Every year in the NBA, there are a handful of players who are unknown at the beginning the season and become household names by the end of it. Undiscovered gems get mined, polished and revealed, and the unknown names become known.
There are seven precious stones ready to display their value to their teams and their fans this year. They’ve been put in new situations, whether they've been freshly inserted into the starting lineup or given more prominent roles off the bench.
To qualify for the list, players needed to be 25 or under and have averaged less than 30 minutes per game last season. They are ordered based on a combination of the likelihood they’ll improve, how much they’ll improve, and how well they will play this season.
The rankings are purely subjective, but there are projected stats for each player, which should give an impression of why they are placed where they are.
Jonas Valanciunas (Toronto Raptors): He's had about as good of a summer as you could hope for if you’re a Toronto Raptors fan. He won the MVP in the Summer League in Las Vegas. He averaged 8.7 points in just 18 minutes in Eurobasket. He’s going to be greatly improved, but Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan will take the bulk of the shots for the Toronto Raptors. Because of that, he’s still a year away.
Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards) and Dion Waiters (Cleveland Cavaliers): The two have a lot in common. They were both drafted to teams with point guards who were once the top pick in the NBA draft, but who spent a large part of last season injured. Both of their teams threaten to be breakout teams that fight their way into the playoffs this year. They were both rookies last season.
They also both had a little bit of trouble with their shooting percentages last year. Beal shot just 41 percent, and Waiters 41.2. For them to move up, they need to become much more efficient.
Derrick Favors (Utah Jazz) and Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets): The two were considered but not included not because they aren’t gems, but because they have already been discovered.
Projected Stats: 13.8 Points, 4.4 Rebounds, 1.9 Assists
Jeremy Lamb is ready to inherit the mantle left by James Harden and Kevin Martin, the sixth men for the Oklahoma City Thunder, which means he’s going to playing between two of the best scorers in the NBA, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
That means he’s going to be seeing some open shots, and he needs to knock them down.
He struggled last year with a fairly abysmal .353 field-goal percentage. He averaged 18.8 points per game in the Summer League on just 39.3 percent shooting.
Lamb makes the list over Bradley Beal or Dion Waiters because he’ll have the perfect opportunity to increase his efficiency.
Smooth operator. He can shoot it really, really well. Athletic, can handle the ball, can play pick-and-roll, he can do just about everything, man. He can come off screens and shoot. He’s really good for our program. I’m excited for him, and he’s been working his tail off this summer. I know he’s going to come out and be ready to play.
Lamb will get the chance to prove himself. If he doesn’t, he’ll lose his sixth-man role to Reggie Jackson.
Projected Stats: 12.3 Points, 9.3 Rebounds, 1.2 Assists
Right now, the only thing standing between John Henson and the starting lineup is Ersan Ilyasova getting traded. According to Steve Kyler of HoopsWorld,
Sources close to the situation say that virtually every team in the league has called at one point this summer about Ilyasova, so if the Bucks struggle to get Ilyasova back to the form that earned him his current long-term deal, don’t be surprised to see him and his three years and $24.2 million remaining dangled around, especially if the rumored plan to play Henson and Sanders together becomes the norm in Milwaukee.
Henson was impressive while he was on the court last season, averaging 16.5 points and 12.9 boards per 36 minutes. If he can get enough minutes, it’s not hard to see him threatening to average a double-double this year.
Projected Stats 15.9 points, 2.9 Rebounds, 3.4 Assists
Evan Fournier might be the most under-the-radar name on this list.
Currently he’s embroiled in a battle for the Denver Nuggets’ starting 2-guard job with Randy Foye. But regardless of who initially wins, look for Fournier to log more minutes and produce better numbers. He's got significantly more upside.
Before the season ends, he should be in full control of the starting job and logging some solid numbers. What distinguishes him from the shooting guards beneath him on this list is his scoring efficiency. Fournier shot .493 from the field overall and had an effective field-goal percentage of .566, per Basketball-Reference.
He averaged 17.0 points per 36 minutes with just a 20.4 percent usage. As he gains more minutes and responsibility, look for his scoring to explode.
If you’re looking for a true breakout star no one is talking about, look for Fournier.
