The home stretch is here, with most NBA teams having about 20 or so games left on the schedule before the march to a title begins with the playoffs in mid-April. There are plenty of teams still fighting for postseason spots or jockeying for position, but generally the final six weeks of the season can be a bit … underwhelming.
Teams with playoff spots locked up use the time to get their star players rest, while lottery teams shut down their veterans to get a look at the future of the franchise (and sometimes to aid the tanking efforts). Sometimes the games are rough to watch, particularly once April rolls around, but this is a great opportunity for fans to get a look at some young players they may not have gotten to see much during the season.
Last year, for example, Blazers guard Anfernee Simons put up 37 points in the team’s final regular-season game. He’s now a main rotation player for Portland, but that game probably introduced him to a lot of fans who may not have ever heard of him. So that’s what this list is for. We’ve pinpointed one young player on each team who you should keep your eye on as the season comes to a close, whether it’s an unknown player trying to make a name for himself or a regular contributor hoping to gear up for the playoffs.
Hopefully keeping this list handy will make that April 15 Cavaliers-Hawks matchup a little more bearable.
*Statistics accurate as of March 4
During the 2019 draft process, opinions about Reddish varied from “best player in the draft” to “wouldn’t want him anywhere near my team.” So far the stats lean toward the latter, with Reddish shooting 37 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range — not exactly what you’re looking for from someone billed as a shooter. His overall offense ranks among the worst in the league at 0.836 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology. However, over his last 19 games (including 10 starts), Reddish’s efficiency has made a huge jump to 44 percent from the field and 41 percent from deep, with five of the six 20-point games of his career coming during that stretch. He’s also one of the few Hawks who can make a defensive impact, averaging over a steal per game. As Trae Young starts to possibly gets some nights off toward the end of the year, it will be interesting to see if Atlanta can run its offense through Reddish.
Limited to 20 games his sophomore season because of a hip injury, Williams is back and the Celtics now have a few weeks to evaluate whether he’ll be able to contribute in any way during the playoffs. Boston has been ravaged by injuries, but they’re actually pretty healthy at center right now with Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter, so it will take an active effort to get Williams substantial minutes. The Time Lord is a tantalizing prospect and could provide an immediate impact as a rim protector, something the Celtics lack, especially if they face a team that gets a lot of points in the paint.
You may forget it from time to time because he’s in his third season, but Allen is still just 21 years old. While his numbers are nearly identical across the board from last year, Allen has improved his field goal percentage from 59 to an eye-popping 64.5 — a sign that he’s starting to figure out when and where to take his shots. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant out of the lineup for the rest of the season, it would be great for the Nets to get more consistency from Allen offensively, an area where he’s shown potential (he’s in the 84th percentile with 1.321 points per possession as a roll man, according to Synergy), and for him to further build chemistry with Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert.
This spot would have gone to fellow 21-year-old Malik Monk, who was starting to come on before being suspended indefinitely for violating the league’s anti-drug program. Instead it’s Bridges, who has been really good for a while now as second-year breakout player Devonte’ Graham has slowed down. Bridges has nearly doubled his scoring average from his rookie season, and he’s bumped that up to 17.4 points per game over his last 14. He’s also increased his 3-point percentage from 32 to 34 this season on nearly twice as many attempts, and he’ll continue to be a focal point of the Charlotte offense during the final month and a half of the season.
Unfortunately, nearly two years into his career, we’re still not quite sure what Wendell Carter is as a player. He’s proven to be an incredibly solid big man, nearly averaging a double-double this season at 11.4 points and 9.8 rebounds, but both of his first two seasons have been cut short by injuries. Can he be a primary offensive option when Zach LaVine sits? Can he share minutes with Lauri Markkanen? As the Bulls core finally starts to get healthy, hopefully we’ll get some answers to these questions.
Darius Garland was the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft, but — so far at least — Porter Jr. looks like he might be the better prospect. He’s scored in double-figures 11 of his last 14 games, averaging 14.2 points on 39 percent 3-point shooting. He’s mostly been on the wing, but recently appointed Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he wants to give Porter a look at point guard down the stretch. With players like Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, Andre Drummond and maybe even Collin Sexton getting intermittent rest, Porter should get a lot of opportunity.
