For the past few years, "potential" has been the buzzword that has dominated conversations about young NBA players. Potential is what gets athletic point guards with shaky jump shots and big men who can't perform a single post move drafted in the lottery.
But to join the league's upper echelon, it takes more than just potential. For a young player to make "the leap," they have to not only work hard to improve their game, but they also have to avoid injuries and land in the right environment.
There have been plenty of players throughout history with the talent to reach stardom, but who have failed to do so for a myriad of reasons.
Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, there is yet another crop of young talents who have the opportunity to vault from just good players into true stars in this league if they can stay healthy and possibly catch a few breaks along the way.
Now that free agency has died down and rosters are largely settled, let's look at 10 young NBA players in situations that could allow them to blossom into stars next season.
Players are listed alphabetically.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Synergy Sports unless otherwise noted.
Whether the 6’1” Eric Bledsoe will start at the point or the 2-guard is still unclear, but either way he will finally have the opportunity to shine after spending two seasons behind Chris Paul on the Los Angeles Clippers’ depth chart.
The Phoenix Suns are a long way from postseason contention, and will surely be trying to give their young players plenty of minutes in an effort to develop a core group to build around, a move that certainly helps Bledsoe.
In 12 starts with the Clippers in place of Paul, Bledsoe averaged 14.2 points, 4.8 boards and 5.3 assists while shooting 40.5 percent from the floor and an unsustainable 43.8 percent from three-point range. He also averaged 2.5 steals and a 1.3 blocks, a testament to his athleticism and his defensive tenacity.
Though his outside shot is still a work in progress, Bledsoe is incredibly explosive and is strong enough to absorb contact and get to the hoop. Per 40 minutes, he averaged 6.2 shots at the rim and converted on 59.5 percent of them, according to HoopData.
Obviously the Suns have less talent than the Clippers did, meaning that defenses will be keying in on Bledsoe more than he is used to, but the team also has an identity that should suit the young guard well.
New coach Jeff Hornacek indicated to NBA.com that he hopes to play uptempo and run whenever possible, a style of play that should perfectly suit Bledsoe, who is dynamic in transition.
Additionally, the 23-year-old point guard will have to set an example defensively for a team with very few defensive-minded players. Bledsoe is a force guarding the ball and despite his lack of height, he is able to cover shooting guards thanks to his length and quickness.
He will surely take some lumps in his first season playing heavy minutes, but Bledsoe should be a breakout player for the Suns and give them hope during a potentially bleak 2013-14 campaign.
Anyone who has watched DeMarcus Cousins play basketball knows that the Sacramento Kings center has the talent to be a perennial All-Star. However, the dysfunctional nature of the Kings organization, as well as Cousins’ own maturity, issues have kept him from reaching his full potential in his first three years in the league.
Now, with a new coach in Mike Malone, a new owner in Vivek Ranadivé and Tyreke Evans officially a New Orleans Pelican, Cousins is finally in an environment that can help him develop and grow both on and off the court.
In the 2012-13 season, Cousins averaged 17.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists while shooting a career-best 46.5 percent from the floor.
Though he attempted a few too many mid-range jumpers—4.9 shots from 10 feet or further to be exact—Cousins is a versatile offensive talent who can spread the floor, post-up and make plays on the offensive glass.
Cousins needs to improve at finishing on the block as he shot just 41.8 in post-up situations, and he desperately needs to stop howling at the refs when he feels he was fouled, but that does not change the fact that Cousins is one of very few big men in the NBA capable of averaging 20-plus points for an entire season.
Now that Sacramento has added a pure point guard in Greivis Vasquez via trade and a spot-up shooter in Ben McLemore, Cousins will receive better looks and have more space to work than ever before. The team also added Carl Landry and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to provide a calming, veteran presence in the locker room.
Unfortunately, Cousins also continues to be a horrendous defender who allowed opposing centers to post a PER of 19.4 per 82Games, but that, too, is a product of his attitude and effort, not of his physical abilities. He seems disinterested guarding the post and does not play effective help defense for someone of his size.
There is always the chance that Cousins remains too stuck in his ways to truly grow as a player, but the Kings appear to be entering a new era as a franchise and, if Cousins can mature as a player and a decision-maker, he could finally capitalize on his immense physical gifts and skills.
Playing behind Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors did not have much of an opportunity in the 2012-13 season to prove himself. However, he figures to be one of the Utah Jazz’s featured players with Millsap and Jefferson now in Atlanta and Charlotte, respectively.
