Meaningless games. Fake injuries. Mock Drafts. For fans in Oklahoma City, Detroit, Houston, and Orlando, we’ve seen the “young kids” play for about a month now, racking up losses, bricks, and lessons.
Check out Portland, where every night’s “DNP” list is a mile long, and includes such threatening maladies as “headache,” “rest,” and “sore back.” Trailblazer sitting suspects include basically any rostered player who gave them the chance of additional dubs – starting with Damian Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Jusuf Nurkic, Josh Hart, Justice Winslow, Eric Bledsoe, Trenton Watford, Nassir Little, and my neighbor, Josh.
These simply CAN’T be actual NBA games, can they?
As a basketball card collector and investor, I’ve turned any serious attention to the playoffs, the play-in, and must-see impact games like yesterday’s Dallas-Milwaukee tilt or the Joker’s next triple double.
Meanwhile, some of those forgotten “Rated Rookies” of the last three Donruss sets are actually seeing some court time in these third-string-starter exhibition-like open gym nights. Yes, a few “instant impact” and “emergent” prizm names are finding themselves on the court for 30-plus minutes and actually tasting the fourth quarter.
If we completely ignore these games where teams are clearly “tanking for the future,” we might miss those developmental next-steps for long-term prospects who could be stars someday. I thought I’d share a list of guys who are getting some extra “run time” here in April, even if their teams and fan bases stopped caring at the All-Star break. Perhaps you’ll find some Dollar Box deals or some cheap Select Autos or RPA’s or PSA 10’s from lesser-known projects who are seizing these rec-league opportunities to shine…. For example…
Aleksej Pokuzevski, Thunder – with a triple-double last night, Poku gave fans and scouts another taste of his ridiculous upside. He has the kind of body and talent and eye for the game that takes a few years to adjust to the NBA. As he adds muscle, experience, and confidence to his game, this young man is going to be a problem for a very long time.
Killian Hayes, Pistons – It would have been too easy to mention Saddiq Bey here, but it’s Hayes who has come out of nowhere to post some ridiculous stat-lines as a starter in Detroit’s final games. The “injury” to Cade Cunningham has given Hayes some quality minutes and – I can’t believe I’m saying this – some attention on my eBay “watched items” list. When the Pistons drafted Killian in the top 10 in 2020, they knew he was raw and would take a few years to adjust, and it may be happening right before our eyes.
Isaiah Jackson, Pacers – as much as I like Jalen Smith and you already know about Tyrese Haliburton, the Pacers seem committed to IJ in the front court. The Pacers’ rebuild has given extra minutes to a healthy Jackson, a surging Goga Bitadze, and the unleashed Smith. But I like Jackson because he’s from Kentucky, has tremendous upside, and was getting more minutes and starts throughout the season. In other words, the Pacers favor him and love his potential as a stretch-four.
Immanuel Quickley, Knicks – this guy isn’t Haliburton or Maxey, but he just might be the 2022-23 starting PG in the Garden. A triple-double in 34 minutes off the bench last night was just his latest wow-factor game. Don’t dump his rookies in the offseason – this guy has a long career ahead of him and the Knicks might have to lock him up soon.
Mo Bamba, Magic – He’s Orlando’s version of Poku, with more experience, maturity, and consistency. Of all the players on this list, Bamba was the most consistent this season. Thought it seems like Bamba has been around forever, Bamba is just 23 years old and he’ll get every chance to anchor the front court in Orlando next to Wendell Carter Jr – another player who’s already benched for playing too well in Orlando.
Kevin Porter Jr, Rockets – It’s hard to imagine a more talented and frustrating project, but it would be foolish to ignore what KPJ has done in his last five games… take a look.
While nobody is paying attention to Houston basketball right now, the combo of Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr is simply breathtaking. The thought of this kind of talent getting more experience and more support with high draft picks and the growth of guys like Sengun, Martin, Tate, Christopher, and whoever they get in trades for John Wall or Eric Gordon… the sky is still the limit for Kevin Porter Jr. No, I haven’t given up on him, and neither should you. I’m also not investing too much in him, because of his personal struggles, but I’m still scooping up bargain-basement KPJs when I see them. And, for whatever reason, I’m typing the name Josh Christopher again here.
Deni Avdija, Wizards – Some guys take a couple of years to adjust their bodies to the rigor and endurance of an NBA-season schedule. Deni has played in 78 games so far this year and the Wizards keep increasing his role. Each month, you can see the wear and tear on his body and his declining shooting percentages. But with Kuzma out, the Wizards have Deni shooting more. Over his past ten games, Avdija is averaging more than 13 points and 6 rebounds. Many things in life are worth waiting for, and this kid is at the center of Washington’s plan for the future.
Theo Maledon, Thunder – After a five-game stretch where Maledon notched point totals of 25, 20, 23, 18, and 28… I had to put him on the list. As a collector-investor who obviously loves prospecting, I can’t wait to unearth some of his silver or numbered cards for less than two bucks at this Saturday’s card show. Maledon is just twenty (20) years old, developing in an environment that is terrific at identifying and unleashing raw talents like SGA, Josh Giddey, and many more over the years. This kid’s best shot at stardom might depend on him being traded to another team that needs a young combo guard to add to their core. If that happens, watch out, and remember I told you so.
Some of our Hoops regulars will add names like Devin Vassell, Cole Anthony, Obi Toppin, Rui Hachimura, Chuma Okeke, and yes, Marvin Bagley. I don’t have a crystal ball to see which of these players will emerge as a superstar, but I can think back to other incredibles who took a few years to acclimate to NBA life.
No-names like Embiid, Giannis, Jokic, Westbrook, Harden, Ingram, Randle, Siakam, Kawhi, and Jimmy Butler had some rough starts to their NBA careers. But they showed the potential, had the opportunity, and emerged as superstars over time. It would be no surprise to see some of the guys in this article eventually following in their footsteps as they tank to the future!