Although it’s still a couple of months away, several players have something to prove heading into the 2023-24 NBA season. Here is one player from each team in the NBA’s Eastern Conference with the most to prove.
NBA Eastern Conference Players With Something to Prove in 2023-24
One Player on Every Eastern NBA Team With Something to Prove in 2023-24
Atlanta Hawks: Onyeka Okongwu
Recent reports indicate the Atlanta Hawks are willing to trade Clint Capela. The nine-year NBA veteran has been the starting center for multiple seasons, with Onyeka Okongwu backing him up. However, he started in 18 games last season while Capela was sidelined with injuries, averaging 10.3 PPG, 9.2 RPG, and 2 BPG. During that time, Okongwu displayed solid defense and tremendous potential offensively. However, it will be difficult for him to reach his full capabilities in Capela’s shadow. If the starter is dealt this season, Okongwu will have to prove that the Hawks made the right decision to keep him as their future center. But if Capela remains on the team, the 22-year-old needs to continue to improve to get more minutes.
Boston Celtics: Kristaps Porzingis
In June, the Boston Celtics dealt fan-favorite Marcus Smart in a three-team trade to acquire Kristaps Porzingis from the Washinton Wizards. Although, some have dubbed this move as a gamble. Porzingis has struggled with the injury bug throughout his career, and his availability is a concern with the Celtics in a win-now mode. He managed to play 65 games with the Wizards last season but still dealt with some injuries. While Boston received an upgrade with Porzingis, many NBA fans are hesitant to believe it will pay off. This season, the center will look to suit up for as many games as possible and showcase his value and abilities as he aims to help the team return to the Finals.
Brooklyn Nets: Ben Simmons
While some believe Ben Simmons will never return to his regular form, he is finally healthy and motivated to make a comeback. Ever since he passed up a wide-open opportunity in Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Semifinals, he has faced relentless criticism. Last season, Simmons was expected to be the third star alongside Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. However, he only suited up for 42 games before he was ruled out for the rest of the year with a back injury. Averaging a career-worst 6.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 6.1 APG, Simmons struggled on the court and looked like a shell of his former three-time NBA All-Star self. As his fit and role with the Nets remain murky next season, the guard should look to change the negative narrative surrounding his career.
Charlotte Hornets: Brandon Miller
The Charlotte Hornets selecting Brandon Miller with the second overall pick surprised many fans on draft night. The franchise was reportedly torn between him and Scoot Henderson, but the latter was generally expected to be selected. As a result, some Hornets fans were upset over this decision. However, Miller is a highly talented player. In the California Classic, the forward displayed efficient shooting and rebounding but committed numerous fouls and turnovers. While he struggled in the Las Vegas Summer League with his shot, he still dazzled spectators with his athleticism and potential. Heading into next season, fans will look to see if choosing Miller over Henderson was the right move.
Chicago Bulls: Coby White
Former seventh-overall pick Coby White is coming off a season where he averaged a career-low 9.7 PPG and struggled with consistency. While he did make some improvements to his game and had a hot stretch after NBA All-Star weekend, the 23-year-old still has plenty to prove. White recently signed a three-year, $36 million deal with the Chicago Bulls. As Lonzo Ball continues his long road of recovery, White has the potential to get quality minutes. He is yet to make a significant impression in the first four years of his career, so he’ll look to make more of an impact this season.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Max Strus
The Cleveland Cavaliers acquired Max Strus in a sign-and-trade early in free agency from the Miami Heat. Strus mainly came off the bench with his former team, starting just 33 games. With the Cavaliers, the small forward will move to the starting lineup full-time, replacing Isaac Okoro (and Caris LeVert, who also sometimes started at that spot). A disappointing first-round exit in last year’s playoffs highlighted Cleveland’s lack of depth and three-point shooting issues. The team addressed that by bringing in Strus, who was instrumental in the Heat’s Finals run. While he had shooting struggles against the Denver Nuggets, the team will look to the 27-year-old to provide reliable scoring and help them get past the first round.
Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham
Injuries have plagued Cade Cunningham throughout his short career. In 2022-23, he only appeared in 12 games before he underwent season-ending surgery. The 2021 first-overall pick has showcased his value and skills on the Detroit Pistons; however, he has only played a total of 76 games, not even an entire NBA season. The more time Cunningham misses, the harder it is for him to impact the team significantly. It also makes it difficult to develop chemistry with his teammates. While injuries can be unpredictable, heading into next year, Cunningham will look to play as many games as possible and live up to his full potential.
