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#pounditTuesday, February 7, 2023

10 NBA players with a lot to prove this season

Kawhi Leonard

The start of the NBA season is just over one week away, with the Celtics and Hornets competing in the first preseason game Friday, Sept. 28. Odds once again favor the Warriors to win it all, while Boston has the second-best title odds.

Though Golden State is a heavy favorite, last season proved even the league’s best are vulnerable. With LeBron heading to L.A., the already-loaded West has become a verifiable murderer’s row.

Get excited – the race for the Larry O’Brien Trophy begins soon. Here are 10 players with a lot to prove in the 2018-19 season.

10. John Wall, Wizards

Last season was a rough one for John Wall. After signing a $170 million extension with the Wizards, he missed two months (from late January-March) with a hand injury. He never seemed to find a real rhythm. During the season, he was criticized for being out of shape, and tempers in Washington’s locker room boiled over. Wall said the team was “not having fun right now.” The dynamics with Wall and Bradley Beal seem to be unpredictable – good today, bad tomorrow. No one questions Wall’s talent, and he’s been electric in the postseason – but this season, he needs to prove he can lead a team for a full season and be the central figure (the leader!) on a roster that actually gets along.

9. Zach LaVine, Bulls

Last month, I posited that LaVine is poised for a breakout season. At least, that’s what the Bulls are banking on. They have invested massively in his potential, signing him to a four-year, $78 million extension this summer. Fred Hoiberg has a few projects (Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Jabari Parker) this year, and he’ll be on the hunt for a reliable first option – a role that should belong to LaVine. He’s always been a mid-teens scorer (last year he put up 16.7 points per game), but his shot needs to improve, and Chicago needs more consistent production from the 23-year-old. Look for him to crack the 20s.

8. De’Aaron Fox, Kings

As a rookie, Fox put up decent numbers — 11.6 points and 4.4 assists per game — and he knocked down two ice-cold game-winners, in addition to providing ferocious on-ball defense. But his much-maligned shot was as advertised. He hit only 30.7 percent of his three-point attempts. Sacramento this season adds two promising young big men (Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles) to its rotation, and the Kings will pay close attention to the former Kentucky guard’s development. Will he make a Year Two leap? He can get to the rim at will, but in today’s NBA, teams need a point guard who can shoot and space the floor. Fox is loaded with talent, but the Kings may cut bait before the deadline if they believe his jumper will be a career-long hindrance.

7. Kevin Love, Cavs

Remember Minnesota Kevin Love? That guy was great. He’d routinely put up 20 points and 20 rebounds. In his final year in Minnesota, 2013, he averaged 26.1 points per game. Now 30, Love accepted a diminished role when he was traded to Cleveland, watching his scoring output drop by 10 points per game. Clearly, his selflessness paid off – he made four straight NBA Finals and won a title in 2015-16. But now that LeBron is gone, Love is a central figure once again. He has a gargantuan new contract, and this season presents his opportunity to prove he really is the franchise cornerstone we thought we saw in Minnesota – much more than a floor-stretching big man.

6. Kawhi Leonard, Raptors

It’s time for Kawhi to put up or shut up. The NBA populace dealt with a year of melodrama as Leonard basically boycotted the Spurs, and I think we’re all tired of hearing about that situation. This year, we want to see vintage Kawhi – the guy who strapped up LeBron James in the 2014 Finals and consequently won Finals MVP, the guy who made back-to-back All-NBA First Teams, the guy who some argued deserved the 2016-17 MVP and is the league’s best defender. Toronto wants him to be “The Guy.” Masai Ujiri wants him to make the North his new home. That rabid fan base wants to embrace him. And Kawhi wants to show he’s healthy. With his contract expiring next summer, this year will be pivotal for Leonard, on account of both his public image and his next paycheck.

5. Terry Rozier, Celtics

Boston can’t keep bringing everyone back forever. Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens, and company have a wonderful problem: they simply have too many good young players. Eventually, they’ll have to pay Jaylen Brown (probably a max contract), and they’ll have to pay Jayson Tatum (almost certainly a max deal as well). They already have Gordon Hayward and Al Horford on the books, and Kyrie Irving could opt out next summer. With Rozier having an opportunity to do the same in 2019, his list of potential suitors will be long. In Irving’s absence last season, Rozier showed he was ready to fulfill a starter role and sign a big contract. If he wants to cash out, he’ll have to extend his hot streak into this season. Don’t be surprised if Boston trades him before the deadline.

4. Hassan Whiteside, Heat

Whiteside, like Wall, had a miserable 2017-18 campaign. He dealt with repeated knee and hip injuries and played in only 54 games. His scoring average dropped from 17.0 to 14.0, his rebounds dropped from 14.1 to 11.4, and he was less efficient from the floor. Most importantly, his playing time dipped, and he was clearly unhappy about it. Erik Spoelstra opted against playing Whiteside late in games during small-ball situations, and Whiteside voiced his displeasure. Pat Riley recently implied the team and disgruntled big man are back on good terms, but we’ll see about that when the season hits its stride. Don’t be surprised if Miami trades the 29-year-old 7-footer if he causes more locker-room headaches.

3. DeMarcus Cousins, Warriors

Who would’ve thought a year ago that DeMarcus Cousins would sign a one-year, mid-level deal with Golden State? Boogie seemed poised to sign a max contract. But injuries happen, and the more time passes, the more it makes sense that there wasn’t much of a market for a 7-footer who recently tore his Achilles, will miss much of this season, and already had a reputation for negatively impacting locker rooms. When he’s healthy and his attitude is right, Boogie is one of the league’s best centers. He was having a great 2017-18 campaign in New Orleans, averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game before his injury. It’s not yet clear when he’ll return, but when he does, he’ll be fighting for both his reputation and his next contract — kind of like Kawhi.

2. Carmelo Anthony, Rockets

Is Carmelo Anthony washed? That’s a question many an NBA fan has considered this summer. After a mostly bad one-year experiment, the Thunder shipped Melo to the Hawks, who bought out his contract. He then signed a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal with the Rockets, with whom he aims to pursue his first title. Melo used to get to the free throw line about eight times per game; last year, he made it only 2.5 per game. Given his loss of explosiveness and quickness, he’s had more trouble creating good looks. At 33, his career looks all but over — but that’s the exact sentiment he’s out to disprove this year. With James Harden and Chris Paul creating in the isolation, Melo should get good looks as he fulfills Ryan Anderson’s former role.

1. Markelle Fultz, 76ers

Fultz had the most tumultuous debut season for a No. 1 pick in recent memory. Fultz struggled with a shoulder injury early in the season, and the Sixers opted to take their time letting him recover. Reports then indicated much of Fultz’s struggle was mental rather than physical. During his time away from the court, seemingly everyone voiced an opinion about his wonky shooting mechanics. He showed flashes of promise late in the season, but it was clear he has a long way to go. He’s been focused on his jumper this summer, and his friend Tatum said Fultz is “making strides” and has “gotten a lot better.” Given the threat Philly poses, Celtics fans are hopeful their young star is just being kind to his buddy, while Philly fans are hoping for a glimpse of the shifty guard who drew pre-draft comparisons to Harden.

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer. His work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at


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