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NBA 25 Under 25: Jusuf Nurkic and the young players on the verge of breaking out

Up next in our series examining the best young players the NBA has to offer — NBA 25 Under 25 — are five guys whose past flashes of brilliance could this season become wildfires lighting the path to future stardom.

Previous editions: The Unicorns | The Playmakers | The Scorers | The Unsung Heroes

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From left: Jaylen Brown, Dejounte Murray, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram and Jusuf Nurkic are knocking on the door. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

Age: 20
Role: Blood transfusion

Manu Ginobili is still here. (And thank God for that.) A few months down the line, Tony Parker will be, too. But the former is 40, the latter is 35 and coming off a devastating injury, and both have seen their minutes and effectiveness dip, year after year. We’ve said it every summer for the last half-decade, and at some point, it’ll actually be true: the San Antonio Spurs really will need a new long-term answer in the backcourt.

For the second straight June, general manager R.C. Buford and president/coach Gregg Popovich invested a first-round pick in the position, tabbing Colorado’s Derrick White with the No. 29 selection in the 2017 NBA draft. And after reported dalliances with superstar Chris Paul and ex-Spur George Hill fell by the wayside, the Spurs spent $50 million to bring back fan-favorite spark-plug Patty Mills. But the Aussie’s long been more of a microwave than a table-setter in San Antonio, and like all rookies, White (who played point in college, but might be a two in the pros) will need to prove his promise translates before he’s more than a very cool story.

The Spurs need a future star-caliber running buddy to pair with Kawhi Leonard to keep their string of 50-win seasons running into the next decade. Murray, 2016’s No. 29 pick, might fit the bill.

Murray’s shooting stroke and finishing need work. He shot 16-of-71 (22.5 percent) from beyond the 3-point arc in 64 combined appearances for the major-league club and the development league’s Austin Spurs last year, and just 57-of-123 (46.3 percent) on regular- and postseason attempts in the paint in San Antonio, according to NBA.com. But that quicksilver first step absolutely plays:

So do his 6-foot-5 frame, 6-foot-9-1/2 wingspan, and instincts as a defensive disruptor:

Though he averaged 35.1 minutes per game in the development league, Murray played less than 500 NBA minutes as a rookie after spending just one season at the University of Washington. Murray’s not quite raw, but he’s had less opportunity to develop seasoning than a “Chopped” contestant who spent 15 minutes wondering what the hell to do with geoduck, which is somehow not a Pokemon.

Learning the finer points of playing point in the NBA — the touch on the floater, the timing against shot-blockers, the footwork in slithering around screens, the understanding of which teammates like the ball where — will take time. The question is whether Pop trusts Murray enough to give him the opportunity to get his reps now, as the Spurs angle for another crack at a sixth NBA championship.

When injury sidelined Parker during the playoffs, Pop did give Murray a shot. He responded by averaging 7.7 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.1 steals in 20.8 minutes per game over his last seven postseason appearances. Not eye-popping numbers, but the 20-year-old often looked like he belonged against the likes of James Harden, Patrick Beverley and Stephen Curry. That ain’t nothing. After that postseason showing, Murray went right back to work, and has spent chunks of his summer working out with a trio of MVP candidates — teammate Leonard, LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas — to prepare for bigger things ahead.

It would make sense to slide a more decorated veteran like Mills into the starting lineup. Giving a talented but neon-green lead guard the chance to earn his stripes has worked for Pop before, though. Why not try it again?

“Dejounte is a great kid, and he’s willing to learn,” Parker told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News in February. “But he’s going to have to go through the same stuff that I went through.”

It’s a big risk for a team with title aspirations. But if on-the-job training helps Murray blossom into the Spurs’ point guard of the present and future, the reward will be worth it. — Dan Devine

Age: 21
Role: Boom-or-bust mystery box

When the former Duke star went down for the year with a torn labrum in his right shoulder, it seemed like one last depressing indignity in a lost season in Miami. Then the Heat reorganized themselves around a cranked-up drive-and-kick game, became the East’s hottest team and fell one win short of the playoffs.

This summer, Miami doubled down on that second-half identity, re-upping Dion Waiters and James Johnson while adding big man Kelly Olynyk to a spaced-out, high-octane offense led by Waiters, Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside. Now that he’s healthy, how can Winslow, the No. 10 pick in the 2015 draft, fit into that framework?

