Young NBA Studs Poised to Reach Stardom Next Season

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIJune 8, 2013

Young NBA Studs Poised to Reach Stardom Next Season

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    While veteran stars are squaring off in an exciting NBA finals matchup, young players in the Association, like Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, are poised to join them in the ranks of the NBA’s elite next season.

    The NBA’s young, potential-packed players help drive the league forward, but only if they put in the work to improve their overall game. By honing their skills in the offseason and embracing the opportunities the next season holds, the league’s young talents can take meaningful steps toward stardom.

    Some of those players are just getting their feet wet in the NBA. Others have been held back by debilitating injuries or simply haven’t found the best situation to succeed.

    Whatever the case, the following NBA young guns will be poised for a breakout year during the 2013-14 season.

    Note: The players will be listed by different categories as follows:

    Group 1, Numbers 9-12: These players are finally getting comfortable in the NBA due to their particular situation and could see a statistical rise as a result.

     

    Group 2, Numbers 5-8: The youngest and least experienced players who, until now, were just getting their feet wet in the NBA.

     

    Group 3, Numbers 1-4: Players who have shown flashes of overall potential but they’re finally getting the pieces put into place, which includes healing from injuries.

     

    Note: Because I received so many inquiries in the comments, let me explain my thought process regarding certain players. Damian Lillard (Rookie of the Year) and Jrue Holiday (Eastern Conference All-Star), were excluded from the list because I already consider them stars in the NBA. The same can be said for Stephen Curry and John Wall (who are on the list), but those two players have had issues with injuries (the major difference). They'll have to prove to doubters that their great 2012-13 season wasn't a one-time deal.

    As for players like Jimmy Butler, Jonas Valanciunas and Harrison Barnes, they are all great suggestions and I apologize for not listing everyone. However, you could make a case for any player 25 years of age or younger who has had success in the NBA. I can't please everybody, and I appreciate your comments!

12. Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic (Group 1)

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    Nikola Vucevic already had a tremendous breakout campaign for the Orlando Magic during the 2012-13 season. His stats increased across the board from his rookie year, as he averaged a double-double with 13.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per game.

    The former USC standout never got an opportunity to succeed in Philadelphia under head coach Doug Collins. After being shipped to Orlando as part of the four-way Andrew Bynum trade, he embraced the opportunity to be a full-time starter.

    In fact, on four separate occasions—including twice against the Miami Heat—Vucevic recorded 20 or more rebounds in a game. His efforts on the glass ranked him second in the NBA in rebounding at season’s end.

    With that impressive breakout year, you could argue that the upstart big man has already arrived as an All-Star caliber player. If he continues to improve next season, however, he could actually be playing in the 2014 NBA All-Star Game.

    At just 22 years old, Vucevic still holds plenty of potential. He’ll continue to grow with a rebuilding Magic squad as a franchise centerpiece.

11. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors (Group 1)

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    Very few players are able to outmatch Klay Thompson’s potential as a lethal sharpshooter. In fact, the only player who may be able to do so is teammate and fellow “Splash Brother,” Stephen Curry.

    Thompson has great range and beautiful form on his jump shot. He also has ideal size for a shooting guard at 6’7”. But despite having all of those tools at his disposal, Mychal Thompson's son is still trying to put the whole package together.

    As a rookie, Klay shot 44.3 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from beyond the arc. This season, as a sophomore, those numbers dipped to 42.2 percent from the field and 40.1 percent from deep.

    To be clear, shooting higher than 40 percent from downtown is phenomenal no matter who is hoisting up the shots. However, seeing Thompson’s field-goal percentage drop more than two points with increased minutes and increased shot attempts show that he’s still trying to get comfortable in the NBA.

    It appeared as if the young Golden State Warriors' guard had arrived in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals. In a 100-91 win over the San Antonio Spurs, he drained eight three-pointers en route to a career-high 34 points. He also grabbed 14 rebounds and swiped three steals. Thompson was clearly peaking at the ideal moment.

    After the monstrous game, though, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made adjustments to stop the youngster. In Games 3-6, the 23-year-old shot just 18-of-53 from the field (33.9 percent).

    It certainly wasn’t an ideal end to a great playoff run, but Thompson can prove next season that he’s out for redemption.

10. Jeff Green, Boston Celtics (Group 1)

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    Jeff Green’s NBA career has been a roller coaster of high highs and low lows.

    From averaging 16.5 points per game as an NBA sophomore with the Oklahoma City Thunder to missing the entire 2011-12 season due to heart surgery, Green has experienced more at 26 years old than most NBA players will in their entire career.

    He returned to the Boston Celtics this season and managed to play 81 regular-season games—impressive considering he missed all of last year. Unfortunately, Green averaged just 12.8 points per game for the Celts (the lowest total since his rookie year).

    It was becoming apparent that the Boston faithful would only be able to justify the Green trade by pointing to Kendrick Perkins’ terrible production in OKC. But that was before the youngster's breakout postseason performance.

