7 NBA Players Who Will Take Their Games to New Heights in 2013
In 2013, a new crop of NBA players may be ready to make a leap of sorts.
The new year might not feature individual seasons as flashy as James' first title or Durant's first Finals, but seven players are on the verge of reaching new heights.
They are maturing as basketball players and personalities, and their stories will unfold before our eyes over the next 12 months. Read on to see who they are.
Note: Stats are current as of Dec. 30.
1. Damian Lillard
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Of all the great rookies to come out of the 2012 NBA draft, Damian Lillard could have the most thrilling 2013.
The 22-year-old point guard out of Weber State is already a success story. Starting at point guard as an NBA rookie after coming from a small mid-major program is no small feat. All that was in 2012, though. I am on the edge of my seat for his 2013.
Lillard's numbers have been consistent from November to December, as he appears to have the game to bust through any "rookie wall" there might be. He's averaging 18.3 points and 6.3 assists. He also rebounds more than his fair share, grabbing 3.2 per game. Those numbers are impressive for any rookie.
The Portland Trail Blazers are 15-14 and in the No. 9 slot in the Western Conference, just a few games behind the middle of the playoff pack. If they can sneak into the postseason as a No. 7 or 8 seed, Lillard will have a chance to further develop his game and increase his visibility.
The Trail Blazers would have an opportunity to pull off a thrilling upset in the first round. Lillard would more than likely be the top rookie playing at that point, and therefore the star of his class.
Thanks to Anthony Davis' injury issues, Lillard is the leading contender for the Rookie of the Year Award. Should he win it, 2013 will be remembered as the start of a great career.
2. Joakim Noah
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Joakim Noah is already an NBA star. He averaged a double-double in consecutive seasons from 2009-2011.
However, he has yet to make an All-Star team. In 2013, I believe he will make his first.
Nobody in the league has been as valuable to his team's defense as Noah has to the Chicago Bulls. With Derrick Rose out for a long time, the city of Chicago has latched on to Noah.
The Bulls allow just 91.5 points per game, the third fewest in the league, as Noah is posting career highs in blocks (2.1 per game) and steals (1.4 per game). Noah's value goes beyond statistics, however, as he consistently covers his teammates' shortcomings. No one knows Tom Thibodeau's defensive system better.
Noah has worked incredibly hard to make himself a better offensive player without sacrificing an inch on the defensive end. He is scoring 13.1 points, up 2.9 from a season ago, to go with his 10.6 rebounds.
He also is dishing out 4.5 assists per game, an astonishing mark for a center. He has even molded himself into a quality free-throw shooter, hitting 81.1 percent of his shots. In comparison, Noah shot 69.1 percent from the line in his rookie season.
With the 16-12 Bulls impressing the league early on without Rose, Noah will get a lot of the credit. With his point guard set to return sometime this season, Chicago figures to make a run in the postseason.
That will provide Noah with another platform to showcase his improved game.
3. Jeremy Lin
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The year of 2013 will be mostly about legitimization for Jeremy Lin.
He has already gotten more criticism and praise than any player who has yet to see career game No. 100. His popularity around the world is almost exclusively a product of a 26-game run with the New York Knicks a season ago that ultimately didn't lead to much.
Now Lin is with the Houston Rockets, and 2012 has ended pretty well for him. The Rockets are 16-14 and in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference. He is averaging 12.0 points and 6.3 assists per game as the starting point guard.
Lin missed out on the chance for postseason glory due to an injury with the Knicks. The Rockets are in position to contend for a decent seed.
Some considered 2012 to be Lin's year. If Houston makes a postseason run this spring, look for 2013 to be the real year of Lin.
4. Larry Sanders
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Larry Sanders' production per 48 minutes may frighten you.
Though he plays just 24.9 minutes a game, the Milwaukee Bucks forward's numbers extrapolate to 15.8 points, 16.5 rebounds and 5.9 blocks per 48 minutes.
