It was a very eventful year for college basketball and the NBA. Here are the main takeaways and storylines of the year.
1. Derrick Rose Rising Again
This is one of the best sports’ stories of the year. A lot of people wrote Derrick Rose off. I didn’t think he would ever play with this type of efficiency. But understanding the need of shooting at the guard spot, the former MVP fine-tuned his outside stroke and is playing with more composure on both ends. At age 30, he is averaging 18.9 points (his highest since the year he first tore his ACL), 4.8 assists, and shooting a blistering 46.2 percent from three. With defenders still fearful of his quick first step, he now has that balance between penetrating, distributing and spacing the court. You have to put him in the discussion for Sixth Man of the Year, and that’s more than commendable given how far he’s come.
2. The Brilliance (And Justification) of Luka Doncic
I said Luka was going to be a problem. Finding a rookie that is physically ready, mentally mature and already possessing an elite offensive skillset comes around once every blue moon, let alone for a 19-year-old. But as the draft approached, analysts and basketball fans alike looked for reasons to doubt the kid because he was from overseas. So many times I heard, “Is he athletic enough?” or “How high is his ceiling?”, when his play against grown men in the ACB spoke for itself. Now halfway through the year, there’s a different type of energy toward Doncic (19.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.1 apg). He has played like an All-Star, is thriving in late games just as he did at Real Madrid, and has garnered the respect of superstars around the league. I guess game recognizes game.
3. LeBron to LA
It happened. The speculation grew stronger as LeBron carried the otherwise-mediocre Cavs to a fourth straight Finals. Now the biggest show in basketball is playing in front of the brightest lights trying to bring the Lakers back to relevance. He’ll need another top-level player to join next summer in order to compete for championships in a stacked Western Conference. But they have a respectable Robin in the meantime in Kyle Kuzma (18.7 ppg), a two-way wing in Josh Hart, and one of the league’s most underrated perimeter defenders in Lonzo Ball. Where LeBron goes, success follows, so don’t be shocked to see the Lakers making some noise as the playoffs come up.
4. Jayson Tatum is the Truth
When you dunk on LeBron and give him a mean mug, you don’t have to prove your fearlessness to me. In the second half of last year and throughout the playoffs, Tatum became Boston’s best player as a rookie, averaging 18.5 points a game. His footwork and handle are rare for a player of his size and age (as every Boston fan will tell you). Simply put, Jayson Tatum is a special player. Now with Kyrie Irving back, he has settled in as the number two option where he will remain as long as they are on the same team. Still, he is a terrific bucket-getter that has the touch and IQ to continue to improve.
5. Markelle Fultz Is Trying to Prove He’s Not a Lie
It was a tough year for the 2017 top overall pick. Not only was he facing criticism for being the return piece for Jayson Tatum, but he has battled an injury that contributed to a wide range of awkward releases. After being officially diagnosed with Neurogenic Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, he is working his way through rehab and should return before the season ends. Until then, there will be plenty of talk about potential trades and if the Sixers should give up on him. I’m a firm believer that he is going to be just fine. That top overall pick was not a mistake and there is a reason he was a consensus top pick. Philly needs to wait for it.
6. Giannis Becoming the Most Dominant Paint Scorer Since Shaq
For a guy that essentially plays point guard for the Bucks, Giannis is controlling the interior like few players in recent memory. To this point, he is averaging the most point paints a game since Shaq and is doing so in a freakish manner. I have never seen a player take one dribble from half court and dunk like Giannis. He is currently leading the league shooting 65.6% from inside the arc, but in reality, most of that is coming from inside of the restricted arc. And there is nothing defenders can do about it. Giannis is now strong enough to overpower opponents with his strength and length. If he can find any type of jumper in 2019, it might be over for the rest of the league.
7. De’Aaron Fox Took the Biggest Sophomore Jump
The quickness and defensive potential were clear last season, but it still looked like Fox needed some more time to become a true franchise point guard. Little did I know all he needed was a summer. Swipa is putting the league on notice with his end-to-end speed and playmaking prowess. Following a solid rookie campaign, he is up to 18.3 ppg, 7.7 apg, and 1.7 apg. As Fox continues to take off, the Kings will continue to remain competitive.
8. The Stacked Duke Freshmen Class Is For Real
When you get the three top freshmen and another top-15 recruit, the expectations are going to be high. Despite an early loss to Gonzaga, the quartet of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones is averaging over 65 points a game and delivering highlight reels every night. The former three are almost locked to go in the top five. Jones looks every bit like a long-time role player with his decision-making and defensive impact.
9. Donte DiVincenzo Securing the Bag
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, DiVincenzo was expected to be the feature piece on Villanova this season. Instead, he went off for 31 points in their National Championship, showing off athleticism and long-range shooting that looked league-ready. Donte parlayed that performance into the 17th overall pick with the Bucks. Injuries have slowed him to an extent, but he looks like a good rotation piece for Milwaukee.
10. You Get a Unicorn! You Get a Unicorn!
One major takeaway from the 2018 NBA Draft was the increased demand for versatile, athletic big men. DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba were all picked in the top 10. As we move into 2019, the focus on finding centerpieces in the middle is greater than ever. The best teams are still building from the wing, but the draft styles are showing a want for more Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, and Nikola Jokic type players.