How NBA 'Stars' Can Evolve into Legit Superstars Next Season
The NBA's seasonal "Circle of Life" usually entails the ceremonial lifting of at least one Simba-like figure to new heights of basketball brilliance.
Which is an overly Disney-fied way of saying that young talents are reborn as superstars nearly every year.
Last season, we watched James Harden, once a superb Sixth Man of the Year for the Oklahoma City Thunder, blossom into a bona fide franchise player with the Houston Rockets.
Brook Lopez and Kyrie Irving both rose toward that level, albeit to a lesser extent—Lopez limited by his secondary role on the Brooklyn Nets, Irving by the Cleveland Cavaliers' overall putridity.
Next year's crop of potential rising stars is particularly deep. Some have been All-Stars. Some have already earned awards and other league-wide distinctions. Some came of age in the 2013 playoffs. And others have flashed tremendous talent without having yet achieved official recognition for it.
What they all share, though, is a need to improve in just a few key areas to strengthen their claims to budding superstardom.
Blake Griffin has all the "optics" of an NBA superstar. He throws down highlight-reel dunks, drops 20 and 10 with regularity, plays in LA, is already a perennial All-Star, and has been featured in numerous ad campaigns.
All well before the age of 25.
He's still on the ascent in his pro career, which implies that he's still far from perfect and has a long way to go before he's maxed out his prodigious gifts.
Some Los Angeles Clippers fans might wish for Blake to develop a prettier post game. But while Griffin's moves aren't all that aesthetically pleasing, they're still surprisingly effective; according to Synergy Sports, Griffin was the 48th-most efficient post-up player in the league last season, with 0.88 points per play.
Those numbers may not seem all that impressive on the surface, but they imply that Griffin's productivity in the post ranks him among the top 10 percent or so of his peers.
The greater concern for Griffin rests with his jump shot. Like Blake's game as a whole, it's improving, as his 13.9-percent spike in free-throw accuracy would suggest, but it remains rough around the edges. According to NBA.com, Griffin hit well under 40 percent of his shots between five and 24 feet in 2012-13.
Which is to say, he's great around the rim and subpar everywhere else.
It's all the rage these days to eschew the mid-range in the name of efficiency. But for a player like Griffin, whose game as a power forward would be helped tremendously by a consistent ability to run pick-and-pop with Chris Paul, that space between the paint and the three-point line is vitally important.
The sooner he's able to shoot, the sooner true superstardom will arrive at his doorstep.
The 2012-13 season was one of astounding growth for Paul George. He started off slow, hesitant and unsure of himself as he attempted to assume the role previously occupied by Danny Granger, who missed most of the campaign with a knee injury.
Over time, George adjusted to being "The Man" for the Indiana Pacers. He played his way into his first NBA All-Star Game, finished the season with All-Defensive (second team) and All-NBA (third team) honors, and went toe-to-toe with three of the NBA's best wings—Josh Smith, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James—to boost Indy to the brink of the finals.
Paul's already on the cusp of superstardom at the tender age of 23. The key for him is to keep doing what he's doing, to keep climbing up the learning curve.
Among other things, that means sharpening his perimeter shot (36.2 percent from three during the regular season, 32.7 percent in the playoffs) and cutting down on his miscues with the ball (2.9 turnovers per game during the regular season, 3.9 during the playoffs).
Throw in a bit more strength to add to his incredible length, and Paul George will be good and ready to challenge for a spot among the league's elite from the get-go in 2013-14.
Like Paul George, Stephen Curry treated the 2012-13 season—and the 2013 playoffs, in particular—like his own personal bildungsroman.
Curry narrowly missed out on All-Star honors, but he did earn his first distinction as Western Conference Player of the Month for his April exploits (25.4 points, 8.1 assists, 44.4 percent from three).
That set the stage for a spectacular postseason run, one that fans of the Golden State Warriors fans won't soon forget. He shot the Dubs past the Nuggets in Round 1 and into a surprising 2-2 split to start the conference semis against the San Antonio Spurs.
Unfortunately, those fragile ankles of his came into play and just about sank Golden State's hopes of springing a second consecutive upset. Curry exploded for 44 points (in just under 58 minutes) during the Dubs' double-overtime loss in Game 1, but he averaged a more pedestrian 18.2 points (on 36.3 percent shooting) over the final five.
Part of the credit/blame for the drop-off belongs to Gregg Popovich and the Spurs, whose decision to switch Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green onto Curry and Klay Thompson paid huge dividends. But Steph's tender ankle didn't help.
Neither did his preexisting penchant for turnovers. He gave the ball away 3.3 times per game during the postseason.
