3 NBA Players Who Are Already Taking the Next Step

Marques EversollAnalyst IDecember 18, 2012

3 NBA Players Who Are Already Taking the Next Step

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    Whenever an NBA season reaches its conclusion, it's interesting to see which players took the "next step" in their progression.

    There are typically direct parallels between some of the league's most improved players and the teams that go on deep playoff runs. But through the first quarter of the 2012 NBA season, there are already a handful of players that clearly have risen their level of play.

    Let's take a look at three players that are taking that next step.

3. Larry Sanders: PF, Bucks

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    When the Bucks selected Larry Sanders with the 15th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, he was expected to be an athletic forward capable of running the floor.

    His ability to block shots figured to translate well to the NBA immediately as a rookie. Sanders made a slow transition to the professional level, but his minutes have nearly doubled in his third NBA season.

    The Bucks are loaded at power forward. Sanders, Ersan Ilyasova, John Henson, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Drew Gooden all share time at the position.

    But from last year to now, no player on the Bucks roster has improved as much as Sanders.

    In just 23.7 minutes per game, Sanders is averaging 7.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and three blocks. Over the course of 48 minutes, those numbers translate to 15.5 points, 15.1 rebounds and six blocks. So, there's that.

    The Bucks are currently 12-10 and in second place in the Central Division. With a talented backcourt in Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, Sanders will be increasingly important as Milwaukee makes a push towards the postseason.

2. Eric Bledsoe: SG, Clippers

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    For his first couple seasons in the NBA, Eric Bledsoe was merely a role player hidden behind a stacked backcourt.

    But Bledsoe has exploded onto the scene in 2012, giving the Los Angeles Clippers yet another dangerous piece on a deep bench. Bledsoe plays just 18.6 minutes per game but averages 9.9 points, 3.0 assists and 1.5 steals.

    Per 48 minutes of playing time, Bledsoe averages 25.5 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.8 steals.

    Playing behind Chris Paul, likely the league's top point guard, Bledsoe benefits from watching the best of the best at work. Bledsoe and Paul play the majority of the minutes at point guard, while Willie Green and Jamal Crawford rotate at the shooting guard position.

    Chauncey Billups has been in and out of the lineup, but when he's healthy, the Clippers have the best group of guards in basketball—and Bledsoe is a big reason why.

    He's improved dramatically in his third season, and the arrow is certainly pointing up for his future in the NBA. 

1. O.J. Mayo: SG, Mavericks

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    This offseason's free-agent crop was headlined by Deron Williams, Eric Gordon, Kevin Garnett and Roy Hibbert. Interest on unrestricted free-agent O.J. Mayo was lukewarm at best.

    Mayo ultimately signed with the Dallas Mavericks, and boy, have the Mavs found themselves a gem.

    In Dirk Nowitzki's absence, Mayo has risen to the occasion and become the go-to scorer for the Dallas offense, averaging a career-high 20.4 points per game.

    The Mavericks are 11-13 on the year, but they have hope with Mayo in the fold and Nowitzki on the verge of returning.

    Per 48 minutes, Mayo is averaging 27.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

    The current Dallas lineup isn't much better than average, but once Nowitzki is back, this team could be dangerous.