For injury-related reasons or simply due to poor form, various big-name players suffered setbacks in production in 2019-20. Some of them didn’t play at all last season; others struggled to acclimate with new teams; and still, others suffered setbacks in their early-career journeys.
Regardless, that left us with a lot of very solid options as far as selecting potential candidates to have bounce-back seasons in 2020-21.
Below, we break down who we believe are the 12 best candidates to have much-needed comeback years.
Andre Drummond, Cleveland
2019-20 was an awkward season for Andre Drummond, one that saw him get traded mid-campaign from the Detroit Pistons to the Cleveland Cavaliers and see just 57 games’ worth of action, only eight of which came on his new team.
Despite still putting up solid averages (Drummond averaged 17.7 points, a league-leading 15.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game), there’s no doubt the big man wasn’t the All-Star-level player he was in 2015-16 and 2017-18. The advanced metrics agree with that assessment, too, as both VORP (1.4) and BPM (0.9) rank 2019-20 as the second-least productive campaign of Drummond’s career.
Now more settled in on his new team and playing on a squad lacking in top-end talent outside of him and his frontcourt mate, Kevin Love, Drummond could be in line for a big season, at least individually. Couple that with the fact it’s a contract year for Drummond, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and the 27-year-old will have even more motivation to regain his elite form from prior years.
Plus, thanks to the way in which the Los Angeles Lakers won the title last season, battering smaller teams with their size, the NBA big man could be suddenly making a comeback, an idea that’s backed up by bigs having a much more lucrative free agency in 2020 than expected.
Gordon Hayward, Charlotte
Expected role and usage rate are the biggest reasons why we expect to see a big Gordon Hayward bounce-back this upcoming season, which will be his first with the Charlotte Hornets.
Following the devastating leg injury he went through in 2017-18, Hayward had his best season since returning this past year with the Boston Celtics, averaging 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 points on extremely tidy 50.0/38.3/85.5 shooting splits. Only 14 players put up a 17/6/4 stat line last season and on a list featuring multiple All-Stars and All-NBA types, Hayward had the sixth-best true-shooting percentage at 59.5.
Oh, and what’s more, Hayward did that with a mere 21.1 percent usage rate, by far the lowest of any player on that illustrious list, making it clear that the one-time All-Star made the most of his somewhat limited opportunities in Boston.
So while it could be said that 2019-20 was Hayward’s bounce-back season, we expect the Butler product to be even better this upcoming league year with the Hornets, where he’ll be afforded more nightly opportunities to put up shots and create for teammates, possessions that weren’t there for him sharing the floor with so many ball-dominant players in Boston.
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago
After posting the most statistically productive season of his young career in 2018-19, Lauri Markkanen saw a pretty steep drop-off in 2019-20, a year in which he averaged just 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting a career-worst 34.4 percent from beyond the arc.
A supposed sharpshooter, that last number is particularly concerning as far as projecting Markkanen’s future, as is the fact that for his career, he’s merely a 35.6 percent three-point marksman.
Nevertheless, under a more creative head coach now in Billy Donovan, who has already stated he doesn’t want the Finnish big man to become a one-dimensional catch-and-shoot type player, a solid return to form could be in line for Markkanen in 2020-21, especially if the team is able to work out an extension with him, which is already reportedly in the works.
If that extension gets done, Markkanen will head into the upcoming season with full confidence that the Chicago Bulls do think highly of him, which could, in turn, allow him to just focus on basketball and not have to worry about what his future will be.
That could go a long way in helping the 23-year-old bounce back this league year.
Victor Oladipo, Indiana
After a major injury cut short his to-that-point impressive 2018-19 season, Victor Oladipo didn’t return to action for a full year – and even when he did make his comeback, it was clear that the former All-Star wasn’t back to his old self quite yet.
Oladipo put up just 14.5 points and 2.9 assists while converting under 40 percent of his field-goal attempts over 19 regular-season games last year.
Even so, Oladipo closed the league year out strongly, averaging 22.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.7 steals over the Indiana Pacers’ final three games of the postseason, all defeats to the Miami Heat.
After getting his feet wet in the bubble, now fully healthy and getting an entire training camp in with Indiana, Oladipo should be ready to bounce back well in 2020-21. Plus, now that the drama of the reported trade request is perhaps behind him, he will be able to focus on just basketball.
John Wall, Houston
Two major injuries (with other complications) and nearly two full calendar years separate today from the last time we saw John Wall take part in a regular-season NBA game, a true shame considering the floor general is one of the most exciting players in the league when healthy.
A five-time All-Star, Wall was averaging 21.0 points, 10.1 assists and 1.8 steals over his final four seasons before going down, marks that can only be matched by his new teammate (for now, at least) James Harden and the player he was traded for, Russell Westbrook. That goes to show the elite level of production Wall was putting up prior to getting hurt.
Now healthy, reports and word-of-mouth from teammates indicate that Wall has looked like his explosive old self in offseason workouts and in training camp. For what it’s worth, his first preseason game with Houston was impressive, as Wall dropped 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go with nine assists and two steals in just 19 minutes of action.
It should be also noted that though the whole Harden situation does loom over Wall’s comeback season, even if the bearded superstar does leave, that’ll make the Rockets Wall’s team from a playmaking perspective, so he should have an even easier time putting up big-time numbers than if Harden were to stick around
Paul George, LA Clippers
Pandemic P, Playoff P, 3-1 jokes… Paul George has heard it all this offseason after how his 2019-20 campaign ended, and with good reason.
