warriors, who added DeMarcus Cousins to an already star-laden roster. And the catalyst for all that is good in the Bay Area is still superstar Curry, who is coming off a bit of an injury-plagued 2017-18 season. After yet another All-Star campaign, his fifth, the two-time MVP was a huge difference maker in the playoffs for the champion Dubs, despite missing the first six games. He averaged 25.5 points and 5.4 assists in 15 games and saved his best for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals. There, Curry average 27.5 points, 6.8 assists and 1.5 steals to help lead the Warriors to glory for the third time in four seasons. This team will be hard to beat, again. Honorable mentions: Cousins, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
Houston Rockets – SG James Harden
It must have been a tough pill to swallow for 2017-18 MVP James Harden, who couldn’t do any more than he had already done as the Golden State Warriors came back from a 3-2 deficit to beat his Rockets in seven games of the Western Conference finals. The regular season scoring champ (30.4 PPG) averaged 28.7 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in that hotly contested series. While he wasn’t as much of a double-double, or triple-double machine like he was in 2016-17 (64 and 22 respectively), Harden still had 31 and four, respectively last season. The coming season will see much of the same production from Harden, who, with PG Chris Paul forms one of the most formidable back court tandems in basketball. The Rockets, in a move that either smells of desperation, or was a stroke of genius, added Carmelo Anthony to the roster to give Harden and co. some needed secondary scoring. We predict, however, another also-ran campaign. Honorable mentions: Paul and Clint Capela.
Indiana Pacers – SG Victor Oladipo
There may be big move afoot in Indianapolis and Victor Oladipo will play a monster part in it. The Pacers’ 2017-18 season could be described as “no Paul George, no problem” as Oladipo — who was swapped from OKC for PG — stepped up offensively and defensively. The fifth-year pro had career highs in just about every statistical field, including points (23.1), rebounds (5.2), assists (4.3), steals (2.4) and three-point shooting percentage (37.1). That output had a big hand in the Pacers finishing fifth and losing in seven games to a beatable Cleveland team in the first round. All this after most hoops literati predicted worse things for a the Paul George-less Pacers. Oladipo leads an up and coming squad into a 2018-19 campaign that should see it make the post-season again — and where anything will go, we predict, post-LeBron. Honorable mentions: Myles Turner and Bojan Bogdanovic.
L.A. Clippers – PF Tobias Harris
With DeAndre Jordan gone in free agency, preceded by Chris Paul joining Houston and Blake Griffin going to the Motor City, there is no face to the Clippers organization. They are now pretty much Team No Name, with no discernible stars among the ranks. But, it doesn’t mean there are workable parts among a cast of players that narrowly missed the playoffs this past spring. Of them, Tobias Harris — acquired in the Griffin deal to Detroit — would be most important to the team’s success in 2018-19. The 26-year-old seven-year veteran was way better than his personal average in 32 contests with the Clips. He averaged 19.3 PPG (career he is 14.6) and added 6.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.2 steals to the cause. He also dropped three-pointers at a personal best rate of 41.4 percent. The Clippers will have much work to do to make the post-season, but do have some horses to get them there. Honorable mentions: Avery Bradley and Danilo Gallinari.
Los Angeles Lakers – SF LeBron James
It may seem funny to say it, but LeBron James is the old man on Team Peach Fuzz, otherwise known as the Los Angeles Lakers. At 33, the big prize is taking a path less traveled, tasked with leading a young-ish team into a more positive future. There are no Chris Boshs or Dwyane Wades to help him out, nor Kevin Loves or Kyrie Irvings. Instead, the four-time MVP and three-time champion will have to shepherd up-and-comers like Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brandon Ingram to the next level. Bron-Bron brings instant credibility and star power to a franchise starved for the successes of the Kobe era — which wasn’t all that long ago. LBJ is coming off yet another MVP worthy campaign, as he played all 82 games, averaging 27.5 points. 9.1 assists and 8.6 rebounds. He also set a personal mark for triple-doubles with 18 and double-doubles with 52. Honorable mentions: Ball, Ingram and Caldwell-Pope.
Memphis Grizzlies – PG Mike Conley
The Grizz were the second worst team in the NBA, and for that the reward was fourth overall pick and future star power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. out of Michigan State. He will play a huge part of a future front court that will include 2017 second rounders Ivan Rabb and Dillon Brooks (who was decent in a starting role his rookie season). For now, though, the mantle of most important belongs on the shoulders of Mike Conley, who has spent every one of his 11 NBA seasons with Memphis and is coming off a season where he only played 12 games due to a heel injury that required surgery in January. He says he will be ready for training camp and help jump start a turnaround in Tennessee. The 2012-13 All-Defensive team member would probably like to have another campaign like the one in 2016-17, when he registered 20.5 points and 6.3 assists per game, both career highs. The Grizzlies are better than 22 wins, but by how much? Honorable mentions: Brooks and Marc Gasol.
