10 23-and-Under NBA Ballers Guaranteed to Explode in 2012-13

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2012

10 23-and-Under NBA Ballers Guaranteed to Explode in 2012-13

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    The NBA may be a league driven by superstars, but it's also a league that drives athletes to become superstars.

    While we relish at the opportunity to watch as the Association's superstars wage battle on the floor, witnessing the journey from promising prospect to indisputable icon is just as satisfying.

    And while the progressive campaign from Point A to Point B can be a wild ride, there's nothing like watching the one year, the one season that changes everything.

    You know what I'm talking about. That season when an athlete truly becomes the player he was meant to be. That year he reaches the lofty ceiling that was set for him upon entering the league. That season he explodes.

    Yeah, that one.

    Luckily for us, such explosions are not a rarity in the NBA; they happen every year.

Jrue Holiday, PG, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jrue Holiday undoubtedly benefited from Andre Iguodala's versatile presence, but he's going to absolutely thrive without him around.

    The 22-year-old Holiday isn't what you would call a true point guard. He's more of a tweener, with the necessary tools to man both the 1 and 2 spots.

    That said, with Iguodala's playmaking abilities taking Denver by storm, Holiday will be called upon more often to run Philadelphia's offense. And that will be great for him.

    Though he hardly wows us with precise passing, he's a deft ball-handler who's great at creating space, and given ample time as the offensive head, Holiday's court-vision will fall into place.

    Holiday's scoring prowess also stands to reach new heights now that Andrew Bynum has entered the fold. He's a stellar three-point shooter who Bynum can kick out of double-teams to, and his execution and overall instincts off pick-and-rolls are phenomenal.

    What is most intriguing about Holiday, though, is his defense. He's great at fighting over and under screens off the ball, but has the necessary lateral quickness to smother even the most elusive players.

    His constantly evolving two-way impact doesn't simply imply he may, at some point in time, explode. Rather, it's a definitive indication he will; it's not a matter of if, merely when.

    And it just so happens that "when" is now.

Derrick Favors, PF, Utah Jazz

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    Derrick Favors hasn't exactly taken the NBA by storm, but that reality is officially a piece of history.

    The 21-year-old Favors is an athletic freak with superior defensive timing and rebounding abilities. He's a strong shot-blocker and can exploit even the most impenetrable of defenses in transition.

    That said, his overall offensive game does need some work. He's not one to create his own scoring opportunities, and he must learn to move without the ball more if he's not going to utilize back-to-the-basket sets.

    That said again, he's spent the last 18 months in Utah, where the competition for playing time among big men is fierce. As he enters his third season in the league, though, expect his athletic abilities and two years of experience to carry him into a more prominent role.

    No, Favors won't be starting, but he doesn't need to. He's got a full training camp with his teammates on the way, and he's grown as a decision-maker and student of the game.

    At this point, all Favors needs is an opportunity—a consistent role—to show what he's made of.

    And with Paul Millsap set to explore free agency and Favors' team option set to actualize itself next summer, Utah is going to give him an opportunity.

    One the diligent athlete will undoubtedly seize.

Ricky Rubio, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Ricky Rubio bursted onto the scene last season before his ACL exploded. This time around, though, Rubio's game is going to be the only explosion heard in Minnesota.

    Despite mediocre numbers coming out of Spain, the Timberwolves had high hopes for the now 21-year-old Rubio as a floor general. After witnessing what he could do in just 41 games, it's safe to say placing such faith in the Spaniard was anything but premature.

    Rubio breaks down defenses in an almost Chris Paul-like fashion, weaving in and out of the paint until an opportunity presents itself or he creates one. He's a swift ball-handler with quick feet to complement his hands, and his vision is surpassed by no one in transition.

    And again, we learned all this about Rubio in just 41 games. Simply imagine how prolific a point man he'll be over the course of 82 and with actual NBA experience under his belt.

    Sure, Rubio's jump shot is Rajon Rondo-esque in that it's broken, but who needs a strong perimeter shooting motion when one can get to the rim as effortlessly as Rubio can? Rondo himself sure doesn't.

    Kevin Love may be the face of the Timberwolves, but Rubio is the engine that makes this car run.

    And by the end of this season, there'll be no argument to the contrary.

Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs

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    You want crafty? Look no further than Kawhi Leonard.

    The 21-year-old Leonard was almost an afterthought coming out of the 2011 NBA draft. After all, it was a weak draft, and there were no future stars to be had in the mid-to-late first round, right?

    Wrong.

    Leonard has already established himself as one the most resourceful players in the NBA. He's a suffocating defender and ferocious rebounder, and he took great strides toward improving his outside game this season, shooting over 37 percent from beyond the arc. He's also good for the poster-worthy baseline finish from time to time.

    What really serves as a definitive indicator that Leonard is headed for an explosive season, though? According to Gregg Popovich in his latest mailbag (via NBA.com), it's his work ethic and spongelike absorption of knowledge.

    I think he’s going to be a star. And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge. When you consider he’s only had one year of college and no training camp yet, you can see that he’s going to be something else.

    I mean, there you have it. I'm not going to question Coach Pop, and you shouldn't either.

    Leonard is going to be a star; he's going to further separate himself from the rest of his peers—by the end of next season.

Greg Monroe, C, Detroit Pistons

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    Let's talk powerful.

    And since we're on the subject, let's talk about the epitome of interior power—Greg Monroe.

    The 22-year-old center was already considered an All-Star snub by many last season, so it's a safe bet to assume he'll follow such a campaign up with an even more explosive one.

