With quite a few big names moving around the league this season, many fans have been a little too caught up in the hype to look at some of the less publicized names that could enjoy a breakout year in 2009-'10.
Players often experience unexpected success when their surroundings change, whether it be getting a new coach, moving to a new team, seeing a teammate move to a new team, or seeing new additions to their current team.
Last year I predicted the breakouts of players like Wilson Chandler and Jeff Green, so who are the under-the-radar players that could enjoy some unexpected success in the upcoming season? I'll take a look team-by-team and offer my opinion on which players for each squad have the best chance to surpass expectations out this year.
Let's get it started:
Atlanta Hawks: Solomon Jones, F/C
Zaza Pachulia is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and if he walks, Jones could be in line for a drastic increase in minutes as Al Horford's backup.
Last year, as Horford's backup, Pachulia enjoyed averages of 6.2 PPG and 5.7 RPG in 19.1 MPG, while also picking up 26 starts. And that was with Jones picking up 10.7 MPG. If Pachulia leaves it's not unrealistic to expect Jones to pick up somewhere around 22-23 MPG, which would give him a chance to pick up some solid stats.
He may not put up solid starter numbers, but he could prove to be a very nice backup behind Horford, which is more than people may be expecting from a fourth-year player with eight career starts.
Boston Celtics: Bill Walker, G/F
The Celtics haven't made a whole lot of moves this offseason and so most players are expected to have essentially the same roles as last season. One player who might see his role change, however, is second-year player Bill Walker.
Walker is in a unique situation because he is looking to man a position that has been in flux over the past few years; Paul Pierce's primary backup. Last year, the spot was manned by a combination of Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen. Needless to say, an upgrade would be welcome. If Walker can step up his play enough this offseason and in Summer League to earn the role as Pierce's backup, he could see some respectable production.
Like Solomon Jones, he shouldn't be expected to put up solid starter numbers, but just putting up any numbers would be a huge improvement for Walker over his rookie season.
Charlotte Bobcats: D.J. Augustin, G
Last season, the Bobcats discovered that putting Raymond Felton and D.J. Augustin on the floor at the same time created a nice back court duo, giving them two legitimate scoring threats and ball handlers at the guard positions.
This season, Augustin's minutes should increase, and he may even push Raja Bell for the other starting guard spot in Charlotte. And if that happens, look for some nice numbers from the second-year pro.
In his 12 games as a starter last year, Augustin posted averages of 17.8 PPG, 5.6 APG and 1.1 SPG while shooting 46.7 percent from the field and an impressive 53.4% from beyond the arc. Especially if he earns a starting job this season, expect Augustin's numbers to resemble those in 2009-10.
Chicago Bulls: John Salmons, G/F
The Bulls have done a good job building their team and picking up solid talent over the past couple years, adding players like John Salmons, Derrick Rose and Brad Miller.
This year, Salmons could prove to be one of the most valuable pickups made at the trade deadline last season.
I say that because Salmons will more than likely be a starter, and will also likely be the No. 2 - if not No. 1 - scoring option for Chicago this season. Last season, Salmons started at small forward for the Bulls with Luol Deng sidelined. This year, with Ben Gordon hitting the free agent market, Chicago is losing its leading scorer at 20.7 PPG, and should be looking to Salmons to fill the void at shooting guard. Salmons was second on the team in scoring at 18.3 PPG last season. If Derrick Rose does not take over as the team's go-to scorer, Salmons will be able to pick up the slack.
Regardless of whether Salmons is the No. 1 or No. 2 scoring option, he is in line to see his PPG total pick up significantly, as he will be counted on more heavily to do what he does best for his team, which is score.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Delonte West, G
Delonte West was a key part of the Cavaliers success during the 2008-09 season, and that should continue heading into this upcoming year.
With the addition of Shaquille O'Neal, West will see much more open looks from the outside and should drastically improve his 39.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc. West may not see his scoring numbers increase dramatically, but having the big fella down low is certainly going to free him up for more open looks and his 11.7 PPG from last year could sneak up to somewhere around 13 or 14.