For starters, he’ll have to hit jumpers. After shooting 41.8 percent from 3-point land on nearly three tries per game during his year on campus in Durham, Winslow has attempted only 1.6 long balls a night as a pro, making just 25.8 percent. And it’s not just a beyond-the-arc issue — Winslow has shot only 32.2 percent from midrange in Miami, and 66.5 percent from the foul line.

After Winslow went down, coach Erik Spoelstra slid ex-D-Leaguer Rodney McGruder — not an elite shooter, but a more capable and willing one — into the starting lineup alongside Dragic, Waiters, Whiteside and Luke Babbitt. That unit only outscored opponents by three points in 244 minutes after Winslow’s injury, but it served as a model for the sort of groups that would produce the best version of the Heat: one dive man and two ball-handlers, plus complementary shooting and playmaking.

The Heat sought last summer to turn Winslow into someone who could provide those. The shooting didn’t translate, but he did show improvement as a facilitator, nearly doubling the share of possessions on which he notched an assist while also reducing his turnover rate.

Winslow’s a smart, strong on-ball defender who makes scorers work. He can check perimeter ball-handlers and power forwards alike, and even saw time as a small-ball center during Miami’s 2016 playoff run. When he’s healthy and rolling, you can see the outlines of the player Heat president Pat Riley said in 2015 he believed he’d drafted: a jack-of-all-trades who unlocks options; a stepped-on Draymond Green.

But Green’s a power forward/center flanked by elite shooters. Their marksmanship means it doesn’t really matter if Dray shoots 30 percent from deep, so long as he runs the offense and leads the defense. As Jonathan Tjarks of The Ringer recently noted, even if the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Winslow had the size to play the four or five full-time, Miami’s roster choices during the past two offseasons — maxing out Whiteside, locking down James Johnson and Olynyk, drafting Kentucky center Bam Adebayo — have all but ensured the bulk of his minutes will come at small forward.

For him to stick there, he’ll have to keep defenders honest enough for his other skills to get the chance to matter. If he can’t — if Miami, for a third straight season, scores more effectively and efficiently with Winslow off the floor — he might find himself off the floor a lot.

During his year-end press conference, Riley sounded optimistic that Winslow will come back ready to make an impact — and that his story’s not done being written yet.

“I took a look at a lot of those guys like Justise, who came in as one-and-done guys,” Riley said. “Kawhi Leonard averaged eight points a game his first year. Six years later, he’s [averaging] 25. We are measuring this guy after 75 games. That’s unfair. […] Give him a chance. He ain’t going anywhere. I’ve read where you can package him here, package him there. He has something to prove. There’s no doubt. He will prove it. He’s a winner.”

Riley spent big to lock up the core of a team that might’ve only gotten to .500 thanks to unsustainable shooting and contract-year production. For the Heat to contend, they’ll need that to carry over and something big to break right. A leap for Winslow would help. — DD

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Age: 19
Role: Builder of the bridge to a brighter future

For the Los Angeles Lakers to once again become the kind of team that not only gets meetings with elite free agents, but actually signs them, they’ll have to give All-Stars a reason to believe they’re joining a team that can compete at the highest level. No one’s disputing the draw of Hollywood, but like Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan and other stars who’ve looked elsewhere of late, LeBron James and Paul George won’t come to L.A. just because it’s L.A., and won’t be content to just to tread water. They want to win, and they want to be surrounded by top-flight talent that will help them do it.

If Lonzo Ball really is the kind of transformative playmaker his father believes him to be, that’s a good start. And if Ingram shows in his sophomore season that he really is the sort of multifaceted game-changer the Lakers hoped he’d become when they snagged him with 2016’s No. 2 pick, the franchise’s future might start looking bright enough to lure those super-team-producing stars.

Ingram struggled in his debut season, becoming one of just 25 rookies in Basketball-Reference.com’s database to log at least 1,500 minutes and post a Player Efficiency Rating south of nine. (League-average is 15.) A player whose smooth shooting stroke made him a draftnik’s darling coming out of Duke made just 40.2 percent of his field-goal attempts, 29.4 percent of his 3-pointers and 62.1 percent of his free throws.