I know it’s cheating, but there really are no Mavericks to watch under 24 years old aside from 21-year-old Doncic, especially now that Jalen Brunson will miss extended time with a shoulder injury. You’ve probably been watching Luka magic all season long, but for the rest of the regular season we can see how he gears up for the playoffs. Will the Mavericks limit his minutes, particularly given his recent ankle and thumb injuries? Will he continue to build chemistry with Kristaps Porzingis, ? Will his intensity ramp up as his first NBA postseason draws near? It’s going to be fun to find out.
At one point, Porter was, but he’s yet to regain that consistency since returning from an ankle injury. In the 10 games prior to his injury, he averaged 14.7 points, nine rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, so there’s no doubt he can contribute in a big way. The Nuggets will have to use this final stretch to see just how ready Porter is to help their quest for a title.
Talk about a no-brainer. At 24 years old, Wood is an exciting stat-stuffer who should get plenty of opportunity with Andre Drummond traded and Derrick Rose now injured. In 10 games following the Drummond trade, Wood has averaged 21.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. He’s played on five teams in four NBA seasons, so he’s hoping to impress enough to become an important part of the Pistons’ rebuild.
Poole has endured a horrific start to his rookie season, ranking in just the 14th percentile in offensive efficiency at 0.811 points per possession, according to Synergy. Young guards often struggle with efficiency, but Poole simply couldn’t make any shots, which is exactly what the Warriors drafted him to do. His percentages are still awful (33 percent from the field, 28 percent from 3-point range), but he’s been playing and shooting much better lately. He’s scored in double-figures in each of his last 10 games, averaging 15.8 points on 47 percent field goals and 32 percent 3-pointers over that span. It will be interesting to see how often he shares the court with Stephen Curry over Golden State’s final stretch of games, and if he continues to progress.
Young players haven’t exactly been in the Rockets’ DNA over the past few seasons, and we can’t pretend that Isaiah Hartenstein, Chris Clemons and/or Bruno Caboclo will make a significant impact for the rest of the year. Ben McLemore appears to have dropped out of the rotation, so we’ll focus on 26-year-old House, a mainstay in the starting lineup for most of the season. The Rockets don’t need much from him offensively except for 3-pointers, but he’s essential defensively in their all-small, all-the-time lineups. If House is unable to hit 3-pointers or hold his own defensively, it could seriously affect the Rockets’ playoff ceiling.
Holiday, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are all 23, but Turner and Sabonis are already known commodities in Indiana. Not so much for Holiday, who has occasionally found himself as the odd man out of the rotation since Victor Oladipo returned from injury. Holiday is a solid insurance policy should Oladipo or Malcolm Brogdon miss time. He can be a dynamic playmaker, scoring more than 15 points in a game 12 times this season and dishing out five or more assists 15 times. He should get at least a handful of chances to audition for playoff minutes, with Oladipo and Brogdon likely to get some rest or restrictions as the postseason approaches.
Just 22 years old, Shamet could end up playing a key role as the Clippers attempt to win their first NBA title. He’s shooting over 40 percent from the 3-point line in his second NBA season, and helps draw out the defense to create room for Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams and the other Clippers to operate. Shamet has started and come off the bench this season, but will likely occupy a reserve role when the Clippers are at full strength. The team has been at least a player short pretty much all season, so building chemistry with the currently healthy group is essential for Shamet.
From trade rumors to inconsistent shooting, it’s been a strange year for Kuzma despite the Lakers’ success. Once billed as the potential third scorer next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Kuzma has shot 43 percent from the field this season, including 31 percent from 3-point range en route to 12.6 points per game. The Lakers hope the acquisition of Markieff Morris will allow Kuzma to play more small forward and take on more of a playmaking role offensively, so it will be interesting to see how and if that plays out over the final stretch of the season. Kuzma has put up 19 single-digit scoring games this season, which may not cut it come playoff time.
Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have already proven themselves to be potential superstars, but what about a third “J” in the mix? The Grizzlies acquired Jackson, the No. 4 overall pick in 2018, from the Suns along with De’Anthony Melton and two second-round picks, for Jevon Carter and Kyle Korver (who never played for the Suns). Melton has been a quality rotation player all year for Memphis, and now Jackson, who was in the G League for most of the season, is showing some potential. He’s gotten extra playing time recently with Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke missing time with injuries and has put up some decent numbers, scoring 20 points against the Lakers and 16 against the Hawks. It may be a long shot, but if the Grizzlies can get something out of Jackson, it will only improve their ceiling in the coming years.
We already know all about Bam Adebayo, the 22-year-old All-Star who on any given night could be the Heat’s best player. But for the home stretch we’ll have our eye on Herro, a consistent part of the Miami rotation before suffering an ankle injury in early February. Herro, just 20 years old, hasn’t played with Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder yet, so it will be interesting to see how he slots in once healthy. Full of confidence, Herro has averaged 13.1 points on 39 percent 3-point shooting this season and would be an excellent heat-check guy off the bench in the playoffs, but will he be the odd man out given Miami’s depth?
The 23-year-old DiVincenzo has been a big part of the Bucks’ historic success this season, averaging nine points in nearly 23 minutes per game. He’s been part of the committee that filled in for Malcolm Brogdon, and they’ll need him in the playoffs. With Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe likely due some rest given Milwaukee’s astronomical lead in the East, DiVincenzo will get every opportunity to show whether he can take on more of an offensive role in the coming seasons.
There are plenty of young players to choose from on the Baby Wolves, but Reid might be the most intriguing. He’s already stepped up with Karl-Anthony Towns injured and Gorgui Dieng out of town, and he’ll have even more of an opportunity over the rest of the season as Minnesota hunts for lottery balls. The 20-year-old went undrafted out of LSU, and has showcased stretch-five ability in his limited number of games. Since entering the starting lineup on Feb. 21, Reid is averaging 11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while making nine 3-pointers in eight games. Towns is the man in Minnesota, but he’s going to need a backup.
Duh. The Pelicans have plenty of exciting young players, but Williamson is clearly the most exciting (and almost the youngest) of them all. Still just 19, Zion has lived up to every bit of the hype, and has helped the Pelicans get in position for a playoff berth. The fun part of the remainder of the season will be watching how Williamson’s conditioning improves (he recently played his first back-to-back games) and how he adjusts when defenses alter their approach to guarding him. If we’ve learned anything since Zion made his debut, it’s that we should never take our eyes off of him when he’s on the court.
With Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina still waiting to make a leap, the bulk of the Knicks’ hopes falls on the shoulders of Barrett, a 19-year-old who should get tons of playing time and opportunity with the departure of Marcus Morris. He’s been expectedly inefficient as a rookie, but has turned things up recently, putting on a signature 27-point performance in an upset win over the Rockets at Madison Square Garden. There’s no reason Barrett, if healthy, shouldn’t get at least 30 minutes per game moving forward, so it will be fun to see what the youngster can do with the keys to the offense.
It appears that, at least for now, Dort has won OKC’s game of musical chairs at the starting small forward position, and he’s performed well as a defender and energy guy (kudos to our own NBA Draft expert Kyle Boone, who last summer). He’s not going to light up the scoreboard and likely won’t close games — the Thunder usually go with the three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder — but he’s shot 34 percent from 3-point range over his last 15. That’s good enough to keep him on the floor for stretches during the playoffs given his defense and physicality. A good final stretch from Dort would increase Billy Donovan’s confidence in the 20-year-old.
It doesn’t appear that the Magic are going to play Mo Bamba more than 15 minutes per game any time soon, so Fultz becomes the team’s most intriguing young player down the stretch. For everything he’s been through with his shot and injuries, Fultz has put together a solid season as the starting point guard of a playoff team. When you count assists, Fultz is in the 78th percentile of NBA players in offensive efficiency with 1.312 points per possession, according to Synergy, putting him right in step with players like Kemba Walker, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker. Fultz has produced several highlight reel plays this season, so he’ll be fun to watch when looking for more of his own offense if Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon or Evan Fournier get some rest as the playoffs draw closer.
