Counting down the most interesting KU players to watch this 2017-18 NBA season: Nos. 5-1
It’s tip-off week in the NBA, and for Kansas basketball fans that means it’s time to catch up with the whereabouts and chances for may former Allen Fieldhouse stars who now call The Association home.
Paul Pierce has retired, Thomas Robinson is playing overseas and Brandon Rush just got waived by Milwaukee. But 16 Jayhawks still appear on the league’s 30 rosters as the 82-game grind commences.
Some former Kansas standouts will be easier to find on national games and streaming highlights than others. To help those who love college basketball far more than the NBA, we decided to rank KU’s current pros, counting down from No. 16 to No. 1, in terms of which players will be the most interesting to follow in the months to come.
Remember, this isn’t a list of who’s best. We’re talking about which players you’ll want to make a point to watch when you see their team is playing on TV (or on your tablet or phone or laptop).
5. Markieff Morris
Now that he and twin brother Marcus have been acquitted of aggravated assault in a case dating back to their old F.O.E. stomping grounds in Phoenix, Markieff Morris can get back to plugging into one of the NBA’s most cohesive starting lineups, in Washington.
A hernia could have the Wizards’ Morris out for another month or so, and guards John Wall and Bradley Beal will be glad to have the 6-foot-10 forward back in the mix when he’s healthy again. In 2016-17, his sixth professional season and first full go-round with Washington, Morris put up 14.0 points on 45.7-percent shooting, and achieved career-highs with 71 3-pointers and 36.2-percent accuracy from downtown, as well as new personal bests of 6.5 rebounds per game and 83.7-percent shooting at the free-throw line.
Morris’ teammates love him for his diverse skill set, but also his toughness and trash-talking. They’ll miss all of those as he watches the first few weeks of the season from the bench. But Morris assured The Washington Post they’ll still hear from him while he rehabs his way back to full health.
“I’m a student of the game already, so I just want to give them input on what I see out there,” Morris said. “Still talk my lil’ [expletive] to the other team.”
4. Marcus Morris
A crazy NBA offseason, filled with waves of transactions and trades, landed Marcus Morris with one of twin brother Markieff’s least favorite opponents, the Boston Celtics.
No, Marcus’s wonder-twin powers haven’t hampered him with hernia sympathy pains for Markieff, but like his brother the Celtics’ Morris begins the season on the mend. Knee soreness kept the former Rocket, Sun and Piston out of Boston’s lineup in its first two games.
It could be a week or two until Morris makes his Celtics debut, according to what coach Brad Stevens told ESPN. Because the Morris twins’ assault trial kept Marcus out for a chunk of training camp, Stevens said the team wants to effectively extend his preseason after the likely starting forward played in just one exhibition.
"I think we're going to be a better basketball team with Marcus available, but he's not," Stevens told ESPN. "We're going to need other people to step up."
Morris made a career-high 118 3-pointers in his final season with the Pistons, but made just 33.1 percent from deep. He averaged 14.0 points, 4.6 boards and 2.0 assists a year ago, and Boston will need even more production from him than expected after all-star Gordon Hayward suffered a horrific leg injury in the season-opener, dislocating his left ankle and fracturing his tibia.
3. Andrew Wiggins
Still just 22 years old with years of upside in front of him, former No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins looks to be fixture in Minnesota’s bright future after signing a five-year, $148 million extension before the season started.
Despite averaging 23.6 points and 4.0 rebounds and making a career-best 35.6 percent of his 3-pointers in his third season, Wiggins often caught flack for not doing more than scoring. He was accused of falling far short of his defensive potential, as a 6-8 wing with the bounce and wingspan to become devastating on that end of the floor.
Now that Wiggins is in his second year in coach Tom Thibodeau’s system and has all-star wing Jimmy Butler to learn from, the young Canadian could be close to making a significant leap as a pro.
Wiggins looked like a surefire NBA-level defender in his one season playing for Bill Self at KU. So far he hasn’t lived up to those expectations. If/when he does and learns how to become a more active rebounder and willing passer, Minnesota will be thankful.
It’s not all going to come together overnight or even over the course of one season. But Wiggins still has the majority of his career ahead of him and the potential — and time — to develop into a special player.
2. Josh Jackson
In a loaded rookie draft class, Josh Jackson was passed over by Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston. The 6-foot-8 forward might have been too much of a questionable shooter to go in the top three picks, but Jackson also possesses the type of personality that could enable him to spend the rest of his career making those teams regret their decisions.
After one particular preseason display, Phoenix head coach Earl Watson compared the 20-year-old Jackson to the rookie-year version one of the league’s most fiery competitors, now reigning MVP Russell Westbrook.
“Very exciting to watch,” Watson told AZCentral.com. “Shooting the ball great from (3-point range). We knew that would eventually would happen. It’s before we thought it would happen. And sometimes, like Russ, it leads to turnovers. Reminds me of Russ but his future is bright. We want to encourage him to see the game. He moves so fast. Just slow down and make decisions.”
To Watson’s point, Jackson averaged 4.8 turnovers per exhibition in the preseason with a turnover percentage of 27.4% according to RealGM.com. A mature basketball prospect aware of his flaws, Jackson told AZCentral.com he quickly has learned the NBA is “more of a thinking game” than what he encountered in the college ranks.
“A lot of my turnovers have come from not being able to read what the defense is doing and trying to force a play when it wasn’t there,” Jackson said. “You can still play fast while doing all those things at the same time.”
The Suns love Jackson’s awareness and potential, and envision him as a possible future star to pair with young 2-guard Devin Booker. Between his defense, floor vision and ability to create and finish, Jackson’s rookie season figures to be a blast for Phoenix fans to watch, even though his flashes will come on a young team destined to lose a ton of games.
In his NBA debut Wednesday night, Jackson scored11 points on 4-for-10 shooting, to go with two rebounds. He didn’t record a turnover or an assist in a 124-76 home loss to Portland.
1. Joel Embiid
One of the most intriguing players in the league due to his checkered past of injuries and seemingly unlimited potential when he’s actually on the floor, Joel Embiid could be an all-star this year.
Or he could suffer another setback that makes him irrelevant to Philadelphia’s wins and losses. No one knows for sure and that’s a large part of what makes every step of the 7-foot-2 phenom’s story so fascinating.
The guy is a showman and as talented a center as the league may see for years to come. What’s more, even he is sick of the restrictions the 76ers have placed on his availability over the past year-plus as they try to protect their investment.
Prior to his team’s season-opener, with the organization expecting to play Embiid fewer than 20 minutes, the typically happy big called that idea “----ing b------t" a week removed from signing an extension with the Sixers.
Sure enough, Philadelphia trusted “The Process.” Embiid started versus Washington on opening night and played 27 minutes — still a restriction, for certain, but on par with his playing-time plan as a rookie, before his season ended at 31 games. The face of the franchise, in a 120-115 loss, shot 7-for-15 from the floor, scored 18 points, snatched 13 rebounds, dished three assists and blocked a shot.
If Philadelphia — and the NBA as a whole — is fortunate, Embiid will stay healthy enough over the next six months to continue to flourish and maybe even lead a long-suffering franchise back to the playoffs.
When he’s playing, Embiid qualifies as one of the league’s must-watch talents.