Budding NBA Stars Every Fan Must Watch During Training Camp

Bryant KnoxFeatured ColumnistSeptember 13, 2013

Budding NBA Stars Every Fan Must Watch During Training Camp

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    It’s no secret that NBA fans love star power, but while it’s the Kobe Bryants of the league we’ll be talking about most of the season, there are a number of up-and-comers who deserve our attention entering training camp.

    For the purpose of this piece, All-Stars have been excluded from the discussion. At this point, we can assume players such as Paul George and Jrue Holiday have already arrived, so we’ll leave those guys out—in a good way, of course.

    But while the superstars have made a name for themselves, there are youngsters looking to do the same in 2013-14. You can argue that players such as Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis have become stars in their own rights, but one year into their careers makes them infants compared to their long-term potential.

    Training camp is bound to have storylines for fans across the league, but if you’re looking to branch out and expand your horizons, keep an eye on what the future has to offer.

Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors

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    For the sake of not telling the same story twice, let’s make Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors a package deal.

    Both big men have been fighting for a chance to start since arriving with the Utah Jazz. They’ve each shown a ton of potential along the way, yet they’ve been stuck in an uber-talented frontcourt that also featured Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.

    Entering 2013-14, Millsap and Jefferson are out, which means Kanter and Favors are officially in.

    During training camp, it will be vital to see how each player handles playing with the starting unit. The rotation is significantly different than it was a season ago, and while expectations may be low in Utah, the core group has a chance to make a serious splash.

    What will be most fascinating is seeing how the two bigs define their own roles. Favors has shown that he may have a higher ceiling at this point in the process, but Kanter has a combination of low-post force and deep-range shooting that can be tough to defend.

    These two have bright futures ahead of them, and we’ll finally get a glimpse of what they’re capable of when they begin the year in the starting lineup.

Jonas Valanciunas

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    Toronto Raptors fans were forced to wait a year before Jonas Valanciunas came to the NBA, but the 2012-13 season proved that the hype was well justified.

    During his rookie campaign, the center from Lithuania averaged 8.9 points and six rebounds in 23.9 minutes per contest. He added 1.3 blocks to the mix, and he recorded a PER of 15.62.

    During the offseason, the excitement has continued to build. He averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds during the Las Vegas Summer League, and he was ultimately named the MVP of the exhibition tournament.

    For those who want to claim summer league means nothing, it’s true that the level of competition will increase in the regular season. That said, if Vegas proved anything, it’s that Valanciunas is a clear step ahead of most summer league talent.

    As the summer winds down, look to see how much he’s bulked up. He’s going to earn plenty of time at the 5, seeing as Aaron Gray is the only other center on the roster.

    The problem is that true NBA centers play a bruising style down low, meaning the adjustment will be ongoing until he can get stronger. He has the potential to bring low-post scoring back to the NBA, and while it won’t happen overnight, expectations are high entering his second season.

Eric Bledsoe

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    Eric Bledsoe has had the luxury of learning under Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups throughout the early part of his career. Unfortunately for the 23-year-old, with that mentoring has come a spot on the bench, as well as incessant trade rumors.

    Now, following the deal that sent him to the Phoenix Suns, the rumors are behind him. He’ll finally have a chance to show what he can accomplish with extended playing time. 

    As strange as it may sound, being on a last-place team could be a blessing in disguise for Bledsoe. He’s been stuck behind talented guards on a contending team, and now he’ll have the chance to prove his value on the court.

    In training camp, we’ll see how much freedom the floor general is given. He’s listed as the starting shooting guard on ESPN, which places him alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt.

    Don’t expect him to become an All-Star in his fourth season, but don’t be shocked if he challenges Dragic as the best player on the roster.

Chandler Parsons

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    Chandler Parsons became the clear-cut No. 2 option for the Houston Rockets during the 2012-13 season. James Harden unquestionably ran the show, but the 24-year-old from Florida showed just how much promise he has in the uptempo offense.

    Needless to say, the Rockets have a new No. 2 with the signing of Dwight Howard. The big man will command touches in the restricted area, and Parsons must adjust to life as the third scoring option.

    Chances are, Parsons will come up short if he’s aiming for more shot attempts in his third season. However, he has a number of attributes that make him invaluable regardless of who else is on the roster.

    At 6’9”, the forward can spread the floor with his three-point shot. His perimeter defense is also crucial on this roster, and he’s proven to be a stat-sheet stuffer with his ability to crash the boards.

    The hope here is that the signing of Howard enhances what Parsons is able to do—not detract from it. Working the big man into the offense will be tricky at first, and seeing how Parsons elevates his game will be fun to watch along the way.

Jimmy Butler

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    Jimmy Butler may be a natural small forward, but we’re about to see how he fares as a starting 2-guard alongside Derrick Rose.

    Butler hit the scene in 2012-13 when role players were essential to the Chicago Bulls’ success. Rose was out, scoring was down, and guys who did the little things were given the glory in Tom Thibodeau’s system.

    Butler epitomized what it meant to be a budding star, and now he’ll have a chance to prove it in the same backcourt as one of the game’s best point guards.

    Ever since the 24-year-old started coming into his own, expectations have begun to run wild. His numbers improved virtually every month last season, giving fans hope that he’s only scratched the surface of his potential.

