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Your eyes aren't playing tricks on you; I'm back in the article game.
It's been a long time since I called for the firing of the previous Hornets Head Coach, James Borrego (a prediction that came true a month after my article). If you checked out my prior two write-ups here on KarterKast.com, you'd know I tend to lean on the longer side. No promises on this one, but as college basketball starts up and the NBA season progresses, I’ll be coming out with more quick hitter articles. Without further ado, let's talk NBA.
The NBA season is officially back in full swing, and a few players have caught my eye so far this year. I don't mean the faces of the Association, such as Lebron, Curry, and Giannis – I'm talking about guys who the casual NBA fan forgot still played in the league. Players written off as busts. Forgotten trade pieces that have led my preseason pick for the worst team in the league to the top of the Western Conference standings (I'm looking at you, Danny Ainge.)
Here are three NBA late-bloomers who have proven themselves as reliable options after entering the year with minimal expectations.
The first player on this list is none other than Finnish sharpshooter and former top-10 pick Lauri Markkanen.
Originally picked 7th overall by the Timberwolves in the 2017 NBA draft, Lauri was traded to the Bulls on draft night as part of the Jimmy Butler deal. Markkanen had four years in Chicago where he put up above-average numbers (18.7 PPG and 9 RPG during his sophomore campaign), but his tenure there was riddled with lingering injuries. Many people in the NBA world were ready to write off Markkanen when he was dealt to Cleveland prior to last season. Perhaps surprisingly, Lauri had a sneaky productive year with the Cavs putting up close to 15 points and 6 boards in 61 games as part of their non-traditional lineup that featured three 7-footers.
However, it was the inclusion in the Donovan Mitchell trade that saw Markkanen get shipped to a dumpster fire team in Utah that had the majority of people ready to put a bow on his tenure in the NBA. I went on the KarterKast NBA preview show and declared the Utah Jazz would have the worst record in the Association this season – that take looks ice cold as of now.
The Utah Jazz boast an 8-3 record through their first eleven games and hold sole possession of 2 place in the Western Conference standings. This early success has Lauri Markkanen’s name written all over it. Lauri rotates between all three front court spots for the Jazz, rebounds at a high level, and plays consistent defense – all of this while scoring nearly 22 per game on over 51% from the field. While the Jazz lack a true superstar, they are scrappy and move the ball better than most teams in the league. Their nothing-to-lose mentality has them competing (and winning) against some of the top-tier teams in the NBA.
I know it isn’t the most exciting team to pay attention to, but Lauri Markkanen and the Utah Jazz deserve some recognition for their blistering start to the 2022-23 campaign.
Speaking of the 2017 NBA draft, another Top-10 pick with a lot of buzz surrounding him was N.C. State one-and-done Dennis Smith Jr.
Drafted 9th overall by the Dallas Mavericks, Smith had a solid rookie year averaging 15 points, 5 assists, and 4 rebounds while starting all 69 games in which he appeared. The Mavericks finished 13 in the Western Conference that year, and as I’m sure many of you know, drafted Luka Doncic the following season. This acquisition caused a log jam in the backcourt as Luka and Dennis didn't seem to fit in the lineup together. The All-Rookie PG was traded to the Knicks midway through the 2018-19 season, where he spent the better part of three years.
His tenure with the Knicks left much to be desired – Smith's production dropped significantly during his first full season in New York, and he eventually made stops in Detroit and Portland. Fans and media alike had already pegged Dennis Smith's career in the NBA to be approaching an end, if not finished already. On September 23rd of this year, Smith signed with his hometown team, the Charlotte Hornets. As an avid Hornets fan myself, I had little to no expectations for what Smith would bring to the team.
Fast forward to November, and Dennis Smith has started 8 of 10 games for Charlotte while putting up solid numbers. 11 points and over 6 assists per game while playing 31 minutes has exceeded any expectations I set for him coming into the year. Furthermore, Smith is 5 in the NBA with 2.3 steals per game, shoots 44% from 3-PT range, and LED the league in defensive rating through October 23.
That's right; he held the #1 spot in the NBA in defensive rating through the season's first week. The component of his game that has impressed me the most has been his suffocating defense. I'm not suggesting you watch full replays of Hornets games and critique Smith's on-ball defense, but one play that encompasses his efforts was taking the challenge of stopping Stephen Curry from getting off a game-winning shot when the Warriors visited Charlotte last week.
This crucial stop led to a key Hornets OT victory over Golden State. Even when the starting backcourt of LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier return to the lineup, I expect Dennis Smith Jr. to continue to play a vital role off the bench. Keep an eye on this resurgence as the season progresses!
FINALLY, Bol Bol has been unleashed on the Association this season.
After appearing in only 53 games across three seasons in Denver, Bol has exploded onto the scene with the Orlando Magic. Still only 23 years old, Bol Bol has started 5 of 10 games this year and boasts averages of 11.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, and 2.6 BPG (tied for 2nd in the NBA). Bol has clearly caught the eye of League Pass viewers, including our very own KarterKast founder…
Standing at 7'2" with a 7'8" wingspan, Bol has always been an intriguing prospect. Scouts and fans only had a nine-game sample size of Bol while he was a freshman at Oregon before he entered the 2019 NBA draft. Bol was often classified as a steal in the 2 round based on potential alone. However, he never found his footing with the Nuggets, and I wondered if he would ever get the chance to play meaningful NBA minutes.
Since joining the Magic, Bol has made an immediate impact and even usurped former lottery pick Mo Bamba in the rotation. Bol has recently been a regular in the starting lineup and has looked more comfortable over the last few games.
Keep an eye on the Orlando Magic if you’re ever bored on a random Wednesday night and need to chase the money you lost on MACtion football the night before (definitely not speaking from experience here). With Rookie of the Year favorite Paolo Banchero, budding star Franz Wagner, and late-bloomer Bol Bol, the Magic are one of the more fascinating teams to watch in the Association this year and to keep an eye on over the next few years.
Well, there you have it – my top three NBA late-bloomers to take notice of this season. Shout out to a few honorable mentions that didn’t make the cut: