The leaves are starting to fall and the NBA season is a month away. At least those two things are right in the world. At this time last year, the league was gearing up for the Bubble playoffs. Now, we’ve had a full offseason of player movement, hype, and whining–I mean, social media engagement.

We, as fans and enthusiasts, can really start to get excited about what’s to come. Here at MMH, we’re ready to go. Fellow contributor Josh Motenko has already brilliantly laid out which players are most likely to get traded. Stay tuned for more as we ramp up. 

One of my most anticipated thrills of the upcoming season is watching the players on what I call my Prove It list.  Every year, there are players that I believe need to show the basketball world a little something. Whether they’ve been prematurely showered with accolades, have flashed some tantalizing talent, or have fallen short of what we all hoped, all these guys have some benchmarks to hit.

It could be about vindication or revitalization. None of the names here are too shocking, I think that some might even be a consensus pick, even if it wasn’t just me, alone, in my pajamas, writing this. Some of these names are guys that I’m out on. Some are guys that I’m in on. All of them got something to prove. 

Prove It Players

1. Russell Westbrook 

Long ago, he was an NBA darling. An athletic marvel who was a terror on both ends of the floor. Perhaps that was simply my youthful perception. Now, he’s been on four teams in four years and the only thing he’s terrorizing is my eyeballs with his three-point shooting. I’ve been disappointed for most of that time. But hark, Brodie is on a true title favorite for the first time since those halcyon OKC days. So, Russell, prove me wrong and do what it takes to win that ring, i.e., play defense and finetune your shot selection.

2. Dwight Howard

Dwight ended up being an important piece of the Lakers 2020 title run. He’s back. He’s also one of the least-liked superstars in recent memory. If he can solidify the backup center spot behind (hopefully), Anthony Davis, winning a second ring will mean something to his legacy.

3. Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam

Kawhi Leonard was like a gust of cold Canadian air. Powerful, but brief. Kyle Lowry is gone to warmer climes. It remains to be seen whether VanVleet and Siakam can lead the Raptors to similar heights. They’re both older than I think and have been perfect in their roles. Let’s see if they can step it up. 

4. Karl-Anthony Towns

I like Towns as a person and I feel deep empathy for the trauma he’s suffered the last couple of years. As a basketball player, I need to see more from him. Very few 7-foot tall centers shoot essentially 50% from the field, 40% from three, and 85% from the foul line. He is a unique offensive talent. Is that all he will be? I want him to become a true star, but I’m not sure if that’s possible in Minnesota. 

5. Orlando Magic

I know this is not a player. I just forget they’re an actual team sometimes. They are basketball purgatory, just look at the time spent there by Shaq, T-Mac, Grant Hill, and Mike Miller. None were at their best while wearing the pinstripes. They have some interesting young pieces now, so please, show me something. 

6. Jonathan Isaac

Since being the 6th overall pick in 2017, Isaac has been a tantalizing talent. He’s long and he can play myriad defensive roles. His shot isn’t even broken like some players in this archetype. But he’s coming off a major knee injury so I’m hoping that his potential can still blossom. 

7. Kemba Walker

He’s an All-Star who could not be relied on to stay healthy, was traded by Boston with a first-round pick, and then waived by Oklahoma City. Weird six months for Walker. As a Celtics fan, I was consistently disappointed in his tenure. This year, he can rewrite his story in the place where it began, New York. What can he give to one of the upstart teams of the last season?

8. Deandre Ayton

Speaking of upstarts…Ayton was a revelation in the playoffs last year. He had 14 double-doubles in 22 games. He was shooting about…(checking stats)…a million percent from the field. That is, until the finals. His limitations got exposed a little bit and it never feels the same when you end on a loss. I am rooting hard for Ayton to prove he can be his impactful self for a whole season. 

9. Ben Simmons

The obligatory Ben Simmons section has arrived. His impact has also been called into question after the playoffs. I won’t rehash it–OK, I will–He passed up an open dunk! He refused to shoot in the fourth quarter! I don’t even really need to write this paragraph. He has a lot to prove, but first, he has to show up for the season. 

10. Joel Embiid

Simmons’ “teammate” is the logical next name. Joel wanted to be the man and know he’s really the man. The 76ers are his team. Or at least he shares them with my secret basketball love, Matisse Thybulle. When Embiid is on the floor, he’s an MVP-caliber monster. To take the next step,  he needs to stay healthy and not lose home elimination games. 

11. Zion Williamson

There is a nagging voice in my head–is that MMH contributor Chris Dodson?–that keeps instilling fear in me about what Zion’s career should look like. Will he be more like Blake Griffin or will he be more like Giannis Antetokuonmpo? He’s putting up insane numbers on a team that feels pulled in too many directions. He’s a highlight machine that is losing too many games. The Play-In Tournament was designed so that the Pelicans could sneak in and they did not. I know it’s early so this is a light touch Prove It to show me more about where this generational talent is headed. 

12. Lauri Markannen

Did someone say generational talent? Just kidding. But really, I do like Lauri, I just don’t know what to make of him yet. I do believe in his ability to be a key player on a good team. I hope getting out of the recent Bulls quagmire will help. At least he didn’t go to Cleve—ah shit. If Kevin Love recommends a doctor, do not listen! The other thing he needs to prove to me is that he’s a nice guy because he did not say hi to my friend Kevin in the hallway of their building and Kevin wasn’t even being annoying. He just said hi like a good neighbor waiting for an elevator. 

13. Utah Jazz

Again, not a person, I know. But they’ve been sniffing around the top tier in the West for so long. They were even the #1 seed last year. I think it’s time to start winning some playoff series, guys. I did recommend that they get Rudy Gay at the trade line last year and they picked him up this offseason so it would be dope if that helped them push to the next level. 

14. LeBron James

Last but not least, LeBron. Last year was a disappointment. A first-round exit? I know you were injured–I’m kidding, I’m kidding. LeBron has nothing left to prove. What is fascinating to me is what he will decide what he has left to prove. Year 19 could be a wild ride for the King. 

There you have it. That’s my list of Prove It Players. Who would be on your list? Hit me up in the comments or on social media.