As we eagerly await the start of the 2014-15 NBA season, it is time to take a look at some players who are expected to take the next step in their career. We’ll have plenty of features and spotlights on the rookie class along the way, but today we’ll preview some of the guys that should either transition from being role players to impact players, or from being developing players into bona fide stars. There are plenty of guys who could show signs of significant improvement, but here are the players who could see the most drastic jumps in terms of productivity.
Jared Sullinger, Boston Celtics – Heading into his third season with the Celtics, Sullinger is definitely ready for the next step. The 6’9 PF/C saw many of his season averages (13.3 PPG, 8.1 RPG) nearly double in his sophomore campaign, as he actually started 44 games for Boston in 2013-14. Although he’s seen as a big man who can spread the court, he could certainly stand to continue improving from beyond the arc (26.9 percent), especially if he’s going to continue taking nearly three per game as he did last season. If Sullinger can work his way into Brad Stevens’ starting lineup once again, he could see his productivity spike even more.
Cory Joseph, San Antonio Spurs – Unlike some coaches, Gregg Popovich is someone who can be relied upon to develop his younger role players. Joseph actually started 19 games for the Spurs last season, and played very well when extended minutes were available. With Patty Mills reportedly out of commission until January due to post-Finals surgery to repair a torn right rotator cuff, Joseph will likely be the player Popovich uses to spell Tony Parker as the former Finals MVP heads into his 14th season.
Ed Davis, Los Angeles Lakers – Davis may be far from a household name, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the young man cannot produce. After playing sparingly during his time in Memphis, the 25-year-old is looking to once again turn heads with the rebuilding Lakers as he once did as a member of the Raptors early in his career. Projected starting center Jordan Hill has never averaged more than 20.8 MPG and has been hit by the unfortunate injury bug often throughout his five NBA seasons, so Davis could find himself as a vital cog in Byron Scott’s rotation just so long as he defends and rebounds.
C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers – McCollum missed over half of his rookie season due to injury, but if his Summer League performance was any indication as to whether he was fully recovered and ready to take on the league, let’s just say the Blazers should expect big things out of their 22-year-old reserve shooting guard. His continued progression could be just what the Blazers need, as additional productivity off the bench was precisely what was missing from last year’s exciting run. McCollum has the type of game and ability that should give a player like starter Wes Matthews plenty of motivation to maintain his positive play.
Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors – Some expected Valanciunas to have a breakout year last season, and while he posted a very serviceable 11.3 PPG and 8.8 RPG, 2013-14 was all about the progress of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Although those two players are expected to continue to produce for the Raptors, finding more balance by featuring Valanciunas could lead to another successful season for the Raptors in what should be an improved Eastern Conference.
#10 – Dion Waiters, Cleveland Cavaliers
You may think the additions of players like LeBron James, Kevin Love (allegedly) and Mike Miller would make Waiters fall by the wayside, but that isn’t necessarily the case. To be clear, although he isn’t likely to average the 14.2 shot attempts per game that he fired off in 2013-14, Waiters could find himself as the “forgotten man,” receiving far less attention from the opposing team on many nights. Not only should this significantly increase his efficiency, but playing alongside the talent and leadership he is now surrounded by should help Waiters accelerate his development across the board.
#9 – Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets
Jones (12.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG) was a bit of a surprise for the Rockets throughout several impressive stretches last season, as he grew accustomed to playing next to Dwight Howard quite well in his second year in the league. Even though he isn’t the prototypical stretch-four that Howard prefers, Jones does have a bit of range as well as all-around game. The former Kentucky Wildcat seems primed and ready for yet another year of progress as he settles into what should be his second full season as a starter.
#8 – George Hill, Indiana Pacers
Any team that loses its top two players over a stretch of 20 days – which Indiana did when Lance Stephenson left for the Hornets via free agency and Paul George was lost to that horrendous leg injury – is going to need to find players to at least fill some of the productivity void. Alongside what they can only hope is a rejuvenated Roy Hibbert and newly acquired C.J. Miles, Hill should have plenty of opportunities to shine as the team’s primary ball-handler and playmaker. Hill’s always been a ‘steady’ player, but look for his numbers to increase with the added opportunities.
