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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    N'Golo Kante has put fitness worries behind him and is back to doing the work of two people at Chelsea, winning the approval of new boss Thomas Tuchel in the process.

    Kante did not start any of Tuchel's first five Premier League games in charge at Stamford Bridge and was also restricted to a 16-minute cameo in the 1-0 Champions League win at Atletico Madrid.

    However, Thursday's victory by the same scoreline over Liverpool was Kante's third straight appearance in a Premier League XI and he turned in a typically all-action display.

    The 29-year-old France international gained possession 11 times at Anfield, more than any other Chelsea player, while his 14 duels contested were only bettered by Jorginho and Timo Werner (both 16).

    "Super big," Tuchel replied when asked how important it was to have Kante back to his best.

    "It was clear from the first second in training what this guy is capable of doing. It's unbelievable.

    "You see his intensity and in the physical report after matches, you think they maybe tracked two people and put them into one sheet.

    "It's unbelievable in terms of what he delivers, in terms of intensity, in terms of ball recoveries and devotion to a group. This is world class, the highest level, and very, very happy that he's in our squad."

    Despite not enjoying the most memorable season of his career, the two-time Premier League champion and World Cup winner has made more recoveries (200), tackles (76) and interceptions (57) than any other Chelsea midfielder across all competitions.

    Tuchel has an enviable array of options to deploy in the deeper central midfield positions, with the passing accuracy offered by Mateo Kovacic (91.5 per cent) and Jorginho (89) outstripping the less-smooth Kante (86.6).

    These figures widen from Tuchel's first game in charge against Wolves on January 27 onwards, with Kovacic and Jorginho almost identical on 91.5 and 91.3 respectively, while Kante is back on 82.5 per cent. Indeed, no Chelsea player ceded position more frequently than the former Leicester City man (18) against Liverpool.

    However, Kante brings so much to Chelsea in those aspects more associated with his game.

    Despite having restricted game time under Tuchel so far, his per 90 minutes average for recoveries (9), tackles (4.6), interceptions (2.5) and duels won (7.4) are the best of any Chelsea midfielder during this period.

    For context, none of his other counterparts average more than one interception per game, while Jorginho's average of 2.7 tackles is the next best behind Kante.

    "He comes from injury, he will not now play every game 90 minutes before we arrive at the international break," Tuchel said, adding a note of caution.

    "We have to manage him, we do this together with our physical coaches. We have to take care of him so he arrives fit for the international break and, when he comes back, I hope we can rely on him in every game.

    "I'm very, very happy to have him, Kova and Jorginho in defensive midfield. This is exactly the level we need in games of the highest level. I'm super happy with all of them."

    This competition for places is something Tuchel has already seen to be paying dividends.

    "I feel an unbelievable attitude towards training and towards games, I feel the bond between players that is necessary," he added.

    "In the whole world where football is played, the teams that stand out are the teams that fight for each other, who are ready to sacrifice, who are happy for each other, who push each other from the bench. This is exactly what I found."

  • Flick backs Haaland to dominate football ahead of Der Klassiker: The future can belong to him Flick backs Haaland to dominate football ahead of Der Klassiker: The future can belong to him

    Bayern Munich coach Hansi Flick made no secret of his admiration for Borussia Dortmund's Erling Haaland ahead of Der Klassiker, backing the Norway international to dominate the future of the sport.

    Haaland has enjoyed a rapid rise since establishing himself as first choice at Salzburg for the start of the 2019-20 season, his remarkable haul of 28 goals in just 20 matches for the Austrians propelling him to top of many big clubs' transfer shortlists.

    But, while the likes of Manchester United were keen on Haaland, Dortmund persuaded him to make the move to Signal Iduna Park, where he has been an overwhelming success.

    In 45 matches across all competitions, Haaland has 43 goals, while he outperformed his xG (expected goals) by 4.2 in the second half of 2019-20 after joining Dortmund, meaning not only is he scoring frequently but he is also finishing more difficult opportunities – by comparison, Robert Lewandowski has not boasted such a strong xG differential since 2016-17 (7.8).

    In three previous games against Bayern – two in the Bundesliga and one in the DFL-Supercup – Haaland has two goals, but he is yet to end up on the winning side against them with BVB.

    Nevertheless, Flick is well aware of the threat posed by the Molde youth product, with Bayern facing the prospect of potentially being replaced at the Bundesliga summit by RB Leipzig if Dortmund leave the Allianz Arena with all three points on Saturday.

