NBA Stars-in-Waiting Bound to Blossom Next Season
In many ways, that discussion proved a prescient one. Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard both participated in the All-Star Game. Andre Drummond was beastly on the boards for the Detroit Pistons. Bradley Beal and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played pivotal roles in the postseason appearances of their respective squads. So, too, did Patrick Beverly and Terrence Jones for the Houston Rockets.
More generally, though, this has been a banner year for players 25 and under in the NBA. Kevin Durant, 25, ran away with the MVP. Blake Griffin, also 25, finished third in the voting. James Harden, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan, DeAndre Jordan and Serge Ibaka were among the many who upped the individual ante and, by extension, that of the teams for which they shined.
I know we still have another month-plus of riveting basketball to enjoy before this campaign comes to a close, but with the way the league's bumper crop of young talent has stepped it up in these playoffs, it's tough not to wonder which of the Association's 20-something constituents will make a leap—from promising prospect to All-Star performer, from All-Star to bona fide force of nature and so on—once the 2014-15 season rolls around.
With that in mind, let's have a look at some of the NBA's brightest breakout candidates for next season.
If you knew nothing of and/or hadn't watched these Washington Wizards until the start of the playoffs, you'd probably think that Bradley Beal, not John Wall, was this team's backcourt All-Star.
Wall finally registered a performance befitting of his talent and stature in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers (27 points, five rebounds, five assists), but he still has plenty of catching up to do if he's to find even footing with Beal before this postseason is through.
The 20-year-old Florida product has improved in nearly every area imaginable since the end of the regular season. His spiffy statistics therein (19.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.6 steals, 43.2 percent shooting from three) merely scratch the surface of the tantalizing talent he's shown himself to be over the last month.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, Beal has demonstrated that he's much more than "just" a Ray Allen facsimile:
He has emerged as a capable secondary ball handler, flashing a collection of wily moves on all sorts of pick-and-rolls. He has often supplanted Wall as the team’s top clutch option, jacking more crunch-time shots than Wall in the playoffs after attempting about the same number during the regular season on a per-minute basis.
Lowe went on to wonder whether Beal's emergence might inspire tension between him and Wall, both personally and professionally. But if Beal builds on this postseason coming-out party in 2014-15, Wall and the Wizards will gladly welcome whatever transcendent play this second-year stud brings to the table.
As far as torching the Indiana Pacers is concerned, Beal and Wall have essentially picked up where Jeff Teague left off. The fifth-year guard led the Atlanta Hawks to within spitting distance of becoming just the sixth eight-seed in NBA history to advance to the second round, despite the absence of All-Star forward Al Horford.
The top-seeded Pacers managed to hang on for dear life, but not before Teague opened more than a few eyes. The Indianapolis native averaged 19.3 points, five assists and 5.7 free-throw attempts in the series, including games of 28, 22 and 29 points at the expense of his hometown team.
To be sure, Teague was far from perfect. He shot under 40 percent from the floor and made his fair share of mistakes in crunch time that, in all likelihood, cost the Hawks their shot at the upset.
Still, there's plenty of reason to believe that Teague will do even more next season to justify the four-year, $32 million deal he signed last summer, amidst plenty of reluctance on Atlanta's part, no less. For one, he'll be rejoined by Horford, his primary inside-out partner and the player best equipped to draw defensive attention away from Teague.
In the bigger picture, Teague should benefit from another season under Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks head coach has a wealth of experience in organizing spacious offenses around speedy point guards, as he did with Tony Parker during his days as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs.
"Jeff, from when he’s come into the league, each year he’s gotten a little bit better and a little bit better," Budenholzer told Grantland's Brett Koremenos in November, "and I hope he can take a big step."
If the first round of the playoffs were any indication, Teague is well on his way.
Kemba Walker had only four playoff games in which to peddle his wares before a national audience, but that didn't stop him from making the most of every minute. Walker was nigh on a revelation for the Charlotte Bobcats, pouring in 19.5 points, six assists, 3.8 rebounds and two steals in 38.3 minutes per game while hitting 47.3 percent of his shots, including half of his three-point tries.
The soon-to-be-revived Hornets can't reasonably expect Walker, a career 32.2-percent shooter from deep, to extend that hot hand very far beyond Charlotte's four-game sweep at the hands of the Miami Heat.
However, the fact that Walker was so poised and productive with Al Jefferson hobbled by an ankle injury should further encourage those fans who are already excited to "Bring Back the Buzz" next season. Of all of Charlotte's youngsters, the 24-year-old Walker is clearly the one best prepared to help this club move from fringe top-eight team to legitimate playoff threat in the Eastern Conference.
Another year of seasoning next to Big Al and under the auspices of coach Steve Clifford certainly shouldn't hurt.
Klay Thompson will enter his fourth NBA season in a somewhat precarious position, at least as far as his own growth is concerned.
On the one hand, Thompson has steadily improved from year to year with the Golden State Warriors. He's already established himself as one of the league's premier marksmen, and he developed into both a proficient low-post operator and a surprisingly pesky perimeter defender with the guidance of Mark Jackson.
Unfortunately for Thompson (and, really, for the Dubs), Jackson no longer works for Golden State. Instead, he and his Warriors teammates will have to acclimate themselves to the voice and preferences of Steve Kerr (per NBA.com's David Aldridge).
How that affects Thompson, whose game-to-game inconsistency was problematic at times under Jackson, is anybody's best guess at this point. Kerr has never coached at any level, so his preferences and proclivities as far as playing style is concerned remain matters of mystery.
Even so, Thompson, 24, has the tools—the size, the length, the athleticism, the shooting ability and the footwork, among other things—to be more than just a floor-spreading sidekick for Stephen Curry.