Despite his excellent length, the 6-foot-9 Ingram didn’t finish well inside, either, converting just 52.4 percent of his layups and 51.7 percent of his tries inside of 8 feet, according to NBA.com. A healthy share of those up-close misses came via rejection, as the reedy teenager had a hard time attacking stronger defenders on the interior and finishing through contact. And while his 7-foot-3 wingspan seemed to make him an ideal defensive cog in a league where the ability to toggle between multiple positions and disrupt passing lanes has become paramount, Ingram managed just over one combined block and steal per game in his first season despite playing big minutes.

Within those struggles, though, you can find reasons for optimism. For one thing, the list of players to average at least nine points, four rebounds and two assists per game by their age-20 season is only 25 names long, and features 17 future All-Stars, a couple of rising stars (Nikola Jokic, Andrew Wiggins) and several other players (Lamar Odom, Josh Smith) who went on to productive NBA careers. For another, while Ingram’s full-year production on a circling-the-drain Lakers team might not have popped off the stat sheet, he showed improvement as the year wore on. He averaged 13.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.1 blocks in 32.2 minutes per game after the All-Star break, shooting a much stronger 47.5 percent from the field as he took the starting small forward spot from the ineffective and expensive Luol Deng.

Through the struggles, and as the losses mounted, Ingram just stayed within himself and kept working. He notched 50 more assists than turnovers as a rook, with many of the helpers coming on smart, hit-ahead outlets to create transition opportunities or extra-pass swings to an open shooter. Some others showcased a sharpening feel for making plays off the bounce as a point forward:

And while he didn’t shoot exceptionally well from the field, his feel and length should allow him to create a lot of tough-to-contest looks that, with time and reps, he should be able to knock down:

Do that often enough against smaller defenders, and opponents will have to start putting bigger dudes on you. From there, Ingram can use his quickness and handle to attack speed/agility mismatches with his face-up game.

Young players can get stronger as they develop, and Ingram — who was the second-youngest player in the NBA last season, and who’s younger than 2017 top-10 picks Josh Jackson and Lauri Markkanen — reportedly spent his summer working on precisely that. A right leg cramp limited Ingram’s 2017 Summer League stint to just one game, but the early returns on all that work looked pretty good: 26 points on 9-for-17 shooting with three assists, three steals and two blocks in 31 minutes.

Ingram showed flashes of chemistry with Ball, whose predilection toward pushing the pace and hunting early-offense buckets could be a boon for the second-year forward. Lonzo sure seemed excited about linking up after the Lakers picked him on draft night:

The Lakers’ new front office agrees.

“I expect him to lead us in scoring, be out there and be the man. It’s his team,” president of basketball operations Magic Johnson told Mark Medina of the Orange County Register. “It would be disappointing if he didn’t score up toward 20 points a game.”

Those are lofty expectations for a player who still won’t be able to legally buy a beer until 11 months after this season opens. But with new additions Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to demand defensive attention and give him space to operate, and Ball to reward him for every hard push and smart cut, Ingram will get the chance to shine. If he can make the most of it, he might be the first definite foundational piece for the next competitive Lakers team … and might help persuade the next one (or two) to sign next summer. — DD

Age: 20
Role: The Chessmaster

There are reasons why the Cleveland Cavaliers would consider asking for Brown in the Kyrie Irving trade package, and why the Boston Celtics would have laughed them off the phone.

The No. 3 pick in the 2016 NBA draft, Brown wasn’t the most productive rookie last season, but his explosiveness and ability to defend multiple positions earned him important minutes come playoff time. Playing spot duty defending LeBron James and exhibiting flashes of what should become a diverse offensive skill set, Brown averaged nine points on nearly 60 percent shooting in 17 minutes per game against the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals:

Brown had a tendency to be hyper-focused on getting his shot off, which led to turnovers when he found himself stuck and looking to pass. He also got lost sometimes on defensive assignments. Those are correctable rookie mistakes, especially for a bright kid whose off-court activities include playing chess, writing poetry, interning at a venture capital firm and strumming the acoustic guitar.

