With the dust mostly settled on this offseason’s player movement — and there was a whole lot of it this year — it’s time to take stock of all the fascinating new faces in new places, as well as the more compelling stories of players who will face new challenges while sticking around. Over the course of the next few weeks, Andrew Unterberger will do a team-by-team look at the most interesting players going into next season — one new to the team, and one returning — as we all try to pass the dog days of NBA-less summer, dreaming of hoops-filled months to come. The series continues today with the teams in the Southeast Division: the Hawks, Bobcats, Heat, Magic and Wizards.
Most Interesting New Player: Dennis Schroeder
Yeah, I know this guy is kind of a trendy pick after his Summer League success and all, but man, did you see this guy? That video of assists-that-weren’t Trey posted a few weeks ago should be all you need to see to get excited about Schroeder, and every game I watched of his left me more convinced that he was eventually going to be Rajon Rondo with better shooting range. “Eventually” might not be next year, but I don’t think the court vision and basic floor general confidence on the level Schroeder seemed to display in Vegas could end up being a mirage — if there was one showcase rookie this year whose skills were legit, I’d bet it’s Schroeder. It was a little disappointing that Atlanta balked and re-signed Jeff Teague. It’s a fair deal, sure, but if they’d seen Schroeder’s Summer League game first, I think they’d leave pretty convinced this was their Point Guard of the Future.
Also disappointing that Schroeder probably won’t be joined by fellow rookie Bebe Noguiera on the court this year, as it looks like the Hawks are keeping him stashed overseas for a season. Nogueira was extremely impressive himself in Vegas, and the two showed surprisingly good on-court chemistry and such awesome rookie duos are pretty rare these days. Between them and John Jenkins/Mike Scott in ’12, Atlanta has had a couple sneaky awesome drafts now since Danny Ferry came over.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Al Horford
I guess? I didn’t find any of the players on their roster last year all that interesting, which is why I hoped they’d blow it up in the offseason, which they sorta did but not really. I actually kinda feel bad for Horford, since after a half-decade of playing out of position at center to accommodate the undersized Josh Smith at power forward, Smith finally flew the coop, and they just replaced him with another undersized power forward, one who should also take plenty of post touches away from Horford. At least this is the East, where there are only like two centers you really have to worry about killing you down low on offense, but man, it might be nearly a decade into his career before Al gets to maybe play his actual position on the court with any regularity. Seems like a raw deal.
Most Interesting New Player: Al Jefferson
Like George Costanza, Al Jefferson is The Man again, and historically speaking, that’s not a very good role for him. Big Al’s been The Man, to varying degrees, for the last six seasons in Minnesota and Utah, and that’s resulted in a grand total of four playoff games for his teams, and (obviously) zero wins. But then again, it’s been a minute since he played on a team with expectations as low as this Bobcats team has, where merely leading them to a 27-win season might get Jefferson hailed as a conquering hero. Helping his case this time around is that he’s not replacing Kevin Garnett or Carlos Boozer, he’s replacing Brendan Haywood and DeSagana Diop. It’s about as good a position to “succeed” as Big Al could ask for.
When the Bobcats first snagged Jefferson, I thought it was one of the dumbest signings of the offseason, an overpay to a player who’d never prove he was worth all that much in the first place, and who even in a best-case scenario wouldn’t make that huge of a difference. But I think I get it now. You can’t just be the worst forever, and if Jefferson makes them 15 percent less bad — not good enough to drag them out of lottery contention, but good enough to get the team’s line graph moving noticeably and encouragingly along the Y-axis — that’s probably something worth the short-term investment.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
What seemed like a sure thing at the time of the 2012 Draft is seeming, uh, less sure these days. Everyone agreed MKG was the smart pick at No. 2, that he’d be awesome on defense and would eventually figure out offense. But the guy we saw at the end of last season and in this year’s Summer League sure didn’t look like he was figuring out much — his shooting form is one of the league’s ugliest, and his shot selection was at a near-Dion Waiters level of questionability. He may only need to be average on offense to have worth as a shutdown defender and athletic floor-runner and finisher, but you don’t really want to be taking a one-way player with the No. 2 overall pick, especially when your team doesn’t exactly have offense to spare from most other positions.
Supposedly Mark Price, one of the league’s all-time great shooters, has made fixing MGK’s broken jumper a top priority as one of the team’s new assistant coaches. I wish them luck, but as a fan of Evan Turner, another No. 2 pick with a jumper seemingly beyond recovery who’s tried just about every offseason remedy for a fix, I’d advise Bobcats fans not to get their hopes up too much.
Most Interesting New Player: Greg Oden
Well, it’s either Oden or James Ennis. Obviously I was not a huge fan of Oden’s unsurprising decision to sign with the Heat, and it’s hard to be totally objective about it now. But of course, Oden was going to be one of the season’s biggest stories no matter where he signed. And for the Heat, it’s something to keep the team interesting during the dog days of the season when they’re beating up the Kings and Bucks and LeBron’s coming a couple rebounds or assists from a triple-double every night and there’s nothing more to say about player and team than “What more can you say about LeBron and the Heat?” At the very least, Oden’s signing takes the pressure off Miami to have another 27-game winning streak just to keep their fans engaged in early 2014.
