Five intriguing guys entering 2015-16


BY SAM AMICO

This isn’t a list of up-and-coming superstars, or players who are headed for the Hall of Fame. When it comes to NBA careers, the list is actually quite random.

But the five players listed here do intrigue me heading into the 2015-16 season.

1. Nick Johnson, G, Nuggets

If it’s about getting paid to play, Johnson made the right choice in entering the draft after his junior year at Arizona. If it’s about basketball, Johnson should’ve stayed for his senior year, too.

Still, the kid has some great bloodlines. His uncle, Dennis Johnson, was one of the NBA’s premier guards in his day — winning a title with the Seattle SuperSonics, then a few more alongside Larry Bird with the Celtics.

As for Nick? Well, he’s heady and steady, but has much to prove after a forgotten rookie season with the Rockets. After being part of the large return in the Ty Lawson trade, Johnson now gets a fresh start in Denver.

And it could be a good opportunity, as the Nuggets suddenly have a promising young backcourt that features lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay and second-year shooting guard Gary Harris.

Johnson should get every opportunity to be in the mix, too. It will be interesting to see if he can capitalize.

2. Gordon Hayward, G/F, Jazz

If Hayward played in a bigger market, he’d be an All-Star. Instead, he plays in Utah, and the Jazz are having a hard time returning to the glory years of John Stockton, Karl Malone and Jerry Sloan.

But second-year coach Quin Snyder has the Jazz looking like a team on the rise, and Hayward is a major reason why. The guy can just fill it up and simply plays with a winner’s edge, never letting the business side of the NBA overtake his passion for the game.

The Jazz are probably a year or two from the postseason — but in the meantime, fans will still have plenty to watch. Hayward is just that much fun.

3.  Rajon Rondo, PG, Kings

I’ll be honest: I’ve written off Rondo. I’ll be even more honest: I hope he proves me wrong.

This is an interesting spot for the former Celtic and owner of a championship ring. He was miserable last season with the Mavericks, and Rondo has been known to test his coaches. And Kings coach George Karl has been known to test his players.

So the dynamic here will be intriguing. Can Rondo be close to the same player he was before that major knee injury? Can he co-exist with Karl? Can he teach superbly talented center DeMarcus Cousins how to win?

Frankly, I don’t think Rondo has enough left. But I’ll enjoy every moment if he can put forth another fantastic run. If he can, the Kings are playoff-bound.

4. Arron Afflalo, SG, Knicks

Afflalo has a history of playing pretty well for lousy teams. The Knicks are his fifth in eight years (sixth if you count the two Denver stops separately).

Either way, he could best be described as totally “eh” in his 25-game stint to close the season with the Trail Blazers. Now, he’s back on a team that will really need him — much like the Magic did two seasons ago.

And if Afflalo can become a reliable second weapon next to Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks may not be as awful as you think.

Of course, it will take a little more than that — but the good Afflalo will be a good start.

5. Rashad Vaughn, SG, Bucks

If it were up to me, players would be required to stay in school three years before entering the NBA draft (just like the NFL) — but only because the basketball at both the college and pro levels would be better. So it’s a totally selfish, and perhaps not totally fair, reason.

That said, Vaughn is just 18 years old, a year removed from high school, and I can’t wait to see him play. With a roster that already features the likes of Jabari Parker (when healthy), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Michael Carter-Williams, the Bucks are an exciting young bunch with some valuable playoff experience.

Vaughn was one of the top 10 players in the nation coming out of high school. If he rises to his potential quickly, he’ll fit right in and offer some breathtaking moments of his own. Not that the once-boring Bucks really need any more.