Stepping Up
(Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA’s regular season ending Bubble Tournament is just about done and dusted. The randomness that comes with such an unprecedented situation has come through in spades, with some incredible performances at both the team and individual level, as well as some out and out disappointments (insert sad Zion photo, here).  

Today, we will examine some of the players that have stepped up and shown out in Disney World. A few of these payers have taken on new or expanded roles and thrived, whereas others have risen from the ashes to make themselves vital cogs in their teams machine. The common theme is that each and every player below has made the basketball world sit up and take notice in a way they hadn’t previously.  

Devin Booker – Phoenix Suns 

The Suns main man has only gotten better with Bubble life. Booker has led the thoroughly unfancied Suns to a 7-0 record in Orlando and a most unlikely shot at the final playoff seed in the Western Conference. As it stands with one day of play left, we could have a 4-way tie for the 8th seed in the West!  

Booker has certainly had teammates step up around him, but the 23 year old has undoubtedly found another level since the restart. His progression from one dimensional 3-point marksman, to mid-range assassin to playmaker to all-round offensive weapon is well documented.  It’s cumulated in 31 points per game (up from 26 per game prior to the shutdown) and a range of finishes from all over floor in Orlando.  

Booker evolved into al All Star this season. He’s growing into a superstar in Orlando.  

TJ Warren – Indiana Pacers 

It might seem like TJ Warren’s impact is out of the blue, but it is not all that surprising. This season – and even last season in Phoenix – he’s been a solid low usage scorer who has belatedly embraced the 3-point shot. Sure, his defense has improved markedly under Nate McMillan, but that doesn’t explain his explosion in Orlando. That largely comes down to one thing: opportunity. 

With Victor Oladipo not 100% after multiple long layoffs and Malcolm Brogdon not fit, Warren was always going to be leaned upon for more offense, but the injury to Domantas Sabonis has made TJ the #1 option for Indy (it’s also moved him to the 4 on a full time basis – don’t underestimate that).  

With increased usage and the improved spacing without Sabonis, Warren has put up 34.8 points (55% shooting from beyond the arc), 6.6 boards and most encouragingly 2.4 assists (double his career average) in his 5 completed bubble contests, against pre shutdown stats of 19.1, 4.1 and 1.4.  

Warren has increased his usage from under 24% prior to the stoppage to around 29% since the restart, but he’s retained perhaps his best offensive trait – the ability to score without dominating the ball. Warren is hitting pull up 3’s at a rate he has never reached, but he still gets most of his baskets from cuts and curls, which bodes well for when his more creative teammates return to the court.  

Caris LeVert – Brooklyn Nets 

The last man standing in Brooklyn is, by default (the two greatest words in the English Language), the lead man for the surprising Nets.  

This bare bones squad are 5-2 since the restart and have consolidated the 7th seed in the East, and with it the right to not get trampled into dust by Milwaukee.  

LeVert is averaging 22.6 points and 6.2 assists in The Bubble, up from his 18.1/4.2 numbers preceding the shutdown. Without Kyrie Irving or Spencer Dinwiddie to handle the ball, LeVert’s herky-jerky game has come to the fore. He’s found a beautiful synergy with the sharpshooting Joe Harris (who was the last cut from this article) to steer the Nets to success.  

The issue of LeVert’s long term fit in Brooklyn remains.  His cadence is completely different to that of Irving and Dinwiddie – we’ll reserve judgement on his fit with Durant for the time being – and given all 3 need the ball to be at their most effective, it makes sense that one of them will be traded. Given LeVert’s age and non-Kyrieness, he’s the logical candidate.  

Given he is – or at least should be – squarely in the shop window, the 4th year guard is giving the best account of himself to any potential new employer.  

Jusuf Nurkic – Portland Trailblazers 

(Please note that in honour of my compatriot Basil Zempilas, we will refer to Damian Lillard as Lilly-yard in this article) 

If anybody doubted how much Portland missed their big man while he recovered from his broken leg, Nurkic’s play in Disney World should put those misgivings to rest.  

The Bosnian is perhaps looking healthier than he ever has in his NBA career, providing the Blazers with 17 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 2.7 blocks and numerous crunching screens.  

The Bear’s pick and roll harmony with Damian Lilly-yard is a joy to watch. Nurkic has rolled to the bucket for the finish, popped out to shoot the jumper, or most enjoyably made the extra pass.  

His passing opens up Portland’s attack, taking pressure away from Lilly-yard in particular. His ability to find Carmelo Anthony (another that is unlucky to not make this list) for open jumpers has helped revitalised the veteran forward to the point where he’s enjoying his best stretch since returning to the league.  

Mikal Bridges – Phoenix Suns 

The second Sun on this list stands alone in that he is not an offensive player by any means. Bridges has improved his offensive game without a doubt: his shooting has advanced, his creativity is better, his movement away from the basketball more decisive.  