    In Round 1 against the New York Knicks, Green boosted his averages across the board to 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He also shot a shining 45.5 percent from three-point range.

    Although the Celtics were unable to win the series after falling into an 0-3 hole, Green became a major bright spot. Soon enough, he will be the predecessor to Hall of Famer Paul Pierce in Boston. If he carries his playoff success over to next season, he’ll win over plenty of new fans.

9. Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks (Group 1)

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    Aside from diehard Milwaukee Bucks fans, who honestly recognized Larry Sanders’ name prior to the 2012-13 season?

    The shot-blocking specialist out of Virginia Commonwealth was a seldom-used player in Milwaukee’s rotation for two straight seasons. He flipped the script by winning the starting job in his third professional year. With more minutes, Sanders’ stats ballooned to 9.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game (ranking him second in the league behind Serge Ibaka of the Oklahoma City Thunder).

    He gained a cult following among analytics experts for his tremendous interior defense, broken down by Kirk Goldsberry in the embedded video.

    Compared to the porous interior defense of Golden State Warriors forward David Lee and even to the league average, the Bucks' big man proved to be one of the most efficient interior defenders in the game.

    If you take a glass half-empty approach, Sanders’ defense fails to include the number of points he gives up at the charity stripe. Although his interior defense is phenomenal, he averaged 3.3 personal fouls per contest in just 27.3 minutes per game. So while he cuts down the easy buckets at the hoop, he also sends players to the free-throw line quite frequently.

    If he can continue to grow as a player by expanding his basketball IQ and cutting down on foul trouble, he’ll be an interior force for many years to come.

8. Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic (Group 2)

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    Tobias Harris could be included in Group 1 due to the fact that he finally found a situation willing to give him steady minutes. However, he’ll slide in with Group 2 because he’s still getting his feet wet in the NBA.

    It’s hard to believe that Harris is still just 20 years old despite having two years of NBA experience under his belt (he’ll turn 21 in July). He’s younger than Kyrie Irving, Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes, among others.

    He was sent from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Orlando Magic in the J.J. Redick trade, which was another deal that made the Magic front office look…well, magic.

    The 20-year-old forward played 27 games (20 starts) for Orlando after the trade. He notched 36.1 minutes per game for the Magic, which was more than triple the amount of court time he received in Milwaukee.

    The youngster averaged 16 points and 8.3 rebounds in March. He upped those numbers to 19.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in April—highlighted by a 30-point, 19-rebound affair against his former team.

    Aside from poor three-point shooting (31 percent this season), Harris has the complete package.

    Considering that he averaged 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds overall for Orlando as a 20-year-old, he could be an absolute beast a few years down the road. In fact, he may embrace that role as early as next season.

7. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons (Group 2)

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    Throughout the first half of the season, I couldn’t understand why the Detroit Pistons coaching staff refused to give Andre Drummond a bigger role as a rookie.

    He was certainly a raw basketball talent, but after Detroit started the season 0-8, giving the big man as much experience as possible seemed to be the most logical option.

    Even when Drummond received more minutes, though, he was often hindered by foul trouble. Then a stress fracture in his back kept him out for a month and stunted his progress.

    A combination of injuries and low minutes caused by foul trouble defined the athletic big man's rookie season. However, there was a lot to like about the prospect, who slid to Detroit's ninth pick in the 2012 NBA draft.

    A 29-point, 11-rebound effort during a win against the Cleveland Cavaliers in April was arguably his best game of the year. And for all the advanced stats geeks out there, Drummond’s 21.69 Player Efficiency Rating was better than Al Jefferson's, Marc Gasol's and teammate Greg Monroe's.

    At just 19 years old, he still has plenty of time to improve. To state the obvious, he shot an abysmal 37.1 percent from the free-throw line as a rookie. Of course, Dwight Howard wasn’t much better than that in L.A., and he’s considered one of the league’s best centers—so perhaps poor free-throw shooting won't hinder Drummond too much.

    Anyway, he will undoubtedly receive more than the 20.7 minutes per game he saw as a rookie. As long as he stays healthy and out of foul trouble, he could have a monster year for the Pistons beside Monroe in the post.

6. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards (Group 2)

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    Bradley Beal experienced a rough transition to the NBA as a rookie. He finished the first full month of the season averaging 11.2 points per game, while shooting a woeful 34.1 percent from the field and 32.7 percent from three-point range.

    His weak play to start the year “earned” him a spot in my November article listing the biggest fantasy basketball busts of the early season.

    Shifting to the NBA style and playing without John Wall beside him in the backcourt didn’t help Beal’s transition to the pros. Despite the shaky start, however, the former Florida Gator turned things around as the months went by.

    In January, he averaged 15.1 points while shooting a robotic 50.8 percent from beyond the arc. In February, he brought the whole package by averaging 17.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.