It's only a matter of time, and coaching, until he puts it all together.
Situationally speaking, Klay Thompson has quite a bit in common with Dion Waiters. Both play on teams that, in some respects, underperformed this season and will welcome in new head coaches in 2014-15. Each also currently serves as a second-option to a superstar scoring point guard—Curry in Thompson's case, Kyrie Irving in Waiters'.
And, as with Thompson, Waiters' talent portends bigger and better things than what we've seen from him so far.
Not that "so far" has been so bad. Waiters' numbers improved nearly across the board in Year 2, despite some apparent discord between him and Irving, on and off the court.
Those two seemed to get along just fine in the season's final weeks, even with Waiters moving from sixth man supreme to starting shooting guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Over the last seven games of the season, all of which featured Irving and Waiters in Cleveland's starting five, Waiters averaged 20.3 points and 3.1 assists while shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from three.
Those numbers compare favorably to Irving's over the same span (17.7 points, 4.9 assists, .455 from the field, .240 from three), but seven games do not a representative sample size make. Still, the Cavs can take some comfort in knowing that Waiters and Irving are more than capable of working together.
Assuming general manager David Griffin doesn't deal Waiters this summer, whoever he hires to replace Mike Brown will be charged not only with mediating and fostering the relationship between Cleveland's young guards, but also ensuring that, as far as the spectrum of attacking guards is concerned, Waiters winds up closer to Dwyane Wade than J.R. Smith.
If he does, though, the Cavs could quickly find themselves with a pair of guards whose talent and combined productivity ranks right up there with that of the best backcourts in the NBA.
You could argue that Andre Drummond already "broke out." He went from a per-minute monster as a rookie off the Detroit Pistons' bench to one of the NBA's most productive, young bigs in his second pro season. In fact, Drummond finished second in the league in double-doubles (57) and field-goal percentage (.623) in 2013-14.
At the tender age of 20, no less.
More impressive, still, is that Drummond was able to average 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.8 combined blocks and steals on a Pistons squad that was rocked by a midseason coaching change and struggled without a consistent strategy for success under either Mo Cheeks or John Loyer.
Stan Van Gundy, on the other hand, ranks among the most thoughtful and meticulous coaching minds in the NBA. He'll take over as Detroit's next head coach/president of basketball operations. As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out, Drummond stands to benefit handsomely from this new arrangement:
The idea of Van Gundy doing for Drummond what he did for a young Dwight Howard should terrify the league.
Remember, Van Gundy turned Howard into a pick-and-roll menace on offense and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year on the other end. Drummond isn't quite as quick on his feet as Howard was or is, and is still an exceedingly raw all-around player.
But the kid out of UConn is already bigger and bulkier than Howard will ever be, and should flourish in Motown once Van Gundy figures out how best to ameliorate the court-clogging caused by the Pistons' massive front line, of which Drummond is an integral part.
Van Gundy could clear up Detroit's front-court logjam in a jiffy by parting ways with Greg Monroe, a restricted free agent this summer, be it outright or as part of a sign-and-trade. Or, the Pistons' new brain trust could choose to retain Monroe, use the rest of the team's financial flexibility to add perimeter shooters and figure out the on-court arrangement later.
Either way, Monroe stands to profit handsomely. He'll get a hefty pay raise wherever he plays, and he could be party to a bidding war thanks to the success of another offensively skilled but defensively slow-footed pivot (Al Jefferson) in Charlotte. Whichever team signs Monroe could feature him in its offensive scheme, with his ability to draw double-teams in the post serving as an effective starting point.
And if Detroit is that team, Monroe will have a coach known for featuring gifted pivots, in Van Gundy, as his mentor.
There's some concern that Monroe might've already plateaued, that his lack of quickness or athleticism means that he'll forever be limited to the bag of tricks he currently possesses. Then again, that might not be so bad if his current degree of productivity (14.0 points, 9.0rebounds, 2.3 assists for his career) holds, especially in light of the success enjoyed by similar bigs, like Jefferson and Zach Randolph.
Realistically, though, Monroe's game should still have room to grow. He turns 24 in June and has yet to enjoy the tutelage of a competent coach at the NBA level. Perhaps he'll finally have that opportunity after this summer.
An average line of 11 points and 10 rebounds may not seem like much, but for Jonas Valanciunas, a 22-year-old kid who just completed his first postseason with the Toronto Raptors, those numbers represent a solid start for the future of NBA basketball north of the border.
Valanciunas showed flashes of his considerable promise as a rookie, but lacked the strength, confidence and leeway from head coach Dwane Casey to implement his full arsenal. "It was not easy because there are big bodies in the NBA, especially under the basket, in the paint," Valanciunas told the National Post's Eric Koreen back in October. "That was hard. I’ve got to train hard, my body especially, to be able to handle those guys in the paint."
To that end, Valanciunas was far more effective in his sophomore season. He not only held his position better down low but also demonstrated his proficiency with a variety of hook shots and fancy footwork—all while expanding his presence on the boards and cutting down his miscues.
Another offseason of strength and conditioning workouts along with skill development should boost the Lithuanian's abilities even further. So, too, should the confidence gained from playing a crucial role in an exciting playoff series.
Not to mention the motivational moxie derived from losing Game 7 in heartbreaking fashion.
But if there's any reason to believe that Valanciunas will take the next step in 2014-15, it's the team around him. He's the closest thing the Raptors have to a low-post threat, at least along their front line. Toronto's perimeter orientation, then, should yield even more opportunities in the middle for Valanciunas to develop into a powerhouse pivot.
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