Brandon Ingram rises for a left-handed dunk vs. Memphis guard Dillon Brooks

Southwest Division roundtable: Players to watch in Orlando

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

In addition to being the only division in the NBA with 100 percent team participation in the league’s resumption of play, the Southwest Division features a handful of 2020 NBA All-Stars, as well as the two frontrunners for Rookie of the Year. An ultra-competitive group of franchises that already boasted the likes of James Harden and Luka Doncic received another influx of talent last offseason, when Russell Westbrook, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant arrived.

To break down some of the most interesting players to follow in Central Florida, Pelicans.com checked in with our five-person panel. As always, the roundtable features TV broadcaster Mark Followill (Dallas), radio broadcaster/PA announcer Matt Thomas (Houston), writer Michael Wallace (Memphis), writer Jim Eichenhofer (New Orleans) and writer Michael C. Wright (NBA.com, covering San Antonio for this reoccurring feature).

From the standpoint of having the most to gain, which players on your team’s roster should be most eager to finish this season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

The obvious answers to me are Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. They’re the cornerstones of the franchise's future and need to get their first taste of the NBA Playoffs even under these never-seen-before conditions.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Eric Gordon has battled injuries and inconsistent shooting all season. He admitted last week that it’s hard to play with explosion when your knees aren’t at 100 percent. He had a breakout 50-point game in a win in Salt Lake City earlier this season but there were a lot of nights when EG’s 3-point shot just wasn’t falling. He’s lost 12 pounds and knows the Rockets want to run even faster than they did before the pandemic. Getting consistent points from him every night I believe will make the Rockets one of the top scoring teams in Orlando.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

Ja Morant, easy. Not only does the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft want to become just the third rookie in league history to guide his team to the playoffs as its leader in scoring and assists, but Ja also wants to prove the Grizzlies deserve to be right where they are in the thick of a Western Conference playoff race. The past four months without basketball were like torture for Morant, the frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year. He’s added about 10 pounds of strength and muscle and is eager to be unleashed to finish what he started this season.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

This is quite a lengthy list. Zion Williamson dazzled in his pro debut, but he was only able to appear in 19 regular season games before play was halted. Lonzo Ball was playing the best basketball of his three-year NBA career, showing dramatic in-season improvement and shooting 21/36 from three-point range in the team’s final four March games. First-time All-Star Brandon Ingram will get a chance in critical games to demonstrate why he’s reached another level and is a legitimate Most Improved Player candidate. Then there’s 36-year-old guard JJ Redick, who’ll attempt to extend his perfect streak of reaching the NBA playoffs to 14 years. Redick – along with veterans Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday and E’Twaun Moore – are anomalies on a roster featuring a whopping 10 players who’ve never been to the postseason.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

As of right now, DeMar DeRozan hasn’t informed the team as to whether he’ll decline his player option for 2020-21 and hit free agency (given the current climate of uncertainty, that would be pretty risky). But even with that situation, point guard Dejounte Murray would seem to be the player with the most to gain from the NBA’s re-start. Sure, the Spurs signed Murray to a four-year extension back in October, but we haven’t seen enough from him consistently to really justify San Antonio’s investment. That’s not to say Murray isn’t worth it. His $64 million contract could turn out to be a huge bargain given Murray’s immense potential. Remember, Murray is the player that eventually unseated future Hall of Fame point guard Tony Parker. But the very next season (2018-19), Murray tore his right ACL in October, which forced him to miss the entire year.

When Murray returned to start this season, you could tell he still wasn’t all the way back yet from the injury. At one point this season, the brass actually benched Murray. He’s averaged 10.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists -- all career highs -- but Murray possesses the capabilities to be a special two-way threat for the Spurs, which you saw after the All-Star break. My expectation is we’ll see plenty more in Orlando.

Which other players from your team are you the most eager to watch resume his season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

The Mavs have a roster full of players who were having very good seasons and I want to see if they can quickly get back up to speed and replicate the success they were having earlier in the season. Tim Hardaway Jr. moving into the starting lineup was a significant change that produced positive results when he began starting in November. He’s a good fit next to Luka. I hope to see that continue. Seth Curry is second in the league in 3-point percentage so I want to see if he’s back in a hot shooting groove quickly. Certainly a challenge under these circumstances. Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith are players who have taken big jumps forward this season as 3-and-D players and I’m anxious to see those players return to form quickly as well.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

PJ Tucker and James Harden are always top seven or eight in minutes played per game in the NBA. Did the time away from the game do them some good? Robert Covington plays the 5 in this small-ball lineup. Has Mike D’Antoni set up some new plays to implement during training camp that they wouldn’t normally have had time to do in a regular season? Lastly, I’ve come to appreciate Russell Westbrook’s 0-to-60 mph attack of the basket every time I watch him play.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

