The Whiteboard: 5 sleepers waiting to break out in NBA’s Orlando restart

Alex Caruso, #4, Los Angeles Lakers, (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)
Alex Caruso, #4, Los Angeles Lakers, (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images) /

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The weird circumstances of the NBA’s restart are going to open opportunities for someone. These five players could use that chance to take a leap.

Alex Caruso, G, Los Angeles Lakers

Caruso appeared in 58 of the Lakers’ 63 games this season but averaged fewer minutes per game than Rajon Rondo or Avery Bradley. Those two players are no longer available for the Lakers — Bradley opted-out and Rondo suffered a serious hand injury in practice that will require surgery — moving Caruso up the depth chart.

He’s already been something of a spirit animal for Lakers’ fans the past two years, showing he can be a capable traffic-director and floor-spacer but approaching every opportunity with surplus tenacity. Caruso ranked in the top 10 this season, per minute, in deflections and steals, and tied for the team-lead in charges drawn. He’ll make open shots, protect the ball, occasionally throw down an eye-popping yam and once or twice a game make something happen with obscene energy. Lakers fans are going to continue to love him and opposing fans are going to learn to love to hate him.

Troy Brown, F, Washington Wizards

In his two NBA seasons, Brown has always been a complementary offensive player, mostly working off the ball and adapting to life as a role player. But with Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans not joining the Wizards in Orlando, there are going to be a lot more shots available in Washington’s offense, and a lot more opportunities for him to play with the kind of primacy he did at Oregon.

Brown managed just 15 points on 22 isolation possessions during the interrupted season, but necessity is the mother of invention. He’ll also have the opportunity to do more creating for others. One of the most appealing parts of his pre-draft profile was his combination of size on the wing and passing ability out of the pick-and-roll.

Brown already made some improvements this season, finishing better and becoming a more reliable 3-point shooter. There’s almost no chance the Wizards actually play their way into the playoffs, which means they’re just there for eight games. But that should be enough for Brown to win some new fans and introduce himself to a national audience.

Darius Bazley, F, Oklahoma City Thunder

To this point, Bazley’s primary claimed to fame is his plan to forgo the NCAA and spend his pre-draft year in the G League, and then piling surprise on surprise, deciding against the G League and spending the year training in partial isolation. Bazley ended up with the Oklahoma City Thunder and though he looked predictably raw (shooting just 38.3 percent from the field and 30 percent on 3-pointers), he emerged as a meaningful part of their competitive rotation.

Nearly half of Bazley shots were 3-pointers which helps explain his rock-bottom field goal percentage. However, he shot 62.3 percent at the rim and has already figured out how to make an impact with his physical tools. He’s a force on the glass and, with steal and block percentages of 1.1 and 3.3, respectively, already a disruptive defender. In Orlando, he’ll probably pop off the screen for some head-scratching rookie plays but he’ll make a highlight or two as well, the kind that will stick in our memories well into next season.

Duncan Robinson, F, Miami Heat

Robinson was a revelation for the Heat this season, a Kyle-Korver type wing shooter with the size to defend some 4s and a game that was just well-rounded enough to keep him on the floor in bigger moments. He started 60 of 65 games for the Heat this season, averaging 30 minutes per game and hitting 44.8 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s not just a standstill spacing threat either — Robinson ranked in the 77th percentile on scoring efficiency coming off screens and his endless off-ball movement added some much-needed complexity to the Heat’s offense.

Robinson will continue to be overshadowed by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the big picture, but at some point in the playoffs, he’s going to have one of those games where he hits like six 3-pointers (it happened 14 times in the regular season) and single-handedly puts a win on the Heat’s side of the ledger.

Lonnie Walker, G, San Antonio Spurs

With Dejounte Murray, DeMar DeRozan, Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills and Derrick White all ahead of him in the rotation, Walker has more barriers to a breakout than anyone else on this list. He also has the most star potential of anyone else this list, potential that he finally started to realize this season.

There are a lot of rough edges for Walker to sand down but he’s an explosive dunker who made better than 40 percent of his 3s this season and showed more polish at getting his own shot. If anything opens up for the Spurs — an injury or a mathematical elimination from the playoffs than Walker might get a chance to really go off and leverage opportunities he didn’t always get during the regular season. He’s going to be a special player at some point and these eight games in Orlando could be the coming-out party.

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