NBA Injury Replacements with Big Opportunities to Shine

Though every NBA campaign is rife with injuries to notable players, every minute lost for one ostensibly opens up playing time for someone else.

These opportunities often can be leveraged into bigger roles. Sometimes, even a career can be drastically altered simply by maximizing such a moment. (See: Draymond Green filling in for David Lee more than half a decade ago.) At very least, teams hope that an increased chance for minutes helps a supporting cast member develop a little faster, thereby making the collective that much stronger once fully healthy.

Before this season even began, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Klay Thompson and other stars were already confirmed as out. Then news broke of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson also being sidelined for 6-8 weeks with a torn meniscus. Now we’re without Stephen Curry and some pretty key other names that you’ll read about below.

Though all injuries are a huge bummer, here are five players who will have the opportunity to make the most of their minutes while a key teammate is out.

NOTE: I debated including Eric Paschall of the Golden State Warriors, who is indeed playing far better than expected. But the fact is someone has to put up numbers on that team due to such a ridiculous avalanche of injuries. The sheer volume of  “normal” Warriors missing time disqualified Golden State for me, though Paschall sustaining this production for a couple of months could certainly change things.

Boston Celtics: Gordon Hayward –> Jaylen Brown

Nov 11, 2019; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) goes in for a dunk past Dallas Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (11) during the fourth quarter at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

After looking as if he’d returned to the form that brought him an All-Star nod in the 2016-17 season, Gordon Hayward recently fractured his left hand and will miss 4-6 weeks with the injury.

Hayward, who famously suffered a traumatic leg injury in his first game as a member of the Boston Celtics during the 2017-18 season, had helped to buoy the new-look C’s to a tremendous start this year before suffering the injury.

With the 29-year-old on the shelf, the Celtics will likely turn to 23-year-old, four-year veteran Jaylen Brown.

It must be noted that Brown has already played a glut of minutes during each of his first two seasons in the NBA.  This is a core Celtics piece who had a terrific campaign during 2017-18 in Hayward’s absence. However, he regressed considerably in his second season last year, and now Boston must count on the former No. 3 overall pick to live up to his post-rookie season expectations.

There is plenty of evidence to support the idea that he will be able to replicate his effectiveness from that rookie season, even if he’s had a few ugly games along the way already.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Brown is producing the highest usage rate of his career at 22.3 percent. He is also logging career-highs in points per game (20.4), rebounds (7.0) and assists (2.5) on a career-high 60.2 true shooting percentage, according to Basketball Reference.

Brown has split his minutes at the two and three, spending roughly 40 percent at the former and 60 percent at the latter. Expect most of those minutes to be spent at the three going forward with Hayward gone.

While his offensive impact has been slightly muted despite the scoring improvement, Brown is notching his highest career marks in points per shot attempt at 1.21 per Cleaning the Glass.

With a strong defense, an All-Star point guard and the best young core of prospects in the NBA, the Celtics seem to be in good shape this season, so expect Brown to impact this team on both ends in Hayward’s absence.

Detroit Pistons: Reggie Jackson –> Luke Kennard

Nov 11, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons guard Luke Kennard (5) drives to the basket during the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Kennard will likely be known for one thing: being picked one spot ahead of Donovan Mitchell in the 2017 NBA Draft (and all of the unfair criticisms and comparisons that come with it).

Despite all that, Kennard has come out swinging in the absence of starting point guard Reggie Jackson, who will sit out multiple games due to an ankle injury. Despite Tim Frazier manning the point guard spot and sophomore Bruce Brown getting some run in Jackson’s absence, it should be Kennard that breaks out the most.

 Kennard is already putting up some eye-popping numbers, and it looks as if he has taken the mythical “leap” that so many expect from young prospects. So far, he has been the Pistons’ best perimeter player.

His offensive numbers are striking and full of career-highs, such as: 17.8 points per game on a 61.2 percent true shooting while playing 33.9 minutes a night with 4.2 assists per game.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Kennard’s career-high 21.0 percent usage rate is in the 75th percentile among wings, and he is putting up a sterling 1.25 points per possession (92nd percentile). His playmaking is also clearly improved after finishing with a decent 64th percentile B- grade in that category last year per BBall Index. He is currently third on the Pistons with an 18.5 percent assist rate (82nd percentile) and a 0.88 assist to usage ratio (85th percentile), according to Cleaning the Glass—both of which are career-highs.

Per Basketball Reference, Kennard’s efficiency is being buoyed by attempting more shots from deep (career-high 54.2 percent three-point attempt rate) and getting to the foul line far more than he ever has before: His free throw rate of 29.2 percent is more than double his previous career-high.

Kennard’s smooth handle and fluid jumper helps him to pass the eye test as well, so expect the 23-year-old to feast with Reggie Jackson out until “December or January” per Rotoworld.

Milwaukee Bucks: Khris Middleton –> Sterling Brown

Nov 16, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown (23) drives to the basket against Indiana Pacers forward Alize Johnson (24) during the fourth quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Sterling Brown is not a particularly high-usage player, as he is mostly tasked with standing in the corners on offense and draining wide-open threes, which Giannis Antetokounmpo regularly delivers to him.

