Basketball: Five players to watch in the 2018-19 NBA season

(From left) Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, Giannis Antetokounmpo and DeMarcus Cousins are all noteworthy players to keep an eye out for in the upcoming season. PHOTOS: REUTERS/USA TODAY SPORTS, AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Many eyes will be upon Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic (left) during the 2018-19 NBA season. The 19-year-old Slovenian has drawn praise from Mavericks stalwart Dirk Nowitzki (right) for his playmaking skills. PHOTO: REUTERS/USA TODAY SPORTS

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - So many transcendent talents and intriguing match-ups, so little time to catch everything the NBA has to offer in the 2018-19 season which begins on Tuesday (Oct 16).

No one can go wrong with opting to watch LeBron James, Stephen Curry or James Harden on a regular basis, but for the discerning fan who wants more here are five dark horses that will bring their fair share of excitement:

1. Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

The former NBA Finals Most Valuable Player and two-time Defensive Player of the Year missed all but nine games last season with a right quadriceps injury, his relationship with the San Antonio Spurs deteriorating to the point that he requested the trade that finally landed him in Toronto.

The Raptors, who led the East with 57 wins last season but were swept by Cleveland in the playoffs, are betting on Leonard's fitness as well as their ability to hang onto him when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season.

He might also laugh again.

2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

The towering Slovenian guard was the MVP of the Euroleague Final Four as he lead Real Madrid to the title in June. Dallas made a big draft-day move to acquire him from Atlanta after the Hawks drafted Doncic third overall and Mavericks icon Dirk Nowitzki believes the 19-year-old will prove his worth, calling Doncic's ball skills "incredible".

3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

Australia's Simmons averaged an outstanding 15.8 points, 8.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game on the way to Rookie of the Year honours last season.

His emergence helped the 76ers reach the Eastern Conference semi-finals and now 76ers fans - and foes - will be keen to see just how much the 22-year-old has been able to polish up his inconsistent jump shot.

Simmons says he won't be a three-pointer powerhouse, and that's OK with Sixers coach Brett Brown, who wants to see Simmons become more effective in the post and improve on his 56 percent free throw shooting.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Is the "Greek Freak" headed for an MVP season? Antetokounmpo averaged an impressive 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocked shots s for the 44-win Bucks.

The physically imposing and versatile 23-year-old has increased production in almost every statistical category per season in his four-year career. After leading the league in points in the paint last season, Antetokounmpo says he's aiming to show improvement from long range.

Antetokounmpo and new Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer seem to be clicking, with Budenholzer saying the player's work ethic has "exceeded all of my expectations".

5. DeMarcus Cousins, Golden State Warriors

The arrival of Cousins lends some intrigue to the Warriors pursuit of a third straight NBA title and their fourth in five years.

Cousins won't be on the floor when the season begins as he continues to recover from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in January while he was with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Nevertheless, the Warriors inked a $5.3 million deal with the All-Star centre who was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks before he was hurt.

The sometimes combustible Cousins can add an imposing interior presence to a Warriors team that already boasts two-time reigning playoff MVP Kevin Durant, two-time regular season MVP Stephen Curry, three-time NBA champion Klay Thompson and three-time NBA All-Star Draymond Green.

Coach Steve Kerr admits that fitting him in will be a challenge, albeit a "really good one" for a team that at times last season seemed to be on "autopilot".

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