Like Goran Dragic for much of his career, who are the players thriving on teams headed towards the lottery?
Every year ESPN’s Zach Lowe writes a column titled The Marc Gasol All-Stars where he builds a squad comprised of his dozen favorite players to watch in the NBA. While The Goran Dragic All-Stars steals that title format, the criteria are quite different.
The Goran Dragic All-Stars are players stuck on lottery teams whose fantastic seasons have gone underappreciated. Whether they are in a smaller market or lacking the supporting cast to really make a national impact, these players deserve far more recognition than they are currently receiving.
Aaron Gordon - Orlando Magic
Orlando jumped out the gates with the league’s best record entering November, but very quickly fell right back down to earth. After their very strong 6-2 start, they’ve won just four of their last 17 games, and look likely to miss the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
For as parabolic as Orlando’s season has been, Aaron Gordon has been a constant. Not only has he boosted his scoring to a career-high 18.4 points per game, but he’s also grabbing three more rebounds a night than he did last season. Even more impressive than his raw production, though, is how Gordon has expanded his offensive repertoire.
Gordon was just a career 29.1% three-point shooter coming into the season. Thirty percent from beyond the arc acts as a Mendoza Line of sorts for three-point shooters, and opponents were more than willing to let Gordon live out on the perimeter. However, Gordon has managed to completely flip that narrative this year in posting a 41.9%, higher than that of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden.
Whether he can maintain this incredible shooting isn’t as important as the fact that he is now a threat from deep. Defenses can no longer sag off of him and beg him to shoot. When those players are forced to come out and pressure him from 20-plus feet, he can drive past them and get to the rim where he shoots 80.3%.
While he is probably still most well known as that Dunk Contest guy who jumped over a dragon, Gordon is far too talented for that to be his top billing. If Gordon continues anything close to this pace for the rest of the season, he is going to be a lot wealthier than he is today once he hits restricted free agency next summer.
Kemba Walker - Charlotte Hornets
Last season Walker was one of the best point guards in the league and made his first much deserved All-Star appearance, but this year he might be even better.
While his scoring has dipped just slightly, he’s made up for it by creating an extra assist per game and getting to the line more than ever. His 22.7 points and 6.3 assists per game put him in elite company with only five other players currently averaging at least 22 and six.
Charlotte has been pretty disappointing overall with a record of just 9-13, but Walker has been the only life vest keeping them afloat. The Hornets are +7.7 points per 100 possessions with Walker on the floor but fall to -16.6 points per 100 possessions when he goes to the bench. Walker is as critical to the success of his team as anyone in the league, as his +24.3 on/off differential is near the top of the league.
With how hard they are working to just stay a few games under .500, Michael Jordan may decide it’s time to start another rebuild. Sitting $18 million over the cap with no real path towards contention, it is possible Charlotte looks to move Walker either this year or next. If Cardiac Kemba finds his way onto a contender, he has enough talent to make a huge impact on the title race.
Kevork Djansezian - Getty Images
Tyreke Evans - Memphis Grizzlies
While Evans isn’t on the All-Star level of Gordon and Walker, he is a very strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
In many ways, Memphis’ season has been on a very similar trajectory to that of Orlando. They started 7-4, but have since gone just 1-11 and fired their coach after he got into a confusing feud with Marc Gasol. With so much in-house dysfunction and a pretty established top-nine in the West, it would take a borderline miracle for Memphis to make the playoffs this season; but none of that is Evans’ fault.
Returning to his collegiate city has apparently been rejuvenating for Evans, whose 17.8 pts/game is his highest average since 2010-11. His scoring increase isn’t incredibly surprising given his history and the Grizzlies’ thirst for offensive talent, but his development into an efficient player wasn’t something most people saw coming.
His 55.1 eFG% is a full 4.5% higher than it was in any previous season, and he is shooting 13.5% better from three than his career average. Not only is he shooting better from three than ever, but he is also averaging nearly one attempt more, adding a greater dimension to his team and his own play.
Not only does Evans fit the scoring mold of the traditional Sixth Man, but he’s been an all-around positive player for Memphis. Of players who have appeared in at least 15 games but started five or fewer, Evans is fourth in PER, third in both usage and points per 36 minutes, and the leader in total win shares and VORP.
If the Grizzlies’ situation deteriorates even further and they fall further down the standings, it may be too much for Evans to overcome to truly compete for Sixth Man, but he’s been among the league’s most deserving candidates a quarter of the way through the season.
Brandon Ingram - Los Angeles Lakers
After struggling to adapt to the NBA early in his rookie season, Ingram has turned it around to become one of the best young scorers in the league. While some people wrote him off after struggling as a pencil-thin 19-year-old in a really dysfunctional situation, Ingram has emerged as a young leader for an increasingly competent Laker team.
He’s up to 16.0 points per game on a respectable (for such a young volume shooter on a bad team) 48.1 eFG%. Slowly, Ingram has learned to not settle for the easy perimeter shots and to attack the basket. His average shot distance has fallen from 12.9 feet last season to just 9.3 feet this year.
If Ingram continues to figure out that he can get to the rim on just about anyone, he will become an absolute monster. While his pre-draft comparisons to Kevin Durant were unfair to a young, unpolished player, Ingram seemingly took them to heart.
Ingram had one of the best games of his career against the Warriors, and more than held his own against the former MVP. While the Lakers ended up falling to the defending champs, Ingram showed he belonged on the court with some of the best players in the league.
If he continues to develop at the pace he has for the past 12 months, Ingram will very quickly be recognized as one of the best young players in the league. As the Lakers maneuver themselves towards what they hope will be a summer of spending, it will be fascinating to watch how they prioritize Ingram, who will be incredibly coveted if he becomes available.
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