Miami Heat – C Hassan Whiteside
Whiteside, who has become the centerpiece of a very differently constructed Heat team, has much to atone for in 2017-18. And we think if he can get his act together, particularly in the post-season, the Heat may be a true contender some time soon. After a superb 2016-17 season where he led the NBA in rebounds with 14.1 per game and a personal best 17.0 points, a less-than-100 percent healthy Whiteside averaged just 14.0 points and 11.4 rebounds in an injury shortened 2017-18 campaign. He wasn’t effective in a five-game playoff series with Philadelphia either, being limited to 15.4 minutes per game and logging 5.2 points and 6.0 rebounds. The presence of sophomore Bam Adebayo behind him should help Whiteside’s compete factor going into his sixth season. Honorable mentions: Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters.
Milwaukee Bucks – PF Giannis Antetokounmpo
For Giannis Antetokounmpo, the sky is the limit. We believe the Greek Freak has just scratched the surface of his potential and at 23 still has years to go to reach his peak. However, that is not to say that he can’t become MVP right now, given that he was one of the best offensive and defensive players in the game last year. The numbers for the two-time All-Star and five-year pro speak for themselves: career high 26.9 points per game, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks. Giannis also recorded 42 double-doubles, the most by far in his career so far. Come playoff time, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks gave Boston everything it could handle in a seven-game first round set. Giannis poured in 25.7 points per game and added 9.6 assists, 6.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks as Milwaukee bowed out. Honorable mentions: Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon and Eric Bledsoe.
Minnesota Timberwolves – SF Jimmy Butler
A team with a starting five that includes Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jeff Teague, Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson should have been a lot better than being a first-round pushover for Houston. These fairly young guns fell in five to the Rockets, with only one loss having a differential of under 18 points. Thus, it is incumbent upon their leader and most accomplished player, Butler, to push this T-Wolves team past its mediocrity. As good a defender as he is a shooter, Butler was brought in to help KAT and Wiggins reach their enormous potential and in many ways he did that in the regular season, scoring 22.2 points per game with 5.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.0 steals. The four-time All-Defensive Team and four-time All-Star, like many of his teammates, didn’t impress anyone in Houston, with just 15.8 PPG. There is reckoning coming for Minnesota, let’s hope it’s a good one. Honorable mentions: Towns and Wiggins.
New Orleans Pelicans – C Anthony Davis
One half of the Twin Towers is gone in ‘Nawlins, not that DeMarcus Cousins had much to do with the Pelicans playoff hopes. As of today, Davis is the starting center and Nikola Mirotic assumes his role at power forward with Boogie gone to Golden State. Davis enjoyed the best season of his stellar six-year career, much of it without the able hands of Cousins by his side. He established a career mark in points with 28.1 points per game and led all NBA players in blocks with 2.6 per game (193 total in 75 games). The defensive stalwart also chipped in 11.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals in yet another All-Star campaign, his fifth in a row. He was great in nine playoff games, too, scoring 30.1 points and leading all NBA players in blocks per game (2.3) and rebounds (13.4). Even though the Pelicans were disposed of in five by Golden State, Davis scored 27.8 points, 14.8 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 2.0 blocks against the Warriors. Honorable mentions: Mirotic and Jrue Holiday.
New York Knicks – C Enes Kanter
The name on the line above should say Kristaps Porzingis, but there is no set timetable for the All-Star Latvian power forward to return anytime soon. The best case is that Porzingis, who is rehabbing a repaired ACL, might return some time next February. Until then, the most dynamic player in the Knicks depleted line-up is seven-year veteran Enes Kanter. A full-time starter for the first time in his career last year, Kanter would be no one’s choice for All-Anything, but he is a solid player who can score in tight (14.1 PPG in 2017-18) and defend the rim (11.0 rebounds last year). The Zurich, Switzerland born Kanter has decent players out on the wings in former Magic PF Mario Hezonja (Porzingis’ place holder) and SF Courtney Lee, but decent won’t cut in the Big Apple, where the Knicks have underwhelmed for years. It may be another long, long winter at MSG. Honorable mention: Lee.
