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Every NBA Team's Biggest Reason for Hope in Preseason

Greg Swartz

At no point does hope spring more eternal during an NBA season than early October.

With media day and training camps now completed and the preseason just beginning, every team has at least some reason to be optimistic, at least before the real games get underway.

Be it key players returning from injuries, guys thriving in new roles, improved offseason skill sets or new roster additions, there's hope blossoming in gyms all across the league.

While we're going to ignore some of the obvious ones (yes, having a player like Luka Doncic technically is the Dallas Mavericks' biggest reason for hope), it's time to take a spin across the NBA to find what every fan base should currently be optimistic about.

Atlanta Hawks: John Collins Is Still Here!

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While adding Dejounte Murray via trade this offseason was the biggest W the Hawks could have hoped for, simply keeping Collins was an important (yet unlikely?) outcome as well.

The topic of more than a few trade rumors over the past few years, Collins is the perfect floor-stretching, lob-catching big this roster craves playing alongside now two elite playmakers in Trae Young and Murray.

His gravity as a roll man is going to open up more three-point shots for the rest of the Hawks roster, including rookie AJ Griffin, one of college basketball's best three-point shooters at 44.7 percent.

With three years and a player option remaining on his deal, there's no reason for Atlanta to move the 25-year-old. Hawks fans should be thrilled that Collins is still on the roster, as he could thrive as the third star next to what's become one of the most talented backcourts in the NBA.

Boston Celtics: Joe Mazzulla Can Keep the Ship Afloat

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With the Celtics looking like one of the NBA's truly elite teams following a trip to the NBA Finals, losing head coach Ime Udoka to a season-long suspension was certainly a shock leading into the 2022-23 season.

Finding stability is key especially with how potentially successful this new year could be, and Mazzulla should be more than ready to keep the Celtics at the top.

An assistant with Boston for the past three seasons, Mazzulla was a finalist for the Utah Jazz head coaching job this summer and has the respect of this locker room.

"I love Joe," Jayson Tatum said of Mazzulla before Game 6 of the Finals, per ESPN's Tim Bontemps. "You could tell how passionate [he is] about the guys and his craft. He's gotten so much more knowledgeable, more detailed, just vocal. More comfortable in his role as a coach. You've seen growth from his first year."

Having a coach who's been with the staff and knows the players now leading the Celtics was important, as opposed to bringing in someone from the outside.

This wasn't the start to the season anyone in Boston would have wanted, but Mazzulla is more than capable of getting the Celtics back to the Finals.

Brooklyn Nets: Ben Simmons and Joe Harris Are Healthy, Playing in Preseason

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Simmons and Harris played in just 14 combined games last season between back and ankle surgeries, yet both have been medically cleared and even started in Brooklyn's first preseason game.

This is huge for a Nets team that simply didn't have enough help around Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving during their first-round exit against the Boston Celtics last spring, as both Simmons and Harris are two of the best players in the world at what they do.

Simmons was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year the last time he was healthy and has the versatility to defend all five positions, necessary for a Nets team that doesn't feature many plus-defenders.

Harris led the NBA in three-point shooting during two of his past three healthy seasons, connecting on 47.4 percent of his outside shots in 2018-19 and 47.5 percent in 2020-21.

Between Simmons' playmaking and Harris' shooting, this could be the best offense in the NBA with both healthy.

Charlotte Hornets: P.J. Washington Primed for a Career Year

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With Miles Bridges' qualifying offer expiring and his future with the team very much in doubt, this gives Washington a chance to truly break out in year four.

The 24-year-old will almost certainly be the Hornets' starting power forward this season and has received some nice praise from head coach Steve Clifford, per SI's Schuyler Callihan:

"He's going to be a big part of this team. If we're going to take a step and become a legitimate playoff team, he's going to be on the floor 28-30 minutes and he's going to be a big part of it. He can play well at both ends of the floor. He gives you roster versatility because he can play the 4 or the 5. And he can also defend different perimeter players. He's a talented player, and I think he finished last season on a good note and he's had a good summer."