And I will say, I am interested just to see Greg Oden take the court again. I wish it could have been for a team I have less ill will towards, but it’s been so long that I’ve basically forgotten what it was ever like to see this skilled, athletic, prematurely super-old-looking 7-foot dude with the name “Oden” on his jersey actually playing professional basketball. It’ll still make me to smile to see him out there. Plus, he and LeBron will have the best combination of forehead creases of any teammate duo in the league.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Dwyane Wade
Could LeBron ever not be the most interesting player on his own team? If not, this season is the season, as LeBron is currently the unquestioned best player in the game with a now totally unassailable reputation in all facets of the game. The only interesting thing he could do at this point is to inexplicably suck for a couple weeks, and smart money wouldn’t be on that happening anytime soon. Dwyane Wade, on the other hand, has the chance to all but sink the Heat with his declining athleticism and poor shooting range, if the diminished player we saw for most of the playoffs was actually just who D-Wade is now, and not a player with lingering injuries who’ll come back full force and make us all look stupid at the beginning of next year.
My bet is that Wade has a very good first month or so statistically, leading to a lot of “What could we possibly have been worried about?” type columns about prematurely reported demise, but that he wears down over the course of the season, and again has stretches in the postseason that have ABC announcers (and LeBron himself) making 2009 Cavs references. Or maybe that’s just my selfish hope and Wade is gonna be pissed off 2008 Wade all season. Point is, there’s some interesting variation at play, where we pretty much know that LeBron’s just gonna be the best forever.
Most Interesting New Player: Victor Oladipo
I actually think Oladipo might underwhelm some in his rookie season — his offensive game doesn’t have a ton going on just yet, it’s gonna take him some time to adjust to the speed of the pro level, and he’s gonna have a bit more responsibility on this team (#ORLANDIPO) than will probably be healthy for him. Still, even if he won’t light up the league, I expect Victor Oladipo to have himself some moments — an explosive dunk or two, a big shot and accompanying celebration, a super-cocky locker room quote or something — to make his one of the year’s more enjoyable rookie seasons anyway. He seems one of the most self-assured rookies to come into the league in some time, and I’m pretty excited for his game to eventually catch up to his confidence, even if it might not happen in its entirety this year.
And a note to the music director at Amway Center: Get real, real friendly with Jay-Z’s “Hola Hovito.” Any Magic fan that’s heard the song before will undoubtedly have it stuck in their head all season anyway, you may as well make some sort of rallying cry out of it.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Tobias Harris
I keep forgetting Harris is even on the Magic, even though he was arguably their best player since coming over in that mid-season Milwaukee trade, with eye-popping averages of 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per in 27 games for Orlando. Those 27 games probably feel like a hazy memory for Magic fans, and it’s hard to tell if those numbers are a sample size/late season garbage time mirage, or if they’re just empty numbers for a bad team (Harris’ PER for ORL was a good-not-great 17.0), or if Harris could really end up being one of the great trade deadline steals of the 21st century.
I personally like Harris’ game, so I’m hoping it’s the latter, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if he had an Ersan Ilyasova-like beginning to the season and quickly started losing minutes to Mo Harkless and Andrew Nicholson, while never really approaching those late 2013 numbers again. The Magic have three or four players sort of like that, though — including Harkless and Nicholson themselves — so it might take nearly the whole season to figure out who on their team is actually good.
Most Interesting New Player: Otto Porter
Pretty much a default choice here, since Porter was not particularly interesting in the Summer League, and the dude actually compares his own game to that of Tayshaun Prince, a perennial NBA Least Interesting Player candidate. But it’s either Porter, Glen Rice Jr. or Eric Maynor, and at least Porter has some draft stock to live up to. Besides, Porter panning out could be the difference between the Wizards actually having the core of an eventual yearly playoff contender and being stuck in a Raptors-like limbo, so that’s kinda big. I’ll need to see more than a couple mostly-invisible exhibition games out of Porter to actually get excited about his pro potential, but I plan on watching a whole lot of Wiz on League Pass this year, so we’ll see.
Side note: I was really hoping that the Wizards would get DeJuan Blair in free agency. DeJuan would invariably have ended up playing a huge reserve (and inevitably, injury replacement) role on Washington’s front lines, rather than getting mixed in with the permanently unsettled rotation of big men in Dallas, where he ultimately signed. Dude’s been lost in the shuffle for long enough, I say.
Most Interesting Returning Player: Jan Vesely
Just about everyone returning this year for Washington is interesting, from the recently maxed-out John Wall to sophomore sensation Bradley Beal to the tantalizing (but always hurt) Nene. But I just can’t give up on Jan Vesely, who showed just enough in this year’s Summer League to raise hopes once more that he can find a way to translate his motor and athleticism into being a legitimate NBA contributor beyond the occasional highlight dunk. (He even hit a baseline jumper at one point!) Getting anything out of Vesely at this point would be a huge win for the Wizards, who had all but written off their former No. 6 pick (only three drafts ago!) as a sunk cost when planning for their future. To have Vesely as an acceptable backup for Nene’s inevitable 20 games on the bench — or at least a rotation cog to keep Washington from needing too much Kevin Serpahin — would be enormous.
Plus, this guy is really, really fun to watch and root for, even as a lost cause. Even if he doesn’t turn out to be all that good, I just wanna see some Jan on the court this season.