NBA Franchise Stars in Waiting Who Will Grow Up in 2013-14
The official league-wide opening of NBA training camps brings new sustenance for basketball-starved fans, clean slates for all 30 teams and, most importantly, an opportunity for some of the game's brightest young stars to prove they're ready to take the next step.
A handful of up-and-coming franchises are hoping that their relatively untested cornerstones can make the transition from "promising talent" to "organizational centerpiece" this season.
Now, a new crop of candidates will look to do the same.
In some cases, the members of this list are already being paid like franchise players. So guys like DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall will be under a little extra pressure to show their teams that they're worth the investment.
Across the board, these players have elite talent. But they haven't had to make good on the promise of their skills yet. That all changes this season.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Greg Monroe is more polished, and Josh Smith is the Detroit Pistons' biggest name, but Andre Drummond is the player most likely to anchor the franchise's future. Athletic centers who can dominate the paint and the boards don't come along every day.
As a rookie, the UConn product put up some pretty remarkable efficiency numbers. Few players post PERs higher than their ages, but as a 19-year-old rookie, Drummond managed an efficiency rating of 21.69, per ESPN. That figure was good enough for 17th in the NBA and may have only represented the low end of Drummond's potential.
With more minutes and greater responsibility ahead, the hulking center will have to prove he can retain some of that efficiency.
It won't be easy in his second-year run through the league, either. Opponents will look to key on Drummond's weaknesses, which will undoubtedly include constantly sending him to the line. If he can raise his ghastly 37 percent accuracy rate from the foul line, the sky's the limit.
Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Derrick Favors shares a similar profile with Drummond: He's huge, athletic and has the potential to be a dominant interior force.
The difference with Favors is that unlike Drummond, he's had to wait a few years for his chance to become a franchise player. Traded to the Utah Jazz as the centerpiece of the deal that sent Deron Williams to the then-New Jersey Nets, Favors was stuck behind Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in Utah's frontcourt.
After two-and-a-half seasons as a reserve, he's already inked into the Jazz's starting lineup. Considering he posted per-36-minute averages of 14.6 points, 11 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 2012-13, it's pretty clear that a little more playing time is all it will take for the 22-year-old big man to shine.
Utah is starting over, and Favors is going to show everyone that he's ready to lead his team into its next phase.
In fact, consider this a bet that he'll make Jazz fans wonder why on earth the franchise took so long to clear the way for him.
Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ricky Rubio may not be the player with the highest profile on his team—Kevin Love holds that distinction—but he's the guy who has to grow up for the Minnesota Timberwolves to end their playoff drought.
More than that, Rubio's untapped talent makes him the most likely cornerstone for the franchise's future.
Endlessly creative and blessed with just about every intangible a point guard needs, Rubio will start the 2013-14 season without the benefit of any excuses. His torn ACL is now a distant memory, and there's finally a respectable cache of weapons around him.
Rubio is already a brilliant on-ball and team defender, so the key to his development is going to come on the offensive end. Specifically, he has to become a better perimeter shooter and finisher. His woes from long range have been well-documented. For his career, Rubio has hit just 36 percent of his field goals and 32 percent of his long-range attempts.
There's no getting around it—that's awful.
The hidden problem with his game may not be his creaky jumper, though. According to Hoopdata.com, Rubio finished just 44.4 percent of his shots at the rim last season, an almost unbelievably bad conversion rate.
As he gets stronger and learns to trust his knee, defenders will be forced to play him honestly when he gets into the lane. That'll open up opportunities for the Spaniard to do more of what he really wants to do anyway: fire dimes to waiting teammates.
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
No player on this list needs to grow up more than DeMarcus Cousins. And now that the Sacramento Kings have invested four years and $62 million in the big man, he'll be under more pressure than ever to do so.
Nobody has ever doubted Cousins' talent.
There have, however, been innumerable questions about his attitude, maturity and willingness to embrace the little things that help teams win. Cousins' defensive effort, in particular, has been jaw-droppingly poor.
But the Kings are a new team these days, finally out from under the crippling ineptitude of the Maloofs and led by a revamped front office. No-nonsense defensive guru Mike Malone is on the bench, and if there's a head coach in the NBA who can whip Cousins into shape, it's him.