In 146 career games as a starter, Washington has averaged 12.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks and made 37.3 percent of his threes. He'll likely be called on to score even more without Bridges, the Hornets' leader at 20.2 points per game last season.

Entering a contract year, we could see a breakout coming from Washington now in an increased role.

Chicago Bulls: Zach LaVine's Athleticism and Pop is Back

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Zach LaVine will once again be a driving force to the Bulls' success, although the two-time All-Star had to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of May. Given that Lonzo Ball is currently sidelined following his own knee surgery, having a healthy LaVine is even more important to begin the year.

The good news? Head coach Billy Donovan said that LaVine's "athleticism/pop" is back, and that "he's put good size on, good strength. He looks like a different player to me," per NBC Sports Chicago's Rob Schaefer.

This is a huge relief given that the 27-year-old signed a five-year, $215 million max deal this summer and is coming off a season where he averaged 24.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists.

If LaVine's knee problems are behind him and he continues to grow as a defender, he could be one of the best wings in the NBA this season.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Donovan Mitchell Wants to Prove He Can Defend

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Trading for Donovan Mitchell was a huge swing for a Cavs team looking to break through in the East, but it has also brought some defensive concerns now with a backcourt of him and Darius Garland.

Mitchell has ranked in just the 9th and 15th percentiles in defensive swing rating the past two seasons, with the Utah Jazz allowing 6.1 and 4.6 more points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. This is a far cry from Mitchell's rookie season, where he ranked in the 81st percentile, with the Jazz defense giving up 3.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him in the game.

It's an area that Mitchell admits he can get better in.

"It's not the ability," Mitchell said, per The Athletic's Kelsey Russo. "I can play defense. I know that for a fact. I haven't shown that and that is what I'm looking forward to doing here."

If the All-Star guard can get back to being an above-average defender now that he doesn't have to do as much on offense, these Cavs will once again possess a top-five defense overall.

Dallas Mavericks: Tim Hardaway Jr. Is "100 Percent Healthy" Following Foot Surgery

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After losing Jalen Brunson in free agency, the return of Tim Hardaway Jr. from foot surgery is a needed offensive boost to the franchise.

The 30-year-old shooting guard hasn't played in a game since Jan. 25 and had surgery in early February, yet he now states that he's "100 percent healthy" to begin the season.

Hardaway essentially split his time between starter and key reserve last year and could find himself in a similar role now depending on if head coach Jason Kidd eventually decides to stagger his ball-handlers in Luka Doncic and Spencer Dinwiddie.

If Hardaway can get back to his 2020-21 form when he averaged 16.6 points and shot 39.1 percent from deep, he'll be a third or fourth offensive option on any given night.

Denver Nuggets: The Returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

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Besides having arguably the best player in basketball in Nikola Jokic, Denver's biggest reason for hope is the return of its next two biggest stars.

Both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are back and playing in the preseason after missing all or nearly all of last season. The pair combined to score 22 points in 29 minutes in the Nuggets' first preseason game, shooting 9-of-14 (64.3 percent) overall and 4-of-7 (57.1 percent) from three.

Having all three players available makes the Nuggets a title contender given the elite offensive level this group can now reach. After ranking sixth overall in offense a season ago with only a healthy Jokic, the Nuggets are B/R's pick to finish first this year with all three active.

It may take some time for both to be able to play back-to-backs on a regular basis and get their rhythm, but simply having Murray and Porter active to begin the preseason is huge for Denver.

Detroit Pistons: Killian Hayes Showing Signs of Improvement

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Lost in the excitement with rookies Jaden Ivery and Jalen Duren, along with a talented young core that also features Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, is the potential play of third-year guard (and still just 21-year-old) Killian Hayes.

Hayes has struggled throughout his first two years, looking like one of the NBA's worst offensive players in terms of creating his own shot. His averages of 6.8 points on 37.4 percent overall and 26.8 percent from three have the No. 7 overall pick of the 2020 draft already flirting with "bust" status. With Cunningham and Ivey likely making up the starting backcourt, Hayes may have to fight just to keep a spot in the rotation.