    From there, a slew of injuries effectively ended Beal’s season. He played just seven games combined in March and April.

    A bad start and injury-riddled end marred an otherwise promising rookie season. However, he showed signs of being a very promising NBA player. With Wall back healthy for next year, expect Beal (and the Washington Wizards team as a whole) to do big things.

5. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (Group 2)

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    Anthony Davis could certainly be looped in with Group 3 later in the countdown, because injuries were the primary reason for his up-and-down 2012-13 campaign. However, as he looks to attain his lofty potential next year as a sophomore, he also fits well with Group 2.

    The Rookie of the Year favorite in the eyes of many, Davis averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while finishing with a PER of 21.80. For the most part, the young Olympian played great basketball when he was on the court, but he played just 64 of a possible 82 regular-season games.

    Getting healthy will be the key factor moving forward, but there’s certainly no question about his basketball skill set.

    As the New Orleans Hornets transition into the New Orleans Pelicans, they could have far worse options as their franchise centerpiece.

4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (Group 3)

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    Kawhi Leonard is the only player on this list who hasn’t seen his 2012-13 season come to an end, and he certainly has his hands full trying to guard LeBron James in the NBA finals.

    Considering how much playoff experience Leonard has garnered to this point, it’s bizarre to think that he’s only 21 years old. He’s fit right in to Gregg Popovich’s system and already acts like a wily veteran.

    His humble demeanor and ability to change the game on either side of the court separates him from a variety of other NBA players. While he didn’t have a good showing on the offensive end in Game 1 of the Finals (10 points on 3-of-9 shooting), his defense held James to 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting.

    The playoff experience he's getting in 2013 can only mean positive things for the San Antonio Spurs moving forward.

    Gregg Popovich said earlier this season that Leonard will be “the face of the Spurs” a few years down the road, according to an NBA.com interview. While Tony Parker and Tim Duncan will certainly have something to say about that, disagreeing with coach Pop is a scary proposition.

3. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves (Group 3)

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    Due to his tremendous court vision and passing abilities, Ricky Rubio has drawn comparisons to “Pistol” Pete Maravich. Those comparisons are thought provoking, because the 22-year-old Spaniard is one of the most exciting players to watch when he’s on his game (much like Maravich was).

    Unfortunately for Minnesota Timberwolves fans, Rubio has played in just 98 of a possible 148 games for the past two seasons. He’s also a dreadful shooter, notching career averages of 35.9 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from beyond the arc.

    The young point guard's injury troubles and poor shooting are well-documented, but if the T-Wolves come back healthy next season, he'll be poised to have a breakout year.

    Although his poor shooting numbers may prevent him from making an All-Star appearance in 2014, the overall talent in Minnesota may result in the team’s first playoff appearance since 2004.

2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Group 3)

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    Recurring ankle problems severely diminished Stephen Curry’s effectiveness last season. During the lockout-shortened year, he played just 26 of a possible 66 games and averaged a career-low 14.7 points per game.

    There were questions as to whether or not the sharpshooter from Davidson would stay healthy throughout an entire season moving forward. He put those questions to rest in emphatic fashion.

    Not only did Curry play 78 of a possible 82 games during the regular season, but he also averaged career highs with 22.9 points and 6.9 assists per game. Then he truly shined in the 2013 playoffs.

    First, there was his masterful 22-point third quarter in the Game 4 win against the Denver Nuggets (see the embedded video). Then, in the Game 1 loss against the San Antonio Spurs, he posted 44 points and 11 assists while playing all 58 minutes of the double-overtime thriller.

    Curry was the most egregious All-Star snub in 2013. Don’t expect him to miss many All-Star games moving forward if he stays healthy.

1. John Wall, Washington Wizards (Group 3)

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    John Wall didn’t play his first game of the 2012-13 season until January 12 because of a knee injury that kept him sidelined. Despite that fact, he finally showed consistency and flashes of brilliance, hinting that he’d finally live up to being a No. 1 overall draft choice.

    The Washington Wizards were careful with Wall, as he averaged a career-low 32.7 minutes per game. The former Kentucky star certainly made those minutes count, though. He scored a career-high 18.5 points per game on a career-high 44.1 percent from the field and 80.4 percent from the charity stripe.

    His consistency was noteworthy, but so were some monster performances.

    In a March win against the Memphis Grizzlies, Wall’s box score included 47 points, eight assists and seven rebounds. In an April win against the Indiana Pacers (another successful playoff team), he finished with 37 points, five assists, four rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots.

    His first two seasons in the NBA were vastly disappointing when you throw in the hype of being a No. 1 overall draft pick. But perhaps the athletic point guard is finally embracing his huge potential.

    Who knows, perhaps the Wizards will be a surprise playoff team in 2014 behind his leadership and the scoring prowess of Bradley Beal.

     

    Feel free to ask me questions about the NBA on Twitter: @BenLebo