Forget LeBron & Giannis, these are NBA players who need to show out in 2020-21

Forget LeBron & Giannis, these are NBA players who need to show out in 2020-21

BOTH KD and Kyrie will need to succeed to make the Nets the contender many think they are.
BOTH KD and Kyrie will need to succeed to make the Nets the contender many think they are.
Image: Getty Images

Just as the headline reads.

More than anyone else, these are the NBA players who have a ton riding on 2020-21, and how it will impact their immediate futures, for varying reasons.

Let’s take a look:

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Trae Young, G, Atlanta Hawks

Trae Young, G, Atlanta Hawks

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Image: Getty Images

It’s all on him this season.

Fairly or unfairly, Young will be the divisive star quarterback equivalent who receives an exceeding amount of credit or blame however the Hawks’ season unfolds. The third-year talent will no longer be defined by Twitter highlights as opposed to the wins he does or doesn’t account for. For a guy who had no one to celebrate with immediately after sinking a game-winner against the Milwaukee Bucks as a rookie, the Hawks found a lot of free agents to play with Young in 2020-21; so much so we’re expecting a playoff or bust season.

This offseason, the Hawks brought in Rajon Rondo, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danillo Gallinari, and Kris Dunn, among others. As of this writing, 538 projects the Hawks as a nine-seed, giving them a spot in the four-team play-in and placing them just two wins from the seven spot. Having Atlanta in the playoffs would also indicate that the team would have had their best season since 2016-17, when they finished 43-39, which earned them their most recent playoff berth. With Young, the Hawks won 24 and 29 games the last two seasons. Even in a condensed 72-game ledger, 30-42 won’t cut it. Young could average 29.6 points with 9.3 assists and be an All-Star starter again, but if his team isn’t in the playoffs, we’ll be indifferent to his dynamism. (The Hawks will also decide whether or not they’ll max him out next summer or wait until after his fourth season.)

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R.J. Barrett, G, New York Knicks

R.J. Barrett, G, New York Knicks

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Barrett’s the only player on this list who is not expected to be seen the playoffs this year. However, if that swings positively in his favor, he will be the primary reason. Unless the Knicks significantly overachieve, they’ll have a similar season to last year, toiling away near the bottom of the NBA, scrapping for glimpses of development and goodwill ahead of next offseason. More than 2020 top pick Obi Toppin, Barrett is the key to accelerating that, along with head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Barrett doesn’t turn 21 until June, and now entering his second NBA season, he’ll have the keys to the orange and blue Toyota Camry, unless Julius Randle wishes to remain in the driver’s seat against better judgement. But Randle has a team-option for next year, making him a likely trade piece moving forward. With or without Randle, Barrett needs to be allowed to sink or swim. To have growing pains play out before all of us. Thibodeau needs to know what he has in his franchise cornerstone. And, because Elfrid Payton is starting at point guard, for now, Barrett should be allowed to be the team’s leading playmaker as well. Going into what is still a robust free agency class with cap space — ideally for guys to join him — Barrett needs to prove he’s worth it more than anyone else.

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DeAndre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns

DeAndre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns

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Similar to his draft classmate, Young, Ayton is vying for a significant role on a playoff (not championship) contender, as well as a potential max contract. His counting stats look fantastic: 17.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, and his 57 percent shooting from the field in 109 career games is nice. Yet, perhaps it’s because of Luka Dončić (and Young) following him in that 2018 draft, or maybe it was the 25-game PED suspension early last season, he’s viewed as a disappointment by some.

Devin Booker has solidified himself as an all-star who wants to win, as evident by his Bubble performance, leading the Suns to an 8-0 record, just missing the playoffs. New acquisition Chris Paul is coming off an All-NBA Second-Team honor, powering a less-talented Thunder roster to a five-seed in the Western Conference. Ayton, as the first overall pick from that 2018 draft, has to prove he’s a reliable top-three option for a team that expects to be in the playoffs out west. The Paul addition should aid Ayton more than it does Booker, but the 7-footer has to answer the call for him to take that next-step as a winner.