That being said, Hayes has reportedly stood out in scrimmages, knocking down shots and forcing turnovers with his 6'5" frame.

Hayes may never justify being taken so high in the draft, but that doesn't mean he can't be a useful NBA player, either. If he can elevate his shooting efficiency to even an average level while being a plus defender and second-unit playmaker, there's a role for him on an up-and-coming Pistons team moving forward.

Golden State Warriors: James Wiseman's Terrific Preseason Debut

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An already loaded Warriors team adding a healthy James Wiseman to the mix this season should be terrifying to the rest of the league.

After missing last year because of knee surgery, Wiseman played for Golden State in summer league and opened up the preseason with a team-high 20 points (on 72.7 percent shooting) to go along with nine rebounds, a block and an assist in 24 minutes against the Washington Wizards.

The 7-footer served as a deterrent at the rim and pick-and-roll partner with Stephen Curry, and he was able to finish over opponents for some emphatic dunks.

No offense to Kevon Looney, who's been an underrated part of the Warriors' success the past seven seasons, but Wiseman's All-Star ceiling is going to be tough to keep on the bench for long.

Houston Rockets: Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green's Ceiling in Year 2 Together

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As exciting as the frontcourt is now in Houston with Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Şengün, it's the guard tandem of Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr. that will decide just how good the Rockets are this season.

The pair now have a year of experience playing alongside each other, and both can take on the role of primary playmaker or scorer at any given time.

Coming in fourth in Rookie of the Year voting despite being the No. 2 overall pick in 2021 should provide motivation for Green, while Porter is playing for his first big contract with restricted free agency coming up next summer.

If both can improve their shot selection, limit turnovers and take steps forward defensively, this could quickly become one of the best guard duos in the NBA.

Indiana Pacers: Tyrese Haliburton Embracing Role as Team Leader

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Tyrese Haliburton played extremely well as the starting point guard following his February trade to the Pacers, especially considering he was living in a hotel and was just uprooted from the only NBA home he'd ever known in Sacramento.

Now the 22-year-old has had time to settle in as the new face of the franchise, one that's not used to rebuilding. So far, so good, as Matthew VanTryon of the Indianapolis Star writes:

"But he's found a house in Indianapolis, and he's made it his home. He's been active in the community (though he doesn't take credit for the Colts' win over Kansas City on Sunday, despite banging the anvil before the game). He's gelled with his teammates. He's ready to learn, and he's ready to lead."

With so much uncertainty surrounding the team with Myles Turner and Buddy Hield in trade talks, Haliburton is the rock of a franchise that desperately needs one.

Los Angeles Clippers: Kawhi Leonard Is Officially Back

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Of all the star players returning from injury this year (Zion Williamson, Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., etc.), perhaps no one means more to their team than Kawhi Leonard.

The two-time Finals MVP is fully recovered from a torn ACL and suited up in Los Angeles' first preseason game, recording 11 points, four rebounds, two assists and two steals in just 16 minutes.

The last time we saw the 31-year-old forward, Leonard had a swing rating of plus-12.6 (97th percentile) and averaged 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.6 steals and shot 51.2 percent overall.

A healthy Paul George is also important, but having Leonard surrounded by a supporting cast this deep and talented would still make the Clippers a title threat. He's that good.

Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis as a No. 1 Option

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While questions swirl around Russell Westbrook's future in Los Angeles and 37-year-old LeBron James' ability to dodge Father Time, nothing really matters for the Lakers this season if Anthony Davis isn't healthy and producing like a No. 1 option.

As Chris Haynes writes: "Those close to Davis shared with Yahoo Sports that the forward had his best summer of training. There has always been chatter about Davis leading the Lakers for a full season, but those close to him believe he has positioned himself to do so this year."

Davis has played just 76 total games the past two seasons and ranked dead last in three-point shooting (18.6 percent) among the 321 NBA players who attempted at least 70 total threes or more.