    Monroe is a terrific finisher at the rim. He's an above average ball-handler who can get around his defender and up to the rim, but he can also read opposing defenses extremely well. In addition, he knows how to move without the ball in a subtle manner that often results in an easy two.

    He's not King Kong, though—in a good way. Monroe has plenty of finesse to his game. He's a sound passer, especially out of double-teams and is one of the most coordinated big men in the league.

    If Monroe can improve his defensive anticipation—specifically when defending off the dribble—and become a great shot-blocking threat, he'll clinch that All-Star selection soon.

    Like this season soon.

Klay Thompson, SG, Golden Warriors

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    Klay Thompson is on the cusp of exploding.

    The 22-year-old guard put up some impressive numbers with the Warriors this season, and if the NBA's summer league was any indication—and it was—he's poised to build upon that this year.

    With Thompson, you have a sizable guard capable of manning either the 1 or 2. He's a decent passer, deadly shooter and above-average playmaker, with or without the ball.

    Perhaps the most shocking aspect of his game, though, is his commitment to defense. His outside sets tend to be spotty—he takes some unnecessary risks—but he's got the quickness necessary to keep pace with perennial perimeter scorers and the 6'7'" frame and timing necessary to help out in the post, and even block a few shots.

    And now, with Monta Ellis out of the fold, Thompson is prepping himself for an entire season's worth of prominence.

    So, while the talk of the town may be Harrison Barnes' two-way prowess and how he can make an immediate impact, let us not forget about the sophomore who has already made an immediate impact.

    And who's going to make a larger than life one this season.

Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Kyrie Irving is fresh off the most impressive rookie campaign both Cleveland and the NBA have seen since LeBron James. And he's not going to stop there.

    In only one lockout-truncated season, the 20-year-old Irving already proved to be a pillar worth building around. His lightning-fast footwork makes him tough to slow down, his efficient, yet flashy ball-handling makes him tough to contain and his unselfishly aggressive decision-making renders him impossible to stop.

    And yet, despite all the flair and penchant for offensive accolades, what has brought Irving to the verge of exploding is his meticulous planning. No matter what he does, or how quick he does it, everything is deliberate.

    That's not to say he isn't amenable to some improvisation, because that's not true—he's actually great at changing directions or adjusting his shot on a split-second's notice.

    But it is to say that this kid's knack for breaking ankles, setting up teammates and even clogging passing lanes on defense, is anything but accidental.

    Irving is simply an intelligent playmaker and a well-rounded and perpetually calculated athlete.

    And well, I've done the math, and Irving is due to explode soon.

    As soon as November, in fact.

Paul George, SG, Indiana Pacers

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    For a kid who's only two-years deep in the NBA, Paul George has a game that is incredibly refined all-around.

    The 22-year-old shooting guard is an exceptional ball-handler who can burn opposing defenses off the dribble or by cutting to the basket without the ball. He's also a sound mid-range jump shooter, who greatly improved his conversion rate from behind the rainbow last season.

    The fact that George is a highlight reel just waiting to happen doesn't hurt his cause either.

    But enough about his offense, he brings plenty of other skills to the hardwood.

    Defensive intensity and execution? Check. Unlimited supply of energy? Check. Aggressive rebounder? Check. Willingness to evolve? Check.

    George has it all; he's more than just a high-flying sideshow. In fact, despite the differences in position, Blake Griffin could stand to learn a thing or five from his rim-rocking counterpart.

    But he'll just have to stay tuned, as will the rest of us, because George's one-way flight to stardom has been cleared for departure.

    And it's leaving this season. 

John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards

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    John Wall has become synonomous with the term "explosive," so there should be no surprise here.

    That said, the real proof behind the 21-year-old's undoubted rise to superstardom this season is not solely based on his athleticism.

    Sure, Wall's penchant for emphatic slams hasn't hurt his cause, but look deeper and you'll see a crafty facilitator, elusive ball-handler—lightning-fast first step, anyone?—and perhaps most importantly, a willing defender.

    We'd like to see Wall fix his broken jump shot, but we wouldn't change his energetic demeanor for anything. He's the epitome of a team player who makes the most out of any situation, on either end of the floor, regardless of how thin his supporting cast his.

    But yet, here's the thing. Wall's supporting cast is no longer thin, so the burden to win is no longer solely on his shoulders. And that leaves him free to focus on what he already does best, as well as improve upon the areas that need tweaking.

    In some aspects, Wall is still raw, but the kid has heart. And that, coupled with his already polished attributes, will be enough to carry him past the threshold of promise and into the realm of stardom.

    In the most explosive of fashions possible. 

DeMarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings

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    DeMarcus Cousins is going to explode this season.

    No, that didn't read "implode," nor did it read "head for a near mid-air mental breakdown."

    Yes, Cousins, in all his volatile glory, is headed for greatness. And soon.

    Though the big man has commanded more than his fair share of unflattering headlines, he's also one of the most versatile interior presences in the game. He's not only a strong rebounder and fierce scorer, but he can also create his own offense and block a plethora of shots, not to mention he possesses the passing instincts of a point guard.

    Let's not neglect to acknowledge his superior low-post footwork, which he uses to exploit defenders whether he's facing up or has his back to the basket.

    Sure, the 23-year-old wunderkind has had his issues, but that has merely hindered his progression, not killed it.

    Because the truth is, Cousins is a heartbeat away from coming into his own, a mere breath away from being heralded as one of the NBA's most dominant big men.

    His day was bound to come sometime, and that time is now.