Oklahoma City Thunder – PG Russell Westbrook
The Thunder are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, borrowing from Sir Winston Churchill. How is it that a squad featuring All-Stars Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony (now departed) bowed so meekly to an inferior Utah Jazz team in the first round of the 2018 playoffs? The answers, sadly, aren’t readily available. To top off a distasteful exit, the team expunged itself of ‘Melo, only to take on $15.5 million in salary and the talented but sullen PG Dennis Schroder. The former Atlanta Hawk, thankfully, is second on the depth chart to 2017 MVP Westbrook. He’ll have the unenviable task of guiding OKC into another year of Western Conference hell, where the Golden State Warriors are still the beasts and LeBron enters the fray as leader of the Lakers. Westbrook is the straw that stirs the Thunder’s cloudy drink and he’ll need another MVP-like season just to get this team in a favorable playoff position. Honorable mention: Paul George.
Orlando Magic – C Nikola Vucevic
The Magic have a very good young core, but are they good enough to take the next step? The team has floundered now for six straight seasons, never winning more than 35 games and as few as 20. One constant in those six miserable campaigns has been Swiss center Vucevic, who has flashed brilliance but still needs to find consistency and another gear (not to mention being healthy for a full season). He missed 25 of 82 games due to a fractured hand in 2017-18 and when he did play he averaged 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.1 blocks. Vucevic also registered 29 of his 223 double-doubles with the Magic, as well as his first career triple-double, a 31-point, 13-rebound, 10-assist effort in a loss to Atlanta last December. In the final season of a four-year contract extension, Vucevic will be pushed hard by sixth overall pick Mohamed Bamba, who was a rebounding and blocking machine at Texas. Honorable mentions: Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier.
Philadelphia 76ers – PG Ben Simmons
We still find it amazing that a 6’10” guy like Simmons plays point guard more like 6’4″ teammate Markelle Fultz. To Fultz’s chagrin, Simmons won’t be moved to power forward or even center any time soon, so he best make use of whatever minutes he’s given in relief of the Aussie 2018 Rookie of the Year. The Wizard of Oz, as he’s known to some, was an all around menace for an improving Sixers team, earning RoY honors based on 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks in 81 games. The 2016 first overall pick out of LSU was equally effective in two rounds of the playoffs, averaging 16.3 points, 9.4 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.7 steals in 10 games. Included in his first foray into the post-season were four double-doubles and a triple-double (he had 38 regular season double-doubles and 12 triple-doubles). We think the 76ers will make a big leap forward in 2018-19. Honorable mentions: Joel Embiid and JJ Redick.
Phoenix Suns – C DeAndre Ayton
For the Suns, there is no place to go but up — way, way up. That is in reference to no. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton, who gets our vote for Suns most important. We could have given it to team leading scorer Devin Booker, however, Ayton will have a large role in bringing Phoenix out of bottom feeder status. The Bahamian Behemoth — we like the sound of that — brings plenty of size and skill to a roster in dire need of an anchor. In his lone season with Arizona, Ayton copped Pac-12 Player of the Year honors based on scoring 20.1 points per game on 61.2 percent field goal shooting, as well as pulling down 11.6 rebounds and making 1.9 blocks per game in 35 NCAA tilts. Incredibly, he posted 24 double-doubles in those 35 games, including his last collegiate contest in the NCAA tournament against Buffalo. He is a consensus favorite to win NBA Rookie of the Year and will be given plenty of opportunity to earn it. Honorable mention: Booker.
Portland Trail Blazers – PG Damian Lillard
There were a pack of six teams, seven if you count the Denver Nuggets, who were so tightly bunched in 2017-18 that just three games separated them at season’s end. Portland, which placed third with a record of 49-33, could just as easily been Denver, who narrowly missed the post-season with a 46-36 record. Things won’t get any easier for most important player Damian Lillard and co., given that the Lakers are likely to make a big move in the standings with LeBron leading the way. The bigger problem to overcome in Portland isn’t just making the playoffs, it’s doing something once the team gets there. Ever since Lillard debuted with Portland in 2012-13, a fairly imposing Trail Blazers team has made the post-season five times, winning just two rounds and bowing out in the first round three times, including a 4-0 whitewash at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans this past spring. The blame can’t squarely be put on three-time All-Star Lillard, though some would wag a finger at him. He, along with the likes of CJ McCollum, will have to continue to trend up. Honorable mention: McCollum.
