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7 NBA players having preseason breakouts

Boston Celtics' Marcus Smart, left, blocks out Philadelphia 76ers' JJ Redick, right, during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Philadelphia. The Celtics won 110-102. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Chris Szagola/AP photo

The NBA preseason isn’t a perfect predictor of how things will turn out in meaningful games. Teams often use weird rotations or sit key players completely. Established players will sometimes give less than their best effort. However, when certain guys play unexpectedly well in preseason, they deserve credit.

Two such players are the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma and the San Antonio Spurs’ Joffrey Lauvergne. Both players joined their teams in the offseason with little fanfare, but they have been stellar. FanRag NBA’s Jesus Gomez wrote on Kuzma’s excellent performance, and yours truly put together a piece on Lauvergne’s seamless fit in San Antonio.

Along the lines of Kuzma and Lauvergne, several other players have played at a level that was not expected of them entering the preseason. Not all of them will continue to fare as well in the regular season, but it’s worth checking in on their progress.

JUSTIN HOLIDAY, CHICAGO BULLS

Preseason per-game stats: 26.8 minutes, 16.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.2 blocks, 2 steals, 59.9 true shooting percentage

Is it too much of a stretch to say that Holiday is the Bulls’ best player? Zach LaVine is out, and Robin Lopez and Nikola Mirotic are probably his top healthy competition. I’m going to go with “yes” as the answer to that question for now.

Holiday left the Bulls for the Knicks a summer ago, but now he’s back on a very reasonable two-year, $9 million deal. He was a 3-and-D specialist and hardly got to create any offense in New York with Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis running the show. In the preseason, though, he’s showing a slightly more versatile offensive game. He’s rebounding and defending really well, too.

He still plays with the hustle of a training camp invitee who has an outside shot at making the final roster.

If there’s one player who has helped his Most Improved Player Award stock the most in the preseason, it’s Holiday.

ALEX LEN, PHOENIX SUNS

Preseason per-game stats: 27.3 minutes, 16.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 0.3 assists, 1.3 blocks, 1.3 steals, 73.5 true shooting percentage

People forget that Len was in the conversation for the No. 1 pick in 2013, the year that Anthony Bennett inexplicably went first. He slipped to No. 5, which has helped the big man’s career by tempering expectations a little bit. Either way, he has failed to live up to his draft position.

The preseason has been a revelation for him. He’s been more aggressive around the rim, drawing fouls at an insane rate and rebounding everything in sight. His focus is narrowing onto a simpler offensive role that includes finishing at the rim on putbacks and out of the pick-and-roll.

Len still has some work to do on his passing and his ability to stay out of foul trouble, but the tools are there for him to be an effective big man.

MARCUS SMART, BOSTON CELTICS

Preseason per-game stats: 16.7 minutes, 10.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2 assists, 0 blocks, 1.7 steals, 69.9 true shooting percentage

The most impressive aspect of Smart’s strong preseason might be the following stat: He’s 7-of-12 from 3-point range in 51 minutes of court time. That’s one made 3 per 7.3 minutes, which is considerably better than his mark of one 3 per 25.6 minutes last season. If this development is anywhere near sustainable, Smart instantly becomes much more valuable to the Celtics.

The versatile guard/forward’s 20-pound weight loss is also helping. He looks much lighter on his feet with the ball while retaining his trademark brute strength. By the end of the season, he could be the league’s most versatile defensive player not named Draymond Green.

JEREMY LAMB, CHARLOTTE HORNETS

Preseason per-game stats: 23 minutes, 15.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3 assists, 0.3 blocks, 0.7 steals, 66.5 true shooting percentage

Once upon a time, Lamb was a highly sought prospect. He was a major piece in the infamous Rocket-Thunder deal that sent James Harden to Houston. Many people believed he had a chance to flourish in OKC.

That obviously didn’t happen, and Lamb is now a forgotten man in Charlotte. His 3-point shooting and defense, two things that looked like potential strengths for him coming out of Connecticut, have become weaknesses.

Lamb will have to become relevant again if the Hornets are going to prevent Nicolas Batum’s injury from burying them. He’s the probable starter at shooting guard, and he has played well so far in the preseason, scoring in a variety of ways.

Head coach Steve Clifford is behind the 25-year-old wing and his progress, so don’t be surprised if 2017-18 turns into the best season of his career.

AARON GORDON, ORLANDO MAGIC

Preseason per-game stats: 23.5 minutes, 17.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.5 blocks, 0.5 steals, 59.4 true shooting percentage

The Magic have had a bunch of trouble developing prospects recently. Victor Oladipo, Maurice Harkless, E’Twaun Moore, Tobias Harris, Mario Hezonja and Dewayne Dedmon are all players who didn’t reach their potential in Orlando and/or have gone on to play better for other squads.

2014 No. 4 pick Aaron Gordon was on the verge of making that list until the All-Star break last season. He put up 16.4 points and 6.2 boards per game after the intermission, fueled by a long overdue switch to power forward. His athleticism is more of a mismatch there.

Gordon’s offensive development over the past year has been staggering, especially with his jump shooting. If Gordon is confidently taking and making these shots, most fours have no chance of guarding him.

A breakout year definitely seems to be in the cards for one of the most athletic forwards in the game.

ISH SMITH, DETROIT PISTONS

Preseason per-game stats: 27 minutes, 15.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 block, 1.3 steals, 59.6 true shooting percentage

Smith is the definition of a journeyman. The 29-year-old point guard has been on 10 teams in seven seasons, playing mostly as a backup.

However, he has definitely played like a starter in the preseason. With Reggie Jackson slowly reasserting himself after knee problems and now groin soreness, Smith has responded with major production in a substantial role. His impressive passing abilities set him apart from Jackson, though Jackson has advantages in shooting and overall efficiency.

Keep an eye out for a potential starter battle if Jackson has trouble getting back to form. Eventually, the speedy Smith will probably slide back to a reserve role. But who knows?

RONDAE HOLLIS-JEFFERSON, BROOKLYN NETS

Preseason per-game stats: 22 minutes, 10 points, 6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 0.3 blocks, 1.7 steals, 62.3 true shooting percentage

Somehow, the 22-year-old Hollis-Jefferson is already the Nets’ longest-tenured player in just his third season in the NBA and with the franchise. An ankle injury his rookie year and an inconsistent role his sophomore campaign curtailed his development, but RHJ looks ready for a major step forward in 2017-18.

The athletic forward is now officially a four for Kenny Atkinson’s Nets, who are 3-0 in preseason with a point differential of plus-61. So far, RHJ has wowed his coach with his development. Atkinson says he’s been “thrilled” with the youngster’s performance since the start of training camp and has also been impressed by his consistency, per Greg Joyce of the New York Post.

That lefty shooting stroke may never be particularly impressive, but if RHJ keeps honing his passing and finishing abilities while continuing to be the versatile defensive menace he has been in the preseason, he’ll be a very solid NBA contributor.

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