Ball security will be key for Curry's presumed leap to superstardom, as will the extent to which he develops different moves to get open off the dribble.
But more than anything, health will dictate whether Curry sticks around or winds up as little more than a flash in the pan.
I'd be remiss if I spent all this time talking about breakout stars from the playoffs without at least mentioning Kawhi Leonard.
The second-year forward out of San Diego State played just 58 games during the 2012-13 regular season, but he started 57 of them on the wing. Along the way, Leonard's solid shooting numbers held relatively steady between his rookie and sophomore seasons, despite a significant uptick in shot attempts.
Amazingly enough, Leonard only got better in the playoffs, where he averaged 13.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 39 percent from three.
That run included four double-doubles in the NBA Finals and some spectacular defense against the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
At this point, the sky's the limit for Leonard. The only thing standing between him and two-way superstardom is the size of his role with the San Antonio Spurs. He's still firmly a role player in the Alamo City, but if/when Gregg Popovich decides to feature Kawhi...look out.
There are only a handful of factors that stand between John Wall and NBA superstardom:
1. His inconsistent jump shot. Wall set a new personal best in field-goal percentage last season (.441), but he still shot well under 30 percent from three. He did improve in the mid-range though, to 37.8 percent. If Wall can be a consistent threat from outside the restricted area, he'll be as tough a cover as any point guard in the league.
2. Turnover woes. As with his jump shot, Wall showed improvement as a passer and ball-handler in Year 3. Wall's blinding speed often makes it difficult for him to find his teammates off the bounce without losing the ball or barreling into a defender, though his improved assist rate and reduced turnover numbers suggest he's on his way to being a better distributor.
3. Health. Persistent knee problems forced Wall to miss a whopping 33 games last season. He came back strong from the setback in January, but he must prove that he can stay on the court consistently before he's anointed a superstar.
4. Team success. The more Wall plays, the more successful his team will be. The Washington Wizards were 24-25 last season when Wall played, as opposed to 5-28 when he didn't. Winning, more than anything, is the sign of superstardom, and Wall certainly contributes significantly to that effect.
Joakim Noah finally had his opportunity to shine in a starring role for the Chicago Bulls last season. With Derrick Rose rehabbing from a torn ACL, Noah broke through with career-highs in points (11.9), rebounds (11.1), assists (4.0), steals (1.2), blocks (2.1) and minutes (36.8).
For his efforts, Noah was rewarded with his first trip to the All-Star Game and his second All-Defensive selection. His monumental efforts propelled the Bulls to 45 wins and an appearance in the second round of the playoffs, despite Rose's year-long absence and myriad injuries to the rest of the roster.
Noah included. The condition of his right foot suffered under the increased burden, to the point where Noah had to miss 16 games on account of plantar fasciitis.
An offseason spent resting and strengthening his foot should do Noah plenty of good in preparation for a hotly anticipated 2013-14 campaign.
At the age of 28, Noah is, in all likelihood, the player he's always going to be.
But that doesn't mean that he's sealed off from superstardom. If he continues to rebound and defend like a maniac while riding Rose's coattails to the top, Noah, too, might soon be able to boast his own impressive pedigree.
Wherever J.R. Smith winds up, he'll likely have (close to) free reign to hoist shots as he sees fit.
That is, unless he sticks with the New York Knicks for less money off the bench or joins forces with the Houston Rockets in a similar role.
According to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, Smith is also entertaining affections from the Dallas Mavericks, the Detroit Pistons, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Milwaukee Bucks, the latter three of whom would likely look to him as a primary perimeter scorer.
Smith showed off intriguing productivity potential in an expanded role with the Knicks last season. He averaged career-bests in points (18.1), shot attempts (15.6), rebounds (5.3) and minutes (33.5) on the way to earning Sixth Man of the Year honors.
Playing an even more prominent part on another team—even a bad one—would afford Smith more minutes and looks than ever before.
But if J.R. wants to parlay a presumptive payday into bona fide superstardom as he approaches his athletic prime, he'd do well to sharpen his shot selection, step up his game as a defender, and (most important of all) lead his team into the playoffs as its unquestioned best player.
As it happens, J.R. Smith could wind up filling Monta Ellis' shoes with the Milwaukee Bucks. Ellis declined the $11 million option on his contract with the Bucks prior to the start of free agency.
Thing is, he's unlikely to find anything even remotely comparable to that, at least on a yearly basis, on the open market. For all his skills as a volume scorer, Ellis still takes far too much off the table—as a subpar shooter, poor defender and mediocre decision-maker—to warrant a big-money, long-term deal.
