The 2021-22 NBA season is quickly approaching.
On Sept. 28, teams will begin training camp. On Oct. 3, the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets will face off in the first preseason game. And on Oct. 19, the regular season will open with a star-studded opening night.
While much attention heading into the season has been paid to the teams that are expected to compete for a title, which ones are primed to surprise?
BenyamKidane (@BenyamKidane): Don't sleep on the Orlando Magic.
While they're not going to be competing for a championship anytime soon, the Magic are poised to be one of the most exciting young teams to watch next season.
In the post-Vucevic era, the Magic went all-in on their young talent and hit the jackpot in the draft, getting Gonzaga standout Jalen Suggs with the No. 5 overall pick and Franz Wagner at No. 8.
Coming off a 21-win season, there's certainly room for improvement, but the Magic have a stockpile of young talent including Cole Anthony and RJ Hampton, as well as Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, both of whom are recovering from ACL injuries.
Under Jamahl Mosley, the Magic have a highly rated first-year head coach to oversee the development of these young players, and with Suggs leading the way, they'll compete every night and cause a few upsets along the way.
Yash Matange (@yashmatange2694): Got to go with the Washington Wizards.
ready to work 💪🏀#DCAboveAll | @Ticketmaster pic.twitter.com/kzh0DYR1YN- Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) August 9, 2021
By trading away Russell Westbrook, the franchise has brought in a ton of new talent in Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They also added Spencer Dinwiddie (sign-and-trade) and Aaron Holiday while picking an exciting duo through the 2021 NBA Draft in Corey Kispert (No. 15) and Isaiah Todd (No. 31).
That's a great bunch of talent around already established guys on the current roster like All-Star Bradley Beal, youngster Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Thomas Bryant. There's depth, youth and a vibe that this roster has a chip on their shoulder, especially under first-time head coach Wes Unseld Jr.
Despite injuries, the Wizards reached the Play-In Tournament in the 2020-21 season. For the 2021-22 season, I expect them to make the playoffs once again and fight somewhere between the fifth and seventh seeds in the East.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I'm keeping things in the Eastern Conference and going with the Charlotte Hornets.
The Hornets could have been considered a breakout team last season with Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball leading the charge, newly acquired forward Gordon Hayward playing at an All-Star level again, and Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges both enjoying breakout years. They qualified for the Play-In Tournament but may have even cracked a solidified playoff spot if injuries didn't force Ball and Hayward to miss significant time.
This upcoming season, with Hayward back to full strength, Ball on the verge of stardom and Rozier fresh off of a four-year, $97 million extension, the Hornets' core remains the same. But with two talented draft picks in James Bouknight and Kai Jones, a quality acquisition in likely starting center Mason Plumlee and some added depth with Kelly Oubre Jr., this team has a chance to make some noise in the East.
Rozier and Ball already had the squad together getting work in this offseason, too, building up that familiarity and team chemistry.
Watch out for Charlotte this year.
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I'm not quite sure what to make of them myself, but I do think the Toronto Raptors could surprise this season.
First and foremost, returning to Toronto should give them a big boost. The Raptors have one of the best home crowds in the league and have been pretty hard to beat at the Scotiabank Arena in recent memory. (The Raptors posted a 92-26 record at home between 2017-18 and 2019-20, need you be reminded). While there's been quite a lot of change over the last few seasons, there is still no shortage of talent on this roster.
It helps that the Raptors are coached by someone who has a history of getting the most out of his players, especially on defence. The Raptors slipped to 15th in defensive efficiency last season, but I have faith that they'll be much better on that end of the court this season.
Pascal Siakam being expected to miss the start of the season as he continues to recover from undergoing shoulder surgery complicates matters, but Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby making another leap could help the Raptors stay afloat until he returns. Throw in a more well-rounded center rotation, a more dynamic second unit and the potential of Scottie Barnes, and this team has the potential to work its way back into the playoff picture following a disappointing 2020-21 campaign.
Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Wow, are we that set on the Western Conference that we think there will be absolutely no surprise teams over there?
This pick might be surprising to some - which is the point of this article - but I've been talking myself into the Minnesota Timberwolves this upcoming season. Chris Finch took over as head coach midseason and by the end of the year, the Wolves started figuring things out, playing .500 ball over the last six or so weeks.
We sometimes forget how talented Karl-Anthony Towns is, but he's legitimately a top 30 player in the league and he's coming off of a season in which he averaged 24.8 points, 10.5 rebounds and a career-high 4.5 assists per game. They've also got the young wonder in Anthony Edwards, who really started figuring things out late in the season at just 19 years old. I expect Edwards to take a leap, and reports indicate he's grown to 6-foot-6, which should make him an even more exciting player.
Rounding out the trio of talent at the top in Minnesota is D'Angelo Russell, who should have more opportunity to keep the ball in his hands now that the team has moved Ricky Rubio.
Defence is the key concern, and I get that, but Minnesota has at least attempted to address that issue by bringing in Patrick Beverley and Taurean Prince this offseason. And maybe, just maybe, this team brings in another All-Star that makes them even more exciting.
If that's the case, I'm glad to be the first to have staked my claim of excitement around the T'Wolves. I could see them wiggling their way into Play-In contention, a big leap in one year.
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