As written following the Paul trade, Ayton and Booker, as it stands now, are enough to make the playoffs, but Ayton’s development could place the Suns over the top.

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Kevin Durant, F, & Kyrie Irving, G, Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant, F, & Kyrie Irving, G, Brooklyn Nets

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Image: Getty Images

This is more obvious than saying Teanna Trump was most likely talking about Paul George that one time, and that other time.

Now that you’re back from that rabbit hole, yeah, Durant and Irving gotta prove it now. The two all-stars signed to join the Nets on June 30, 2019, and have played a combined 20 regular-season games ever since, all of them Irving’s from 2019-20 before season-ending shoulder surgery. We knew Durant wouldn’t play because of his ruptured Achilles, suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals, but he’s back now and looks much like the Durant of old.

But it’s easy to suggest they’re already “back” in the early portion of the season. The real test is for Durant and Irving to be healthy all season long. Will Kyrie twist his knee in January? Will Durant’s Achilles be sore in February? Will either not finish the season, especially Irving, who hasn’t completed three of his last six seasons due to injury? And, of course, whether or not the experiment works all season long is in question. This partnership is clearly in a championship-or-bust window, but really, their best shot at a title is now, because the NBA is difficult to project due to yearly turnover. In the Eastern Conference alone, the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, and Philadelphia 76ers will all have something meaningful to say about Brooklyn’s title aspirations.

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Zach LaVine, G, Chicago Bulls

Zach LaVine, G, Chicago Bulls

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There’s a lot that LaVine will answer to, one way or another. Is he an empty stats guy? Is he actually overlooked? Could he be a floor raiser and lead a team to the playoffs? Is he even the problem?

LaVine will earn $39 million between these next two seasons, which also makes him a trade chip due to the short-term nature of his deal. He’s averaged nearly 25-5-5 over his last two seasons, but has also had a usage rate of over 30 during that stretch. Last year’s career-high

usage rate of 31.7 placed him ninth in the NBA behind eight of the league’s best 20-25 players. Similarly in 2018-19, LaVine was 11th with a usage of over 30, but among those ahead of him, were elite NBA talents, plus Lou Williams and D’Angelo Russell, that season’s Sixth Man of the Year, and an Eastern Conference All-Star. Despite LaVine’s All-Star level production, and even shooting percentages from the field, three and free-throw line, he tallied around 46-38-82 these last two seasons, yet hasn’t gotten the same recognition.

Why? Likely because the Bulls have won 22 games in each of those seasons. It would help if Lauri Markkanen steps forward and not backward, and if Wendell Carter Jr. remains healthy, and if Coby White proves to be a viable running mate. But if the Bulls vastly underwhelm again, LaVine might not only be disregarded once more, but he could even be traded. (Might not be the worst thing for him either.) Still, the Bulls were a sexy playoff choice last season, and we’ll look to LaVine to determine whether they’ll enter that discussion in 2020-21.

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James Harden, G, Houston Rockets

James Harden, G, Houston Rockets

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Man, wherever he ends up, this dude has to perform.

Harden has been the most significant NBA talking point for weeks, primarily because of his trade request. On this site alone, it’s been covered why Brooklyn’s best option in landing Harden would be to actually include Irving, though, they never would. Then, there was Harden’s trade list growing beyond Brooklyn and Philly, to Miami and Milwaukee. And then I did something on the Rockets being the ones with actual leverage here. And, speculation grew between the Heat and Rockets due to Giannis Antetokounmpo earning his supermax deal from Milwaukee. (The Heat shouldn’t make that deal right now, though.)

We don’t know where Harden will go, and whether or not he’ll even be traded, because it’s still possible that fences are mended, and or, John Wall and Christian Wood help elevate the team beyond expectations.

Still, regardless of Harden getting what he wants is insignificant compared to the fact that he has to produce, and win, this season. For years, after having amazing regular seasons, including one MVP award, Harden’s gotten everything he’s wanted, torched the league from October through April, and flopped in the playoffs.

A trade won’t shake the pressure off the bearded one, even if he gets what he wants one more time.

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