In just 23.2 minutes, Favors averaged 9.4 points, an impressive 7.1 boards and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 48.2 percent from the field. Though still raw, Favors has made strides as an offensive player, particularly from the charity stripe (68.8 percent in 2012-13).
Favors still lacks any semblance of a jump shot, but he has good hands around the basket and converted a career-high 68.2 percent of his shots at the rim last season, per HoopData. His post game is slowly coming along, and Favors has shown the ability to be a force on the offensive glass.
He is also an incredibly mobile big man who can run the floor and score in transition. His pick-and-roll finishing needs to improve as shooting 42.4 percent simply won’t do, but he should get the benefit of increased touches now that the black hole that is Jefferson will no longer be in town.
Defensively, Favors uses his athleticism and length to protect the rim and has also proven to be a solid help defender. He moves well in the paint and is not afraid of contact. He is still foul prone but has improved in that category from his first two seasons in the league.
Favors is not yet a great post defender, but as a starter he will be forced to adapt as he will be guarding players like Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love for long stretches. Few big men join the NBA as elite post defenders, and that is a skill Favors should have the opportunity to develop as the year goes on.
Utah has firmly committed to rebuilding around Favors, Trey Burke, Enes Kanter and Gordon Hayward, and while that will not translate into many wins in the 2013-14 season, it gives Favors the opportunity to emerge as one of the league’s breakout bigs.
He will surely take his lumps, but expect Favors to put up big numbers in his fourth season and potentially take a major developmental leap.
Jeff Green started the 2012-13 season understandably slow. Coming off of heart surgery that kept him out for the entire 2011-12 campaign, Green was tentative at first but found his groove late in the year, playing some of the best basketball of his career.
In 29 games after the All-Star break, Green averaged 17.3 points, five boards and 2.7 assists while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 43.9 percent from deep.
His numbers were even better in the playoffs, as he averaged 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 dimes while connecting on 45.5 percent of his attempted three-pointers. His stellar play was a huge reason the depleted Boston Celtics were able to push the New York Knicks to six games.
Now that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are gone and the Celtics are rebuilding, Green will have the chance to be a team’s featured offensive player for the first time in his career. Even once Rajon Rondo is fully healthy, Green should still be taking the most shots of anyone on the team.
Though Green will be 27 years old before the 2013-14 season begins, he proved that he still has untapped potential and should take on a leadership role for these young Celtics.
His style of play also fits better with a younger team. Green is extremely athletic and shot 62.8 percent in transition last season, showing he has the strength to finish through contact and power his way to the hoop.
He also showed an improved outside shot and can be a matchup nightmare as a stretch 4 who can also handle the ball and make plays off the dribble.
Green has struggled with his consistency in the past and at times cannot seem to shake off a poor start, but he is in the position to become a true star player for the first time in his NBA career. At the very least, expect Green to log a ton of minutes and guard the opposing team’s best wing scorer.
Kyrie Irving is already an All-Star and one of the league’s best up-and-coming young players, but he has the talent to take his game to another level if he improves in a few key areas and finds a way to avoid the injury bug that has plagued him throughout his brief NBA career.
In two seasons as a Cleveland Cavalier, Irving has missed 38 of 148 possible games. He has not suffered any serious injuries fortunately but has had a number of nagging problems that have kept him off the floor.
When he has played though, Irving has demonstrated a knack for scoring the ball few other point guards possess. He averaged 22.5 points in his second season while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Irving can score in a variety of ways. His isolation game ranks among the best in the league, as he has a myriad of moves off the bounce to confound a defender and create his own shot. Irving connected on 46.6 percent of his isolation plays overall and 42.5 percent of his isolation three-pointers.
He is also deadly as a spot-up shooter, connecting on 47.1 percent of his spot-up threes last season. With Jarrett Jack now a Cav, Irving will be able to play a little more without the ball and demonstrate his superb shooting stroke.
The two key areas he needs to improve on are his overall facilitating and his defense. Irving is great at reading passing lanes but often gambles for steals and does not work hard enough to keep his man in front of him. Per 82Games, he allowed opposing point guards a PER of 18.1, and a guard as quick and talented as Irving should be holding them to a number below that.
The playmaking is not entirely his fault, as the Cavaliers in his first two campaigns were desperately dependent on his scoring ability. Now that the team has much put much more talent around him, his assist total should increase, as players like Jack, Andrew Bynum and Earl Clark have all shown they can finish consistently.
Additionally, with more talent around him and the Cavs’ young players improving, defenses will be forced to pay more attention to his teammates, allowing Irving to get easier looks offensively.
