Everyone loves a true underdog story; the one guy that beat the odds. Think about growing up, how many times did you hear the story of David and Goliath? In the NBA there is always a face of a franchise, a player that when you think of a team, you think of him. Most of the time, when a household name player comes out of college, he already has that expectation of being a big time competitor hanging over his head. For example, the first three picks in the 2017 NBA Draft—Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, and Jayson Tatum—who in fact were players whose names we heard on a consistent basis during their college tenures, have all been put into positions where they will be coming in to compete for a starting position. While most players that play in the NBA had exceptional college careers, this does not always translate over into the competitive market of the NBA. This also does not mean they are guaranteed to get drafted. Some skill sets just take time to develop, and whether that process is from spending time on the bench learning behind better players, or spending some time in the G-League, ultimately, their potential all lies within their own means.
This list is comprised of ten individuals (no specific order) from the 2016 and 2017 seasons who I consider to be “under the radar players” that have just recently been put in positions to become contributors to their respective teams this season. Specifically, by “under the radar,” I’m referring to players who had a successful college career, Summer League performance, or both, but were over shadowed by others who were drafted before them. These players are now in positions where they have the opportunity to help their teams in some way, whether it be as a potential starter down the line or contributing off the bench.
Donovan Mitchell – Utah Jazz – SG
Donovan Mitchell was selected by the Denver Nuggets this year with the 13th overall pick, but was immediately traded to the Utah Jazz this past year. Mitchell, who attended Louisville where he earned All ACC honors, elected to enter the draft after his sophomore season. During his Las Vegas Summer League stint, the 20-year-old led all scorers with 28.0 PPG on 36% shooting from the field. With the departure of shooting guard Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics, fortunately for Mitchell, playing time will come quickly and he will be looked at to fill out both the one and two positions. Though Mitchell is known mostly for his offensive game, he is the complete package on the defensive side as well, as having been coached by Rick Pitino. I would definitely say look for Mitchell to make an impact early on with the Jazz.
Brice Johnson – Los Angeles Clippers – PF
Brice Johnson was selected by the Los Angeles Clippers with the 25th overall pick in the 2016 draft. Johnson had stellar career at UNC, which included First-Team All American his senior season. After an injury riddled rookie season that restricted Johnson to play in only three games for the Clippers and resulted in time spent in the NBA G-League, Johnson really came out of his shell and into his own during the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 14 PPG on 57.7% shooting and 5 RPG. His most noteworthy moment was a post move, spin, and slam that he put on Lonzo Ball. At that moment, we as fans were finally able to remember his name. With the Clippers just signing Blake Griffin to an extension this past off season, Johnson will definitely have to come off the bench. However, my prediction is that he will very much so have an impact in his role, especially since Blake is known for getting hurt come crunch time. After what I’ve seen from Johnson this past Summer League, it’s safe to say that he will be a starter in the NBA at some point, and in the end I think the Clippers may be able to work out some transactions around the league to put him into that position.
DeAndre’ Bembry – Atlanta Hawks – SG/SF
DeAndre’ Bembry was selected by the Atlanta Hawks with the 21st overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft. Bembry was a standout player at St. Joseph’s, winning A-10 Player of the Year his junior year. His most memorable performance of the season was in the conference championship game against VCU, where he scored 30 points on a terrific 13 of 16 shooting from the field, which eventually helped earn the Hawks a bid to the NCAA tournament. During his rookie season in the NBA, Bembry had seen little playing time and was able to split time between the G-League. As the next season approaches some things to keep in mind about Bembry is that he plays his best basketball in transition, and when he is the primary facilitator. Questions about his shooting ability will also play a factor in his success. During the Las Vegas Summer League, Bembry averaged 17 PPG on a stellar 56.5% shooting and was able to show that his shooting skill has picked up. The Hawks will look for Bembry to mature quickly as the season approaches. Along with Bembry, they will look for Taurean Prince to play a role in being able to provide an ample amount of perimeter scoring off the bench.
Sindarious Thornwell – Los Angeles Clippers – PG
Sindarious Thornwell was selected by the Los Angeles Clippers with the 48th overall pick of the 2017 draft. While earing SEC Player of the Year Honors his senior year, Thornwell was able to lead USC Gamecocks to the Final Four in the NCAA tournament, which is something that no other USC team had ever done. After a solid Las Vegas Summer League performance in which he averaged 14.3 PPG on an alright 39.5% shooting, his play was enough for the Clippers to offer him a contract. While Thornwell isn’t the greatest scorer, what he provides is his knowledge of the game. He’s a floor general with the fire and tenacity that will eventually help him make a name for himself within the NBA. My prediction for him is that while he is not going to have the greatest season to start off on this list, and he is too good to be in the G-League, whenever he is put in a position to step up, he will do so and earn his keep on an NBA roster.
