Making it in the NBA is tough—let alone becoming a star in the league. It’s a dream for many aspiring ballers, but for most it’s a dream that will never be realized. Sure, it requires hard work and dedication—things that a player has control over. But a player’s ascent can also depend on which team he’s drafted to, who he falls behind in the pecking order and even his coach. In other words, the things that are out of his control can also play a huge part.
The following five guys—whether it’s because of a new, complementary addition to the roster, the loss of a team veteran, or getting another year of quality NBA experience under their belt—look set to make a big jump and move closer to that all-important indicator of true NBA stardom: your girlfriend knowing who they are.
Let’s just say you might want to draft these guys in your fantasy team next season.
Despite compiling a ludicrously bad 28-120 record over the past two seasons and becoming the punch-line to every NBA joke, the Charlotte Bobcats appear to have a potential star in their midst: No, not Bismack Biyombo, but former UCONN guard, Kemba Walker.
It went somewhat unnoticed, in part because the Bobcats were once again unwatchable, but Walker quietly compiled a very nice 2012-13 campaign. He improved from his rookie year in almost every statistical category, increasing his shooting average from 36 per cent to 42 per cent and upping his scoring by five points per game. A lot of that improvement could be explained by an increase in minutes. However, among guards, Walker finished with the eighth highest Player Efficiency Rating. He finished ahead of Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday (an All-Star last season), Rajon Rondo and Rookie of the Year Damien Lillard in that respect.
With the addition of Al Jefferson, the Bobcats are set to be a little better than awful in 2013-14, and Kemba Walker should begin to receive some more nationwide attention. Jefferson may be overpaid, but he’s a huge upgrade over the big-men that Walker’s had to work with during his first two seasons. Jefferson’s ability to draw defenders down low should create a lot more space for the speedy point-guard. Most importantly, being able to run the pick-n-roll with Jefferson will be extremely beneficial to Walker’s development as a point-guard, and his assist numbers should increase accordingly.
On the subject of Big Al, his departure from the Utah Jazz will be a big factor in the young big-man Derrick Favors fulfilling his tantalizing potential and having a breakout year. Favors, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, arrived in Salt Lake City as part of the trade that sent Deron Williams to the Nets.
In his three seasons with the Jazz, Favors has put up some good numbers—last season, per 36 minutes, he averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds per game—but his opportunities were limited with Jefferson and Paul Millsap ahead of him in the pecking order. Favors has yet to average 25 minutes of playing time per game in his career, but that will all change next season.
The Jazz let both Jefferson and Millsap walk in free agency and are in full rebuilding mode—one of the teams that will have their eye on Andrew Wiggins. In 2013-14, the Jazz will make Favors and their other talented big-man, Enes Kanther, the focal points of the team. Favors in particular should see some serious minutes and will finally have a substantial portion of the team’s offense run through him. In limited minutes, Favors has been impressive, and in 2013-14, where he may play close to 40 minutes a game, he looks set to make the next jump in his career.
One of the trickiest things for a good NBA team is trying to unearth hidden gems late in the draft. Having to do without lottery picks, great teams sustain their greatness by good scouting, and sometimes, just plain luck. The Chicago Bulls unearthed one such diamond in the rough by drafting Marquette’s Jimmy Butler, 30th overall in 2011.
Butler is the quintessential 21ST century NBA swingman: long, athletic and a very competent long-range shooter. During his rookie season with the Bulls, he played only a small role, averaging 8.5 minutes per game, but last season, when the team was beset by injuries—most notably to a certain Derrick Rose—Butler really came into his own. While he played well during the regular season, it was in the playoffs where he really excelled. He averaged 13 points, and five rebounds per game—shooting over 40 per cent from downtown—for an injury-riddled Bulls team that surprised many by beating the Nets and stealing Game 1 against the Heat. Most impressive was the fact that Butler was able to guard three positions, putting forth a valiant effort defending LeBron in the Miami series.
Butler should see his role increased even more in 2013-14. Luol Deng is in the final year of his contract and although the veteran wing does a lot of great things for the team, Butler’s emergence—he can play the 2 and 3—has made Deng expendable. With Derrick Rose returning, Butler stands to benefit as a spot-up shooter—taking advantage of Rose’s penetration—and as an off-the-ball cutter. Look for him to emerge as one of the premiere defensive guards next season, the perfect player for Tom Thibodeau’s system.
The Los Angeles Clippers may possess the greatest point-guard in the game in Chris Paul, and one of the most exciting forwards in Blake Griffin; however, there have been times during the past couple seasons when their offence stagnated and the team seemed in need of a lift. That lift would usually come in the form of the Clippers’ bench unit, led by the über-athletic and über-impressive Eric Bledsoe. A thunderous dunk, crazy block or layup in traffic, from the 6’ 1” guard (who’s built like an NFL running back) would often bring the crowd to life and help raise the performance of the starters.
Over the last few seasons, we’ve only seen glimpses of Bledsoe’s brilliance, however. Vinny Del Negro probably didn’t give Bledsoe enough minutes (one of Del Negro’s many coaching mistakes), but it’s also tough to see substantial minutes playing behind a basketball savant like Chris Paul. But in 2013-14, Bledsoe will get his chance to run an NBA team. Bledsoe was the centerpiece in a trade that sent him to the Phoenix Suns, and saw the Clippers end up with Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick.
The Suns, like the aforementioned Jazz, are going to be bad next season—they may be the worst team in the league. But that’s fine, Phoenix is overdue a rebuild. The Suns will look to rebuild around young big-man Alex Len, whoever they pick up in the 2014 draft (they look set for a high pick) and, of course, Bledsoe. The former Kentucky Wildcat will have a little competition for the point-guard spot from Goran Dragic, but Bledsoe can also play off the ball, and his improved 3-point shooting last year (he shot 39 per cent from 3 during the regular season) shows that he can be a weapon both out- and inside the paint. He may be on a bad team, but Bledsoe looks set to emerge as a star next season.
Okay, so I’m really not going out on a limb predicting that Anthony Davis, who many are predicting will be a surefire NBA star, is going to have a breakout sophomore season, but he’s simply too good to leave off this list. Last season’s rookie campaign was something of a disappointment for Davis, even though he did put up some decent numbers, averaging almost 17 points and 10 rebounds a game per 36 minutes. The problem wasn’t his on-court production, but his inability to stay on the court. Davis missed 18 games in all, and was beaten by Damien Lillard for Rookie of the Year—something few people saw coming at the start of the year.
In 2013-14, assuming that he’s healthy, Davis should emerge as one of the very best two-way big men in the league. Just having that rookie season under his belt should help immensely—Davis now has first-hand experience of the bruising nature of playing in the paint among NBA bigs and will be better equipped going forward. According to reports, Davis has spent a large portion of the off-season working on his strength, bulking up with weights and some additional caloric intake (pizza, apparently), so he should be a more assertive physical force next season.
Davis will also have a much-improved team around him in which to thrive. Playing with Jrue Holiday, for example, an All-Star point-guard who averaged eight assists per game last season, will only be beneficial to Davis’ offensive game—an ever-improving offensive game, but one that still lags behind his elite defensive skill set. Whether the Pelicans are good enough to make the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference remains to be seen, but they’re certainly a better team now than they were in Davis’ rookie season, and they’ll certainly have a better Anthony Davis in 2013-14.