To this point in his career, it's been difficult to tell whether Cousins' shortcomings were results of his own personal flaws or the toxic environment in Sacramento. He'll get a breath of fresh air this year, as the Kings will finally be run like a real NBA franchise.
Don't be surprised if a clear-headed Cousins takes the leap forward that his contract suggests is imminent.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Maybe there's a case to be made that John Wall doesn't belong on this list. With three seasons under his belt, the former No. 1 overall pick has career averages of 16.9 points, 8.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game—solid work for a young player on a lottery team.
But it's too hard to shake the feeling that there's another step or two left in Wall's development. The Wizards' decision to sign him to a max deal certainly indicates that they believe he's capable of growing as a player, and it's not hard to pick out the area in which he'll have to improve.
Put simply, Wall can't shoot.
With career averages of 24 percent from long range and 42 percent from the field, it's actually kind of amazing that he's been so productive. I guess that's what blazing speed and a wicked handle can do for you.
The Wizards were respectable down the stretch last year after Wall returned, so there's a lot of optimism surrounding the team for the first time in a while. Wall knows what he has to do to get better, and the team is convinced that he's ready to raise his game.
When he does, Washington will find itself in the playoff picture.
Larry Sanders, Milwaukee Bucks
Larry Sanders is already one of the most effective interior defenders in the league, and the more we learn about the defensive side of next-generation analytics, the better he gets.
Kirk Goldsberry's now-famous study revealed Sanders to be the NBA's preeminent paint protector during the 2012-13 season, and the Milwaukee Bucks big man validated that ranking by swatting away 2.8 shots per game.
You might be asking yourself something like, "Doesn't that mean Sanders is already a franchise player?"
Well, he probably would be if he could stay on the court for more than the 27.3 minutes per game he averaged last year. Sanders is a bit too aggressive sometimes, which leads to frequent bouts of foul trouble. He's also emotional, a trait that got him tossed from a few contests and earned him something of a reputation as a hothead last year.
Sanders should be able to get himself under control as he enters his fourth season, which will lead to him making a bigger impact over a larger stretch of playing time. Keep in mind that Sanders' per-36-minute averages last year included 12.9 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.7 blocks.
Now those are franchise-player numbers.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
It's time to dispel a myth. Sorry in advance, Portland Trail Blazers fans, but Damian Lillard really wasn't all that great last year.
Granted, the rookie performed admirably when thrown into a position where he had to carry a team without a bench. But the young point guard ranked just 24th among point guards in PER, according to ESPN, and made a negative impact on the defensive end.
Per 82games.com, the Blazers' defensive rating improved by 2.4 points per 100 possessions when Lillard was on the bench.
But hey, we're here to talk about players who still have room to grow into their franchise britches, and Lillard certainly has the skills to do just that. As he begins to get a handle on the nuances of team defense, the 23-year-old will become more of a legitimate two-way threat.
And with a much better supporting cast, some of the fatigue-induced mistakes that cost Lillard last year will disappear.
Portland is on the upswing, and Lillard is going to be the focal point of the future—starting this season.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Apparently, Anthony Davis has already grown in the few months since his rookie season.
Per John Reid of The Times-Picayune, Davis said:
I have gained at least 10 to 12 pounds, and I want to gain at least five more. That’s the ideal goal for me right now. I’ve been staying on top of it, eating more and gaining weight. I’m eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything helps and it is showing.
A little bulk was the only thing missing for Davis last year. In just 28.8 minutes per game, the No. 1 overall pick averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 51.6 percent shooting. Despite a couple of nagging injuries, Davis had a remarkable rookie year.
His PER of 21.8 even trumped the incredible figure posted by Drummond, and the New Orleans Pelicans big man actually crashed through the rookie wall, showing across-the-board statistical improvement after the All-Star break.
As he gets more comfortable down low, Davis will continue to complement his impressive perimeter game with a few more interior buckets. And as a defensive player, his length and instincts could soon make him as dominant as Sanders.
Davis is more than a franchise player in waiting; he's a budding superstar.
He'll step into the spotlight this year.