Over 13 playoff games last year, George shot 39.8 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from three prior to the Los Angeles Clippers being embarrassingly defeated by the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semis.
George has taken the brunt of the criticism since then, some of it fair and some of it not so much, though George has done himself no favors with some of his offseason commentary on what happened in the playoffs.
Regardless, we shouldn’t forget that George is an All-NBA-level performer, a player not just capable of putting up 20 points nightly thanks to his pristine jump shot, but one who can lock down multiple positions defensively at an elite clip. In addition, just two seasons ago, George finished Top 3 in MVP voting, so playoff struggles aside, there’s no question the 30-year-old has been one of the best players the league has to offer for a while now.
After a rough offseason that has turned George into a meme, we expect him to come out absolutely firing this upcoming year, focused on reminding fans of how good he really is. The fact that George has the full confidence of the Clippers, a fact that’s proven by the max extension he just signed with them, should only help George in his quest to bring a championship to L.A.’s second team.
Kevin Durant, Brooklyn
Now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, reports state that Kevin Durant looks ‘all the way back’ in workouts, and head coach Steve Nash himself has raved about the 10-time All-Star’s current form.
That’s great news for the Nets considering the last time we saw Durant, he was averaging an outrageous 32.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the 2019 postseason on otherworldly 51.4/43.8/90.3 shooting splits, looking like arguably the best player in the world at that point.
With the team expected to use Durant in a variety of ways, including playing some center, expect a huge year out of Durant as long as he stays healthy. If he does, Brooklyn will be one of the scariest teams in the Eastern Conference and a potential championship front-runner.
Stephen Curry, Golden State
Durant’s former teammate, Stephen Curry, is another superstar looking at a bounce-back 2020-21 campaign.
Curry played in just five games for the Golden State Warriors last season and didn’t exactly impress, averaging just 20.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 6.6 assists before missing the rest of the year due to injury.
That might be unfair to Curry, as most players would dream of putting up a stat line like that on average, but the standard the two-time league MVP had set prior to last season shows us that he’s capable of much more.
Regardless, now healthy and re-energized after getting well over a year off from basketball, we should see vintage Curry next season, one that will be motivated to prove he can still lead his own team to great heights with Durant gone and Klay Thompson unfortunately set to miss another season, this time with an Achilles injury.
Blake Griffin, Detroit
In his first full season with the Detroit Pistons back in 2018-19, Blake Griffin posted a 3rd-Team-All-NBA-worthy campaign, one in which he averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists while helping guide the team to the playoffs.
Griffin was unable to repeat that level of production in 2019-20, however, as injuries forced him to miss the majority of the season and in the 18 games in which he did play, he struggled, averaging just 15.5 points and 4.7 rebounds.
Just by watching him, it was clear Griffin was not at his peak self last season, but if healthy, the former Slam Dunk champion will have the chance to show he’s still an elite player in 2020-21.
Mike Conley, Utah
Just looking at the raw stats, it’s clear that Mike Conley suffered a huge drop in production and impact from 2018-19 to 2019-20.
The former year, Conley posted a 21.1/3.4/6.4 stat line with a 56.9 true-shooting percentage; last season, however, his first with the Utah Jazz, that stat line fell to 14.4/3.2/4.4 with a 53.7 true-shooting percentage to go with it.
That makes Conley a prime candidate for a bounce-back in 2020-21, as a lead guard with the two-way talent of Conley should have no problem rounding back into top form.
For starters, over the second half of 2019-20, Conley already showed clear signs of improvement after a horrid start to the campaign. Over the first 28 games of the season, Conley averaged 12.6 points and 4.1 assists while shooting 37.7 percent from the floor. Over the final 19 games, those numbers improved to 17.0 points and 4.9 assists behind 45.0 percent shooting (41.9 percent from three).
Now that he’s more acclimated to playing in a new system and alongside the most ball-dominant guard he’s ever played with in Donovan Mitchell, Conley should resemble the second-half of 2019-20 player more than the first-half guy.
DeMarcus Cousins, Houston
A thin and humbled DeMarcus Cousins showed up at Rockets training camp this year, with the big man looking svelt in preseason video and telling the media that he would have no problem coming off the bench in 2020-21.
If Cousins had had that attitude in his prime, he probably wouldn’t have developed the reputation he had for a while about not being the best locker-room guy, but better late than never, we suppose.
In Cousins’ lone season with Golden State, the four-time All-Star averaged just 16.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists, marks way down from his career averages to that point of 21.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists, but considering his long recent injury history, if Cousins is even able to get that Warriors level of production with Houston, it’ll be extremely impressive.
Regardless, on a team that wants to play fast with an offensive maestro calling the shots in Stephen Silas, Cousins will get every chance this year to prove he’s still an above-average NBA player.
His first preseason game with Houston was promising, as Cousins dropped 14 points (three field-goals of which came from three), five rebounds and two blocks in merely 15 minutes of work.
Marvin Bagley, Sacramento
After a slow start to his career, one made all the more awkward by having the dubious distinction of having been selected one pick before MVP candidate Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley will get the chance to bounce back from early-career struggles in 2020-21.
Merely having a healthy season will be a step forward for the former Duke star, as Bagley played in just 62 games in his first year with the Sacramento Kings and 13 in 2019-20.
Having Hassan Whiteside around to play the 5 and allow Bagley to move a spot down the positional ladder to the 4 should also help the 21-year-old start figuring things out at a higher level in the NBA.
Nevertheless, if any young player in the league is in need of a quick bounce-back this season, it’s Bagley. He has the talent to get it done, but we’ll have to wait and see just a bit longer to see if he does.