Justise Winslow. Justise was on the verge of returning from a back injury and making his Grizzlies debut when the season was suspended back in March. The versatile swingman was the centerpiece of Memphis’ trade deadline deals and is expected to be a core piece of the future alongside Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke. Winslow was limited to just 11 games this season, and his spark had fizzled in Miami after four uneven seasons. The Grizzlies represent a fresh start and a seemingly perfect fit for his talents.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

The entire basketball world is eager to see more of what Zion can do in the NBA and enjoy the excitement he brings to every game, but the trip to Orlando also could be invaluable for three other New Orleans rookies. A 29-year-old from Italy, forward Nicolo Melli trailed only Seth Curry in three-point percentage in January and February (minimum 30 successful treys in those months). First-round picks Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker may not log major minutes, but should benefit from this unprecedented “summer league” experience. It will also be interesting to watch Favors anchor a defense he helped improve drastically as ’19-20 progressed. New Orleans was a top-10 team overall based on winning percentage after Christmas.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

Pretty much all of San Antonio’s young guards. Murray was mentioned above, but San Antonio also has exciting young talents in Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV and rookie Keldon Johnson. White missed more than a month due to a foot injury, but still filled in as a starter last season when Murray went down, dropping a career-high 36 points in Game 3 of the opening round of the playoffs against Denver. He’s started just 13 games this season, and like Murray, he hasn’t yet been given that coveted green light from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Then, there’s Walker, who is by far the most explosive player on San Antonio’s roster. Walker came off the bench against Houston on Dec. 3, and scored a career-high 28 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter to lead a comeback win. Walker became the youngest player (20) in franchise history to score at least 25 points off the bench. Johnson, meanwhile, has gone back and forth between the active roster and the G League affiliate. He’s played in just nine games, but San Antonio’s brass is pretty excited about Johnson’s future. Without LaMarcus Aldridge (shoulder surgery) in the mix, San Antonio knows its prospects for making a 23rd consecutive postseason appearance are slim. That’s why the brass plans to use the eight seeding games in Orlando as a tool for evaluation and development. So you’ll see plenty of minutes from the young players.

With no fans at these games in Orlando, we might be able to pick up more on-court sound than usual. Who are the most talkative players on your team?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

Probably Luka Doncic. He speaks three languages between English, Spanish and Slovenian, so who knows what he’ll be saying. I noted before we had Maxi Kleber mic’d up during a game this year and it was great to hear how well he communicates defensively during the game and he’s a very supportive teammate.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

I think Russ is a fun listen. My guess is a few-second delay might be needed on occasion. But the number one thing that will be interesting no matter the game you watch is how much player/referee and coach/referee conversation will be heard. There is spirited back and forth and often times it gets intense. Will the officials allow less criticism because we’ll likely hear more of it than we would during a normal game broadcast?

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks don’t actually say a lot on the court, but they get their money’s worth when provoked. Who could forget Morant knocking down a game-sealing triple over James Harden and yelling “someone better to tell that (expletive) about me!” And don’t expect Brooks to back down from anyone. These two are full of swagger and far from fake tough guys. They’ll stand up for themselves and teammates at every turn. So if any chirping is to be heard from the Grizzlies, don’t be surprised if Morant and Brooks are in the middle of all the banter.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

Reserve Josh Hart seems to enjoy talking to teammates, his own coaches, opponents, ushers, popcorn vendors, opposing fans at road games – you name it. Unfortunately for Hart, he won’t have the opportunity to jaw with front-row spectators in Orlando and deliver trash talk after sinking a corner three-pointer – a common practice for the Villanova product and NCAA champion – but it won’t be surprising to still hear his voice during games. Meanwhile, he’s quiet off the court, but on defense, 10-year veteran Favors is the backline presence teammates rely on to call out instructions and encourage vital communication at that end of the floor. You’ll also likely notice a Pelicans bench that’s always yelling encouragement and coming up with creative ways to celebrate, with Alexander-Walker the leader in the latter category.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

You should know that Pop doesn’t play that talking stuff with his team. So, don’t expect to hear much from the players. In my experience, DeRozan is about the most vocal Spur on the court. But he doesn’t trash talk other players. You usually hear him jawing with referees about missed calls. The best sound the court mics will pick up in Orlando will definitely come from coach Pop, whether it’s him arguing with officials, screaming at his own players, or just joking with opposing coaches and players. This was a pretty funny moment from Pop that sticks out from back in 2015, when he commented on the new blonde hairdo from former Spur George Hill. And you know Pop’s on-court interviews are pretty legendary. You can expect the players to keep the talk to a minimum in Orlando, but you never know what you’ll get from Pop.

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