If Davis looks like the player we saw in the 2020 playoffs (27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.4 blocks, 57.1 percent shooting overall, 38.3 percent from three), the Lakers have a legit shot at the playoffs. If he's more like the injury-riddled power forward of the past two years, it will be another long offseason for L.A.

Memphis Grizzlies: The Rookies Are All Right!

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A young Grizzlies team will be even younger this season thanks to an incoming group of rookies and the departures of veterans Kyle Anderson and De'Anthony Melton. Even Jaren Jackson Jr. could miss the first few weeks or even months of the season following foot surgery, opening up playing time for some of the rookie big men.

While this much inexperience could doom some teams, Memphis' recent history of player development is among the best in the NBA.

A sparkling preseason debut from some of the key members was encouraging, as Jake LaRavia (15 points), David Roddy (18 points, five rebounds), Kennedy Chandler (11 points, eight assists, four steals) and Kenny Lofton Jr. (17 points, five rebounds) all looked good against the Milwaukee Bucks.

With Jackson missing the beginning of the season and backup guard minutes available following the Melton trade, Memphis could have a number of rookies contributing early.

Miami Heat: Kyle Lowry in "Great Shape" to Begin Season

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Following an underwhelming first season in Miami where he missed 19 games, Kyle Lowry is going to have to be better this year for the Heat to remain in the upper echelon of Eastern Conference teams.

The 36-year-old is reportedly in "great shape and in a great frame of mind" now in his second season in South Beach, per head coach Erik Spoelstra, who needs his star point guard back to All-Star form of 2020.

The East is better than it even was a year ago with players such as Donovan Mitchell and Dejounte Murray coming over from the West, and Miami did nothing to replace starting power forward P.J. Tucker.

If Lowry, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are all healthy, this is still a really good team on both sides of the ball, however.

Milwaukee Bucks: Early Opportunities for Jordan Nwora and MarJon Beauchamp

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If there's a bright side to Khris Middleton likely missing the beginning of the season following wrist surgery and newly signed Joe Ingles currently out while recovering from a torn ACL, it's that some of the young Bucks wings will get early playing time.

Jordan Nwora has spent the last two seasons in Milwaukee and recently re-signed on a two-year, $5.8 million deal. He's a talented scorer who dropped a game-high 21 points in the Bucks' first preseason outing while also grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out a pair of assists. With Middleton out, the 24-year-old Nwora may be called on to do some additional scoring early.

MarJon Beauchamp was the 24th overall pick by Milwaukee this summer and is the only roster member under 24 years of age. On such a veteran-heavy team, it's important to have a prospect like Beachamup to develop or use in a future trade, so getting him minutes early with Middleton and Ingles out is an opportunity to showcase the rookie.

There's a lot to like about this Bucks team, especially the potential of both Nwora and Beauchamp as they look for roles early in the year.

Minnesota Timberwolves: The Stagger Plan

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Finding the best way to maximize Minnesota's Big Four of Anthony Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns, Rudy Gobert and D'Angelo Russell will be key to the Wolves' success this season.

According to Chris Hine of the Star Tribune, while all four will start, there's a plan in place to pair Russell with Gobert and Edwards with Towns at all times.

This makes sense, as Russell is the best passer of the group and should be able to find Gobert on a few lobs per game. Lineups that featured both Edwards and Towns had a net rating of plus-4.1 last season as well.

Keeping at least two of the best players on the team on the floor at all times is a recipe for success, especially ones who can complement one another.

New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson's Physical Transformation

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Zion Williamson looked amazing at media day, displaying a slimmer yet still quite muscular physique that should have him wreaking havoc on opposing defenses again this year.

The Pelicans have him listed at 284 pounds, which is a far cry from the 330 that ESPN's Tim MacMahon reported Williamson was at last December when he was recovering from foot surgery.

A healthy Williamson isn't just one of the best young players in the league; he could be a top-10 player, period.

