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In the eyes of many, NBA preseason games — much like NBA Summer League games — are meaningless. In the win-loss column, those people couldn’t be more correct. And, as they’ll remind you over and over, all too often do the results of these meaningless exhibition games prove to be unsustainable once the regular season begins.
However, if preseason games were meaningless, we wouldn’t be watching. Sure, everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt when starters are either playing reduced minutes or sitting out entirely, and it’s pretty clear most of these guys aren’t going 100 percent yet anyway. These are mostly tune-up games for the established names, but for those looking to breakthrough, they’re the first opportunity to make an impression.
These are the players we’re concerned with today, mostly second- or third-year guys who have stood out during the preseason … and may actually be showing signs of things to come once the real action begins.
Honorable Mentions: Rui Hachimura, Harry Giles, Sekou Doumbouya and Markelle Fultz
5. Talen Horton-Tucker
Talen Horton-Tucker is the breakout star of the preseason thus far, averaging 23.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.7 steals per game over three contests. He’s been incredibly efficient too, shooting 53.3 percent from the field, 45.5 percent from 3-point range (on 3.7 attempts per game) and 89.5 percent from the foul line (on a healthy 6.3 attempts a night). He’s gotten LeBron James’ endorsement, and considering this is only his second year, he’s going to be legit.
However, he’s also been playing 34.4 minutes a night, and we just can’t see that continuing for the defending champs once the games matter. The Los Angeles Lakers have been resting a lot of guys in preseason, so once Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso are on the floor again, will Horton-Tucker keep getting these opportunities? Maybe, but at the very least, his role will be reduced enough to drop him to the bottom spot on out list.
4. De’Andre Hunter
De’Andre Hunter’s rookie season was … fine, but with Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari being brought in, it was clear the Atlanta Hawks wanted more firepower and experience on the wing. How that rotation shakes out along with Kevin Huerter remains to be seen, but for the time being, Hunter is doing everything in his power to state his case for keeping his starting job.
In three preseason games, all starts, the second-year forward has put up 18.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, shooting a blistering 56.3 percent from the floor and 56.3 percent from downtown (on 5.3 attempts). He’s gotten to the foul line 4.3 times per game, and if this kind of production continues, the Hawks have a very strong, sharpshooting wing rotation to look forward to.
3. Coby White
Coby White has started all three preseason games for the Chicago Bulls — even their debut, when Tomas Satoransky played — and much like he did last year, he’s made the most of expanded minutes.
Averaging 20.7 points, 4.7 assists and 3.0 rebounds in just 27.7 minutes per game, White is looking more and more like the franchise’s long-term plan at the 1-spot. He’s shot 53.7 percent from the floor, 57.9 percent from 3 (on 6.3 attempts per game), and his numbers are eerily similar to what he put up over the final nine games of last season, when he posted 26.1 points per game on 42.3 percent shooting from deep before the coronavirus pandemic ended Chicago’s year.
2. Christian Wood
Christian Wood has only played one game for the Houston Rockets, but it confirmed everything we already suspected: This kid is going to turn starting role on a playoff-caliber team into a breakout year. That “playoff-caliber” part may or may not change depending on what happens with James Harden, but either way, Wood will play a prominent role on both ends for this team.
In his preseason debut on Thursday, Wood put up 27 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block and 1 steal in 27 minutes, shooting 10-for-18 from the field and 2-for-6 from downtown. For a guy who averaged 22.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 blocks per game on 56.2 percent shooting from the floor and 40 percent from 3 in 13 games last year after the Detroit Pistons traded away Andre Drummond, a breakout season from Wood shouldn’t surprise anyone.
1. Zion Williamson
I mean, duh.
Like Christian Wood, Zion Williamson has only played one preseason game. And, much like Wood, we don’t really care, because that one game was good enough to confirm what we already figured would be the case: Zion is going to be really special this season if he can stay healthy.
In his only preseason outing, Williamson posted 26 points, 11 rebounds and 2 assists in 33 minutes. That last figure is important, since the former Duke phenom only matched that minutes total six times in his limited rookie season. The fact that he shot 8-for-13 from the field and 10-for-11 from the foul line is just icing on the cake, since the biggest thing for him is availability.
If Zion is ready for a heavier workload, and his ultra-athletic body can sustain it over the course of a 72-game regular season, the New Orleans Pelicans will be delighted by what they see. The fact that he’s 1-for-1 in actually playing in Pelicans games is a good start. We’ll see if it holds with two more games left on New Orleans’ schedule, but even if it doesn’t, that’s the beauty of preseason!
Who are the most interesting players in the Eastern Conference? Jared Dubin took a look at each team’s most interesting guy for The Step Back … and then he did the same thing for the West!
The regular season hasn’t started yet, but it’s never too early to digest the latest NBA Power Rankings.
If you’re looking for an even more detailed power rankings breakdown, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor ranked the NBA’s bottom-10 teams in Part 1.