It’s amazing what an expanded role can do for an NBA player. Just take James Harden for example—after being traded to the Houston Rockets by the Oklahoma City Thunder at the beginning of the season, Harden has absolutely exploded, increasing his scoring average by over eight points compared to last season while making a strong All-Star bid.
While Harden was fortunate enough to land in a perfect situation in order to take his career to the next level, not all young players are so lucky. With the incredible pool of talent present in today’s NBA but only so many rotation spots available on each team, many young players struggle to earn the minutes they need to capitalize on their potential, no matter how talented they might be.
The NBA is a highly dynamic league, and each year several breakout players arrive on the scene to break into basketball’s elite class. Yet there are equally as many players who stay glued to the pine, unable to break out simply due to a lack of opportunity. So who are the NBA’s most stifled young talents?
Note: These rankings are not necessarily based on talent, but rather which players are most held back by their respective teams.
All stats accurate as of December 22, 2012.
DeJuan Blair’s brief NBA career has already served as quite the underdog story. Blair has managed to overcome potentially crippling knee injuries and a significant size disadvantage to become a highly productive big man in today’s NBA.
Unfortunately, Blair’s playing time has dropped this season, despite an excellent 2011-12 campaign. Blair’s minutes have been incredibly sporadic thus far, and there has been more than one occasion in which he has played 20-plus minutes one night and then zero the next, regardless of his performance.
Gregg Popovich seems reluctant to deploy Blair against certain opponents, as the burly power forward’s below-average height can be a major disadvantage against taller big men.
Blair is an outstanding rebounder, and he has the potential to be a double-double machine in an increased role. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem likely to find that role with the Spurs, so a trade may be the best option.
Jeff Green enjoyed great success early in his career as the starting power forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder. But since a deadline trade that shipped him to Boston, Green has struggled to take his career to the next level.
Green has bounced back remarkably well from the heart surgery that cost him last season, and his elite athleticism remains unmarred. However, Green’s minutes continue to be relatively limited in Boston, where he is forced to compete with Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger for time at the power forward spot.
Green is a bit of a tweener, as his perimeter skills are questionable, but he lacks the size to play the power forward role on a team who plays Kevin Garnett as its starting center.
As the big-three era draws to a close in Boston, Green should see his minutes increase in coming seasons as he takes on a larger role. For now, Green must be content with barely over 20-minutes per game as an energy guy for a frequent contender.
After a surprising and impressive rookie season in which he scored with great efficiency and dropped a career-high 40 points on the Golden State Warriors, Rodrigue Beaubois has fallen into mediocrity to begin his fourth year in the league.
Beaubois’ formidable shooting touch seems to have abandoned him, and his inability to make substantial contributions in other statistical areas has kept him rooted to the bench despite his obvious talent level.
Even after the departure of Derek Fisher from the team, Beaubois still sits just third on the depth chart for the point guard position behind fellow youngsters Darren Collison and Dominique Jones. And with the Mavericks already in search of a replacement, it seems unlikely that Beaubois will be able to break into the rotation at either guard spot any time soon.
There is simply no room for Beaubois on the guard-heavy Mavericks, and he could use a change of scenery in order to put his elite scoring ability to better use.
Enes Kanter was drafted third overall by the Utah Jazz in the 2011 NBA Draft, but he has yet to earn the opportunity to capitalize on the potential that warranted such a high draft selection.
With Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors all ahead of him on Utah’s depth chart, it’s no wonder that Kanter has struggled to find big minutes early in his career.
Kanter is averaging just 15.4 minutes per game this season, but this is more due to the talent ahead of him than any major deficiency in his game.
Though Kanter hasn’t gotten much run through the first quarter of the season, he should be in for a larger role once the Jazz trade Millsap and/or Jefferson at the deadline this year.
Eric Bledsoe’s all-around game has made major strides this season, as he has cut his turnovers, stepped up his already formidable defense and improved his shooting percentages across the board.
Though still raw offensively, Bledsoe is scoring with surprising efficiency and has at least progressed to the point where he is no longer an offensive liability.
Bledsoe has produced at an incredible level in his limited minutes, so one has to wonder what he could do in an enhanced role. Unfortunately, the Clippers boast one of the league’s deepest backcourts, and the 6’1” Bledsoe lacks the size to play extended minutes alongside Chris Paul.
For now, Bledsoe remains confined to the role of spark plug, providing energy and defensive intensity off the bench but ultimately remaining mired behind Paul and Jamal Crawford as the Clippers’ favored backcourt duo.
JaVale McGee has been a model of efficiency for the Denver Nuggets this season, posting a remarkable 23.77 PER while averaging 10.9 points in just 19.1 minutes per game. The most surprising part of that stat line? The minutes, which inexplicably sit at under 20 per game.
McGee is an explosive athlete, creative finisher and dominant shot blocker. But despite his immense talent and potential, Nuggets coach George Karl has been reluctant to give McGee extended minutes this season, opting instead for the more defensively sound but far less skilled Kosta Koufos.
Though Koufos brings a lot to the table for the Nuggets and fits in well with the starting group, it is absolutely unacceptable for Karl to continue to hold McGee back with such limited playing time.
Given starter’s minutes, McGee is capable of putting up dominant numbers, and the Nuggets are a markedly improved team on the offensive end when they have an inside option as dangerous as McGee.
Based on the contract he signed with Denver this summer, McGee is clearly a major part of the team’s future plans. However, it makes little sense for Karl to insist on bringing him along so slowly, and McGee should be given a greater dosage of playing time if the Nuggets wish to achieve true contender status.
Despite a strong rookie season last year in which he emerged as one of the Nets’ most reliable scoring options, MarShon Brooks has been an afterthought in Brooklyn thus far in his sophomore campaign.
Brooks has played an average of just 11 minutes per game this season, and though he has scored efficiently in that limited time, he has remained entrenched behind Joe Johnson and Jerry Stackhouse for minutes at shooting guard.
Brooks’ sudden expulsion from the Nets’ rotation is puzzling to say the least. Though he is only a middling defender and exhibits exasperating tunnel vision offensively, Brooks is a highly capable scorer who would fit perfectly as the sixth-man in Brooklyn.
For him to lose his role to Stackhouse makes very little sense. Though the 38-year-old veteran has played well this year, he is clearly not a part of the Nets’ future where Brooks certainly could be.
As the second overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Derrick Williams was considered an extremely safe pick, as he was considered a player almost guaranteed to become an instant success.
Unfortunately, Williams has started his career in a less than ideal situation with the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he is stuck behind forwards Kevin Love and Andrei Kirilenko on the depth chart.
Though Williams has yet to experience the extensive playing time generally offered to such a high draft pick, his lack of production early in his career is not just a product of a tough rotation.
Williams has inexplicably failed to carry the lethal jumper that he displayed in college into the NBA, and he has been terribly inefficient, shooting just 40 percent despite spending most of his time at the power forward spot.
Despite his struggles, though, the talent is undeniably present in Williams, and he would benefit greatly from a change of scenery. Williams will never be a superstar, but given a more featured role in a new system, he certainly has the potential to become a starting-caliber forward in the league.