Finding the right balance of mass was always going to be the most important thing for someone of Williamson's size and ability. This is the best he's looked since entering the NBA, giving the Pelicans a real chance at going deep into the playoffs.

New York Knicks: Young Players Will Have "Major Roles," per Tom Thibodeau

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Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau is known for his elite defenses and successful stops with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves before coming to New York.

Playing young talent over veterans, however? Not in his coaching repertoire.

That's why it was so (pleasantly) surprising to hear his declaration for Quentin Grimes and other young players to have "major roles" for the Knicks this season. It's a list that could also include Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Cam Reddish.

There's a lot of young talent to like on this roster, with some of it unfortunately being blocked by players such as Evan Fournier and Julius Randle.

Here's hoping Thibs does the right thing by benching Fournier for Grimes at some point this season, giving New York a better defensive starting five with more upside overall.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Jalen Williams Looking Like a Future All-Star?

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Just because No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren won't be suiting up this season because of a foot injury doesn't mean the Thunder don't have some other intriguing rookies to monitor.

Williams, the No. 12 pick, has looked good in training camp according to teammates, with Kenrich Williams saying that, "J-Dub is gonna be an All-Star one day."

The 21-year-old is a talented scorer and playmaker who should function as a ball-handling sixth man for OKC. He has good size at 6'6" and should make an immediate impact after spending three years at Santa Clara.

Not getting to see Holmgren for another year stinks, but Williams' play this season should help soften the blow.

Orlando Magic: A Potentially Massive Frontline

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While much of the NBA has gone smaller and faster, the Magic could join teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves who are putting more and more size on the floor.

Orlando started a frontline of 6'10" Paolo Banchero, 6'10" Wendell Carter Jr. and 7'0" Mo Bamba in its first preseason game, which may not even be the biggest combo we'll see this season.

Carter mentioned that the team has tried playing him, Banchero and 7'2" Bol Bol together at times and that head coach Jamahl Mosley views them as being positionless.

With 6'9" Franz Wagner able to play on the perimeter and 6'11" Jonathan Isaac returning from injury at some point this season, Orlando could be the biggest team in the NBA.

Philadelphia 76ers: James Harden Finally Getting Settled

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Two years ago, an out-of-shape James Harden showed up late to Houston Rockets training camp while seeking a trade. Last season, Harden failed to sign an extension with the Brooklyn Nets and later pushed for a move to the Philadelphia 76ers.

At last, finally (hopefully), Harden is in an environment where he's settled, happy and, by the looks of it, in really good shape.

The 33-year-old now has a full training camp and preseason to acclimate himself to a team he joined on the fly in February while still managing to average 21.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 10.5 assists.

A healthy, slimmed-down Harden could lead the NBA in assists this season while being the third scoring option on a loaded Sixers roster. After so much uncertainty the last two years heading into the season, we should see the best version of Harden now.

Phoenix Suns: Cam Johnson as the New Starting Power Forward

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The Suns are the most depressing team we've seen in recent history that could still win 60 games.

Part of the bad vibes surrounding the franchise is the Jae Crowder situation, as the veteran is currently away from the team as Phoenix seeks a trade partner.

This negative could quickly turn into a positive, however, as inserting Cam Johnson into the starting lineup gives the Suns an even higher ceiling.

While the four-man combo of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton had a good net rating of plus-8.1 with Crowder as the fifth starter last season, this number skyrocketed to plus-30.7 with Johnson on the floor instead. Although the new projected starting five spent just 95 total possessions together, this was a terrific sign of things to come.

Having an elite shooter like Johnson to space the floor and give Paul and Booker an option to kick out to can take this offense to the next level.

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard's "Burst" Is Back

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Although Damian Lillard struggled to produce at his usual level before undergoing abdominal surgery last year, the Blazers were still 9.8 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor (93rd percentile).

Now healthy, Lillard's "zero-to-sixty" burst is back, according to head coach Chauncey Billups, which is bad news for the rest of the league.

Lillard is still one of the most devastating offensive forces in the NBA and could see even more shots this year with CJ McCollum and Norman Powell now gone.