    With Rose back in action, expectations should be tempered. He’s not going to be a primary scorer, and his numbers may even drop with his backcourt mate controlling the ball.

    All that said, Butler creates opportunities for himself through sheer hustle. The shooting guard position has lacked production for years now, and while Butler may not be the biggest name on the roster, he should have one of the biggest impacts moving forward.

Bradley Beal

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    Now begins the part of the program where we shift the focus to the 2012 draft class.

    Of the group that entered the league last year, there are a handful of players ready to break out as sophomores. Bradley Beal is one of the most notable, as his rookie campaign saw a slow start turn into a solid year.

    Beal’s superstar qualities were inconsistent during the 2012-13 season, but the truth is that John Wall helped him find his way. Entering the new year, the hope is that Wall can stay healthy, and that the two guards can flourish in the backcourt.

    In training camp, fans should keep an eye on whether or not the second-year starter emerges as the hands-down No. 2 option. We already know he had the team’s second-highest points-per-game average in 2012-13, but his streaky shot didn’t always pan out the way he hoped.

    Remember, Beal is just 20 years old, and he will be throughout the entire 2013-14 season. He’s attempting to meet the Ray Allen comparisons that were thrust upon him early, and that kind of pressure should be embraced by those truly looking to find greatness.

Harrison Barnes

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    Harrison Barnes has quite a task ahead of him in training camp: beat out Andre Iguodala or Klay Thompson for a starting spot on the Golden State Warriors.

    Regardless of who lands in the first five, the Warriors are going to be one of the most exciting teams in the NBA. Beyond that, they’re going to be true contenders, as they have athletes and scorers all over the rotation.

    But while Barnes can rest assured knowing the team will contend, he’d be more comfortable knowing he’s a part of the starting unit.

    In his first season, the former North Carolina Tar Heel exhibited fantastic shooting, bursts of scoring and athleticism that some ignored during the draft. He made plays both above the rim and beyond the three-point line, and he showed why he was once considered a possibility for the No. 2 pick in the draft.

    The truth is that you could swap Barnes with Thompson here, and you’d have the same story. They’re both budding stars who are looking to begin their legacies as starters on a playoff team.

    Both players have incredibly high ceilings, which makes the storylines in Oakland that much more intriguing.

Andre Drummond

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    During his rookie season, Andre Drummond showed critics that he’s not the liability scouts feared he was. His motor was good, his decision-making was excellent, and his ability to impact the glass was everything fans could have asked for.

    The problem is that the team refused to throw him into the deep end, as it held him to just 20.7 minutes per game.

    During training camp, the Detroit Pistons must figure out how they want to use the 20-year-old. In his inaugural season, he shot 60.8 percent on 5.7 attempts per contest, and he blocked 1.6 shots on the other end.

    His impact was good enough to finish the year with a PER of 21.69, and now the task is to get him on the floor as often as possible.

    Like the Golden State Warriors, the Pistons have another player who fits the bill here, and that’s Greg Monroe. The big man has been on the verge of breaking out for a while now, but his lack of athleticism—not to mention a defensive mindset—has kept him from becoming a superstar.

    These two players, along with Josh Smith, will fight for time in the frontcourt. Concerns have been risen regarding minutes and overall chemistry, but there’s talent on the roster, which is more than the team has been able to say in quite some time.

Anthony Davis

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    If Anthony Davis doesn’t epitomize the league’s next great big man, I don’t know who does.

    At 20 years old, we all knew about his defensive capabilities coming in. He ended up blocking nearly two shots per game in 28.8 minutes, and he grabbed 8.2 rebounds per contest along the way.

    What makes Davis so special is the fact that he has an emerging offensive game. From a statistical standpoint, his 51.6 percent shooting on 10.6 shots per game screams efficiency. However, it’s the eye test that puts him over the edge.

    At 6’10”, Davis has ball-handling skills, as well as a face-up game. There’s no question that his back-down moves must improve, but it’s nearly impossible to teach a guy his size to play with a Kevin Garnett-like skill set.

    Along with Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans have a playmaker in Jrue Holiday. Establishing a two-man game between these two—most likely in pick-and-roll sets—will be something Monty Williams works on before the year begins.

    Holiday has never played with a post player as talented as Davis, and he could be the point guard who helps the sophomore take the next step.

Damian Lillard

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    For all intents and purposes, Damian Lillard has already arrived.

    At 23 years old, the point guard took the league by storm when he averaged 19 points, 6.5 assists and played more minutes than any other player during his Rookie of the Year campaign. He’s without question the Portland Trail Blazers’ franchise floor general, and he’s as exciting to watch on offense as any young player.

    Entering training camp, there are a few things to watch when it comes to the point guard, most notably defense. According to Casey Holdahl of Trailblazers.com, Lillard showed visible improvements on that side of the floor during his recent stint with Team USA.

    Along with defense, fans in Rip City are curious to see how he plays next to other talented guards. During the 2012-13 campaign, the backcourt was famished when it came to talent off the bench. Eric Maynor did come over late in the year, but Lillard now has two scorers in C.J. McCollum and Mo Williams from the get-go.

    Luckily for Portland, Lillard can play both on and off the ball. We’ll likely see different combinations of guards throughout the year, but establishing a clear rotation early will help the star entering his sophomore season.