Make no mistake, Irving is already a star in many regards, but he has the potential to reach even greater heights in 2013-14 and put Cleveland in position to return to the playoffs and make some noise if its key players can stay healthy.
“Stardom” might not be the exact term for what Reggie Jackson could reach in the 2013-14 season, but he does have the opportunity to play a major role off the bench for a championship contender.
The Oklahoma City Thunder struck out in free agency, failing to nab a single impact player and losing incumbent sixth man Kevin Martin. With no marquee additions, OKC has to rely on its young players continuing to improve as it tries to stay on top in a brutal Western Conference.
The key for the Thunder may be Jackson, who had a mediocre regular season but was tremendous in the playoffs once Russell Westbrook went down. He averaged 13.9 points, 4.9 boards and 3.6 assists in 11 postseason games and shot 47.9 percent from the floor.
At 6’3”, Jackson has the body of a point guard but plays more like a combo guard, looking to score first and foremost. His jumper needs work, but Jackson has shown that he can get to the basket and finish. He shot 80.2 percent at the rim last season, per HoopData.
The 23-year-old Jackson is still learning the ropes of the NBA and will have his share of issues in his first year with an expanded role, but he is by far OKC’s best scoring option off the bench.
He is also a good rebounding guard who crashes the glass from the perimeter and an improving passer after being more of a scorer in his career at Boston College.
Because Westbrook can play some 2-guard, the Thunder will likely use Jackson and Westbrook together for stretches while they look to play pressure defense and speed up the pace of games. Jackson is a good defender who held opposing point guards to a PER of just 9.1, according to 82Games, although he struggled against shooting guards.
Jackson will not be making the 2014 All-Star team, but he has the chance to earn himself some serious name recognition and potentially vault into the Sixth Man of the Year race if he plays well enough.
Kawhi Leonard’s breakout performance may have already come in the 2013 playoffs, but with the San Antonio Spurs vying for another title with an aging Big Three, they will need Leonard to be even better in the 2013-14 season to bolster their title hopes.
In 21 playoff games, Leonard averaged 13.5 points, nine rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 54.5 percent from the field and 39 percent from three as San Antonio came one rebound away from winning the championship.
Those numbers were improvements over his regular-season stats of 11.9 points, six rebounds and 1.7 steals on 49.4 percent shooting and 37.4 percent from three-point range.
While Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili will all be pacing the floor for the Spurs once again, Gregg Popovich has proven in the past that keeping his veterans fresh matters far more than winning a few regular-season games. Ginobili, in particular, will need the rest to preserve his body, and that will give Leonard more responsibilities on the offensive end.
After struggling as a shooter during his time at San Diego State, Leonard completely revamped his jumper, emerging as a reliable three-point threat and an elite shooter from the corners. He connected on 37.1 percent of his spot-up threes last year and gave San Antonio valuable spacing from the wing.
He also improved as a ball-handler, despite not averaging many assists. In the playoffs he was able to handle the ball in transition and attack the rim at will. He will need to improve as a passer in his third NBA campaign, but he proved last season that he is not just an off-ball threat.
Where Leonard makes his biggest impact though, is on defense and the glass. Leonard uses his absurd wingspan and gigantic hands to be an absolute nightmare guarding the ball, and thanks to his quickness and ability to play passing lanes he was able to cover guards, small forwards and even some power forwards.
According to 82Games, Leonard held opposing small forwards to a PER of just 12.6, and San Antonio was 4.6 points worse on defense per 100 possessions when he was off the floor.
Leonard also dominated the glass from the perimeter. He had nine double-digit rebounding games in the playoffs and was the Spurs' best rebounder besides Duncan in the postseason.
Despite being just 6’7”, Leonard used his length and athleticism to sky for tough boards on both ends of the floor. He kept dozens of possessions alive and against the small-ball Miami Heat was able to keep LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from crashing the boards from the perimeter.
With no quality reserve small forward on the roster, Leonard should routinely be playing 36-plus minutes per game and should contend for an All-Star berth in 2014.
If there is one thing to feel confident about going into the 2013-14 season, it is that the Philadelphia 76ers will be very bad, possibly even historically bad. They are clearly playing for the 2014 draft, and while that will not translate into many wins, it does provide an opportunity for the much-maligned Evan “The Villain” Turner to step up and take a leading role.
For better or worse, Turner should be the Sixers’ first option offensively, and because of that, he is almost guaranteed to improve on his 2012-13 averages of 13.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 41.9 percent shooting overall and 36.5 percent from three-point range.
