The Whiteboard: NBA players who will be stronger than ever next season

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With each passing day, it feels more and more likely that we won’t see the final chapter of the 2019-20 NBA season for a long time, if at all. Yesterday on The Whiteboard, we examined what the delayed restart of the Chinese Basketball Association’s season means for the NBA, and now that novel coronavirus in the United States has surpassed both China and Italy, a July or August restart for the league seems optimistic at best.

In the event there are still games to be played in the 2019-20 campaign, there’s a decent chance what’s left of the regular season will be shortened or cut altogether.

Either way, it’s never too early to start eagerly looking ahead to the 2020-21 campaign, when all of this truncated scheduling and COVID-19 quarantining is hopefully far behind us. Bearing that in mind, let’s zip through a couple of players we can expect to come back better and stronger than ever next season. We’ll be avoiding injury-related cases and rookies, since those two categories are usually expected to improve anyway.

Kristaps Porzingis

Despite having an All-Star selection to his name, the ACL tear that prevented Kristaps Porzingis from playing in that 2018 game also made for a rusty start to his first season with the Dallas Mavericks. Through January, the Zinger was averaging 17.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game on paltry .404/.339/.741 shooting splits.

People were quick to give up on a seven-footer who had suffered a serious knee injury, but as it turns out, it takes more than a few weeks of NBA games to shake off rust from an 18-month recovery process. Since the start of February, the Porzingis of old re-emerged, as he put up 24.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game on .454/.367/.840 shooting. Another hiatus couldn’t have been more poorly timed, but if Three Six Latvia is really back, watch out in 2020-21.

Malik Beasley

With one trade, Malik Beasley went from being a rarely used bench piece for the Denver Nuggets to a reliable 20 points per game scorer with the Minnesota Timberwolves. While 14 games is a small sample size, Beasley’s 20.7 points and 5.1 rebounds a night since joining the Wolves –on 47.2 percent shooting from the field and 42.6 percent from 3, no less — are impressive.

Having a healthy Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell will take away the frequent looks Beasley was getting before the NBA’s hiatus, but having a third scorer who can knock down 3s at a high volume (8.2 per game in Minnesota) could make this 23-year-old a breakout candidate next season.

Christian Wood

Before Christian Wood was identified as the third known case of coronavirus in the NBA, he was putting up eye-opening numbers for a Detroit Pistons squad that had just traded away Andre Drummond. Since that deal opened up major opportunities in the frontcourt, Wood seized them by the fistful, posting a team-high 22.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game.

The Pistons were carving out positivity amidst all the losing, and Wood’s production was at the top of that list, especially since he was being efficient with his .562/.400/.757 shooting splits on 4.2 long-range attempts per game. Pistons fans should be salivating over seeing him in a full-time starting role next year.

Landry Shamet

Landry Shamet won’t be a candidate for Most Improved Player next year. In fact, he probably won’t even be a top-five player on his own team, given that the LA Clippers have Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley on their roster.

However, his sharpshooting is only going to become more valuable to a contender like the Clippers, even if his defense is a major obstacle to his ability to stay on the floor come playoff time. Shamet was only averaging 9.7 points per game this season, but don’t let this 23-year-old sniper — who was making 39.2 percent of his 5.7 3-pointers per game — fall off the radar just because he’s surrounded by greatness.

Jaren Jackson Jr.

It’ll be fascinating to see what Ja Morant does in Year 2, but because we’re shying away from first-year players, it’s worth mentioning that Jaren Jackson Jr. is on the cusp of stardom himself. While his game is not as electrifying as his rookie point guard’s, JJJ is a two-way beast in the making who spreads the floor, defends multiple positions and does a little bit of everything to have a positive impact for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Sure, his penchant for fouling (4.1 per game, 5.2 per 35 minutes) is still holding him back, and his rebounding numbers (4.7 per game) are quite underwhelming for a near-seven-footer, but Jackson has upped his scoring output and is nearly a 40 percent 3-point shooter in just his second season. He won’t turn 21 until September, so no one should be sleeping on his sky-high potential.

