10 NBA Players Heading into Make-or-Break Seasons
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It goes without saying that the 2013-14 season is important to everyone in the NBA. But for a few select players around the league, it means a little bit more.
For some guys, it's a make-or-break season.
A few of these players are taking on a new role, some are attempting to recover from injury, and some are just trying to prove they belong in the league. Whatever the reason, their 2013-14 campaign could end up going a long way in determining their respective NBA futures.
Let's see who's on the hot seat.
Nick Young, Los Angeles Lakers
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Nick Young is going to be suiting up for his fourth team in three years, and unless he improves his shot selection this season, he might not find his services in demand for much longer.
Young has the potential to be a valuable player, but he's a total ball-stopper and is often too willing to settle for deep two-pointers. Last year, nearly 30 percent of Young's shots came from between 16 feet and the three-point line, and he hit just a shade over one-third of those shots, per Basketball-Reference.
It's hard to get more inefficient than that.
If Young's ever going to learn to improve his shot selection, he'll do it this season. And it's certainly possible with the Los Angeles Lakers. Unlike the Philadelphia 76ers, the Lakers have real offensive direction, and Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are guaranteed to have the ball far more than Young.
Whatever his flaws, Young does have some strong points to his game. He was very efficient coming off screens last season, and if he can improve his shooting from the corners—he was pretty awful last season—he could be a valuable scorer for the Lakers.
Jan Vesely, Washington Wizards
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If he wants to stick in the league, Jan Vesely has to prove he can do more than run and jump this season.
The Washington Wizards drafted Vesely with the No. 6 pick in the 2011 draft, hoping that he would make a fun open-floor target for John Wall. It's worked in that sense—Vesely and Wall have teamed up for some nice plays—but Vesely has yet to prove that he has any other marketable basketball skill, and time's running out for him to do so.
Vesely's coming off a strong summer league performance, and he's by far the best athlete among the Washington forwards, so he's got a shot at real minutes as long as he improves.
But Vesely's minutes were cut from 19 his rookie year to just 12 last season. And again, he really needs to ramp up his game to avoid being cut out of the rotation entirely. The Wizards are trying to make a serious playoff push and are pretty crowded in the frontcourt.
Can Vesely make a third-year leap? If he can't, it might spell the end of his time in Washington.
Kendall Marshall, Phoenix Suns
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The Phoenix Suns are rumored to have been shopping Kendall Marshall over the offseason, according to NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper, and when you consider how crowded they are in the backcourt and how poorly Marshall played last season, it's not hard to see why.
Whether it's with the Suns or another team, Marshall could be playing for his NBA life next season, and he's going to have to make some big strides if he wants to be a rotation-caliber player. To be honest, Marshall may not have the quickness and athleticism to even be an average defender, so what he really needs to improve upon is his shooting.
Marshall sees the floor very well and is an impressive passer. But he shot just 32 percent away from the rim last season, per Basketball-Reference, and all the court vision in the world won't matter if he can't punish defenders for sagging five feet off him.
Jumpers don't develop overnight, so you can't blame Marshall if he doesn't start shooting like Steve Nash. But if Marshall's jumper doesn't at least show progress, it's hard to see what would entice a team to give him real minutes.
Evan Turner, Philadelphia 76ers
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Evan Turner has yet to have even an average season in the NBA, and this year might be his last chance to prove to the Philadelphia 76ers that he can be a productive player.
Turner has a really interesting all-around skill set—he's an impressive rebounder, a solid passer and can even play a little defense. Unfortunately, that's almost all ruined by his inefficient offense (just 48 percent true shooting last season, per Basketball-Reference).
This is a rebuilding year for the 76ers, so Turner's likely to put up inflated stats no matter what. What's really important for him is finding an offensive niche now that he's free from Doug Collins' restrictive, mid-range-loving system.
Turner's likely to have the ball in his hands quite a bit this season, but it's what he does off the ball that might lead to him sticking with the 76ers. Last year, Turner shot 37 percent from three (up from 22 percent the year before) and hit nearly 40 percent of his tries from the corner.
Players who can hit corner threes and play at least some defense tend to stick in the NBA, and if Turner can prove at least that, he could entice a team to send a fair-sized contract his way.
Wesley Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers
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Wesley Johnson entered the league with some serious “three-and-D” potential, and this just might be his last year to prove he can make good of it.
Johnson is a very good athlete and actually shot 42 percent from deep in his final year at Syracuse. But for whatever reason, none of that has translated to NBA success to this point—he's a career 34 percent shooter from deep, and his teams are routinely better defensively when he's off the court, per Basketball-Reference.
With that being said, the Los Angeles Lakers aren't a bad team to help Johnson try and turn his career around. Johnson's youth and athleticism should make him a good fit in Mike D'Antoni's uptempo system, and Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant are sure to give him plenty of open opportunities. He just needs to knock them down.
Johnson recently told the Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus that he thinks this is one of the most important seasons of his life, so it's clear he's not taking the opportunity lightly. Whether or not he capitalizes on it remains to be seen.
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
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Chris Paul is clearly the odd man out on this list—he's one of the five best players on the planet and is widely considered the best point guard in the league. However, this is a make-or-break year for Paul in the sense that he has to prove he still deserves his “best point guard alive” crown—fair or not.
Great players are most often judged by what they do in the postseason, and even though it's not entirely (or even mostly) his fault—he's had a lot of bad luck in terms of injuries—Paul's playoff resume is unimpressive.