But it’s defense where Bridges makes his name, and he’s been lockdown since the restart. He’s hounded Tim Hardaway into 2 points on 1-12 shooting; held the white hot Warren to 16 points on 35% shooting, frustrated Kawhi Leonard late in their last gasp – and perhaps season defining – win over the Clips and hassled Chris Paul into a 3 of 9 shooting night.  

There sheer range of players he has matched up with since the restart are testament to Bridges remarkable defensive versatility. He has elite length and enough speed and strength to switch between bigger wings and jitterbug guards. He is expert at herding his man towards an area of the floor where he has less available angles to make a move, then let’s his extreme length take over.  

As their form in Orlando has showed, the Suns are building something; Mikal Bridges is a huge part of that future.  

Kyle Kuzma – Los Angeles Lakers 

Kyle Kuzma is perhaps the least properly rated player in the entire league and precisely none of it is his fault. He’s either completely overrated as an elite secondary scorer by dint of the uniform he wears, and the teammates he keeps. Alternatively, he is derided as a shooter in reputation only, and a defensive liability – that underrates his impact on a game.  

It’s true that Kooz isn’t the shooter that some think he is, but he’s still capable of getting very hot very quickly. His defense is average, but that’s much improved on horrible resistance he used to put forward. A firing Kuzma is vital for the Lakers playoff hopes, though. Why? Because he unlocks the most dangerous Lakers lineup: Anthony Davis at the five, and shooters surrounding LeBron James.  

Kuzma’s ability to supply at least token resistance to power forwards and bigger wings opens up Davis to play as a switching, all action defensive big, whilst his need to at least be respected on the perimeter creates valuable space for LeBron and AD’s almost unfair pick and roll game.  

Kuzma has increased his scoring output in Orlando on the back of 47% shooting from deep, while continuing to play acceptable defense. Sustaining those levels are crucial to the Lakers maintaining a championship window that could slam shut at any moment, given James’ aging legs.  

Michael Porter Jr – Denver Nuggets 

By now the reasons for Michael Porter Jnr falling to the 14th pick in the 2018 draft are well documented. Without wanting to delve into revisionist history territory, there are at least 7 players that Porter has already moved past, despite missing a full 90 games over his short career. Front offices in New York, Cleveland, Orlando and even Sacramento are surely a little bit sick in their mouths every time they watch Porter rise up and make a 3 off the bounce, or slither his way into another offensive rebound.  

Despite his health and intensity concerns, Porter was always a worthy gamble for Denver from a positional standpoint alone as a long, potentially high scoring wing on a team without a true small forward. 

Porter’s development through the season has ofcourse been very pleasing to the Denver brass, but with Michael Malone’s entire first choice guard rotation – Jamal Murray, Will Barton and Gary Harris -injured, Porter has stepped into the breach and looks a natural lead option in the making.  

Especially satisfying is his mind meld with Nikola Jokic. Porter is already a savvy mover, perfect for the Joker’s surgical passing precision.

Porter has more than doubled his scoring and rebounding output since the restart, with  22 points and 8.5 boards a night, with a steal and close to a block thrown in. .  

Without wanting to be a spoilsport, there are some issue for Malone to deal with come playoff time.  

  • Harris and in particular Barton have made it clear they expect to start once they’re healthy. How does Malone handle those ego’s and his rotations in general? 
  • For all of his offensive ability, defense is still a huge issue for Porter. Does a notoriously defensive coach like Malone bury his youngster if he flails at that end of the court come playoff time? 

Jamal Murray looks more natural as a 3rd option on a contender, so Porter’s ascendance into a legitimate 2nd option for Denver is huge not just for this season, but also for their future.  

Gary Trent Jr – Portland Trailblazers 

The injury depleted Blazers lack of frontcourt depth has been spoken about ad nauseum all season long. It has been overlooked how the lack of legitimate guard play behind Damian Lilly-yard and CJ McCollum has affected Portland’s play.  

Sans Trevor Ariza – who opted out of – and Rodney Hood the front court is back and firing. The impact of Gary Trent Jr has had an immense impact in it’s own right. Playing the Vinnie Johnson ‘microwave’ role, Trent has supplied excellent minutes at the two-guard, which in turns allows McCollum to spend more time at the point, giving coach Terry Stotts 48 minutes of excellent lead guard play.  

Trent has only 2 roles on this team: hit 3’s and talk copious amounts of shit. He does both with aplomb.  

Like Porter, Trent has more than doubled his scoring output in the bubble, putting up an even 17 per game at an absurd 53% clip from deep. He’s still not anything approaching a playmaker, although the threat of his jumper opens up space for Dame to do his thing. His defense has improved to the point where he won’t get played off the floor in crunch time, although he’s never going to be Marcus Smart. That said, Trent has now cemented his place in the rotation for a team that is the new favourite to steal that last available playoff spot.