As of Dec. 30, Sanders leads the league in blocks; he is a few percentage points ahead of Serge Ibaka.
The Bucks have waited two long seasons, but they are finally reaping the benefits of the No. 15 pick in the 2010 NBA draft. Sanders played his way into a starting job, unseating Samuel Dalembert along the way. This is exactly what the Bucks had hoped for when they drafted the 6'11" Sanders.
His limited offensive game is still holding him back. He is shooting 54.2 percent from the field, but he lacks the confidence and opportunity to take more than six or seven shots a night.
However, in 2013, he will get opportunities to further showcase his superior athleticism. With a 16-12 record, the Bucks are tied with the Chicago Bulls in the Central Division. Assuming they make the playoffs, Sanders' game will get even more exposure.
Sanders will then get a full offseason of knowing full well what he can become. If he works to become a more confident offensive player, 2013 will be just the start of a fantastic career.
5. Josh Smith
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Is it still possible that Josh Smith hasn't made an All-Star team?
Well, one of the league's favorite snubs is making another strong case to be invited to the game in 2013.
After living behind Joe Johnson's shadow for nearly his entire career, Smith is finally the man in Atlanta. He has the Hawks at 19-9 after they dealt their main scoring option in the offseason. They sit behind only Miami and New York in the Eastern Conference standings.
Many seemed to think the Hawks were going to struggle to reach the playoffs, but now they look like a top-tier team. Smith isn't doing anything he hasn't been doing for the better part of a decade. It is just his leadership that has elevated the team.
Smith has even sacrificed a shot per game in an effort to help the Hawks become more team-oriented. He has his three-point shooting under control. He's shooting 35.6 percent from beyond the arc, and his 1.7 attempts per game haven't hurt the Hawks. Of course, he is still the defensive presence he has always been.
By averaging 16.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.2 blocks per game while leading one of the East's top teams, Smith should earn his first All-Star nod in 2013. More important, though, is the opportunity he'll have to bring the Hawks out of their mediocre postseason shell this spring.
6. Jrue Holiday
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Jrue Holiday has spent the end of 2012 establishing himself as one of the league's better point guards.
The revolving door of bigs during Holiday's time in Philadelphia has featured such mediocrity as Samuel Dalembert, Elton Brand and Spencer Hawes. With Andrew Bynum vowing to make his return this season, I'm excited to see what Holiday can do.
His numbers are already those of a star. He is averaging 18.6 points and 8.9 assists per game. Holiday is third in the league in assists, behind only Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo. And with a 14-17 record and No. 9 spot in the Eastern Conference standings, the 76ers are fighting hard to stay relevant in the playoff race.
Holiday has become such a presence for Philadelphia that when he missed four games in December, they were all losses, three by double-digits.
He has spent 2012 making himself essential to the 76ers' success. If he stays on track and gets Bynum back as a teammate, Holiday will become a permanent new face among the point guard elite in 2013.
7. David Lee
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There is a difference between racking up stats on a losing team and leading a good team to greatness.
David Lee has averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds before, but it was for a 29-win Knicks team. He even posted 20.1 points and 9.6 boards per game for the 23-43 Warriors of 2011-12.
In 2012-13, Lee is averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds again, but his team is actually winning.
The difference is that Lee has become a true leader on the Golden State Warriors. He is a veteran presence on a very young team. They are 21-10 and hold the No. 5 spot in the Western Conference.
Lee is a co-leader in scoring (with Stephen Curry) and leads the team in rebounding. He is also doling out 3.6 assists per night.
Lee will never be a defensive stud, and he is a big reason why the team is in the bottom third of the league in points allowed. However, that is OK as long as he is playing such an integral role in making the Warriors a top-10 offense and top-five rebounding team.
There may be some bumps along the way, but 2013 is shaping up to be the first winning year of Lee's career, making it the first year his impressive stats will mean something.