Late-Season Breakout Players Who Are NBA Real Deals
The end of the regular season is a time most exciting for teams angling for a spot in the playoffs or home-court advantage once they get there.
But every year, it's also when unknown players hit their stride and begin to show just how good they can be. This usually happens after a team decides to shift its short-term goals once its barred from playoff contention.
Young studs are then able to show off their ability with more playing time, and their development is placed under a microscope.
The end of the regular season is also when starters on contending teams suffer an injury or sit out games for rest, and backups are pushed to the forefront in the middle of a playoff race.
Here are six players who've flashed their potential in recent weeks, giving their coaches, teammates and fans something to be excited about in the future.
They're ranked by how positive an impact they're now projected to have on whichever NBA teams have them for the next few years.
6. Martell Webster
Everyone on this list is in his early 20s, just beginning to come into his own. Everyone except Washington Wizards forward Martell Webster.
The 26-year-old is now on his third team, in his eighth season, but just now has begun to show how good he can be. No player on the Wizards has scored more points this season. Isn't that surprising? They've had injuries, sure, but Martell Webster is leading an NBA team in scoring!
He's also shooting 43 percent from behind the three-point line and playing like one of the more consistent deep shooters in the league.
Webster has battled injuries throughout his career, but when healthy in Washington he's shown why he can be a legitimate contributor for a long, long time.
He's currently playing under a one-year, $1.75 million contract according to ShamSports. Even if the Wizards aren't willing to pay it, his next deal will surely be for more money and a few more years.
5. Donatas Motiejunas
When the Houston Rockets traded Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris, their depth chart's top two power forwards, Donatas Motiejunas was instantly given a spot in the starting lineup.
Since then, he's shown the skills that made him a first-round pick in 2011. The seven-footer has combined a lethal shot from the outside with sneaky post moves near the basket.
Even though his individual numbers aren't eye-popping, Motiejunas has been effective in spurts since joining the starting lineup, knowing his role and playing the game with no tentativeness or hesitation.
He clearly understands Houston's game plan every night on both ends of the court, and could be useful as a long-term backup or, since his general manager is Daryl Morey, a tradable asset.
4. Tristan Thompson
When the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Tristan Thompson with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft, many thought they'd made a mistake.
He wasn't an alluring prospect on most draft boards, yet the Cavaliers went with what they felt was a sure thing: someone who can rebound. They were right.
Since entering the league, Thompson leads all players from his draft class in rebounds, and this season he's been especially awesome on the offensive glass, grabbing 266 of his team's missed shots (third highest in the entire league according to basketball-reference.com).
When Cleveland drafted him, lack of upside was a real concern. But Thompson has developed elsewhere in recent months, to the point where he's now a walking double-double making 49 percent of his shots. His offensive game has expanded further from the basket than just putbacks and tip-ins, as it was his rookie year.
Now we're seeing swooping drives and a push shot that's increasingly effective from the post. Thompson is still under his rookie contract for another two years after this one, but after that, Cleveland will likely be forced to pay him what he wants.
Improving bigs don't grow on trees, especially ones who're already elite at crashing the boards.
3. Isaiah Thomas
Take a look at these numbers for a second. In his past 20 games, Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas is shooting 49.6/46.6/91.1.
Given the legitimacy of his attempts—especially from behind the three-point line, where he's taking over five shots a night—these numbers are "best shooter alive" good.
Right now he's leading an offense that ranks fourth best in the league since the All-Star break. Yes, seriously. You read that correctly. The Kings are scoring 109.3 points per 100 possessions, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets.
Most of this is because Thomas is their point guard. He's nearly impossible to stop once he turns the corner on a pick-and-roll, and leaving him open isn't an option when he's standing around on the perimeter.
According to ShamSports, Thomas' contract is non-guaranteed the next two seasons, but if he continues to play like this, next year he'll be an extremely interesting trade chip for Sacramento to dangle.
2. Jimmy Butler
As a young player, stepping into a key role on one of the most disciplined, consistent basketball teams in the world isn't easy. But over the past few months, Jimmy Butler has made it look that way.
This season the Chicago Bulls offense is 4.5 points per 100 possessions better with Butler on the court, and the defense allows about half a point less per 100 possessions, per NBA.com/Stats.
His official coming out party to the casual fan came on one play, this astounding alley-oop finish all over Chris Bosh's skull when Chicago ended the Miami Heat winning streak. But Butler's contributions throughout the season have come elsewhere.
He's shooting 41.7 percent from behind the arc in his last 20 games (over 50 percent in his last five) and has become one of the team's few threats from deep.
Butler is also an above average defender at his position, which is crucial since most of his work comes on the perimeter.
If his game continues to develop at the pace we've seen over the past few weeks, we could see the Bulls either let Luol Deng walk once his contract expires in 2014, or even trade him as an expiring contract at some point next season.
The latter scenario is unlikely given the team's win-now expectations, but the fact that this is even something worth discussing shows just how good Jimmy Butler projects to be down the line.
1. Tobias Harris
At the anti-climactic 2013 NBA trade deadline, Tobias Harris found himself involved in the day's biggest transaction, when the Milwaukee Bucks packaged him to the Orlando Magic for J.J. Redick.
No disrespect to Redick, who's an elite shooter with an overall consistency every team in the league would want, but Harris might already be the best player involved in that deal, and someone whom the Bucks already regret giving away.
Only 20 years old and in his second season, Harris has been incredible since seeing his role expand in Orlando. He's averaging over 30 minutes per game now, scoring 16.4 points and grabbing eight rebounds a night.
Harris' value has skyrocketed since being traded, and what he's done in March is nothing short of spectacular. On March 1 he scored 27 points against the Houston Rockets, and more recently he dropped a combined 59 points on the Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards on back to back outings.
After giving him just over a month to contribute with heavy minutes, the Magic have already discovered they might have a serious gem on their hands. Harris can either be treated like a building block for the rebuilding franchise, or an asset that can eventually be packaged for a superstar at some point down the line.
Forwards who can shoot (Harris is making 36.2 percent of his three-pointers since joining Orlando) and play above the rim tend to have lengthy careers. Harris doesn't appear to be an exception.
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