Josh Hart – Los Angeles Lakers – SG
Josh Hart was selected 30th overall by the Utah Jazz, and was immediately traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning a championship with Villanova his junior season, Hart was a main staple in their high powered offense that season, as well as his senior year. Hart joins a young Laker roster that still has questions about how successful they can be. It’s hard to make any solid predictions about Hart considering since his Las Vegas Summer League stint only lasted two games, but it’s safe to say he can play ball and in the Lakers young offense he can provide some relief off the bench. After watching Lonzo Ball this past Summer League and how he was able to make his teammates better, I predict Hart will show a couple signs of being able to compete in the NBA. With this being said, I also think he will have a couple stints in the G-League to sharpen his skill set. Another prediction for Hart would possibly have him being used as trade bait to bring in another veteran for the young Laker squad.
D.J. Wilson – Milwaukee Bucks – PF
D.J. Wilson was selected 17th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2017 NBA draft. After only being a one year starter at Michigan, his decision to forego his final year of eligibility and elect to enter the draft sort of raised some eyebrows. To add on to the skepticism, Wilson also didn’t make too much of an uproar this Las Vegas Summer League either. Nonetheless, what Wilson brings is a body type that has a mix of athleticism that the Bucks also have in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Wilson will mix well on a Bucks’ roster that is still young and also has players that can switch to guard/forward as well as center/forward. My prediction for Wilson is that while he won’t be a starter this season, he will definitely get a few chances to prove himself and he will rise to the occasion.
Caleb Swanigan – Portland Trailblazers – PF
Caleb Swanigan was selected by the Portland Trailblazers with the 26th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft. In his two years at Purdue, Swanigan was a walking double-double, and set numerous records for the Boilermakers. Along with his undeniable talent, his life story adds to why you’d want to invest in this kid as well. In his run in the Las Vegas Summer League, Swanigan once again averaged a double-double with 16.1 PPG on 43.8% from the field, as well as 10.6 RPG, which was enough to help the Trailblazers make it to the finals, where they eventually lost to the Lakers. It’s no question that Swanigan has a high ceiling in the NBA. Swanigan not only showed his skill set on the offensive end, but also showed that he could guard multiple positions on the floor as well. While the Blazers have also brought in Center Zach Collins with the 10th overall pick, my prediction is that Swanigan will fare way better in his stint with Portland, and have a heavy impact this upcoming season.
Jordan Bell – Golden State Warriors – PF
Jordan Bell was selected 38th overall by the Chicago Bulls and was eventually traded to the Golden State Warriors in the 2017 Draft. While his stats at Oregon weren’t much to boast about from a person you’d consider a superstar, it safe to say he was a main staple in their success. Bell being traded to the Warriors is probably the best thing that could have happened not only to Bell, but the Warriors as well. Bell will be looked at to have a Draymond-type presence while on the floor by contributing mostly on the defensive side, but will also be able to develop his offensive game to become a dominant player off the bench. Ultimately, once he comes into his own, I believe Bell will add more versatility to the Warriors lineups and I look for him to receive an ample amount of playing time during his rookie season.
Bryn Forbes – San Antonio Spurs – SG/PG
Bryn Forbes was picked up by the San Antonio Spurs after he went undrafted in 2016. During his two year tenure with Michigan State, Forbes’ shooting skills were his biggest asset. Setting many records in his time there, he was able to impress the Spurs’ coaches enough during workouts, and once he was signed, he continued to impress in whatever chance he got. However, there were some parts of his game that needed to be improved, and when it came down to it, playing for a stacked Spurs team gave him the chance to pick up and improve in the G-League. During his Las Vegas Summer League stint, Forbes’ average of 26 PPG on 40.4 % proved that he has what it takes to be a part of an NBA roster, along with how far his game has developed since he was picked up. I look for Forbes next season to have an active role on the Spurs’ roster, and not spend any time in the G-League. With an aging Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, Forbes will definitely receive more playing time. However, I still don’t think he will be a household name anytime soon, considering the weapons that the Spurs still possess. Nevertheless, I do think that with having Poppavich as his coach, he will be able to channel his potential into becoming a good player.
Kyle Kuzma – Los Angeles Lakers – PF/SF
Kyle Kuzma was selected 27th overall by the Brooklyn Nets in the 2017 Draft. He was then traded to the Lakers as part of Magic Johnson’s plan to rebuild a young team. Kuzma spent his playing days at the University of Utah and decided to forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the draft after just three years, which is a decision that I heavily questioned. However, after watching him during his Las Vegas Summer League stint, I can now attest to his decision to enter the draft. It was obvious that he was playing with a chip on his shoulder. Although often overshadowed by the presence of Lonzo Ball, Kuzma went out and put on a show every night that he played. In seven games of the eight games he played for the Lakers, Kuzma led all scorers averaging 21.9 PPG on 51.4% shooting. In the championship, which included the absence of a hurt Lonzo Ball, Kuzma’s game led the Lakers to a win, and earned himself player of the game. While he still shows features of a young player that needs work on both ends of the floor, my prediction is that he has earned a roster spot that’ll put him in a position to go out and show characteristics of a future elite player in the NBA.
NBA.com, Getty Images, Derek Appleton, Jordan Miles and respective sources all contributed to this article.