Paul has gotten past the first round of the playoffs just twice and has never made it to conference finals. Carmelo Anthony is often mocked for his subpar 23-42 playoff record, but Paul's 16-24 record isn't great either.
The Los Angeles Clippers have the weapons to be the top offensive team in the league this season, and expectations for the squad have never been higher. Anything short of a conference finals appearance will be considered a disappointment.
Kendrick Perkins, Oklahoma City Thunder
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The Oklahoma City Thunder like Kendrick Perkins.
As limited as Perkins is, he does seem to be a crucial locker-room voice. He's also the vocal leader of the Thunder defense, and he sets some of the best screens in the league (an underrated skill). But his contract is hideous, and if he doesn't give the Thunder something this year, then he's a possible amnesty target next offseason.
Perkins was a very productive player for the Boston Celtics, but it seems like his body has just broken down. His total rebound percentage has dropped all the way to 14 percent, and though he's still a decent defender, that doesn't make up for him being a detriment in nearly every other facet of the game.
It's unlikely that Perkins turns back the clock this season, but the idea that he could step up his game a bit isn't completely out of the question. He was actually very productive in a two-month span last season (February and March) in which he rebounded at a good clip, played stellar defense and genuinely looked like the guy OKC traded for.
Unfortunately, that was all undone by a terrible postseason, but the point is that Perkins at least has the ability to up his game to “decent role player” status. And if he can do that this season, he may very well avoid the amnesty chopping block.
Andrea Bargnani, New York Knicks
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To have a moderately successful season with the New York Knicks, Andrea Bargnani just has to prove that he can still shoot. Seriously, that's it.
For all of his defensive and rebounding deficiencies, Bargnani used to be a dangerous offensive big. Not many 7-footers can shoot threes at high percentages, and early in his career, Bargnani was able to do that regularly.
That's all changed in recent seasons. Bargnani hasn't cracked over 35 percent shooting from three since 2009-10, and he's missed over a year's worth of games over the same span. Considering how poor he is defensively, Bargnani has to hit shots at a decent clip to have any real value.
To be fair, Bargnani's not a terrible fit in New York. Tyson Chandler should be able to compensate for his defensive shortcomings, and as a stretch 4, he wouldn't even compromise the Knicks' current offensive identity. Bargnani could simply spot up from the corner while the Knicks run countless pick-and-rolls and Carmelo Anthony punishes smaller defenders down low.
But if Bargnani can't knock down shots the way Steve Novak did, then you have to wonder why the Knicks traded for him at all, even if he can take advantage of size mismatches in a way Novak couldn't. The Knicks gave away three picks and more for Bargnani, and he has to produce this season if he's hoping to stay in New York's good graces.
JaVale McGee, Denver Nuggets
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By trading Kosta Koufos, the Denver Nuggets essentially went all-in on JaVale McGee. They're rolling the dice that he can take on big minutes at the center position, and we'll find out if he's ready this coming season.
It's easy to understand why the Nuggets went this route—McGee's per-36 numbers are impressive (18 points, 10 rebounds and an eye-popping four blocks), and protecting the rim comes naturally when you can do stuff like this. But McGee's going to have to make real improvements on both ends of the floor.
Defensively, McGee more or less has to improve upon everything but shot-blocking. He provides fantastic weak-side help, but he's still a below-average positional and pick-and-roll defender, and as a result, Denver was a good bit worse defensively when he was on the court last season.
On the other end of the floor, McGee has flashed some ability. Per Synergy Sports Technology, he was the eighth-most efficient roll man in the league last season, and that's a very valuable skill in a league centered around the pick-and-roll.
Unfortunately, McGee got many more touches in the post than he did in the pick-and-roll, and he shot just 30 percent in those post situations. If McGee keeps getting so many post touches and doesn't concentrate on the pick-and-roll, the Nuggets offense may take a nosedive.
McGee has worlds of potential, but he has to make it count—and fast.
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
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Can DeMarcus Cousins finally put it together? That's the biggest question surrounding the Sacramento Kings in 2013-14.
Cousins has had some off-court issues, but let's just focus on the basketball side of things.
There's no question Cousins has a tantalizing skill set. He's a legitimate 20-10 big with a rare dribble-and-pass game, and he's only 22 years old. That's generally a player teams want to lock up for a very long time.
However, Cousins has some huge flaws that will give the Kings pause.
Cousins' biggest flaw is defense. The Kings finished 29th defensively in each of the last two seasons, and they've always been worse with him on the floor. Cousins often gets lazy defensively and is a poor pick-and-roll defender to the point that former Sacramento Kings coach Keith Smart told Grantland's Zach Lowe:
What I've shared with him is: This is what teams are going to do to you. This is what I would do to you — put you in a pick-and-roll every time. This is what you are going to have to figure out. If you are not a shot-blocker, you're going to have to figure out how to be a good defensive player, a good defensive pick-and-roll player.
Even offensively, Cousins has some big problems. Last season, he took 530 jumpers—well over every other type of shot combined—and even worse, he made just 29 percent of those jumpers.
If Cousins focused solely on a low-post game and the pick-and-roll, he would be a better offensive player. As it is, he capsizes the Kings offense with jumpers. In fact, last season the Kings were actually worse offensively when Cousins was on the court.
Cousins should and will be given a chance under new Kings coach Mike Malone. And who knows? Maybe he'll flourish in what seems to be a less toxic Sacramento culture.
If he does, the Kings suddenly have one of the league's best young building blocks. But if he doesn't, the Kings will have some tough choices to make.