Biggest Under-the-Radar Breakout NBA Stars Every Fan Must Know
You don't have to be an NBA expert to figure out that the league's superstars (i.e. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, etc.) will have plenty to say about how the remainder of the 2012-13 season plays out and what will transpire come playoff time in mid-April.
But beyond the biggest names with the most All-Star shimmer, there's no shortage of up-and-comers who will have a hand (or two) in shaping the league's landscape now and into the future.
No, I'm not talking about budding franchise cornerstones like James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez, though they've all done plenty to assert themselves as forces with whom to be reckoned in the years to come.
Rather, I'm referring to the young role players whose talents portend bigger and better things, perhaps even in the coming weeks and months. These seven guys certainly fit the bill.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The success of the San Antonio Spurs is still inextricably tied to the long-time triumvirate of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. But, in Kawhi Leonard, the organization may well have established a clear line of succession for years to come.
The second-year swingman out of San Diego State has been compared thus far to former Spurs veteran (and current ESPN bowtie enthusiast) Bruce Bowen—if Bowen were blessed with All-Star potential. Leonard's raw numbers (10.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.8 steals in 29.7 minutes per game) aren't particularly eye-popping.
But he's already done a marvelous job establishing himself as San Antonio's designated perimeter stopper. Moreover, his present efficiency numbers (a strong true shooting percentage of .599, a rebound rate of 10.8 that's well above average for his position) point to a player who will produce at a premier level in due time, once he fully gains the trust of Gregg Popovich and is granted an expanded role.
For now, he'll be the "X-Factor" on whom the Spurs will rely to push them over the top against the NBA's other title contenders come playoff time.
Harry How/Getty Images
Kawhi Leonard would've been a member of the Indiana Pacers had the Spurs not swung a trade involving George Hill on draft day in 2011. As it stands, the Pacers are in prime position to make a push for the Eastern Conference Finals and, once there, give the Miami Heat all they can handle.
This, thanks in no small part to Lance Stephenson. You remember Lance, don't you? Once upon a time, he was a bench-warming knucklehead who mocked LeBron James with his faux choking and subsequently paid the price when the best basketball player on planet Earth came roaring back with a vengeance at his team's expense.
Nowadays, the 22-year-old Brooklyn native appears to be far more mature and, at the very least, is a pivotal member of Indy's starting five. Stephenson has improved his shooting and his understanding of how to play NBA-caliber defense dramatically, to the point where he now plays 28.6 minutes per game and chips in 8.4 points (on 47.3 percent shooting from the field), 3.8 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.1 steals for good measure.
The type and magnitude of his role figures to change in the coming weeks now that Danny Granger has returned to active duty in Indy. Stephenson may never live up to the hype that once dogged him as a prep phenom in New York, but with the Pacers' help, he's become a productive member of a fringe title contender who still flashes his tremendous talent from time to time.
The blogosphere has been going bananas over Eric Bledsoe for some time now, and rightfully so. The Kentucky product, known to some as "Baby LeBron" (including LeBron himself), is a highlight reel waiting to happen every time he steps onto the court. At 6'1" and a stout 195 pounds, Bledsoe is nothing short of a physical freak, whose strength and athleticism belies his height and position.
Unfortunately (for some), Bledsoe is currently stuck behind Chris Paul, who just so happens to be one of the best point guards around. The numbers suggest that Bledsoe would flourish in an expanded role. He averages 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.6 steals and 1.4 blocks on a per-36-minute basis, and shoots 42.9 percent from three regardless of playing time.
To be sure, Bledsoe looked like a work-in-progress during 12 starts while Paul was out with a knee injury this season—as would any 23-year-old filling in for a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. And, to Bledsoe's credit, his numbers in CP3's stead (14.2 points, 5.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 43.8 percent from three in 34.1 minutes) were almost precisely what you'd expect him to put up given his existing per-minute productivity.
Rumors surrounding the trade deadline suggested that the Clips could've flipped Bledsoe in deals for Kevin Garnett or Paul Millsap. As it stands, he'll be counted on to provide LA's superb second unit with a next-level spark as the Clips prepare for an unprecedented playoff push.
And, come 2013-14, Bledsoe just might be granted an opportunity to start, be it for the Clips (if Chris Paul decides to sign elsewhere this summer) or some other interested suitor set to peruse the trade market.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Like Bledsoe, Kenneth Faried took part in the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest (albeit briefly) during All-Star weekend. And, like Bledsoe, the Manimal isn't exactly a well-kept secret anymore, at least among those who follow the NBA with some regularity.