Turner has had flashes of dominance but also struggled mightily at times. He admitted to John N. Mitchell of the Philadelphia Inquirer that he clashed with former coach Doug Collins, but now that Collins is no longer in town, he has a chance to start fresh.
He may never live up to being the second overall pick in 2010, but Turner is a versatile player who can play the point forward role for stretches thanks to his handle and court vision.
Turner has also made real strides as a jump shooter. Though his release is still not easy on the eyes, Turner shot 41.6 percent on spot-up threes, proving that he is a serviceable floor spacer.
Although not an elite athlete, Turner has some deceptive quickness and has shown the ability to take his man off the dribble. He shot 47.8 percent on isolation plays last season and generally looked more comfortable attacking the basket.
Philly has plenty of intriguing young players, but few of them are ready to carry heavy scoring burdens in the NBA, leaving Turner, Thaddeus Young and Jason Richardson to do much of the heavy lifting.
He’ll need to stop disappearing on defense and improve his overall shot selection, but Turner has a chance to have a true breakout season for a 76ers club that desperately needs it.
Jonas Valanciunas had a solid rookie season for the Toronto Raptors, but after winning the 2013 Las Vegas Summer League MVP award, he is expected to take on a much larger role for the club in 2013-14.
In four games with Toronto’s summer league squad, Valanciunas averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds. He appeared stronger and heavier than he was as a rookie but showed he was still mobile and did an excellent job of playing through contact.
Valanciunas, who was originally drafted in 2011 but played the 2011-12 season in Lithuania, averaged 8.9 points, six rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 23.9 minutes while shooting 55.6 percent from the field.
He particularly came on at the end of the season, averaging 14.9 points, 5.9 boards and 2.4 rejections in April.
Unlike many European big men in the NBA, Valanciunas relishes physical play and is more than capable of banging in the post against power forwards and centers. He uses his strength and 6’11” frame well and was a welcome change of pace for Toronto fans used to watching Andrea Bargnani do everything possible to avoid stepping inside the paint.
Valanciunas is not just a banger though, as he actually showed off a nice offensive skill set as a rookie. He shot 48.4 percent on post-ups and 62.8 percent in pick-and-rolls while also showing potential as a mid-range jump shooter.
Fouling was an issue at times, but Valanciunas was aggressive going for blocks and alongside Amir Johnson gives Toronto a pair of gritty, physical frontcourt players who can dominate the glass and bully opponents inside.
With Aaron Grey as the only other true center on the roster, Valanciunas will be receiving a significant spike in minutes and will be expected to anchor the Raptors defensively.
The lack of shooters around him will create spacing issues and Valanciunas will have to continue to hone his jumper to counteract that, but the 21-year-old big man will be a key piece for Toronto and a potential Most Improved Player candidate.
John Wall’s breakthrough began when he returned from injury in the middle of the 2012-13 season, but he has the chance with an even more talented Washington Wizards team to not only make the playoffs but prove he is worth the five-year, $80 million extension the team is likely to offer him, per the Washington Post’s Michael Lee.
In 49 games last season, Wall averaged 18.5 points, four rebounds and 7.6 assists per game while shooting a career-high 44.1 percent from the floor. Though his assists and rebounds were down from his prior seasons, Wall improved significantly as a floor general and decision-maker.
He posted the best assist-to-turnover ratio of his career at 2.38 and also notched the highest PER of his career at 20.91.
Though still a liability from three, Wall became a borderline respectable mid-range shooter, hitting 36 percent of his shots from 16-23 feet, according to HoopData. He also generally chose his spots better and forced the issue less than he did in his first two years in the league.
Turnovers are a problem for Wall, but he averaged a career-low 3.2 in 2012-13 and possesses very good court vision for a 22-year-old guard. Like Irving, his assist total should increase next season purely because he has more talented finishers around him.
The Wizards also now have players around Wall who can run the floor and attack with him in transition. Otto Porter, Martell Webster and Bradley Beal are all good transition players who will be able to play uptempo and try to wear down opposing defenses.
With Wall, Washington was a borderline playoff team, going 24-25 in games where he played. If Wall, Beal and Nene can all stay healthy, the Wizards have a great chance to sneak into the playoffs thanks to their mix of athletic young talents and battle-tested veterans.
Though Wall’s numbers have largely been the same during his first three NBA seasons, the 2013-14 campaign will be his shot at proving that he is the kind of star player Washington can build around for the next decade.
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