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.
A Few Good Free Agents Left
David Yapkowitz looks at several free agents still remaining on the market ahead of the season.
The start of the 2017-2018 NBA season is finally here, and teams are required to have their 15-man roster (plus two possible two-way contacts) finalized. Every year there are players that are left off a roster. Some are younger guys who maybe haven’t proven they belong in the league just yet. Some are older veterans looking for that one final hurrah.
A few of these players might take open gigs in the G-League or overseas in hopes of attracting the attention of NBA front offices as the year goes on. Others remain at home, working out and waiting for that call that might never come. And sometimes, the waiting and anticipating pays off as playoff teams come looking for veteran help and tanking teams are on the hunt for unrealized potential.
For most of the veteran guys, their opportunities will likely come later in the season when teams gear up for the playoffs. Here’s a look at a few of the top veteran free agents left that could certainly help a team at some point during this season.
Since being traded from the Golden State Warriors to the Boston Celtics three year ago, Lee has adapted to his new role as a veteran big man helping to anchor second units. He is no longer the automatic double-double machine and borderline All-Star he once was, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have anything left in the tank.
He didn’t really fit quite right in Boston, but in his stops with the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, he still showed he can be a solid contributor off the bench. In 25 games with Mavericks in the 2015-2016 season, Lee put up 8.5 points per game on 63.6 percent shooting while pulling down seven rebounds per. With the Spurs last year, he averaged 7.3 points on 59 percent shooting to go along with 5.6 rebounds. For a playoff team that needs a little big man depth, he is a solid option.
Much was made about Williams’ disappearing act in the Finals last year, and rightfully so, but lost in all the chatter was the actual solid job he did with the Cleveland Cavaliers leading up to that point. Once in the conversation for best point guard in the league, injuries and poor play in Brooklyn sort of made Williams a forgotten man. The Nets bought out his contract and he joined his hometown Dallas Mavericks.
After a so-so first year in Dallas, Williams looked rejuvenated last year to the point that he actually drew some interest around the trade deadline. With the Mavericks looking to get younger and head closer to that rebuilding path, they cut Williams and allowed him to join a contending team. Over the final 24 games of last season, including four starts, he averaged 7.5 points per game on 46.3 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from the three-point line, and 3.6 assists. Of course, his Finals performance is all anyone cares to remember, but if a team needs a veteran backup point guard, they could do a lot worse.
Last season in Indiana, Ellis posted some of the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. Heading into a rebuilding year, the Pacers waived Ellis and his name barely came up in free agent rumors during the summer. At his best, Ellis was a borderline All-Star talent who could put up points in a hurry. Despite his reputation as a gunner, Ellis was a bit of an underrated playmaker and was never as bad defensively as most made him out to be.
He never really seemed to find his groove in Indiana. In his first year with the Pacers during the 2015-2016 season, he posted 13.8 points per game, down from 18.9 the previous year in Dallas, and his shooting dropped from 44.5 percent from the field to 42.7 percent. His playoff numbers with the Pacers were down even more than his regular season numbers, despite exploding in the postseason a few years before with Dallas. His starting days are almost assuredly behind him, but as a sixth man type scorer bringing energy off the bench, he’s probably better than a lot of the players currently in that role.
The Brazilian Blur’s best days are behind him, but similar to Ellis, he can still help a team in need of additional scoring punch off the bench. It was only two years ago that he was a key contributor off the Warriors bench. Firmly on the rebuilding track, the Suns waived Barbosa during the summer. Despite still being a capable player, his name also rarely came up in the free agent rumor mill.
He didn’t play all that much last season for a Phoenix Suns team that is clearly rebuilding, but he still was able to average 6.3 points per game in only 14.4 minutes per. His role on a rebuilding team would be a veteran mentor, but for a playoff team, he’s not a bad option. He showed that he can still play at the NBA level despite losing a step or two. Perhaps later on in the season when teams start looking for playoff help is when he may find his phone starting to ring.
The former No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted that high. He’s only averaged double figures (12.0) in scoring once in his career and that was during the 2012-2013 season. When he came into the league, he didn’t really have much of a set position. He was a tweener, somewhere in between small forward and power forward. That was prior to the changes occurring in today’s NBA with more of a premium on stretch big men.