Indiana Pacers: Obi Toppin
In early July, the Indiana Pacers acquired Obi Toppin from the New York Knicks for just two future second-round picks. Last season he was a rotational player who averaged 7.4 PPG and 2.8 RPG and only played about 16 MPG. However, in extended minutes as a starter when Julius Randle was out, he posted 21.8 PPG on 58.3% shooting, 3.2 RPG, and 3.4 APG across five games. With the Pacers, Toppin will get more chances to receive consistent minutes. As he looks to take on a bigger role, the forward will try to translate his success as a starter in New York to Indiana.
Miami Heat: Duncan Robinson
With Strus gone, Duncan Robinson has a chance to revert to his old form. His breakout season came in 2019-20, but his stats have regressed yearly. He averaged 6.4 PPG, 1.6 RPG, and 1.1 APG this past season. In the playoffs, his production slightly increased to 9 PPG, and he provided reliable shooting for Miami, going 47.5% from the field and 44.2% from deep. Robinson has mainly been a rotational player and struggled to find playing time, only appearing in 42 contests last year. In 2023-24, the guard/forward will look to step up and become a consistent role player.
Milwaukee Bucks: Jae Crowder
Jae Crowder notably sat out for half of last season after he and the Phoenix Suns disagreed on a contract extension. The move was also due to the 33-year-old being told his starting spot would be given to Cameron Johnson. Phoenix finally found a trade partner at the deadline in February, and Crowder eventually ended up with Milwaukee Bucks. Over 18 games with his new team, he averaged 6.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, and 1.5 APG. He failed to crack a roster spot in the postseason and suited up for just 41 minutes. The Bucks signed Crowder to a one-year NBA veteran’s minimum contract this offseason, and he’ll look to prove his value as a 3-and-D player.
New York Knicks: RJ Barrett
RJ Barrett’s four-year career with the Knicks has featured multiple ups and downs. Statistically, the 23-year-old was solid last season, averaging 19.6 PPG, 5 RPG, and 2.8 APG. However, Barrett struggled with scoring efficiency, three-point shooting, and defense. The team’s lack of depth at the small forward spot means he must improve his play and become more reliable. Heading into the next NBA season, Barrett will work to hone his abilities as New York plans to return to the playoffs.
Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac
Many may argue that Jonathan Isaac’s window of proving himself will never open again. Thanks to a six-year NBA career riddled with injuries, he has yet to make a significant impact on the Orlando Magic. The worst came in 2020, when an ACL tear kept him sidelined until January 2023. After playing just 11 games, the forward was shut down for the rest of the season because of a torn adductor muscle which required surgery. However, the Magic seem to still have faith in the 25-year-old. Isaac will look to prove himself this upcoming season through his availability, as he’s already shown flashes of excellent defense and potential. If he can’t stay healthy, it may be time for Orlando to move on.
Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
The 2023 MVP making this list does not demean the outstanding season he is coming off. Joel Embiid emerged as one of the most dominant players in the league, leading the NBA in points with 33.1 per game. However, the center’s season ended with the Philadelphia 76ers being eliminated in the Conference Semifinals for the third straight year. In crucial postseason games, Embiid has struggled, just like in Game 7 against the Celtics this past postseason. Next year, the 29-year-old will look to prove he can carry over his regular season dominance to the playoffs and lead his team to a championship run.
Toronto Raptors: Scottie Barnes
After losing Fred VanVleet in free agency, the Toronto Raptors are banking on their young core for the future. Mainly because many expect the team to enter a rebuild by the February trade deadline. OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam are two players who may find themselves in new uniforms. Toronto’s number one young star is 2021 Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes. While he had an underwhelming sophomore season, he is expected to take on a greater role. The Raptors are counting on the young star to lead the team as they look to build around him.
Washington Wizards: Jordan Poole
Finally, Jordan Poole is one of the many additions the Washington Wizards made during free agency. The team blew up its core and will look to the 24-year-old to help lead the team. Multiple betting sites already have the combo guard as one of the favorites for next season’s Most Improved Player award. Poole will be charged with running the offense, something he’ll have to prove he can do without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.