10 players who need to make a leap in the stretch run of 2023-24


The stretch run is here and these players should have pivotal roles on their teams as 2023-24 finishes.

Chris Paul (left) and Darius Garland both struggled with injuries at times in 2023-24.

It’s February 29, also known as Leap Day, better known as Leap Year. And what better day to define “leap” in basketball terms — as in, which players need to take a leap down the stretch of the season?

Here in the last days of winter, the sense of urgency is heightened as the grind approaches springtime. There’s much at stake, namely playoff or Play-In Tournament position for their team, or a last chance to salvage one’s season.

Or maybe most of the above.

There are dozens of candidates for this list but we narrow it to 10 players with something on the line between now and the 82nd game. There’s no discrimination here as this includes former stars, champions, at least one future Hall of Famer and a rookie.

Therefore, the 10 players who need to get jumping (listed alphabetically by last name):

1. Bradley Beal, Phoenix Suns

Brought in as the third wheel of the Suns’ Big Three, Beal has been the least healthy and productive of the trio. Not that his season is a wash, just not very inspiring as of yet.

Where a leap is needed: Phoenix has grand plans. That’s why the Suns traded for Beal (and his enormous contract) and placed him with Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. It’s championship-or-bust as long as they’re together.

But they’ll need a healthy and consistent Beal to stay above the top-six playoff threshold in the West. If he can score efficiently, save Durant from burning 35-plus minutes a night and relieve Booker of the point guard chores, that’ll be a big help.

2. Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers 

A broken jaw put his season on pause, and the strange thing is, the Cavaliers managed just fine without him. Missing 24 games, though, doesn’t do wonders for anyone’s momentum or mood.

Where a leap is needed: Garland is a certified 20-plus scorer, although much more than before the Cavs acquired Donovan Mitchell two summers ago and handed him the keys.

Garland remains a crucial piece, however, and will be needed if the Cavs have designs on finishing with the second-best record in the East (Boston seems out of reach). He has been inconsistent since returning from injury, averaging just 13 points and shooting 33% from deep in February.

3. Scoot Henderson, Portland Trail Blazers

Whatever could go wrong, has gone wrong for the much-hyped No. 3 overall pick. Injuries — he’s currently dealing with a strained adductor — poor shooting (37.5% from the floor) and a loss of the starting job have flummoxed him.

Where a leap is needed: The Blazers aren’t going anywhere except the Draft lottery again, so this is all about Henderson putting a finishing touch on an otherwise blah rookie season.

This is traditionally the time of year when rookies, after dealing with the tricky NBA transition (more games, travel, competition, etc.) raise their level. Such is possible for Henderson. The more impactful games he plays from here, the more confidence he’ll inspire going into summer.

4. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

It’s been an inspirational improvement for the second-year guard, who seems more confident and consistent than last season. The Pacers have fewer qualms with him taking big shots.

Where a leap is needed: The main reason the Pacers traded Buddy Hield is because of their faith in Mathurin. They felt he was ready to take on the starter’s position and all the responsibility that goes with it.

So far, so decent — Mathurin dropped 34 points Monday vs. Toronto, and scored 31 vs. Sacramento on Feb. 2. This is important because the Pacers need this, and maybe more, to put themselves in prime playoff position. The better he is, the better the Pacers will be in the stretch run.

5. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Currently out with a bum ankle, Middleton has dealt with a pair of obstacles this season — injuries and fewer shots with the addition of Damian Lillard. His 14.8 ppg is his lowest since the 2016-17 season.

Where a leap is needed: The Bucks are in a weird place — still qualifying as a contender because of Giannis Antetokounmpo, but appearing vulnerable mainly because of poor defense and (so far) a shaky adjustment under new coach Doc Rivers.

And this is where Middleton looms large. He’s not the defender of 2-3 seasons ago — blame injuries for that — and is now the third option offensively. Milwaukee needs to know if Middleton can get his body and game together before the playoffs. If so, the Bucks can be a beast again.

6. Dejounte Murray, Atlanta Hawks

Solid, but not spectacular, Murray is a gamer most nights for the Hawks but was never an All-Star consideration. That suggests he has peaked as a player, at least in Atlanta next to Trae Young.

Where a leap is needed: Speaking of Young, he’s out roughly four weeks after finger surgery. Therefore, the floor belongs to Murray. He’ll have the ball and the green light — and a chance to show he can lead this team in this role.

Whether the Hawks keep the Trae-Dejounte backcourt or break it apart is a decision that’ll be made this summer. In the meantime, the Hawks would love to stop the free-fall and make the Play-In Tournament. Murray will have a big say in that.

7. Chris Paul, Golden State Warriors

His first season with the Warriors has been arguably the most frustrating of his stellar career. Finding ways to fit in with an established rotation, dealing with age and decline, coping with a team that’s underachieving and recovering from injury.

Where a leap is needed: After being out since Jan. 5 with a fractured hand, Paul is back to give depth to a Warriors’ team scrambling to qualify for the Play-In or, in a best-case scenario, finish in the top six for the automatic playoff qualifier.

But it’ll be challenging for the 19-year veteran to find meaningful backcourt minutes because rookie Brandin Podziemski took them in his absence. Coach Steve Kerr said Paul will get all the non-Stephen Curry minutes. That’s what, 10-15 per game?

8. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

Typical of Porter’s season was the Nuggets’ most recent games, when he followed up a season-high 34 points and 12 rebounds against the Blazers with nine points (on 3-for-11 shooting) against the Warriors.

Where a leap is needed: The Nuggets are thriving despite Porter’s performance swings because, well, Nikola Jokic. Denver might even finish with the best record in the West … so what’s the harm here?

Porter can’t afford to be this unpredictable once the playoffs begin. Keep in mind that he struggled mightily in the 2023 NBA Finals. The Nuggets won the title anyway, but doing it again with a slumping Porter might be asking too much.

9. Terry Rozier, Miami Heat

He started at the bottom, now he’s here — from the rebuilding Hornets to the defending East champion Heat. It was a midseason trade welcomed by Rozier and Miami.

Where a leap is needed: The Heat desperately needed help at point guard this season. Kyle Lowry aged quickly and became expendable at the trade deadline. Nobody else on the roster was solid enough to step up in his place.

So the job belongs to Rozier. But his transition so far has been a struggle. While his playmaking seems solid, he’s shooting less than 25% from deep (and 35.9% overall).

What matters most is how he adapts to the culture. Going from a losing team to a locker room with postseason expectations can be tricky for some.

10. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Finally healthy (for the most part) after an injury-interrupted career, Williamson leads the Pelicans in scoring (22.4 ppg) and is shooting 57.8%. However, he wasn’t selected for the All-Star Game and flamed out in the In-Season Tournament semifinal.

Where a leap is needed: There’s a lot of chatter about Williamson, mainly because of his conditioning, which remains suspect. There’s little he can do about that right now. That’s a chore for the summer.

What he can do in the present is enhance other parts of his game (rebounding, defense, outside shooting) to keep the Pelicans from faltering in the very competitive West. A late collapse by New Orleans would reflect poorly on him, justified or not.

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