Bam Adebayo

It feels weird including an All-Star on this list, but what can we say? Bam Adebayo was just barely scratching the surface in his first full season without Hassan Whiteside, and at just 22 years old, it’s scary to think of what he might become.

The Miami Heat’s designated star is Jimmy Butler, but it might not be long before Bam overtakes him as a jack-of-all-trades. Averaging 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals a game on 56.7 percent shooting, all he’s really missing is a discernible jump shot. Even without one, there are few big men as well-suited for the modern game as Adebayo is right now.

Lonzo Ball

A slow start lulled everyone into thinking Lonzo Ball‘s fit with the run-and-gun New Orleans Pelicans looked better on paper than it actually was, but boy, was he able to turn things around with the start of a new year. In 2019, Ball posted just 10.8 points, 5.3 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game on 38.3 percent shooting from the field and 36.1 percent from 3. He was making strides in proving his revamped 3-point stroke was no hoax, but he really flipped the switch in 2020.

Since Jan. 1, Ball put up 13.8 points, 8.5 assists and 7.2 rebounds a night on improved .435/.400/.622 shooting splits. He’s not exactly an efficient scorer yet, but his progress from downtown and the presence of Zion Williamson reinvigorated him. Just imagine what he’ll be capable of with a full season of Zion at his side.

Markelle Fultz

Maybe including Markelle Fultz here lowers the bar, since it’s honestly just good seeing him healthy and shooting relatively normal jump shots on the basketball court again. But the 21-year-old has made himself right at home as the starting point guard of the playoff-bound (assuming we get playoffs) Orlando Magic, and his confidence should only grow from here.

To be fair, the Magic’s “success” has more to do with Nikola Vucevic, Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon, but Fultz has been steady enough, averaging 12.1 points, 5.2 assists and 3.3 rebounds a night on 47.3 percent shooting. His 3-point touch (25.4 percent) is still a major work in progress, but don’t be surprised if 2020-21 is the year we finally see him start to put it all together again.

Deandre Ayton

Aron Baynes filled in admirably early on, but there’s no question the Phoenix Suns are wondering what their season might have looked like if Deandre Ayton hadn’t gotten himself suspended for 25 games right after their season opener.

Even in a stunted season, Ayton was showing serious signs of breaking out on both ends. His lack of a 3-point shot — and its importance to the Suns’ spacing — was glaringly obvious when Baynes filled in, but Ayton was posting 19.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game before the league went under lockdown, all while showing legitimate signs of defensive growth, which is intrinsic to his value in this league. If we see this Ayton for all of 2020-21, that 10-year playoff drought may finally come to an end in the desert.

OG Anunoby

Maybe this is wishful thinking, since a Toronto Raptors team sporting Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell already has a pretty established pecking order with hungry mouths to feed. However, even for a guy who’s only averaging 10.7 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, OG Anunoby has already proven himself as one of the most important players on the roster.

Thanks to his athleticism, defensive versatility, and efficiency (.507/.381/.686 shooting), Anunoby is a name NBA fans should get used to hearing, especially when it’s eventually time for Lowry to pass the torch and the youngsters fully take over. OG is only 22 years old, and his two-way potential could very well make him the next Siakam.

#OtherContent

When an NBA season is suddenly put on hold like this, there are natrually dozens of burning questions that need still answering. Our own Ben Ladner took a look at the biggest unresolved storylines of the season.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, here’s a look at five Eastern Conference contenders that never got past LeBron James in the playoffs. If you’re feeling really nostalgic, here are five players you probably forgot won a ring with Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls.

In case you didn’t get around to it, ESPN’s Tim Bontemps and Tim MacMahon gave an illuminating look at how NBA teams are bringing the gym to their players during this time of quarantine.

Finally, FanSided’s Ian Levy continues his rookie survey series, taking a look at what the Heat have seen from Tyler Herro thus far.