Projected Stats: 14.2 Points, 6.3 Rebounds, 2.9 Assists
Jimmy Butler exploded into the national limelight during the Eastern Conference Semifinals because of his defense against the world’s greatest player, LeBron James.
There’s actually considerable room for him to go up, especially on offense.
After assuming the starting role as the shooting guard at the end of the regular season, Butler was impressive. Through 14 games, he averaged 14.5 points, 6.4 boards and 2.8 assists per game in 42.4 minutes. He shot an otherworldly 52.8 percent from three over that frame.
Those numbers were somewhat beefed up because of the volume of minutes. On the other hand, contrary to general perception, he was never close to the first option on the Bulls—or even the second, or third or fourth.
There’s room for Butler to grow, especially when you consider that he’s spent the entire summer working on every aspect of his game. It’s work which earned this effusive praise from Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
I get a kick in the offseason, everyone's had a great summer, everyone looks good, but Jimmy actually puts the work in. He doesn't have to say anything. You look at him and his actions tell you what he's doing. There are no shortcuts with him. He puts the work in and gives you a solid day's work.
Thibodeau has seen a lot of players come back from offseasons in his years in NBA coaching. That Butler’s offseason stands out is telling, but what’s most telling is that Thibodeau is gaining more confidence in Butler. That means Butler’s usage should go up.
And Derrick Rose being back to set the table for him shouldn't hurt.
Projected Stats: 17.9 Points, 9.1 Rebounds, 2.3 Assists
Technically, Tobias Harris has been traded more times than a baseball card.
He was eventually taken with a pick originally belonging to the New Orleans Hornets, but they traded the pick to the Portland Trail Blazers, who traded it to the Charlotte Bobcats, who finally used it to draft him.
Then, Charlotte immediately included Harris in a three-team trade to the Milwaukee Bucks, who let him waste away on the bench for a season-plus before finally dealing him to his present team, the Orlando Magic, at the trade deadline.
And there he promptly just blew up.
Meanwhile, a plethora of general managers face-palmed themselves over how they managed to let him slip through their fingers. Harris racked up 17.3 points and 8.5 boards per game after getting the chance to actually play in Orlando.
Over the offseason, per Zach Harper of CBS Sports, he added 17 extra pounds. That’s going to help. Add an improved roster around him, and look for Harris to maintain, if not improve upon, those numbers.
Projected Stats: 19.1 Points, 10.3 Rebounds, 0.9 Assists
When the Utah Jazz trot out Enes Kanter as their opening day starter, they’re going to start the beginning of a new era.
Kanter is a beast—an outright Kraken—just waiting to be released.
He averaged 16.9 points and 10.2 boards per 36 minutes last season. In the only three games he started, he averaged 20.5 points and 15.0 boards. He has the potential to be a 20/10 player.
Certainly working with Karl Malone, on and off the court, isn’t going to hurt that potential.
There are a number of exciting young backcourts in the NBA right now, with Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler in Chicago, John Wall and Bradley Beal in Washington, Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters in Cleveland and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State.
However, the young frontcourt in Utah, with Kanter, Derrick Favors and Brendan Haywood, is the most exciting young frontcourt in the league. Look for Kanter, not Favors, to ultimately be the most dominant of the three.
Projected Stats: 14.7 Points, 13.4 Rebounds, .9 Assists
After inexplicably falling all the way to ninth in the 2012 NBA draft, Andre Drummond was a rookie sensation, albeit in limited action due to injury. Problematically, there was also a clogging up of the frontcourt, and Drummond didn’t find a true position.
Now it appears he’ll be the starting center. Look for him to put up solid numbers, and probably more solid than many are projecting.
Here’s the thing though. Chucker and Chuckerer are only going to help Drummond’s stats because they’re going to give him so many chances for offensive rebounds. So. Very. Many.
Drummond was fourth in offensive rebound percentage among players with at least two offensive rebounds per game. Furthermore, per Synergy, he was reasonably adept at turning those rebounds into points, averaging 1.01 points per play on putbacks.
He’ll have a massive year, if nothing else because of all the missed shots by Ellis and Smith. In fact, he has a realistic chance at winning the rebounding title.