With the NBA playoffs almost upon us, let’s take another look at some players who have stood out in Orlando. Like last week, a quick disclaimer feels necessary: This is not a ranking of the most impressive players in the seeding games. It is not the all-bubble team. These are just 12 guys — role players, All-Stars and everything in between — who have caught my eye.
Let’s start with the best story on campus.
Devin Booker, Jusuf Nurkic, Bam Adebayo among 12 players …
1. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Booker is having a blast, and he headlines this list because his Phoenix Suns are 6-0 in the bubble and look like a genuinely improved team on both ends. On Monday against the Oklahoma City Thunder he had his third 35-point game in less than a week, and he made all 14 of his free throw attempts.
This is where I could tell you all about how he is more than a bucket-getter, how he makes his teammates better, how he has helped the Suns win even when his 3s weren’t falling … but ESPN’s Zach Lowe covered Booker’s playmaking last week. Instead, look at these finishes — he is shooting 67.9 percent in the restricted area in Orlando, per NBA.com.
Devin Booker, Jusuf Nurkic, Bam Adebayo among 12 players …
2. Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers look like the Blazers again, thanks to Nurkic completely transforming their offense. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed watching him pass.
Nurkic looks like exactly the same player he was before his leg injury, and his chemistry with Damian Lillard on the short roll has never been better. Watching him and former teammate Nikola Jokic zipping the ball around last week, I have to say it is deeply unfair that Nurkic missed last year’s playoff series against Denver. The world needs this matchup.
3. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
By now you’ve seen Adebayo switch onto quick guards, rip rebounds out of opponents’ hands and swat shots into oblivion plenty of times. You’re also surely aware of his passing ability.
Now picture him making these shots:
And picture this happening more often:
Adebayo is becoming more aggressive on offense — he took 18 free throws against the Celtics last week — and he’s working on that jumper. I don’t know if he’ll shoot many of them in this year’s postseason, but it’s coming.
4. Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
Harris has had to stretch his game for this strange iteration of the Nets, which means more driving and dishing, stuff he has been quietly doing for years. He is still shooting a ton of 3s — and making 57.6 percent of them — but I love how he’s asserted himself in other ways Orlando. His two-man game with Jarrett Allen isn’t quite the same as, say, Adebayo and Duncan Robinson, but it has been a weapon for Brooklyn.
Here is Harris the scorer:
And Harris the passer:
5. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
This dude is a joke:
Porter’s shaky defense will be an issue in the playoffs, but he gives Denver an entirely different dimension with his scoring. He is already hitting superstar-type shots with regularity, and he is as dangerous as a cutter, particularly in this system, with Jokic running the show.
And I had no idea that he had this kind of pass in him:
More of that, please.
6. Luguentz Dort, Oklahoma City Thunder
Everybody loves Dort because of his defense. Look at him defending Porter and rejecting Paul Millsap on this possession:
On Monday, though, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder out of the lineup, Dort played some backup point guard. And it wasn’t that surprising, since he clearly has ambitions of being a creator. Some examples from the bubble:
Dort! Dort! Dort!
7. Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns
Monty Williams sure looks smart for promoting Johnson to the starting lineup for the restart. He is giving the Suns exactly what teams want when they draft a prospect turning 24 in his rookie season: a solid, smart role player.
Johnson has benefited from Kelly Oubre’s absence, and he’s a more natural 4 than either Oubre or Mikal Bridges. I’m not sure if he’ll ever have a big role on offense, but he fits extremely well next to Booker and Deandre Ayton and he shows some flashes as a passer:
8. Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs also have a fill-in-the-blanks guy named Johnson. Keldon is more athletic, crazy long, and might wind up starting for them next season, should they choose to fully commit to this youth movement. On defense, he has chased JJ Redick around screens, stripped Tobias Harris in the post and, uh, done this to Joe Ingles:
On offense, the word that comes to mind is “active.” San Antonio won’t call any plays for him, but he scored a career-high 20 points against the Nuggets last week. He has only taken 11 3-pointers in six games, but he has made seven of them and has had some strong finishes on the inside:
9. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
The game-winning 3 on Monday was nice, even if the Lakers should have never needed it to beat the Nuggets on a night LeBron James and Anthony Davis played a combined 76 minutes and Jokic and Jamal Murray played a combined 51. Kuzma is the one Laker, though, who has shot well throughout the restart — he is now 16 for 36 from 3-point range in seven games.
Kuzma has never lacked for confidence, and Los Angeles bet on his upside when it decided not to trade him at the deadline. He looks like an improved defender, and the Lakers will be counting on him on both ends in the playoffs. Let’s see if he can keep this up.
10. Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic
The shooting is still inconsistent, especially from 3-point range, and nobody defends him as if he is a threat on the perimeter … but he’s often able to get where he wants anyway. Here he is against his former team, lofting a lefty layup over Al Horford:
ESPN’s Mike Schmitz did a deep dive on how Fultz has managed to get on the right track, and an assistant coach termed these kind of plays “racing unders” — when he has a runway to the rim, he’s pretty hard to stop.
11. Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors
I am more than comfortable putting Gasol on this list after he scored zero points against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday. At 35, he doesn’t look for his own shot like he used to, but he still has a star-like impact because he does everything else at such a high level. Toronto’s defense has been incredible with him and rough without him, to the point where you have to wonder how far Nick Nurse will be willing to push his minutes in the playoffs.
Also: Once in a while, Memphis Marc comes out, especially if the Raptors’ offense is stuck in mud, like it was against Boston:
12. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
Don’t forget about Jackson just because his season ended prematurely.
“It’s unfortunate because he was playing amazing here in Orlando,” Gasol, his former teammate, said. “He was not only making big shots but also playing with great poise, playing a lot of minutes without fouling and knowing how to use his body defensively a little bit better. So you can see the growth in his game and his maturity. At the same time, he’s only, what, 20, 21? It’s scary.”
Jackson will turn 21 next month. Look at what he did to Nurkic and Zion Williamson off the dribble:
Guys his size typically cannot do that. Or any of this: