NBA

NBA 2020-21 season preview: LaMelo Ball and Obi Toppin among players to watch

By Sports Desk December 21, 2020

The 75th NBA season will be different, that is for sure.

Having completed the previous campaign in a Florida bubble due to the coronavirus pandemic, the league starts a reduced 72-game schedule on Tuesday. That is not the only change, though, as a play-in tournament will decide the final two qualification spots in each conference for the playoffs.

So, with free agency long over, trades made and the 2020 draft done and dusted, every franchise starts with a fresh sense of hope and a clean slate.

Ahead of the opening games, here are six players to keep an eye on during the coming weeks and months, including some intriguing rookies and a familiar face now in a new home.

 

LAMELO BALL (CHARLOTTE HORNETS)

Ball will garner plenty of attention in his rookie campaign, even if the guard may have to go through some growing pains with the Charlotte Hornets. 

Selected third in the draft, the brother of Lonzo and LiAngelo has the passing skills and court vision to produce highlight plays. While only 19, it should be remembered he has already played professionally in both Lithuania and Australia. 

His three preseason outings for the Hornets produced averages of 10 points, 5.0 assists and 3.7 rebounds. Dwyane Wade was suitably impressed by what he saw, tweeting: "So breaking news: LaMelo Ball is a problem!"

SADDIQ BEY (DETROIT PISTONS)

Have the Pistons found a gem in Bey, the 19th pick in the draft? The shooting guard went to DeMatha Catholic High School – the same establishment as Victor Oladipo and Markelle Fultz, as well as Jerai, Jerian and Jerami Grant – before moving on to Villanova. 

His final year in college saw Bey shoot 45.1 per cent from three-point range, placing him fifth in the category for Division I players with a minimum of 150 attempts from deep. 

Those numbers offer promise for a Detroit team that averaged 107.2 points per game in the 2019-20 season, ranking them a lowly 25th in the league. 

CARIS LEVERT (BROOKLYN NETS)

The focus in Brooklyn will be on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, as the Nets finally get to put their two big-name free agency recruits from July 2019 in tandem together. 

Still, the dynamic duo will need help. LeVert averaged 27.4 points in five games during March, including shooting 44.1 per cent from three. He can expect to get open looks this season too, with opposing teams more concerned with his superstar team-mates.

While that is a small sample size, the shooting guard's presence has made a clear difference for the Nets in the past. In the 45 games he played last season, the team averaged 114.7 points. That number dipped to 107 when he did not feature. 

CHRIS PAUL (PHOENIX SUNS)

Paul is preparing to start a third straight season on a different team and, while far from a new name, considering he was drafted back in 2005 and is a 10-time All-Star, it will be fascinating to see what difference the veteran point guard can make to the Suns. 

His solitary year with the Oklahoma City Thunder saw him become just the third player to average at least 17 points and 6.0 assists when aged 34 or older. The others to manage that? LeBron James (also last season) and Kobe Bryant (2012-13). 

Now he joins a Phoenix roster that dazzled during their stay in the NBA bubble, despite eventually missing out on the playoffs. Devin Booker should certainly relish having Paul alongside him in the backcourt, while center and former No.1 overall pick Deandre Ayton should also benefit. 

OBI TOPPIN (NEW YORK KNICKS)

Toppin should feel right at home in the NBA; the Brooklyn-born power forward was drafted in the first round by the Knicks. 

The 22-year-old averaged 20 points, 7.5 rebounds and shot 63.3 per cent from the field for Dayton in college basketball last season, numbers good enough to see him named national player of the year. 

Denied the opportunity to have a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, Toppin will hope to make an instant impact in the Big Apple. The opportunity to play regular minutes – whether it be off the bench or as a starter – makes him a real contender to be this season's top rookie performer. 

COBY WHITE (CHICAGO BULLS)

Coby White was a much-needed positive for the Bulls in an otherwise dismal season. They will at least be well rested having not been involved in the Orlando bubble, while Billy Donovan is now in as coach to try and improve results.  

Selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2019 draft, White averaged 13.2 points in his debut season. That is the fourth most by a Bulls rookie since 2000-01, behind only Derrick Rose, Lauri Markkanen and Ben Gordon. 

However, that number rose to 20.9 points (as well as 4.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists) from February 1 onwards – and there have been positive signs from the guard during a shortened preseason, too. 

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    Although this season has a different feel due to the new play-in tournament, it's crunch time as LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers eye back-to-back championships.

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    The Stats Perform model takes proprietary data and creates an offensive and defensive rating for each team.