#7 – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Antetokounmpo may not even be done growing (physically), but he’s already known as the “Greek Freak” due to his incredible size (6’11) and length (7’3 wingspan) while being listed as a shooting guard. He’s still adding mass while working on his overall strength, but Antetokounmpo should really benefit from the addition of small forward Jabari Parker. Parker is already somewhat of a polished scorer for someone just 19 years old as he enters the league, and Antetokounmpo should benefit from both his presence on the court and from the ability to work and develop their respective games together.
#6 – Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
Oladipo may not have won last year’s Rookie of the Year award, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t very impressive (13.8 PPG, 4.1 APG, 4.1 RPG) in his first season at this level. There may still be questions as to whether Oladipo is truly a point guard or if he may ultimately be best suited at the shooting guard position, but no one questions whether he’ll be a productive player at whichever position Jacque Vaughn decides to pencil him into. With Elfrid Payton in the mix for Orlando, Oladipo may move back to two-guard. As a principle member of what is developing into an impressive, young and athletic core, Oladipo could be an all-out fantasy beast for those of you that participate in a league.
#5 – Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Just because it is rumored that Drummond will likely be one of the final cuts from Team USA’s roster, that doesn’t mean he isn’t ready for the limelight in his own right. His overall numbers and productivity were stunted by a very crowded frontcourt in Detroit last season, but that didn’t stop him from averaging a double-double (13.5 PPG, 13.1 RPG) all while shooting 62.3 percent from the field. We expect new coach and team president Stan Van Gundy to find a way to feature him this year as the primary post option. Don’t expect a repeat of Drummond only attempting 9.5 shots per night with Van Gundy’s preferred ‘four out, one in’ system.
#4 – Reggie Jackson, Oklahoma City Thunder
The chief complaint about Scott Brooks has been what is described as an over-reliance upon the incredible exploits of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to provide, direct and influence the offense. Another criticism of Brooks has been regarding his development of the younger players on his roster. Jackson is the answer to both of those concerns, as the 24-year-old combo guard definitely rose to the occasion (13.1 PPG, 4.1 APG, 3.9 RPG) and stepped into the challenges of either filling in for an injured Westbrook or providing the playmaking spark they needed off the bench similar to the role a young James Harden once provided. Whether Brooks decides to play him next to Durant and Westbrook or stagger his resources throughout the game, we should expect Jackson to take yet another step forward this season.
#3 – Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Outside of the work he’s done with Team USA as they prepare for the FIBA World Cup Tournament, last we saw of Beal he was routinely impressing the basketball-loving masses with a very strong sophomore effort for the Wizards. Coming off a year that saw the 21-year-old average 17.1 PPG on 40.2 percent from deep, Beal is already in a position to step into the forefront as one of the league’s best shooting guards and the young man is just getting started. Beside a backcourt mate in John Wall who is already coming into the year with extra motivation, watch out for Beal and their Wizards in 2014.
#2 – Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
When you’ve already won the NBA Finals MVP trophy, there aren’t many goals left that you can strive to achieve. Don’t tell Kawhi Leonard that, as the three-year player reportedly didn’t even take the allotted time he was given to enjoy the Larry O’Brien trophy while it was in his possession for a few days, opting to leave it in his condo so that he could continue working out. Dedication and focus of that nature could perhaps be attributed to the rampant professionalism the Spurs are known for, but Leonard truly is just a different type of guy. Leonard is a coach’s dream as a young player with an evolving skill-set and great attitude, with none of the excess stuff that generally detracts from progress.
#1 – Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Having written about the high expectations we have for Davis at length in the past, this selection should come as no surprise. While Leonard may be a dream, Davis is just about every opposing coach’s (and player’s) worst nightmare as we look at the not too distant future for the all-world, 6’10 power forward. While Davis is certain to be everyone’s flavor of the week by the time we reach the All-Star break in February, be sure to pay close attention to all of the ways he impacts the game along the way. The 20.8 PPG, 10 RPG and 2.8 BPG don’t begin to define just how much of an impact Davis can have on the game, as the versatile big can literally do a bit of everything on both sides of the court. That, in itself, seems like more and more of a rarity these days. In a league that seems to focus disproportionately toward the offensive end, Davis not only has the footwork, range and developing post-game, but tends to do his most impressive work on the defensive end as both a rim-protector and weakside defender. His small market Pelicans only have 10 scheduled nationally televised games in 2014-15, so be sure you don’t miss the NBA’s next great big man as he develops right before your eyes.