Not that such concerns will stop some silly-minded general managers from throwing their precious cap space into the nearest incinerator.
Then again, with smartly run teams like the Mavericks and the Hawks said to be in the mix for his services, as reported by Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, it seems as though Ellis will have a tough time dictating his own terms on the open market.
And if Ellis would prefer to join forces with a marquee franchise—like, say, the Knicks, the Lakers or the Bulls—he'd have to do so at a severely reduced rate, given each of those teams' precarious salary situations.
Wherever Ellis winds up, he'd be wise to follow much the same path to stardom that J.R. Smith should set upon: fewer bad shots, more good shots, a greater willingness to share the ball, a tighter handle, and greater effort and attentiveness on defense.
If John Hammond is as focused on bringing back Brandon Jennings as the Milwaukee Bucks' GM recently said he was to Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, then, surely, Jennings has to hope he doesn't end up next to another gunner, be he J.R. Smith or Monta Ellis, in the team's backcourt.
Sharing a backcourt with Ellis seemed to stunt Jennings' growth in Brew City last season. Jennings' field-goal percentage and scoring both dipped, while his turnover rate climbed a bit.
Of course, the end result—a trip to the playoffs—was an improvement over the trips to the lottery from the two seasons prior, though few would see a sweep, even on at the hands of the defending champs, as a significant step up.
Jennings clearly has the sheer talent to take a team to the next level. The question is, does he understand how best to utilize his gifts?
It's all well and good that Jennings can score, but is it helpful for him to do so if such entails him missing more than 60 percent of his shots? Can Jennings survive as a point guard in the modern NBA if he can't convert basket attacks more than 50 percent of the time, or knock down his mid-range looks at a 40-percent success rate (per NBA.com)?
Shot selection is key for Jennings, as is the filling out of a 6'1", 169-pound frame and an improved pass-to-shot ratio.
Luckily, time is still on Brandon's side. He'll be all of 24 in September, with a lucrative new deal of some sort awaiting him shortly thereafter.
So long as we're on the topic of restricted free agents who were drafted in 2009 and have plateaued—or , worse, declined—since then, I'd be remiss if I didn't take a moment to discuss Tyreke Evans.
According to Marc Stein and Jeff Goodman of ESPN, Evans is now seeking a change of scenery in light of the New Orleans Pelicans' enticing offer sheet (four years, $44 million), the Sacramento Kings' delay in engaging Evans, and the Kings' failed courtship of another talented wing in Andre Iguodala.
Except, in the eyes of Bleacher Report's Jimmy Spencer, any notion of Evans wanting to leave California's capital probably isn't coming from the player himself.
Regardless of who the "sources" in question may be or where Evans will end up, the former Rookie of the Year won't achieve superstardom unless he commits himself to being a more attentive defender and continues the offensive growth he showed last season, when he set new career highs in field-goal percentage (.478) and three-point percentage (.338).
Tyreke has the talent to be a 20-5-5 guy in the NBA. What's unclear at the moment is if he'll find the right situation in which to unleash his full capabilities in a constructive manner.
But Evans is still shy of his 24th birthday, so it's far too early to write him off.
The same goes for DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans' talented-but-troubled teammate.
In just three seasons as a pro (one of which was shortened by a lockout), Boogie's racked up 43 technical fouls, five flagrant fouls and seven ejections and has gotten at least one coach (Paul Westphal) ousted from his post.
The answer to the question of Cousins' superstardom, then, would seem to be a simple one: maturity. So long as he keeps his head screwed on straight and his emotions under control, Cousins will be on his way to becoming a perennial All-Star, especially in a league where players of Boogie's size and skill as a scorer and passer out of the post are so rare.
He's already shown 20-10 potential (he's averaged 19.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per 36 minutes thus far) and has seen his field-goal percentage creep closer to that precious 50-percent mark in each of his pro seasons.
If Cousins were in better shape, he'd have a much easier time dominating the game to the extent that he can. Proper conditioning, though, is often a byproduct of the very same maturity that Boogie has lacked to this point.
Perhaps if he's in better shape, DeMarcus won't be so reluctant to run back on defense and will be fresh enough to play more than 30 minutes a night.
Hopefully, the new regime in Sacramento will provide Cousins with the kind of structure and disciplined instruction that a player with his combination of prodigious gifts and ever-shifting focus requires. He reminds many (including yours truly) of the next Zach Randolph, a big man with a soft touch whose knuckleheadedness delayed his rise to stardom.
If that's the case, the Kings had better keep their fingers crossed that Cousins won't require a change of scenery to reveal his true colors as a franchise-caliber player.