This is a different cat, one who as a rookie took this approach to the game’s best player: “LeBron’s a good player, but I look at him as just a regular guy to me. I’ve got to come out and compete just like he has to come out and compete. I’ve got to tie my shoes just like he ties his shoes. There’s bigger threats in my neighborhood than LeBron James, so I have no fear whatsoever of LeBron.”

With that attitude and one season under his belt, Brown was often the best player on the court at Summer League, averaging 13.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and two combined blocks and steals in 24.8 minutes over five games in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. Granted, he’s supposed to be better than the rookies and also-rans who shared the court with him, but he still looked like a man comfortable in his game.

The Celtics will hope a large portion of that production will translate in his sophomore season, because there’s a chance he could start alongside Irving in the backcourt. At the very least, Boston will count on Brown to fill a chunk of the two-way void left by Avery Bradley’s departure.

Those aren’t easy shoes to fill. Bradley was a knockdown shooter and All-Defensive guard for the Celtics, spacing the floor for Isaiah Thomas and masking the point guard’s defensive woes.

Brown will be helped defensively by the arrivals of Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris in a frontcourt that already featured Al Horford, and Marcus Smart can share the load locking down the perimeter. But Brown’s offensive game often went the way of his 3-point shot, which was spotty at best.

Boston hopes that more consistent minutes lead to more consistent production. If that happens, the rook who took on The King might be just the piece the Celtics need to keep the Cavaliers in check. — Ben Rohrbach

Age: 23
Role: A 7-foot, 280-pound, rim-running, rim-protecting fever dream

The Bosnian Beast proved the steal of the NBA’s trade season in February. He transformed a Portland Trail Blazers team that was nine games below .500 upon his arrival to one that outscored opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions with him at center. In the process, the Blazers usurped the Denver Nuggets — the team that traded Nurkic to Oregon — for the West’s eighth seed, and operated as the conference’s third-best team down the stretch, behind only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.

Any hope of challenging the Warriors in the first round — or even taking a game from Golden State — was shattered along with Nurkic’s right fibula in a win over the Houston Rockets on March 30. The infectiousness that was Nurk Fever broke after just 20 games.

Still, the Blazers have one more season of Nurkic on a bargain-basement contract and can control his rights with a qualifying offer in restricted free agency next summer. Somehow, Portland general manager Neil Olshey swindled that and the first-round pick that turned into former No. 1 prep recruit Harry Giles for the price of Mason Plumlee and a future second-rounder. No wonder Olshey just got an extension.

If Nurkic can replicate his Blazers averages from last season’s limited sample size (15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.2 combined blocks and steals per game) over the course of a full campaign, he will command a monster offer sheet. Such a deal could saddle the already capped-out Blazers with a pricey luxury-tax bill, but that’s a problem Portland wouldn’t mind facing it if means locking up an All-Star-caliber center.

Nurkic arrived in Rip City with a reputation for lackluster effort, especially once he lost his starting job in Denver to Nikola Jokic. He played with renewed vigor for the Blazers, a sense of urgency that was on full display when he scored 33 points on 15 shots with 15 rebounds, two assists and a pair of blocks in a win over the Nuggets that proved the difference in their race for the eighth seed.

It was a masterful display of post play, pick-and-roll finishing and offensive rebounding, with a sprinkle of ball-handling on the fast break mixed in. He even wished Denver “a happy summer” afterward.

Paired with Portland’s dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, even half that production from Nurkic on a consistent basis would make the Blazers a formidable offensive force.

Ever since losing Robin Lopez, the Blazers have been searching for a rim-protecting presence who can clean up the mess Lillard and McCollum leave behind defensively. Nurkic may also fulfill that role. Inside of six feet, Blazers opponents shot seven percent worse than league average with him defending. The Blazers went from allowing 111.3 points per 100 possessions without Nurkic to 103.7 points-per-100 with him — the equivalent of improving from the league’s worst defense to a top-five outfit.

In other words, Portland had a fever, and the only cure was more Nurkic. — BR

More from our NBA 25 Under 25 series:

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the players who will redefine the NBA
Ben Simmons and the NBA’s top five playmakers under age 25
Bradley Beal, Devin Booker headline the NBA’s next generation of scorers
Otto Porter and the unsung heroes who make good teams great
NBA 25 Under 25: Giannis, Brow, KAT and the next generation