An old adage that often proves itself true is that “the cream rises to the top.” For the most part, youngsters entering the NBA need to get acclimated to the game before they begin dominance that we so often see on the game’s lower levels.
Usually, by the third year of a career, we’ll know what we have on our hands. In a few cases, though, a lack of opportunity or some unfortunate injuries could delay the coming out party of some of the league’s stars of tomorrow.
But for the proceeding five young stars in the NBA, the best is yet to come. We have seen flashes of their potential greatness, but these guys just might be the superstars of tomorrow.
After being selected by the Philadelphia 76ers with the 17th overall pick in the 2009 draft, Holiday spent his first three years as a Sixer sharing ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities with Lou Williams.
This past summer, however, Williams defected to Atlanta and opened the door for Holiday to be the unquestioned cook in Philadelphia.
As a team, the Sixers went 35-31 in last year’s lockout-truncated season and managed to upset the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
This season, after trading Andre Iguodala for Andrew Bynum, the Sixers have seemed to regress. Entering play on Jan. 14, the team is 16-22 overall and has managed to go just 3-7 over its last 10.
That, though, is not Holiday’s fault.
Across the board, Holiday is putting up career numbers and is showing the type of versatility that the Sixers hoped for when it signed him to a four-year extension worth $41 million.
His 18.7 points, 4.1 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game might not be leading the Sixers to many wins at the moment, but once some additional pieces are added and Bynum finds his way into the lineup, it won’t be long before Holiday’s name is mentioned amongst some of the game’s brightest stars.
One could argue that Jrue Holiday’s Sixers are underachieving, but nobody can argue that the Indiana Pacers are.
Back in November, it was announced that Danny Granger—the team’s leading scorer for each of the past five years—would be out for three months.
Even without him, though, the Pacers have managed to put together a very impressive 23-15 record through its first 38 games, and it’s done so with George as its leader on both ends of the floor.
While George is still searching for the night-in, night-out consistency that separates the stars from the superstars, he’s already shown enough in a limited time frame to warrant serious consideration as one of the game’s rising stars.
Now in his third year, George is playing 37 minutes per game for the Pacers and is shooting 37.2 percent from beyond the arc. He leads his team in scoring with 16.9 points per game and is second in rebounding with 7.5 per game.
His 3.7 assists per game make him the fourth-best assisting small forward in the league behind only LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul Pierce, respectively.
Most impressive about George, though, is his timing and his ability to read and react to offensive players and play passing lanes. Entering play on Jan. 14, George has recorded three or more steals in eight games.
And it’s no coincidence that he happens to play 37 minutes per game for the team that gives up the fewest points per game across the league.
All in all, George is a very complete player who does everything well on the court. He’s immediately made Granger expendable in Indianapolis.
Since being selected by the Golden State Warriors with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, Stephen Curry has made many across the NBA salivate with his immense potential.
The major issue for him is and will continue to be his long-term health. Though Curry missed just 10 total games his first two years in the league, he is coming off an ankle surgery that caused him to miss 40 games last season. Though he’s played very well for his 23-13 Golden State Warriors, he could be looking at some long-term ankle issues.
That seems to be the only thing that can stop Curry.
Now playing his first full season without Monta Ellis, Curry has risen to the challenge of being the top gun on the Warriors, and at 23-13, has helped the team off to its best 36-game start since the 1991-92 NBA season when it began 26-10.
We’re only beginning to scratch his potential. At 44.9 percent, Curry leads the league in three-point percentage, and the combination of his team’s success, his 20.2 points per game, 4.3 rebounds per game and 6.6 assists per game almost assure him of his first all-star berth this year.
If healthy, Curry’s uncanny combination of shooting ability, passing mentality and disciplined shot selection should make him one of the NBA’s superstars by the time he celebrates his 27th birthday in March 2015.
But right now, he’s already one of the top guards in the game and certainly worth keeping an eye on as time progresses.
Without question, there are complaints to be made about Damian Lillard’s NBA game. Typically, an NBA scout would be happy with an NBA point guard shooting at least 44 percent from the field, so Lillard’s 42.7 percent conversion rate is a bit low.
Just a bit, though.
He turns the ball over 3.1 times per game, as well, ranking him 12th across the league in coughing it up. That’s not good, either.
Aside from that, though, there’s no denying that Lillard is the total package. His play has opened the eyes of everyone and before the season began, I picked him as a “dark-horse” candidate for Rookie of the Year.
The more appropriate question being asked by some experts is whether or not Lillard will make the All-Star game as a rookie guard, something that has not been done since Michael Jordan did it way back during the 1984-85 season.
In less than three months, we have already seen Lillard hit scores of big shots, score at least 25 points five times and even flirt with triple-doubles on a few occasions.
Most importantly, though, Lillard has already helped the Blazers turn things around from last season’s 28-38 train wreck.
Entering play on Jan. 14, the Trailblazers are 20-17, and Lillard has had an immediate impact. He is his team’s second-leading scorer at 18.5 points per game and will certainly be the NBA’s Rookie of the Year if he keeps up his level of play.
With his potential, though, this is probably all just the beginning. He's only 37 games into his pro career, but will only get better from here on out.
The most fascinating thing about Kyrie Irving is not the poise that he plays with, nor his shooting ability, it’s the fact that of all of the league’s more renowned youngsters, he has a dearth of post-high school playing experience.
Entering play on Jan. 13, Irving ranks sixth in the league with 23.3 points per game. Though he only averages 5.7 assists per game as a starting point guard, it’s understandably difficult to amass dimes with a shortage of talent surrounding you on the floor.
Last July, Irving was one of the standout players in Team USA’s select camp in Las Vegas. Anyone who sees Irving play is enamored with his potential and knows that, if healthy, he is to be very special.
After graduating from St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J., Irving committed to Duke University.
A ligament tear in his big toe limited Irving to just eight starts in his college career, and he played just 11 total games.
Though the sample was so small, Irving was the consensus first overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft and was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers. As luck would have it, the ensuing NBA lockout pretty much wiped out training camps for the NBA’s rookies.
Even still, Irving won the NBA's 2012 Rookie of the Year Award by turning in solid averages of 18.5 points per game and 5.4 assists per game.
The bottom line with Irving is that he’s really not that far removed from playing in high-school gymnasiums in New Jersey. He’s still learning the NBA game and still learning how to be a pro.
Despite that, he’s easily one of the game’s brightest stars and showed that when he competed amongst the likes of Kobe Bryant and Stephen Curry last summer.
He may not have the wins of Damian Lillard or the ability to play the passing lanes like Paul George, but he sure has my eye, and he earned the top spot here with the 41-point performance he put on at Madison Square Garden back on Dec. 16.
Of all of the youngsters in the NBA looking to rise to the level of superstardom, Irving seems the most promising.