During Williams’ time in Cleveland last season, he played in 25 games and averaged 6.2 points per game. What stood out most, however, was his shooting. He shot 50.5 percent from the field, including 40.4 percent from the three-point line, both career-highs. Shooting from long range was always a bit of a weakness for him and prior to last season, he had never shot higher than 33.2 percent from downtown. He also didn’t register much chatter by way of free agent rumors, but if he can reproduce shooting percentages like that, he fits right in with the direction of the league.
With league rosters pretty much set, there likely won’t be much roster movement, if any at all, for the next few months. Teams are looking to see how their new summer acquisitions work out. But after a few months of real game action, other roster needs start to become more apparent. Don’t be surprised if come the new year, teams start knocking on a few of these player’s doorsteps.
NBA PM: The Wizards Are “More Than Ready” For A Big Year
Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal says his team is “more than ready” for the start of the NBA season.
With several teams in the Eastern Conference taking a step back, the Washington Wizards will be one of the beneficiaries due to roster continuity. Shooting guard Bradley Beal, one of several key Wizards signed to a long-term contract, said the team is “more than ready” for the season and has large expectations.
“This is going to be a big year for us,” said Beal after a Monday practice. “We’re healthy. There’s no excuse for us [not to] get off to a good start.”
Beal added that, while health is a key for the entire roster, it’s especially important for him after struggling with injuries in the past.
“It’s really a confidence booster, realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be when I had a healthy season,” said Beal of last year’s campaign. “That’s probably what I was more proud of than anything, playing 70-plus games and then playing in the playoffs every game.”
In Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Wizards, we noted that Beal was Washington’s most efficient ball handler in the pick and roll last season. Beal said that creating for teammates is something he’s worked on in the offseason and will continue to be a point of emphasis.
“That was great for me and the strides I made throughout the year, working on my ball handling, working on creating for other guys and getting my own shot,” said Beal. “Those are the primary things I’m focused on … being able to create better, getting guys easier shots than before, getting more assists and improve everywhere.”
Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Friday’s preseason finale in New York that he’s been encouraged by the ball movement he has seen since the start of camp.
“I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp,” said Brooks. “The ball movement was outstanding. Guys were sacrificing for one another on the offensive end.”
One thing that should help the ball movement of the second unit is the arrival of backup point guard Tim Frazier, who missed most of the preseason due to a strained groin. Frazier had nine assists and no turnovers in his preseason debut against the Miami HEAT.
“I feel very comfortable with Tim,” said Brooks. “He finds corner threes, which we like.”
Beal added that one area he hopes to improve, both individually and as a team, is rebounding.
“I think I only had like three rebounds [per game] last year,” said Beal. “I obviously love scoring the ball. That’s something I never worry about. I want to continue to fill up the stat sheet a little bit more and contribute to the game in different areas. I think rebounding was something that hurt us a little bit last year.”
The Wizards host the Philadelphia 76ers to open the season Wednesday, and Brooks said it will take a team effort to defend emerging star Joel Embiid.
“He’s a problem,” said Brooks after Sunday’s practice. “His athleticism is off the charts. We’re going to have to do a good job of staying in front of him. You’re talking about a guy that can put the ball on the floor, that can get to spaces and spots that normally a 6-10 guy doesn’t.”
With a revamped bench, roster continuity and good health entering the season, the Wizards look like a team that could challenge the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors for supremacy in the East. Beal certainly seems to think so.
NBA Opening Night Storylines
Hours before the 2017-18 season gets set to tip off, here are some storylines to follow for Tuesday’s games.
The long summer is over. We finally made it. NBA opening night is upon us.
Rejoice, hoop heads.
Because the NBA is a perfect concoction of chaos at all times, Tuesday’s opening night slate has some can’t-miss built in headlines that the entire league is going to be glued to.
With a new year set to begin, everyone is on the same page. Whether that page includes the likes of Kevin Durant and Steph Curry or Doug McDermott and Tim Hardaway Jr. is a different story. But still, Tuesday marks day one for all teams and as it stands they’re all equal.
As we get set to sit down and dissect these opening game matchups on Tuesday, let’s highlight the most intriguing storylines that will be followed for the rest of the season. There’s nothing like watching a story grown in the NBA from its inception, right?
Boston Celtics vs. Cleveland Cavaliers — 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
This is the game we’ve all been waiting for since late June, when Kyrie Irving let it be known to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out from under LeBron’s shadow.