    Those ratings are paired with the team's opponent and adjusted for each team's pace. In addition, the home team get a slight boost for home-court advantage.

    The model uses this information to calculate a projected score for both teams. The winners receive a victory in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy – this was done for every game in the playoffs.

    So, here are the AI-generated results in the event that the play-in winners are the Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards.

     

    Suns sizzle as Lakers crash out, Heat stun Bucks in sweep

    Much has been made about the Phoenix Suns this season. Led by All-Star Devin Booker and star veteran Chris Paul, the franchise returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10. Second behind the Jazz in the Western Conference, the Suns ease past the Lakers 4-1. Winning the opening three games 120-93, 90-88 and 105-104, Phoenix never look back as they end the Lakers' quest to land consecutive championships for the first time since 2009-10.

    The Milwaukee Bucks loaded up heavily in the offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday to aid two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in his quest for a title and the franchise's first since 1971. But after trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and semi-finals, the third-seeded Bucks are sensationally swept 4-0 by last season's runners-up the Miami Heat.

    Eastern Conference top seed for the first time since 2001, the Joel Embiid-led 76ers flex their muscles 4-2 against the Wizards but it is not easy. Dropping consecutive games to Bradley Beal, Russell Westbrook and Washington, Doc Rivers' Philadelphia rally past the Wizards 112-109, 91-99 and 110-104 to bounce back from last season's first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics.

    Boasting a three-headed monster in Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving, the second-seeded Nets dig deep against the Celtics 4-3 in the east. With all eyes on the star-studded Nets big three following an injury-interrupted regular season, Brooklyn lose two of the opening three matchups but reel off back-to-back victories to set the tone before progressing beyond the first round for the first time since 2013-14 thanks to a 110-91 Game 7 triumph.

    Looking to put last season's playoff capitulation behind them, having sensationally surrendered a 3-1 lead at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semi-finals, Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers make light work of Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks 4-1. A 128-106 rout in Game 1 ignites the Clippers, while the third-seeded Nuggets – spearheaded by MVP favourite Nikola Jokic – are upstaged by the Portland Trail Blazers 4-3. Following in the footsteps of the Clippers, Denver cough up a commanding 3-0 lead as Damian Lillard's Trail Blazers complete a stunning comeback.

    The New York Knicks and their fans have been waiting since 2013 to play postseason basketball. Their playoff return does not disappoint as the fourth seed – spearheaded by All-Star Julius Randle – make the most of their home-court advantage against the Atlanta Hawks to come out 4-3 winners. Trae Young's Hawks race out to a 3-1 lead but the Knicks are not to be denied.

     

    Trail Blazers continue giant-slaying run, Clippers bow out to Jazz as 76ers roll on

    Ranked sixth heading into the playoffs, the Trail Blazers defy their seeding by producing another shock performance, this time outlasting the highly fancied Suns in seven games. Western Conference finalists in 2018-19, Portland humble Phoenix 129-96, 117-86 and 126-92 in Games 1, 3 and 4 to seize the momentum and while the Suns storm back to force a series decider, Lillard, CJ McCollum and the Trail Blazers step up to the plate.

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    Nets conquer 76ers, Jazz rally past Blazers

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    Not since 1997-98 had the Jazz secured a spot in the Finals, having enjoyed back-to-back appearances in the midst of Karl Malone's greatness, but Utah end that drought against Portland. The Jazz overturn 1-0 and 3-2 deficits to finally end the Trail Blazers' fairytale run as Portland fall agonisingly short of their first Finals appearance since 1992.

     

    Jazz make history

    The last five head coaches to win a title in their first year were Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors, 2019), Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers, 2016), Steve Kerr (Warriors, 2015), Pat Riley (Lakers, 1982) and Paul Westhead (Lakers, 1980). Rookie and two-time MVP Nash has been looking to join that list with a Nets side eyeing their maiden championship – having faced a long wait since joining the league in 1976-77.

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    Nick Madrigal had three hits, including his maiden MLB homer and White Sox team-mate Danny Mendick launched his first career grand slam in Minneapolis.

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    The San Francisco Giants trumped the Cincinnati Reds 6-3 behind six shut-out innings from Logan Webb, who gave up six hits, struck out four and walked a batter.

     

    Pillar left bloodied in scary incident

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    Monday's results

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    Los Angeles Angels 7-4 Cleveland Indians
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    The play-in tournament will include teams with the seventh through 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference, starting on Tuesday with the playoffs due to begin on May 22.

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