Six Eastern Conference teams failed to qualify for the NBA bubble last season.
These teams include the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, and Cleveland Cavaliers.
What will it take for one or more of these teams to climb to the top of the conference? Here are the players whose growth is essential for their respective rebuilds to overcome the bump.
Charlotte Hornets: PJ Washington
LaMelo Ball joins a core of heavy-winged Hornets under head coach James Borrego (Gordon Hayward, Devonte ‘Graham, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk). They need an internal threat to move forward; that player could be Washington.
The Kentucky product has enjoyed an encouraging rookie season in the NBA, registering 12.2 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while shooting 37.4% from beyond the arc. He finishes with conviction on the inside, can stretch the floor and is a respectable defender. Having someone who can operate indoors and outdoors at a high level would give them a versatile scorer, as well as a player with tenacity to serve as an undersized cross in a small-ball formation.
Ball will deflect attention but also reduce the production of some of the Hornets’ pre-existing guards given how often he will have the ball in his hands. Hayward’s arrival will also have an impact, if he stays in good health. However, the development of Washington will be particularly crucial for this franchise to make a run for the playoffs.
Chicago Bulls: Patrick Williams
The Bulls turned to the fences, taking Williams with the fourth pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. To their credit, it was the year to try their luck, as it was difficult to separate the bulk of the first-round talent. . That said, the Florida State forward is now becoming an indispensable part of any Chicago breakthrough.
Williams didn’t start a single game in his debut season, but showed his ability to be a jack of all trades player. He was a reliable inside defender, put the ball on the ground, finished inside and presented a jump shot that could improve to 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 develop as a collective whole from a record standpoint.
Williams brings to the table a skill set the Bulls don’t have. They need him to harness his potential, develop into a two-way mainstay, and improve their game on both ends of the floor. To do so would add a new dimension to their list.
New York Knicks: RJ Barrett
Barrett is the best thing the Knicks have going for them, and he’s just finished a respectable rookie season. At the same time, New York needs the former No. 3 in the overall standings to become a force to be reckoned with.
Barrett averaged 14.3 points and 5.0 rebounds starting in 55 of the 56 games he appeared in as a rookie. He has demonstrated his ability to score in isolation and defend himself defensively. Next season and those that follow, he must be more productive.
Yes, rookie Obi Toppin will help out in the scoring department and Mitchell Robinson is alley-oops money, which will distract Barrett. That said, the future second-year player needs to take advantage of his presence, do jump shots and score the dribble at a higher pace while leading the goal charge.
It’s a tough road for all rebuilding teams in the East, the Knicks being no exception. The star element of these teams is no exception either. Barrett has the skills to be a great NBA player. He must transform potential into performance.
Detroit Pistons: Killian Hayes
The Pistons are looking for players to build around and Hayes could be a mainstay. Yet the point guard must answer the bell.
Hayes is a magician. He finishes in contact, is an astute passer and shot 39.0% over 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 an overnight draft trade that saw the Pistons get 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 young star from Detroit. Hayes scoring the dribble and finding the open man helps Bey, Sekou Doumbouya and new Piston Jerami Grant. The Pistons need Hayes to play well to gain confidence.
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 picks in 2019, is a key player alongside Trae Young when it comes to getting Atlanta out of the basement.
Hunter is a fundamentally solid two-way player who takes what defense gives him and is a respectable shooter and outside defender. With familiar faces (Young, John Collins) and new faces (Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic) ready to take on most of the offensive workload, Hunter has to be an ace in his role as a guy who can hit 3 points at a high clip while blocking the opponent’s best player on the wing.
You can have all the young and productive talent in the world (don’t forget Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, Onyeka Okongwu, Clint Capela, etc.), but it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t bring in any wins. The Hawks traded to Hunter in the 2019 NBA Draft with the intention of making him one of the best 3 and D players in the NBA, and maybe even more. Atlanta is hoping to see that development after a busy offseason.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland
Collin Sexton has shown his ability to be a prime goalscorer alongside a host of talented youngsters, Garland being one of them. At the same time, the Vanderbilt product must establish itself as an essential scorer.
Garland has speed, quickness and a capable jump shot. Last season, the young guard tallied 12.3 points per game while sharing a backcourt with Sexton. A two-point backcourt can work in the NBA as long as the two players are on the same page and don’t get in the way. Isaac Okoro will likely play the ball and mainly improve the Cavs defensively in his rookie season, while Kevin Love stretches the floor and Andre Drummond lives in the paint. The isolation game must be precise.
Sexton has shown signs of stardom; Garland must do the same. The Cavs have been one of the worst teams in the NBA since LeBron James left for the second time. Coming out of the sports cave stems from their hearts taking the next step, and no one is bigger than Garland.