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#pounditFriday, February 23, 2024

5 NBA players with the most to prove in Orlando

Zion Williamson

An evaluation of an NBA player’s legacy is one of the most volatile aspects of the league, as in some cases, all it takes is a single game or shot to define an entire career. Every NBA player is looking to prove themselves whenever they step foot on the hardwood. However, there comes the point for specific players, where proving themselves becomes a necessity.

From former number one overall picks to potential league MVPs, here are the five players with the most to prove headed into Orlando.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Before the NBA’s hiatus began, Zion Williamson was doing the impossible by living up to the inordinate amount of hype and expectations placed on his broad shoulders. Putting this type of pressure on someone who can’t legally drink a beer seems unfair, but when you’re labeled a potential predecessor to the second greatest basketball player ever, there’s no time to waste. Part of what makes Williamson such an intriguing player to watch is that there has never been another player like him.

In just 19 games, Williamson has already announced himself as a star for years to come. His per 36 minutes averages of 28.5 points and 8.2 rebounds begin to tell the story of how effective he’s been, but it’s his +12.2 net rating that highlights how well the Pelicans have played with him on the court. A first-round playoff series featuring both Zion Williamson and LeBron James has the potential to become one of the most iconic opening-round series ever, in a ceremonious battle of the present versus the future. For Williamson, the road to becoming one of the greatest basketball players of all-time starts in Orlando.

James Harden reaction

James Harden, Houston Rockets

Unlike the other players on this list, Harden is the only one on the other side of 30. For all the regular season accolades that Harden has garnered throughout his career, his placement on this list stems from the fact that he has authored some of the most notorious postseason meltdowns in recent history. Harden has averaged at least 26 points per game in all seven of his playoff appearances for the Houston Rockets; however, he’s shot above 42 percent from the field in just one of those appearances. Factor in the 4.5 turnovers per game he’s averaged during his Rockets playoff tenure, and you begin to see that while Harden has been able to produce gaudy playoff numbers, they have usually come at the expense of efficiency.

Winning a championship requires both luck and timing, and unfortunately for Harden, neither one has been on his side. The good news for Harden, this season, is that the Golden State Warriors will not be among the teams invited to Orlando (the Warriors have eliminated Harden from the playoffs in four of the last five postseasons). Harden has had an incredible regular-season career, but he’s running out of time to prove that he can be the best player on a championship team.

Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The discussion around Ben Simmons’s effectiveness in the playoffs always seems to start and end with his inability to shoot the basketball. Three-point shooting has become a prerequisite skill for playing point guard in today’s NBA, but when you stand 6-foot-10 and possess the athleticism that Simmons does, you can bend a few rules. Focusing solely on what Simmons can’t do on the court undervalues his unparalleled skillset.

Simmons’s contributions extend well past his averages of 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists as he’s also the 76ers’ Swiss Army knife defensively, capable of matching up with any player regardless of position. This season, Simmons not only leads the NBA in steals but also ranks second in total deflections and third in loose balls recovered. For all the positive ways that Simmons impacts the 76ers, his real test will come in the playoffs. Last postseason, Simmons disappeared for long stretches of games, as he saw his role relegated from the primary ball-handler to the “dunker spot” on the baseline. If Ben Simmons can’t deliver with the ball in his hands this postseason, the noise surrounding his inability to shoot will only get louder.

Devin Booker

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker is often mislabeled as a “shooter”, when a more appropriate title for the Kentucky product is “scorer.” While Booker is a respectable three-point shooter connecting on 36 percent of his threes this season, only 28 percent of his total field goal attempts have come from downtown. To put that figure into perspective, LeBron James takes a higher percentage of threes than the 2018 3-point contest winner. A majority of Booker’s damage is done in the mid-range, where his footwork and poise are reminiscent of his mentor, Kobe Bryant. The clip perfectly highlights Booker’s Mamba-level patience as he knows precisely when to attack helpless defenders.

Still, just 23 years old, Booker has already established himself as one of the preeminent scorers in the NBA, but now five years into his career, he’s still searching for his first playoff appearance. The games inside the NBA’s bubble in Orlando will be the most meaningful games of Booker’s young career. However, with more losses than any other Western Conference team invited, the Suns have an uphill battle ahead. In 2017, Booker joined Wilt Chamberlain and David Thompson as the only players in NBA history to score at least 65 points in a loss with his 70-point effort against the Celtics. While it is abundantly clear that Booker can score, he now needs to prove that it can lead to wins.

Markelle Fultz

Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

Markelle Fultz may have one of the most unorthodox starts to a career in NBA history. After being selected first overall in the 2017 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, Fultz was traded to the Orlando Magic in 2019, not even two full seasons into his NBA career. Fultz only appeared in 33 total games during his time as a member of the 76ers before the team effectively gave up on the player they once thought would play a significant role in their quest for a championship.

In Orlando, Fultz has been able to escape the Philadelphia media’s constant scrutiny and has quietly become an impactful player for the Magic. Although his season averages of 12 points and 5 assists per game don’t jump off the page, Fultz’s game passes the eye test.

Fultz excels in keeping his defenders off-balanced on his drives to the rim through his ability to not only accelerate but also decelerate almost instantaneously.

For Fultz to become more than just an impactful player, he will need to continue to make strides on his now-infamous jump shot. While Fultz has still struggled from long range, he’s shooting a career-high 72 percent from the free-throw line, a drastic improvement from the 53 percent he shot in his first two seasons. When the season resumes, Fultz will be presented with a prime opportunity to rewrite the narrative of his career.

Jack Reining covers the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JackReining3


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