At the start of every season, there are the guys you just can’t take your eyes off.
The “will it come together” guys. The “will they break through” guys. The “their team really needs them” guys. We know what most NBA players bring to the table, but the intriguing guys are the ones where we don’t know the answer. Where we’re finding out just as their coaches and teammates are.
Here are my five most intriguing, must-watch players of the season.
Zion Williamson, Pelicans
Kind of a no-brainer — but we’re all going to be watching.
Williamson was given a max contract off the 85 games he played through three seasons, and the questions are clear: Can he stay on the court? And if he does, can he mesh with CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram, return to being a dominant scoring force inside, and turn the Pelicans into a playoff team?
The early reviews are promising. He came into camp in the best shape we have seen him in, and he showed off his ridiculous explosiveness in his first preseason game following missing last season after foot surgery.
ALLOW Z TO REINTRODUCE HIMSELF. pic.twitter.com/QWH0SnOVSo
— New Orleans Pelicans (@PelicansNBA) October 5, 2022
If Williamson can be that guy, if he can play at an All-Star level, lead the league in scoring efficiency, and give the Pelicans a guy who can get to the rim and draw fouls (something they lacked much of last season, McCollum and Ingram are happy to pull up and nail the jumper), it’s not just Zion who is intriguing. This entire team is.
We know we’re not going to be able to take our eyes off Zion all season. No matter what happens.
Ben Simmons, Nets
Another rather obvious selection, but it doesn’t make it any less a reality — we will all be watching. Especially after his ugly exit from Philadelphia last season, only to not play for the Nets.
What will his role be next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant? In the first preseason game, Simmons brought the ball up, initiated the offense a lot, and didn’t take a shot outside the paint (he made his shots at the rim, but his turnaround jumper was… rusty would be the kind word). Simmons brings elite perimeter defense the Nets need, but most scouts picture him in a Draymond Green-style role within the Brooklyn offense, the question is will he play that way — and will Steve Nash ask him to?
No team has more questions this season than the Nets, and Simmons may be the biggest one.
Precious Achiuwa, Raptors
Achiuwa was a different player after the All-Star break last season. Something clicked for him and he jumped to averaging 12.2 points a game (up from 7.5 pre-All-Star) with a 55.2 true shooting percentage (46.7%), in part because he found his 3-point stroke (39.2%).
Was that stretch a fluke, or did Achiuwa figure things out? The early preseason returns suggest the latter.
Oh my goodness, Precious Achiuwa 👀#NBAPreseason pic.twitter.com/v0mAfH1Oh9
— NBA TV (@NBATV) October 2, 2022
After the All-Star break Achiuwa looked like a key young part of the Raptors moving forward, the question now is can he sustain and grow that? The key is his jumper — if that is falling and he is spacing the floor, he becomes a much bigger part of the Raptors’ offense (and gives Nick Nurse another 6’8″ switchable defender for his positionless style). We’ll be watching to see if Achiuwa can take the next step.
Onyeka Okongwu, Hawks
Clint Capela will be the Hawks starting center to open the season — but for how long?
Make no mistake, Capela is a quality NBA starting center, but Onyeka Okongwu — the No.6 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft — has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two seasons. For example, during the 2021 Atlanta run to the Eastern Conference Finals when he was Atlanta’s best option in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season there were stretches where he looked like the future in Atlanta. There’s a sense around the league that this is the season Okongwu puts it together — elite defense with some improved rebounding and a jumper — and Nate McMillan will have no choice but to move him into the starting lineup.
Okongwu will get more minutes this season with Danilo Gallinari gone from the Atlanta rotation and questions about the future of John Collins with the team. He can defend at a high level and is an efficient scorer inside — we’re watching to see if this is the season he breaks out. Combine that with a Trae Young/Dejounte Murray backcourt in Atlanta, and things get interesting.
De'Aaron Fox, Kings
If the Sacramento Kings are going to end the longest playoff drought in major American professional sports (16 years), it will be because De’Aaron Fox found genuine chemistry playing off of Domantas Sabonis, something the two started working on last season.
How is that chemistry now? Does Sabonis working out of his preferred high post make finding driving lanes tough for Fox?
“I mean, it’s still a work in progress, but I feel like I can break down anybody at any time. So for myself getting to the pain is not a problem,” Fox said after the Kings’ first preseason game.
Fox scored 23.2 points a game last season but his efficiency (and 3-point shooting) dipped. That has to change. Fox has to be efficient, and new coach Mike Brown has to find a way for his team to get stops, for them to break the streak. Also, Fox has to stay healthy and on the court — he hasn’t played more than 59 games each of the past three seasons.
The Kings are an interesting team this season, and Fox could be their bellwether.