NBA Stars in the Making Guaranteed to Explode Next Season
NBA stars normally don't shine forever (despite what Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan might have you believe), so it's a good thing that guys like Damian Lillard and Nikola Vucevic have used the 2012-13 season's stretch run to lay the groundwork for explosive campaigns next year.
Because as the old stars burn out, new ones will be ready to take their places.
Don't feel bad if you haven't noticed these guys; most of them play for teams that reasonable fans have long since stopped watching.
In addition to guys who've stepped up for lottery teams, a couple of promising, young upstarts have been playing bigger roles for playoff-bound clubs. Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls and Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs might be overshadowed by the better-known names on their own teams, but they won't be for long.
These stars in the making have already lit the fuse this year, but they'll be primed to explode next season.
Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic
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The Orlando Magic didn't need to get much in return for J.J. Redick at the trade deadline. The sharpshooter was likely to leave town for nothing as a free agent at the end of the season, so whatever came back to the Magic would have to be considered gravy.
Tobias Harris is much more than gravy.
Admittedly, that's an odd compliment. But the second-year small forward is sort of an odd player.
Highly competitive and notable for his energetic play, the aggressive small forward averaged 16 points and 8.3 rebounds per game in March. And in five April contests, he's upped those numbers to 19.4 and 12.
But that's not the weird part about Harris' game. What's truly strange for a player who attacks the basket so hard, plays at a breakneck pace and gives his all on the floor is how poor he is as a defender.
According to 82games.com, Harris allows opposing small forwards a PER of 28.1. In other words, when Harris is on D, the guy he's guarding turns into Kevin Durant.
That's definitely a problem, but for a player who goes as hard as Harris does, it's a correctable one. After all, the effort's clearly there. He'll just need to receive the proper coaching to turn him into a capable defender.
Harris has been putting up great numbers for a floundering Orlando club since coming over from the Milwaukee Bucks. Because he's already got the motor to succeed and a great chance of improving on both ends, he's a likely candidate to make a huge leap next season.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
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A back injury sidelined Andre Drummond for 22 games between February and March, but the 19-year-old rookie has picked up right where he left off since returning at the end of last month—which is to say he's been an absolute beast.
The springy center has averaged 10.6 points and 8.8 rebounds on 72 percent shooting over his past five games. And he posted a career-high 29 points in his most recent contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 10.
For the season, Drummond ranks fifth in the entire NBA in rebound rate and checks in at No. 13 in PER. For a player still four months from his 20th birthday, those numbers aren't just good—they're historic.
Of all the 19-year-old players in NBA history, none, who have played as many minutes as Drummond, has registered a better efficiency rating than his 22.3 this season. That's a convoluted way of saying he's in uncharted territory right now.
If Drummond can cut down on his penchant for picking up fouls and hone his free-throw stroke to somewhere around the 50 percent mark, he'll be an All-Star in no time. From an efficiency perspective, though, he might already be one.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
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Jimmy Butler is the perfect Chicago Bull. He plays extremely hard, defends at an elite level and does it all without getting any recognition.
Well, it appears that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has taken notice of his young player's talents. So, that's a start.
Butler's athleticism and defensive spark (along with an injury to the completely washed-up Richard Hamilton) earned him a career-high 30.7 minutes per game in March. And given the chance to log consistent playing time, Butler delivered.
Don't look at the 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game Butler posted last month and assume they tell the whole story, though. And even his improvement to 16.6 points and 5.6 rebounds in 44.1 minutes per game during April don't paint the complete picture.
The advanced stats are what really show Butler's brilliance.
According to NBA.com, the Bulls' offensive efficiency improves by 3.7 points per 100 possessions when Butler is on the court. And on defense, they allow 1.7 fewer points per 100 possessions when he plays. That's the kind of two-way impact that turns good teams into great ones.
Assuming he continues to see starter's minutes next season as part of a first unit that should include Derrick Rose, it'll be impossible for Butler to continue to go unnoticed.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets
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Anthony Davis already looks like a player who'll eventually justify being selected No. 1 overall in last June's NBA draft. But based on the skills he has flashed during an injury-plagued season, it's likely he'll do it sooner than later.
Davis has suffered through a few growing pains as his willow-thin frame has made it a challenge to maintain position down low. But despite being pushed around a bit this year, the rookie has found ways to be a major positive for the New Orleans Hornets.
Thanks to ridiculous length, a quick vertical leap and the kind of nose for the ball that can't be coached, Davis has still managed to post a PER that ranks 16th in the entire NBA this year.
Stats aside, it appears that the Hornets are comfortable enough with Davis' all-around skills to use him in a variety of ways on offense. He's been as likely to catch and shoot jumpers off pin-down screens as he has posting up this season.
It's a little dubious that New Orleans wants to move Davis away from the basket on offense, given that his unique talents could make him a phenomenal offensive rebounder, but the fact that he can play anywhere on the floor is still impressive.
A little better luck on the injury front and a few more pounds on the upper body should give Davis all he needs to break out next season in a big way. Eighteen points and 12 rebounds per game aren't out of the question in 2013-14.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
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Kawhi Leonard might be the perfect NBA wing player in today's "three and D" systems. He's got exceptional athleticism, an advanced understanding of the San Antonio Spurs' demanding scheme and a defensive pedigree that should land him on a number of All-Defense teams before he's through.
Plus, he buries the game's most efficient long-distance shot with regularity.
From the right corner, Leonard hits exactly 50 percent of his threes. From the left, he knocks down 40.6 percent.
Really, Leonard is kind of like the deluxe version of Jimmy Butler, who we've already mentioned. He is a more controlled player, but he's still athletic. In addition, his offensive game is a bit better refined, and his skills as a defender are top notch.
And he's only in his second year.
With Manu Ginobili unable to stay healthy and perhaps even leaving this summer as a free agent, Leonard is clearly the next star in San Antonio's sky.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
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Nikola Vucevic has been rewriting franchise history all season with the Magic.
First, there was his monstrous performance on the glass against the Miami Heat earlier this year where he set a franchise record with 29 rebounds.
Vucevic has averaged at least 12 points and 12 rebounds per game in every month since December, and he checks in at No. 7 in overall rebound rate this season. With a developing mid-range shot and the bulk to overpower defenders on the block, the second-year center has all of the tools to be a dominant force on offense.
And it should be pretty clear that he's already a beast on the boards.
If he stopped developing right now, Vucevic would be a terrific big man and a player the Magic could build around. But because he's just 22 years old, he's got plenty of room to grow.
Next year, he'll be even better.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
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To hear Kobe Bryant tell it, Damian Lillard is already a star: "I told him he was a bad boy. He was out there cooking with gasoline tonight."
The Lakers guard's praise came after Lillard put up a fearless 38 points and nine assists in an April 10 contest against Bryant's club. The Blazers rookie hasn't backed down from anyone this season, and if not for a season-high 47 points from No. 24 himself, Lillard might very well have single-handedly sunk the Lakers season.
Lillard has averaged 19.1 points and 6.5 assists per game this year while showing a complete offensive repertoire. He's blindingly quick (especially going to his right) and has unlimited range on his jumper.
Plus, he's crafty enough to get his shot off against anyone.
On D, Lillard is still very much a rookie. He often appears lost, gambles far too frequently and doesn't yet have a solid understanding of team defense. But hey, the guy's been a revelation on the other end, so he's entitled to a little slack for his poor work as a stopper.
The Weber State product is all but assured the Rookie of the Year crown this season. Next year, though, he'll be looking for his first All-Star berth.
Bet on him finding it.