However, after it was announced that Khris Middleton suffered a leg injury that will keep him out for 3-4 weeks, the team’s depth chart opened up somewhat.

Sure, it seems likely that the team will just put the ball in their MVP’s hands even more than they already were, but Brown will almost certainly be the beneficiary of increased playing time as well. So far in the 2019-20 season, Brown has only played 121 total minutes. During that time, he has a +12.6 net rating per Cleaning the Glass, which ranks 2nd on the team—behind only second-year player Donte DiVincenzo and even ahead of the Greek Freak.

Speaking of second-year player DiVincenzo (and veteran Wesley Matthews), the former will surely get his fill of wing minutes without Middleton available.

DiVincenzo has already played 146 minutes this season after only logging a total of 411 last year. Matthews has also been a pleasant surprise for the Bucks in 2019-20, but it will be Brown who gets the majority of the team’s minutes at the three (71 percent) in Middleton’s stead, while DiVincenzo (3 percent) and Matthews (14 percent) lag behind the 24-year-old at that spot.

Brown graded out well last season in a variety of different categories per BBall Index, such as a B in one-on-one (71st percentile), a B+ in playmaking (80th percentile) and an A- in off-ball movement (88th percentile). He was one of the more offensively inclined wings for Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer last season, so his reduced minutes this year are somewhat surprising. Still only 24 years old, Brown is also shooting a career-high 36.8 from deep.

Without Middleton’s secondary playmaking and scoring behind Giannis, Brown will likely be the one who is tasked to step up and siphon up some of those minutes in his All-Star teammate’s absence.

Sacramento Kings: De’Aaron Fox –> Bogdan Bogdanovic

Nov 17, 2019; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic (8) takes a shot over Boston Celtics guard Carsen Edwards (4) during the second quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The Sacramento Kings lost De’Aaron Fox to a brutal grade 3 ankle sprain this month, which likely spells doom after a strong offseason led to high expectations for the 2019-20 season.

Fox was the team’s breakout star last season. Along with fellow perimeter creators Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, as well as the additions of stretch five Dewayne Dedmon and rim-runner Richaun Holmes, the Kings were widely believed to be a low-level playoff team in a stacked Western Conference.

Instead, the Kings are 4-6 with some debilitating losses to the Charlotte Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers. Now, with Fox joining budding forward Marvin Bagley III in street clothes, the Kings turn to third-year wing Bogdan Bogdanovic (in a contract year) to help dig them out of this hole.

At 27 years old, Bogdanovic hasn’t received the same sheen that his teammates have, likely due to a lack of shiny box score numbers. While it’s true that Bogdanovic’s career-highs in various statistics are somewhat low (14.1 points per game, 3.8 assists per game, 3.5 rebounds per game, 1.0 steals per game), it has been clear that he is the Kings’ second-best ballhandling option in Fox’s stead.

Last year, Bogdanovic finished tops on the team in usage rate (23.3 percent per Cleaning the Glass), and he proved himself to be an impactful passer and playmaker. Bogey’s assist rate last season was 19.8 percent (94th percentile) among wings, and his assist-to-usage ratio of 0.85 was in the 84th percentile.

According to BBall Index’s player grades, Bogdanovic was the second-best playmaker on the team behind Fox with an A- grade in the 90th percentile.

He currently looks comfortable as the lead ballhandler, and his playmaking numbers remain impressive: 26.4 percent assist rate and a 1.07 assist-to-usage ratio are both in the 93rd percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Though Bogdanovic’s field goal percentage is down so far in 2019-20 (40.0) his overall efficiency is nearing career-high levels (55.0 percent true shooting. As he will have his fill of running the offense, expect to see some sterling numbers from the Serbian in year three.

Toronto Raptors: Serge Ibaka –> Chris Boucher

Mar 14, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher (25) defends against Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (0) during the first half at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Though the Raps have not experienced a championship / Kawhi Leonard-less hangover so far in 2019-20, they did lose another key cog to injury when Serge Ibaka went down with a severe sprained ankle.

Thus, keep an eye on third-year player Chris Boucher. The Saint Lucia-born big man is already 26, so he’s no longer a “young prospect,” but his growth with Ibaka out could help buoy the Raps.

Boucher is coming off a season in which he played 958 minutes in the G-League with Raptors 905, and he produced some staggering numbers while there: 27.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, 1.2 steals and 1.1 assists per game in only 34.2 minutes a night.

Those staggering numbers led to Boucher being named both the G-League’s Most Valuable Player and its Defensive Player of the Year.

So far in 2019-20, Boucher is already playing a career-high in NBA minutes (10.9) while proving his defensive exploits in the G-League were far from a mirage. He is blocking 1.2 shots per game in those few minutes, and he’s already accrued 12 total blocks this season. (For reference, 15 blocks is currently good for 20th in the NBA.)

With a striking 9.5 percent block rate per Basketball Reference, Boucher would be leading the entire NBA if he had played more minutes. Beyond that, he is approaching his G-League average with 4.0 blocks (per 36 minutes at least). Though Pascal Siakam’s usage will surely continue to skyrocket—especially since he looks like an early MVP candidate—Boucher should be the immediate benefactor backing up Marc Gasol while Ibaka is down for the count.

He’s the perfect example of a guy who could leverage an injury-induced opening into a bigger role going forward.