That being said, Faried is arguably the most exciting player to watch on the up-and-coming Denver Nuggets these days. What he lacks in size for a power forward, he more than makes up for in hustle, athleticism and raw power. He might just be the most vicious dunker in the NBA today.
What's more, the Morehead State grad puts up solid numbers, in addition to his nightly "shock-and-awe" routine. He averages 12.1 points, 9.6 rebounds, one assist and 1.2 steals in a shade under 30 minutes per game for the Nuggets.
Faried's not a particularly strong defender at the moment, and the fact that he's undersized makes him a funky fit with Denver's current crop of bigs. The Nuggets fare well with Faried playing next to starting center Kosta Koufos, but have been atrocious whenever George Karl's opted for the All-Energy pairing with JaVale McGee (per NBA.com).
It's tough to be too hard on the Manimal, though. After all, it's only his second season as a pro.
In any case, look for Faried to be a major factor for the Nuggets as they make a run at a top-four seed in the crowded Western Conference in the coming weeks.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Rarely (if ever) is Jeff Teague discussed at all, much less as a top-10 player at his position.
This, despite the fact that Teague is one of just 10 players averaging at least 14 points and seven assists per game (per Basketball Reference).
Teague's play has been particularly impressive over the last month. Since January 25, Teague has posted averages of 18.8 points and 8.8 assists with shooting splits (.506 from the field, .408 from three, .917 from the line) that, over the course of a full season, would be good enough to land him in the 50-40-90 Club.
So why, then, has Teague flown so far under the radar?
Well, for one, he's spent his four-year pro career with the relatively anonymous Atlanta Hawks. At best, Teague is the Hawks' third banana, behind Josh Smith and Al Horford, and was no better than fourth on the totem pole when Joe Johnson was a resident of Atlanta.
But Smith's impending free agency may well create an opening for Teague as no worse than Horford's sidekick for the foreseeable future.
That is, if the Hawks opt to keep Teague. The Wake Forest product will be a restricted free agent this summer, and Atlanta figures to court Chris Paul with a chunk of its coming cap space.
In the meantime, the Hawks will lean on Teague's slashing and playmaking ability to fuel their offense, especially now that Lou Williams is done for the year with a torn ACL.
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The Utah Jazz don't have much in the way of playmaking or scoring on the perimeter, even after the passing of a trade deadline at which they might well have tried to deal Al Jefferson and/or Paul Millsap for players who fit that bill.
But so much of what little "guard play" the Jazz boast now and going forward can be traced back to Gordon Hayward. The third-year swingman out of Butler has quietly settled into a productive niche as Utah's sixth man this season. In fact, Hayward has been more effective off the bench (14.3 points, 2.6 assists, 41.6 percent from three) than he has as a starter (13.3 points, 2.1 assists, 32.3 percent from three) this season.
All told, Hayward is Utah's most reliable perimeter scorer, and with Mo Williams and Randy Foye headed for free agency this summer, it'll be incumbent upon him to step up his game even further going forward, regardless of who the Jazz bring in to fill out their backcourt.
Then again, the same could be said for Hayward this season. The Jazz are slip-slidin' their way out of the Western Conference playoff picture at the moment, and could certainly use all the help they can get from Gordon to stave off the hard-charging Los Angeles Lakers.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Can you guess which one?
The third-year big man for the Milwaukee Bucks is in the midst of a breakout year. SANDERS! has established himself as a steady starter for the Bucks, with 9.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 3.3 blocks in 27.1 minutes to his credit over his last 32 games—all as one of Milwaukee's top five.
And lest you think that SANDERS! is just a wild child who happens to swat shots on occasion (which he has been at times), keep in mind that the Bucks allow 8.2 points per 100 possessions fewer when the forward/center is on the floor (per NBA.com).
SANDERS! still fouls far too frequently (3.6 calls in 25.8 minutes), though he's a much more disciplined player on the defensive end than he once was. He figures to give the Miami Heat plenty of headaches come playoff time, assuming the Bucks hang onto the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
And, going forward, SANDERS! projects as, perhaps, the most tantalizing giant among Milwaukee's collection of gifted-but-limited bigs, even though he remains all too raw on the offensive end.