Young NBA Studs Under Most Pressure to Make Leap to Stardom During 2013-14

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 22, 2013

Young NBA Studs Under Most Pressure to Make Leap to Stardom During 2013-14

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    Across the NBA, a new crop of budding stars are getting fitted for their big-boy pants.

    The guys on this list aren't all in the same developmental phase; some are already knocking at the door of stardom, while others are simply trying to fit into smaller—albeit important—roles for their teams. But every single one of them has the skills to make a major impact this season.

    What's more, they're all in a position where failure to do so will have franchise-altering consequences.

    For example, Anthony Davis has to help the New Orleans Pelicans become respectable right now, DeMarcus Cousins has to make a leap in order to drag the Kings out of the Western Conference's basement, and DeAndre Jordan has to raise his game in order to give the Los Angeles Clippers a real shot at a title.

    Pressure is a part of every NBA player's daily routine, but these guys are facing more than most this season.

Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

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    If there's a brick missing from the Alamo, it's because the San Antonio Spurs have wedged it firmly into their title window, propping it open for far longer than anyone could have reasonably expected.

    But someday—maybe even this year—Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are going to decline in a way that will make it nearly impossible to keep that window open, pilfered brick or no.

    Fortunately, there's another way for the Spurs to retain their place in the championship conversation: Kawhi Leonard has to take a big enough step forward to compensate for his older teammates' decline.

    That's a lot to ask of a 22-year-old player, but Leonard has shown a combination of attitude, maturity and skill that should enable him to shoulder the burden. Expect him to take on a bigger role offensively while still locking down the opponent's best wing player on a nightly basis.

    If he can play like a borderline All-Star this season, he'll help San Antonio make yet another deep playoff run.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

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    In Derrick Rose's last two healthy seasons, the Chicago Bulls won more regular-season games than any other NBA team. And they accumulated those victories despite the glaring lack of a two-way shooting guard.

    Keith Bogans defended but couldn't score. Rip Hamilton provided respectable offense but no defense to speak of.

    But in Jimmy Butler, the Bulls might finally have their missing piece.

    The defensively dominant wing drilled 47.5 percent of his triples after the All-Star break last year, per ESPN. If he can provide anything close to that level of production, Chicago will boast the most complete starting lineup in the league.

    The Bulls have had enough of being "very good." A step forward from Butler can make them great.

Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    With Russell Westbrook out of action to start the season, Reggie Jackson will go from the bench to the starting rotation.

    That means the untested, largely disappointing Jeremy Lamb will be the Oklahoma City Thunder's primary bench scorer.

    Lamb represents the third step in OKC's annual downgrade in reserve point production. James Harden gave way to Kevin Martin last year, and after he left as a free agent, sixth-man duties fell to Lamb.

    Maybe Kevin Durant will take his scoring average into the stratosphere in order to compensate for the Thunder's disappearing depth. But unless KD can toss up 40 points a night, Lamb is going to have to produce something for OKC to stay competitive when its star takes a seat.

    It's hard to paint a scenario in which Lamb is ever referred to as a "star," but if he can give Oklahoma City something like 12 points per game off the bench, he'll be a bona fide hero among Thunder fans.

DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Everyone knows that the biggest roadblock to a championship for the Los Angeles Clippers is their interior defense.

    With Doc Rivers on board to provide instruction on the art of the stop, the Clips' freakishly athletic bigs are now officially out of excuses.

    And while it'd be nice if both of the Clippers' high-flying duo could crank up the defensive intensity, it's really just DeAndre Jordan who has to morph into a legitimate defensive menace.

    All of the tools are there, and Rivers has turned players with far less skill (think Kendrick Perkins) into elite stoppers. So there's no reason why Jordan can't be the next big man to make the leap.

    As important as Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and LA's bench are to a potential title run, Jordan's development on defense might be even more critical. He should definitely be feeling the pressure to take his game to the next level.

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings

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    DeMarcus Cousins can't blame the toxic situation in his locker room anymore. He can't say he's not getting the respect he deserves, either—not after the Sacramento Kings paid him handsomely this past summer. And the days of pinning his struggles on immaturity are long gone, too.

    Basically, Boogie is out of excuses.

    The Kings are embarking on a new era, and they've clearly made the risky decision to build around Cousins. On some level, that's wise; insanely skilled big men with room to grow don't come along every day. But at the same time, Cousins has had nonstop issues with his attitude, defense and leadership since he came into the league.

    If Sacramento is ever going to climb up from the lower rungs in the West, Cousins will have to be the one who leads them. That means he has to become much more efficient on offense, do away with his persistent whining to officials, and generally grow up.

    Based on what we've seen so far, that's a tall order.

    I'd say there's pressure involved when a single player's development will almost solely determine whether his franchise can finally gain a little respect, wouldn't you?

John Wall, Washington Wizards

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    Like Cousins, John Wall is the man charged with lifting his franchise back to respectability. And like Cousins, Wall has already been handsomely paid before accomplishing anything substantial.

    He'll have to make good on the Washington Wizards' max-salary investment this year.

    Wall has to be the agent of change for the Wizards, a leader who'll take charge of promising young teammates like Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. If he can do that while also adding a jump shot, the Wizards could actually deliver on some of the playoff hype they've been receiving lately.

    Of course, if Wall fails to improve as an all-around player or doesn't show he's capable of handling a leadership role in his fourth season, the Wizards are going to wind up in the lottery yet again.

Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

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    Maybe Andre Drummond isn't feeling pressure to go from an intriguing talent to a consistent, game-changing defensive force.

    But he should be.

    That's because the Detroit Pistons have made it abundantly clear that the hulking second-year center is the man to whom they'll hitch their future. Greg Monroe, another promising talent, is eligible to sign a five-year extension with the team, but only if the deal gets done by Oct. 31.

    The Pistons aren't even negotiating, which indicates they're saving that one-time, five-year offer for Drummond in a couple of seasons.

    Monroe has enjoyed three terrifically productive campaigns in Detroit, and it says a lot that the Pistons are willing to upset their slightly older big man by so clearly casting their lot with Drummond.

    Sure, the Pistons can simply match whatever offer sheet Monroe signs next summer. Or they could trade him at some point this season. Either way, Detroit is willing to risk alienating or losing Monroe in favor of Drummond.

    For better or worse, Drummond is the man the Pistons have chosen to shape their future.

    He'll have to elevate his game this year to prove that Detroit picked correctly.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    You don't trade away a No. 6 overall pick or pay Tyreke Evans $44 million to fulfill a redundant role if you're building for the long term.

    Because the New Orleans Pelicans are concerned with putting a competitive product on the court this year, Anthony Davis is under an immense amount of pressure.

    As the team's current best player (sorry Jrue Holiday) and the guy with the brightest future, Davis is going to have to accelerate his growth to help his team achieve success in the here and now.

    Fortunately for the Pellies, Davis is primed to enjoy what should be the biggest breakout season of any young NBA player.

    Coming off a season in which he averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds a game on 51.6 percent shooting, Davis has looked phenomenal during preseason play. Clearly, he's ready to become an All-Star-caliber player. That's a good thing, because for the Pelicans to even sniff the playoff seed they seem to be chasing, he'll have to be one.