Sacramento Kings – PF Marvin Bagley III
Just because he was the second overall pick in the 2018 draft, doesn’t mean there is any less pressure on Bagley to help Sacramento escape the loser doldrums. The club hasn’t seen playoff action since 2006 when Metta World Peace, then known as Ron Artest, and Mike Bibby were running the show. It is very likely that in the dominant Western Conference, the Kings will be on the outside looking in, again. However, Bagley, the ACC Player of the Year in his only season with Duke, presents a gifted package that will at least get the casual fan in California to come watch. In 33 games with the Blue Devils, Bagley scored 21.0 points per game, pulled down 11.1 rebounds and made 0.9 blocks. The freshman, who had 22 double-doubles with Duke, was impressive in the NCAA tournament, too. He averaged 20.5 points and in four games and 8.3 rebounds as the Blue Devils made it to the Elite 8. It may be a trying year for the talented forward. Honorable mention: Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein.
San Antonio Spurs – SG DeMar DeRozan
With his trade to San Antonio being as acrimonious as it was — depending on who you listen to — this is going to be a very big year for two-time All-NBA selection DeRozan. Not only does he replace the quiet and enigmatic, yet talented Kawhi Leonard (who he was traded for), but the 29-year-old will be expected to flourish in completely foreign surroundings. Add to that the fact he doesn’t get to escape the taunting presence of LeBron James, who he may see in the NBA playoffs yet again in 2019. An offensive catalyst in Toronto, DeRozan will now be expected to also play some defence for taskmaster Gregg Popovich. What he does have with the Spurs is a strong supporting cast, including fellow veterans LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay — while not forgetting emerging star PG Dejounte Murray. DeRozan can also learn a few things from his back-up Manu Ginobili, who knows a thing or two about winning. Should be interesting in San Antonio, if anything. Honorable mentions: Aldridge and Gasol.
Toronto Raptors – SF Kawhi Leonard
Those expecting us to pick Kyle Lowry here ought to think again. Leonard, the elusive yet eminently talented two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, replaces fan favorite DeMar DeRozan on a Raptors team that should contend — but comes with many question marks. What Leonard brings to the table that DeRozan doesn’t have is that defensive acumen, along with a NBA title and finals MVP award to go with it. Before a non-season in 2017-18 (Leonard played just nine games), Leonard upped his game during two All-Star seasons in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Along with being a ball-stealing hawk, Leonard started scoring at a greater rate, going from a career high of 16.5 PPG in 2014-15 to 21.2 PPG in 2015-16 and finally 25.5 PPG the next campaign. As we mentioned above, Leonard can opt out of his contract next summer, so it will be incumbent on the Raptors to make him feel at home and utilize his considerable skill set to its fullest. Honorable mention: Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas.
Utah Jazz – SG Donovan Mitchell
Anyone needing one player to laud in the Utah Jazz’s impressive 2017-18 season need look no further than Donovan Mitchell, who could just as easily have been RoY instead of Philly’s Ben Simmons. After losing Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics, most hoops pundits didn’t give the Jazz a snowball’s chance in hell of making the playoffs, much less winning a round. But, win this team did, beating OKC in six before running out of gas against Houston in a five-game set. Chief among the team’s spark plugs was Mitchell, who was drafted well down in 2017 at no. 13 by Denver and then flipped right away to Utah. He would have a freshman season for the ages, pressed into service as the starting shooting guard early on. Mitchell averaged 20.5 points per game, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals to earn a few RoY votes and make the All-Rookie team. While he was willing to chuck the rock at a great clip from beyond the arc, a monster 550 times, he will have to improve on his success rate, which was 34 percent (187 three-pointers total). Honorable mention: Rudy Gobert.
Washington Wizards – PG John Wall
Is Dwight Howard the secret ingredient to an Eastern Conference playoff title for the Wizards and a trip to the NBA finals for the first time in 40 years next spring? Not likely, but his experience won’t hurt. The chief cook in the Wizards kitchen is still John Wall, despite the presence of newly acquired veteran C Howard. Wall, along with good players in Otto Porter Jr. and Bradley Beal, have been to the second round of the post-season three times in the last five seasons, with nothing to show for it. It will be up to Wall, still, to be the catalyst on both sides of the floor for Washington, if it hopes to make further inroads come next spring. He will have to stay healthy, too, having missed half his team’s games last season. Even still, the five-time All-Star and 2015 All-Defensive team member played fairly well in a six-game loss to Toronto in the first round, scoring 26.0 points and dishing out an impressive 11.5 assists and stealing the ball 2.3 times per game. Honorable mentions: Howard, Porter Jr. and Beal.