    "Haaland is what a centre-forward has to be," Flick said.

    "He has an enormous hunger for goals. The future could belong to him because he has everything he needs for it.

    "He's fast, has a strong finish and the right mentality. When you see the intensity with which he puts on a sprint over 80 metres – it's great. He's someone you always have to watch out for.

    "It's very important to close the spaces for him. We have to cut off those passes to him."

    Flick was also asked about the situation of backup goalkeeper Alexander Nubel, who arrived on a free transfer from Schalke last year having established himself as one of the world's most-promising young goalkeepers.

    It was always seen as a potentially risky move for Nubel given the presence of Manuel Neuer, who has gone on to put his injury nightmares behind him and once again cement himself as Bayern's number one.

    Nubel's agent recently underlined his client's frustration with the situation and suggested he would look to secure a loan move away from Bayern if things did not change, and Flick showed little sympathy in his response.

    "Those are things that we talk about internally – we will have an exchange," Flick said. "But we have no business talking about that here.

    "His point of view is his right. Alex knew what he was getting into when he came to Bayern Munich. My job as coach is to pick the players who are currently the best team. He played two games and now he's injured.

    "The clear number one is Manuel Neuer."

  • Klopp will keep talking to Salah but Liverpool boss sees no need for 'proper talk' Klopp will keep talking to Salah but Liverpool boss sees no need for 'proper talk'

    Mohamed Salah has not given Jurgen Klopp sufficient reason to sit down for "a proper talk" about his Liverpool future, the Reds boss insists.

    Egypt forward Salah has been a key figure at Anfield since joining from Roma in June 2017, winning the Champions League and Premier League under the guidance of manager Klopp.

    This season has seen speculation that Salah may not be as happy with Liverpool as they are with him, amid rumours he could consider leaving the club.

    When Klopp substituted Salah 62 minutes into Thursday's league clash with Chelsea, body language suggested  was far from happy with no longer being out on the pitch.

    Liverpool, who were 1-0 down at the time of the change, could not find an equaliser and slid to a fifth successive home defeat in the Premier League, a result that damages their prospects of Champions League involvement next season. On Sunday they face Fulham, again at Anfield.

    Asked how he would stave off any problem with Salah, Klopp said: "Talking, that's how it always is. I'm not even sure if this situation is now the reason for a proper talk about it.

    "Because there were different things. We are 1-0 down, that makes no player happy, you go off and you cannot react how you react in different ways because you are not happy about the game.

    "You are a striker and you think you should stay on the pitch, that's completely clear and not an issue. It's just normal life. These things are not our problem."

    Salah has had 16 shots of which seven have been on target across his last seven appearances, having had 26 attempts and 13 on target in the seven previous games, 

    That suggests form reflective of Liverpool's overall decline since the turn of the year.

    They have lost eight matches in 2021 already; however, Klopp says he has no issues with Salah's productivity this season, describing his goalscoring as "absolutely outstanding".

    And there he has a strong point, with Salah already bagging 24 goals in 37 games during this campaign, compared to 23 in 48 last term.

    He is set to finish well short of the 44 in 52 games he achieved in 2017-18, his first season with the Reds, but so far this campaign he is matching his 'big chance' conversion rate from that season.

    Salah took 28 of his 56 big chances in 2017-18 and has put away 16 of 32 this season, for 50 per cent hit rates in each campaign.

    He is creating fewer chances this season, however, down from an average of 1.8 last term and a debut-season high of 2.12 to a more modest 1.48 per game.

    Klopp suggested giving Salah a rest on Thursday could benefit Liverpool in games to come, as he repudiated any suggestion of unrest in their relationship.

    "I could have changed other players as well, that's true," Klopp said.

    "It was more about who we bring on. He looked for me like he felt intensity. He probably saw it completely different. That's absolutely fine.

    "Half an hour without Mo Salah, maybe that's the reason why he can play on Sunday as well. We make these decisions in the moment, and not with any thoughts in behind.

    "The problem is you have to explain it after the game. These kind of stories, so far they didn't happen. I cannot guarantee for the future for all time that it will never happen, but these kind of discussions, we never had.

    "I make a decision, the boys accept it. We came together to the top and we came together to the point here, and we will sort it together.

    "I cannot not change a player just because it creates a story afterwards. You do it because you think in the moment it's right and you are allowed to judge it afterwards if it was right."

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