With a whopping $258.7 million owed to Lillard over the next five seasons following a two-year extension he signed this summer, the health of the 32-year-old is of the utmost importance.

Any chance of making the playoffs with this revamped roster still depends on Lillard's ability to carry a franchise, something he wasn't physically able to do last year. For now, it appears the six-time All-Star is back.

Sacramento Kings: Improved Wing Rotation

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Building up a strong wing group between De'Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis was the biggest need for these Kings, a team that had to start Moe Harkless at small forward for 24 games last season.

After drafting Keegan Murray with the No. 4 overall pick, trading for Kevin Huerter, signing Malik Monk and retaining Harrison Barnes, Sacramento is far better than it was a year ago.

Barnes and Murray will almost certainly start at the two forward positions, with Huerter and Monk battling it out at shooting guard. That's a good amount of scoring and playmaking overall, even if the group could struggle defensively.

This could be the best Kings team we've seen in a decade-and-a-half, thanks in large part to an upgraded wing.

San Antonio Spurs: Gregg Popovich's Coaching Magic

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Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich was refreshingly honest at media day, stating that this Spurs group was not going to take home a title this season. He also pointed out what was important to this group.

"So at this point, the job is really [to] start them out the right way, just like a new baby. Giving that baby all the nutrients it needs to develop properly in the best environment. So that's our goal. Everything else will take care of itself. Whatever success we might have will come from that."

With every season being the potential final one for the 73-year-old, Spurs fans should enjoy the last part of the ride while it lasts.

Young players such as Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, Josh Primo, Jeremy Sochan, Malaki Branham and others should soak up all the knowledge they can now, setting themselves up to have long-lasting and productive careers thanks in part to Pop.

Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes' Three-Point Shooting

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Scottie Barnes checked a lot of boxes en route to winning Rookie of the Year last season, although his three-point shooting (30.1 percent) was one of his few weak points.

If Barnes can become an average or even above-average three-point shooter, his ceiling could shoot past All-Star into an MVP discussion.

"It feels like it's better and he's making more in the rhythm of what we're doing," head coach Nick Nurse said, per Lori Ewing of the Toronto Star. "He's not hesitating to take them at all, the threes. He's still doing the rest of the stuff. He's got that long, slow, strong drive where he puts it in the basket."

After ranking just 15th in total offense a season ago, an improved outside shot from Barnes could make a big difference for Toronto.

Utah Jazz: Collin Sexton's Revenge Tour

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It's been a tough road for Collin Sexton thus far in his young career.

From watching LeBron James leave the Cleveland Cavaliers just days after being drafted by the Cavs to playing on bad teams for three years only to tear his meniscus right as Cleveland started to return to relevancy last season to now being traded to another rebuilding situation in Utah, life in the NBA has been rough for the 23-year-old.

Sexton has always played like he has something to prove, however, and this season should only have him turning up the intensity meter even more.

He should eventually settle into the starting shooting guard spot where shots should be plentiful on a young Utah team. There's no reason why Sexton shouldn't average 20-plus points per game again, letting the league know what he's capable of when healthy.

It's revenge tour time for Sexton, who's never backed down from a challenge.

Washington Wizards: Rui Hachimura Shining Early

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After missing the start of last season for personal reasons, Rui Hachimura had to come off the bench for the Wizards before finally joining the starting lineup on March 19. He went on to average 14.2 points and 5.1 rebounds on 49.0 percent shooting in 13 games, giving hope for a better 2022-23 season.

So far, so good for the 24-year-old, who might be Washington's best chance at a third star next to Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. He put up 13 points and nine rebounds as a starter in the Wizards' first preseason game, following that up with a double-double (11 points and 10 rebounds) while chipping in two assists and two steals in their second.

The No. 9 overall pick in 2019, Hachimura will become a restricted free agent next summer if the two sides can't come to terms on an extension in the next two weeks.

A big year from the versatile forward would go a long way toward boosting Washington into playoff contender status.


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