Under-the-Radar NBA Players Poised to Break Out During 2013-14 Season
The NBA is a league built on several tiers, with every single player—from LeBron James to Reggie Evans—slotted in a different category. Each season affords a new opportunity to several who are looking to improve their standing.
Not everyone qualifies. Some players are destined to roam from year to year filling the same role. They're stationary pawns, but remain crucial to the teams that employ them. Others are filled with unmet potential, still developing talents who appear ready and willing to conquer a more difficult challenge. These players want to be identified as performers in another tier.
Here are five examples of guys who already have their feet wet as professional basketball players, but are ready to establish themselves in another realm, even if the general basketball-watching public doesn't know it yet. They're listed in no particular order.
All preseason statistics were provided by RealGM.
The hair is gone, and, honestly, it's for the best. Recognizing Iman Shumpert as “cool flat top guy” needed to stop; he deserves so much more.
Coming off an impressive postseason in which Shumpert played as integral a role in dismantling Boston’s reign over the Atlantic Division as any other player, Knicks head coach Mike Woodson now wants Shumpert to assume more responsibility on the offensive side. It’s positive news for a veteran-laden Knicks team basically relying on internal development in order to reach and go beyond expectations.
Only 23 years old, Shumpert has knocked down 40 percent of his three-point attempts thus far in the preseason while also flashing some of his brilliant athleticism on the glass (5.3 rebounds per game).
If Shumpert can execute pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler, Andrea Bargnani, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony all over the floor, defenses will have an entirely new wrinkle to deal with. And Shumpert may become the team’s second most-important player.
So far this preseason, Isaiah Thomas has picked up exactly where he left off last year, with efficient shooting numbers (53.8 percent from the floor) and dazzling play off the dribble that continues to go unnoticed.
Despite his size (5'9"), Thomas is able to see the entire floor. In the half court, he can find open teammates when defenses ice him in a pick-and-roll (use the sideline to trap, though it’s a rarity given his quickness).
In 28 games after the All-Star break last year, he posted an incredible shooting line of 45.8/41.3/89.7. For the month of March, he was a few decimal points away from cobbling together 15 games of 50/40/90 production, something he could possibly achieve in his third year, playing in what’s supposedly the first offensive system of his career.
Now that Tyreke Evans is in New Orleans, Thomas figures to assume even more of Sacramento’s ball-handling responsibilities (the incoming Greivis Vasquez could eat into Thomas’ role, but time will tell how much playing time he receives under Mike Malone, a head coach who prioritizes defense.)
DeAndre Jordan is this year’s Serge Ibaka, meaning the Los Angeles Clippers’ title chances hinge on his in-season development, as Oklahoma City’s did last season with Ibaka.
Jordan has always been an athletic marvel, someone who could sweep three straight dunk contests if that were his ultimate goal. If becoming one of the league’s most feared defensive players is instead a priority, and he accomplishes it, there’s almost no doubt the Clippers will have their say this spring.
Unfortunately, defense has instead been Jordan’s weakness. Not for lack of effort, but instead a lack of wherewithal. For the past few seasons, he was often a liability on that end, forcing his head coach to sub him out at the end of close games (futile free-throw shooting didn’t help either).
But there’s hope that Jordan’s lack of knowledge was on his former coaches and the scheme (or lack there of) they deployed as much as it was on Jordan himself. With Doc Rivers now teaching him the situational rigors of what it takes to be a successful rim protector, Jordan might turn the corner this season.
In his first two preseason games, he posted numbers that made Rivers very happy, averaging 15 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in barely 20 minutes per game. Again, this is only the preseason, and Jordan won’t comprehend the complexities of Tom Thibodeau’s defense overnight. But it’s much better to see him comfortable today than lost guarding a pick-and-roll.
As a 2-guard who doesn’t shoot threes, loves the mid-range game and plays defense at a level that isn’t worth writing home about, DeMar DeRozan will enter his fifth NBA season as an irrelevant non-factor.
His rookie contract extension hasn’t brightened his expectations, nor did Toronto’s decision to draft Terrence Ross in 2012 and trade for Rudy Gay, two players with similar skill sets. But DeRozan’s still only 24 years old and is coming off a season in which he quietly averaged 18.1 points and 5.2 free-throw attempts per game.
Through Toronto’s first four preseason games, DeRozan’s been a delight, averaging 22.8 points per 36 minutes on 56.1 percent shooting from the field. On paper, the Raptors are a team looking to fight for a playoff spot. This year will be DeRozan’s last chance to prove his game can be efficient enough to conduce wins.
In his fourth NBA season, Utah Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward will be in line to upgrade from Swiss Army knife to first option.
Now that Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap are no longer his teammates, Hayward will not only be asked to create shots for himself, but also for others. Through three preseason games, he’s averaging 6.48 assists per 36 minutes. The sample size is obviously tiny, and it’s the preseason, when opposing defenses are in the baby stages of familiarizing themselves with new schemes, coaches and teammates. But that assist production doubles what he put up last season.
It’s a hopeful sign, if nothing else.
If he’s able to run a functional pick-and-roll with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, as he’ll try to do, Hayward’s entire offensive game will elevate to another level. He’s already a phenomenal spot-up shooter (41.5 percent from deep last season, and 40.5 percent for his career), but those same opportunities won’t be there this season.
He’ll need to be nearly as accurate shooting off the dribble, in the mid-range and at the rim (last season he shot 62.5 percent at the rim, well below the 65.9 percent average tallied by shooting guards who average at least 30 minutes per game, per Hoopdata).
The challenges are numerous, especially playing on a team that's expected to hit the lottery. But this will be Hayward's opportunity to establish himself as a building block instead of a hopeful trade asset.