Three years of NBA Finals appearances, the greatest comeback in basketball history, and a ring to show for was all Irving wanted to walk away from. For him, he felt it was his time to shine.
And because the NBA is the perfect mix of beautiful insanity, it would only make sense that Irving would get dealt to the very team that is jostling for position to unseat the Cavs and King James.
The Irving-led Boston Celtics will have to wait a grand total of one second in the new NBA season to begin their matchup with their point guards old teammates and the team that stands in between them a Finals appearance. With Gordon Hayward and Irving together for the first time against meaningful competition, there’s no better way than to check their fit from the jump than by challenging the conference champions in their building.
But Irving’s homecoming isn’t the only storyline heading into the first game of the season. There are some changes on Cleveland’s end as well.
While the main return for Irving — Isaiah Thomas — won’t be suiting up for the Cavs anytime soon due to injury, there are still plenty of new faces to keep an eye on Tuesday night. First and foremost, Flash is in town. After having his contract bought out by the Chicago Bulls, Dwyane Wade joined forces with his buddy in The Land in hopes of recapturing some of the magic that led them to two championships in South Beach.
By teaming up once again, James and Wade provide some of the best chemistry in the league. Yes, Wade isn’t the player he once was when he and James were winning rings. But something is to be said for knowing exactly where someone will be on the court at all times, and that’s the trait exactly that Wade and James share.
Along with Wade, James and the Cavs are hoping to get some type of resurgence from Derrick Rose and Jeff Green off of the bench. Once Thomas returns to the court for Cleveland, this is arguably the deepest team James has ever been around in Cleveland.
Even with Irving and Hayward on board, Boston will be relying on some role players of their own — namely Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The back-to-back third overall picks will occupy most of the time at the forward spots opposite of Hayward. As the season moves on, the development of both of these wings will be crucial to how dangerous the Celtics can be past their two star players.
Tuesday night will be must-see television at Quicken Loans Arena. New eras for the Eastern Conference heavyweights are about to begin.
And as James told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “The Kid” will be just fine.
Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors — 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
On the Western side of the basketball landscape Tuesday night, the potential conference finals matchup will see its first act when the revamped Rockets head to the Bay Area.
Last season at this time, the basketball world was bracing for what the Warriors would look like after adding Kevin Durant to a 73-win team. And as expected, they dominated. Not even LeBron James could put a stop to them, managing just one win in their finals bout.
This year brings in more of the same questions. Can anyone stop the Warriors? Will Golden State just steamroll their way to another championship, effectively sucking the fun of competition out of the entire league?
Well, a few teams this offseason did their best to try and combat that narrative. One of them being the Rockets, who they added perennial all-star point guard Chris Paul to their backcourt.
Putting Paul in the same backcourt as superstar James Harden has the potential to create some of the biggest headaches for opposing teams. The constant ball movement and open looks the two star guards can provide are nearly endless.
While the league swoons over the Warriors’ ability to hit shots from well beyond the arc, it should be noted that it was Houston last year that led the NBA in three-point shooting, not Golden State. It’s certainly not wise to try and go toe-to-toe with the Warriors at their own game, but if there’s ever a team equipped to do it, it’s Houston. Tuesday night will provide a nice preview look at how things in the Western Conference could shake out in the coming months.
Aside from the barrage of scoring that will take place in this matchup, what would a big game be for the Warriors without a little Draymond Green trash talk?
After Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told ESPN that, “You’re not gonna stop them. It’s just not gonna happen. They’re not gonna stop us, either,” Green clapped back with a comment of his own, as he always does.
“I don’t know how serious they take defense with that comment,” Green said. “But they added some good defensive players.”
It’s true, the Rockets aren’t considered a defensive stalwart by any means. Last season, Houston was 26th in points allowed, compared to second in points scored. Green may be onto something when it comes to questioning how serious his opponents take defense.
That being said, last year’s Rockets didn’t feature Paul. Even at the age of 32, Paul is still one of the league’s best on-ball defenders. And no matter his age, he’ll always possess that competitive fire he’s been known for over the last 12 years.
Going up against the Warriors at Oracle is usually nothing short of impossible, but if there’s going to be a team to challenge their supremacy this season, we’ll get a good look at how they stack up on night one.
With all of this in mind, let’s not forget that the world’s best league is finally back in action. Give yourself a pat on the back, you made it. Now, go enjoy some basketball.