It’s official, folks. A 2019-20 champion will be crowned. The NBA’s board of governors voted to approve the league’s return in Orlando, Florida starting July 31. Twenty-two squads in total (13 from the West, nine from the East) are slated to participate in eight regular season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the eight seeds and a postseason at Walt Disney World Resort.
The heightened stakes and intensity of playoff hoops has a varying effect on the world’s most talented players. Some tend to shrink under the bright lights, and understandably so. The pressure to perform on such a grand stage is immense, plus mistakes are magnified and in some cases even career-defining.
Alternatively, others embrace the added tension that goes along with the playoffs. It’s served as the stepping stone for up-and-comers lobbying to establish themselves as top tier talents, and that’s what we’re going to dive into. Which players appear destined to take that next step, and why?
Isaac has transformed into one of the league’s best all-around defenders — and yet his name was seldom brought up in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Everyone and their grandma celebrates well-known defensive savants like Marcus Smart and Patrick Beverley — but Jonathan is right there with them in terms of impact. He only participated in 32 games due to a (once believed) season-ending knee injury, but it was a large enough sample size to determine he’s improved dramatically in his third year.
Statistically speaking, Jonathan’s season from a defensive standpoint ranks among the top in recent memory. At a mere 22 years of age, he managed to come up with 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals per game in 29.7 minutes. These numbers are comparable with some of the greatest to ever lace them up. Kevin Garnett averaged 1.8 blocks and 1.7 steals as a 22-year-old.
What is it that makes Isaac a feared defender exactly? It’s his rare combo of superb lateral quickness and a freakishly lanky frame. Jonathan stands at 6’11” with a 7’1″ wingspan, meaning he almost always has the physical advantage over his positional counterparts. In some instances, he can tower over his matchup by almost a half foot considering Isaac occasionally takes the court as a small forward (although he’s primarily slotted at power forward). He capitalized on his advantageous measurables countless times this season, and they were the catalyst behind his most notable blocks and steals.
Despite possessing the length of an interior-dwelling player, Isaac can hang with guards on the perimeter. In the snippet above, he utilizes his aforementioned wingspread to poke the rock loose from Bradley Beal. It takes impeccable timing and coordination to stifle the ball control of an elite shooting guard without fouling, yet Isaac looks like he’s taking candy from a baby. This is a Kawhi Leonard-esque sequence if I’ve ever seen one, and I’m convinced they are the only two players in the NBA right now capable of making this play.
To highlight Isaac’s incredible versatility, here he is swatting none other than the presumed back-to-back MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
If the standings hold up and Orlando faces off against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round, the Isaac- Antetokounmpo duel alone makes this series worth tuning in to. Yes, the Magic would likely get handed brooms. The same can be said if Orlando ends up playing the second-seeded Toronto Raptors. But whether Isaac’s matched up against Giannis or Pascal Siakam, he’s going to make their life difficult. Let’s hope that he is able to be healthy enough to make this prediction come true.
The Philadelphia 76ers are quite possibly the NBA’s biggest underachiever this season — but light can be found even in the darkest of places, as the saying goes. In Philly’s case, their “light” is the development of second-year combo guard, Shake Milton. A non-difference maker as a rookie (4.4 points per game), Milton’s on-ball defensive chops coupled with his evolution into an uber-efficient marksman earned the sophomore a seat in Brett Brown’s rotation.
Labeling Shake merely an effective outside scorer is a massive understatement. Milton’s accuracy from the three-point arc in 2019-20 places him in exclusive company. On 3.3 triples per game, he knocked down a remarkable 45.3 percent of them. This clip is tied with Seth Curry for second best in all of basketball (Milton is exempt from the league leaders list due to only suiting up 32 times this year). Shake’s go-to shot is the above the break triple, as he attempted more field goals from this area than anywhere else on the floor. Milton isn’t much of a shot creator yet, but his catch-and-shoot prowess is unparalleled on the 76ers’ roster.
Here Shake splashes a 29-footer in rhythm, unbothered by the solid contest from Marcus Morris. If Philadelphia is keen on pulling off a first round upset, Milton must consistently convert on looks outside the paint. After all, potential postseason opponents such as the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat are among the best three-point shooting clubs in the NBA in terms of both percentage and number of threes made.
While Shake’s pristine jumper is his calling card, he has no issue getting his hands dirty on the defensive end. At 6’5″, he can switch onto anyone from floor generals to small forwards. Milton isn’t going to blow anyone away with his athleticism. Rather, it’s his instincts and size that give opponents fits.
Milton does a beautiful job of anticipating the pass in this instance. Quinn Cook is forced to dish the ball out to Avery Bradley in the corner after getting swallowed up baseline. Shake forsees this play, so he positions himself between Cook and Bradley, resulting in a deflection and Lakers turnover.
De’Aaron Fox — who averaged the 12th most fast break points (3.7) — is unable to convert in transition this time around thanks to Milton. Fox darts down the court with a head of steam, but Shake stays in front of him, absorbs the body bump without giving ground, and subsequently denies the layup attempt.
Milton will be a difference maker on both ends this postseason. Considering his team is desperately lacking perimeter threats, he’ll be gifted consistent run time once the playoffs roll around.
Michael Porter Jr.
Not too long ago, Porter Jr. was perceived as the missing piece to the Denver Nuggets’ championship puzzle. But after a promising yet unremarkable 48-game rookie stint in 2019-20 (7.5 points, 4.1 rebounds), the hype surrounding the 21-year-old has died down considerably. I’m puzzled as to why, though. Porter was productive for someone who only logged 14 minutes a night. His per 36 numbers back up this notion.
Would Michael have averaged 19 and 11 if he received starter level minutes? Probably not. But if Porter’s stats at the highest level prove anything, it’s that his upside remains tremendously high, despite what the casual fan would tell you.
Putting the ball through the net comes easy to the Missouri native. Porter ranked in the 77th percentile among forwards in points per shot attempt. Not to be cliche, but the kid can do it all on the offensive side of the floor. Drive to the rim? You betcha. MPJ was superbly efficient in the paint this season, making 70.1 percent of said looks. Can he shoot the three-pointer? Absolutely. A 42.2 percent clip from deep on 2.1 tries is damn impressive, especially considering outside shooting was an alleged weakness of his.
Porter can absorb and finish through contact as well as any rookie I can remember. His body control is impeccable. In this clip, Michael attacks the closeout, heads baseline, and squeezes in a beauty of an up and under layup over Myles Turner. Porter contorts himself in mid-air to successfully avoid the contest from one of the NBA’s top shot blockers.
MPJ wasn’t gifted much of an opportunity to break out as a rook, but he still enjoyed a handful of noteworthy performances. In particular, his 25-point scoring outburst versus the Indiana Pacers on January 2 was something to behold. Porter practically couldn’t miss, going 11-for-12 from the field including 2-for-3 on treys. The entirety of his offensive repertoire was on display this night. Michael picked apart the defense and threw at them everything from one-handed, off the dribble floaters to step-back threes.
Porter certainly didn’t have a record-shattering maiden season though, and I understand why many would even criticize his career as disappointing so far. That being said, I respectfully disagree. He performed as well as he could’ve considering his on-court situation. The Nuggets are a contender and thus were hesitant to grant Porter a role in the rotation right away. A sensible premise. But he has proven himself worthy of additional minutes. He’s well on his way to emerging as the third star in Denver alongside Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. Mile High City faithful should be excited, because they’ll witness Porter’s ascension during this upcoming postseason..