Though he’s the same age as Ben Simmons (23), Milton has only played 49 career games, and has opened a lot of eyes recently with some lights-out shooting and playmaking. The second-year guard tied an NBA record by (he’s shooting 46 percent on 3-pointers in 29 games this season), and scored a career-high 39 points in a loss to the Clippers without Simmons and Joel Embiid. We don’t know how long Simmons will be out with his back injury, so it looks like a lot of the point guard minutes will fall to Milton. The Sixers desperately need shooting, so Milton should be a key contributor in the postseason, even with Simmons healthy.
With Kelly Oubre Jr. out for at least a month and Deandre Ayton looking like he’ll miss extended time with an ankle injury, the stage is set for Bridges to take on a bigger offensive role. The 23-year-old already wreaks havoc defensively with his unending wingspan, but he’s also starting to look like a true scoring threat, averaging 10.9 points on 50-41-96 splits since entering the starting lineup late January.
Anfernee Simons was supposed to have a breakout season for the Blazers, but that hasn’t been the case. They have, however, received a nice contribution from Gary Trent Jr., who’s knocking down 41 percent of his 3-pointers in nearly 20 minutes per game. He can get hot quick, making three or more 3-pointers in a game 10 times this season, and he averaged 14.5 points on 45 percent 3-point shooting as a starter during Damian Lillard’s recent absence. Trent is a key cog for a Portland team fighting to make the playoffs after advancing to the Western Conference finals last season.
De’Aaron Fox is 22, but you obviously already know about him. Slightly under the radar has been Harry Giles, a 21-year-old who was once the top player in a high school class featuring Fox, Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball and Jayson Tatum before knee injuries derailed his trajectory. Giles has been eased into larger minutes, but has played well of late filling in for the injured Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley in the frontcourt. He’s started 10 of the Kings’ last 11 games, averaging 11.5 points and 7.2 rebounds in 23.6 minutes over that stretch. The Kings are in the thick of the race for the No. 8 seed out West, and Giles has been a big reason why.
Walker has per-36 minute averages of 14.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals — the problem is, he only plays 14 minutes per game. Walker has been getting more playing time recently, however, and if the Spurs fall farther out of the playoff race this month then a shutdown of DeMar DeRozan, Patty Mills, or even Dejounte Murray could be on the horizon. That would mean more time for the 21-year-old Walker, who has put together some jaw-dropping highlights so far in his second season, and has played 20 minutes or more in six of his last eight games.
Terence Davis has been good for the Raptors this season, but Anunoby is the 22-year-old to watch down the stretch. He’s increased his scoring average to 10.7 points per game while shooting 37 percent from the 3-point line and 50 percent from the field as a full-time starter. In the past month alone, Anunoby has twice set career-highs in points, first with 25 in a win over the Wolves, then with 32 in a loss to Denver. He’s also averaged 2.7 steals in his last 12 games, picking up 13 of them in two games last week. Anunoby’s trajectory is headed in the right direction as Toronto approaches the playoffs.
The Jazz don’t really give any young players big minutes, but Bradley has carved out a role as backup to Rudy Gobert in the middle. He doesn’t put up big numbers, but the former first-rounder just turned 22 and is full of potential. He many not see many, or any, minutes in the playoffs, but the Jazz will use this time to see if they can play him in some high-pressure regular-season games to give him valuable experience moving forward.
The Wizards snagged Wagner when the Lakers needed to get rid of him for financial reasons last summer, and he’s become quite an interesting prospect. An ankle injury caused him to miss more than a month, but he averaged 11.6 points and six rebounds on 39 percent 3-point shooting prior to being sidelined. With Ian Mahinmi a potential shutdown candidate and Thomas Bryant still on a minutes limit due to a foot injury, there should be plenty of center minutes available over the rest of the season for Wagner to showcase his skills.