Dallas Mavericks: Ryan Hollins, C
Dallas continues to baffle me year after year by continuing to start Eric Dampier at the center spot. Last year the Mavericks acquired Ryan Hollins from the Bobcats, and started him for two games. In those two games, Hollins averaged 8.0 PPG, 4.0 RPG and 1.0 BPG.
With Dampier not getting any younger and Hollins being the only other center on the Mavericks roster, it only makes sense that Hollins should see an increase in playing time in 2009-10. If he does, then he should see some increased production. Not necessarily great production, but certainly better than his 2008-09 averages of 2.9 PPG and 2.3 RPG would suggest.
Of course, if Dallas signs free agent Rasheed Wallace, then this prediction goes down the drain.
Denver Nuggets: J.R. Smith, G/F
J.R. Smith had the best statistical season of his career last year. So, how could he surprise anyone this year? Well, allow me to explain.
Smith has always been a dangerous, yet somewhat of an erratic scorer, which has led to him staying on George Karl's bench for the vast majority of his time in Denver. However, in a June 16th interview with the Denver Post, Karl said that Smith would likely start in 2009-10, and also gave very high praises to Smith, saying "J.R., we know that we've got to put up with some of his craziness and wildness, but the more he becomes team-efficient, the better he'll become as an all-star type player."
No, that's not a typo. Karl referred to Smith as an All-Star type player. Smith is in line not only for a big boost in minutes, but a big boost in stats as well. He may not jump right into the All-Star mix next season, but he'll certainly be one of the league's more dangerous scoring threats, and add another dimension to Denver's already solid starting lineup.
Detroit Pistons: Kwame Brown, F/C
During the 2008-09 season, the Detroit Pistons had a very deep front court with the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Amir Johnson, Antonio McDyess, Kwame Brown and Jason Maxiell. However, now that the first three names on that list are no longer with the team, Detroit has a gaping hole at both power forward and center.
Assuming they pursue one free agent big man this summer, whichever of the two players listed above is able to keep a starting spot should earn a significant boost in production.
With Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur both "opting in" for the final year of their contracts, the free agent market for front court players is fairly thin, with Charlie Villanueva and Zaza Pachulia headlining. The Detroit News has reported that the team is expected to pursue Villanueva, which means that he will likely be their new starting power forward, since the Pistons are one of few teams this offseason that have a great deal of cap room.
If this happens, then Kwame Brown will more than likely start next to Villanueva and - while I hate to call the biggest bust in draft history a potential breakout candidate - Brown looks to be in line to put up some pretty good numbers. Even in 30 games as a starter last season Brown had to share time in a crowded front court, but when given extensive action (27+ minutes), he produced solid averages of 10.0 PPG and 8.4 RPG. With a very thin front court this year, Brown will be asked to play big minutes and should put up some similar numbers consistently all year long.
Golden State Warriors: Anthony Randolph, F
This was a very tough call, since trying to predict what Don Nelson would do is completely impossible. However, Randolph's late-season success last year and thin competition at power forward made him my choice.
In the month of April, Randolph posted averages of 15.1 PPG, 10.6 RPG and 1.5 SPG in 32.3 MPG, including an April 1st game in which he posted 17 points and 10 rebounds in only 19 minutes of action.
Randolph has reportedly grown an inch since last year and added 20 pounds to his frame this offseason and looks more ready to take the pounding an NBA power forward encounters entering his second season. All signs point to a breakout year from Randolph, but given who his head coach is, I wouldn't count on too much.
Houston Rockets: Carl Landry, F
With Yao Ming's 2009-10 season and possibly career in jeopardy, it is looking more and more like Carl Landry will play a big role in the Rockets plans this season.
With Ron Artest in position to get big money from someone other than Houston, the power forward spot for the rockets will be up for grabs by the likes of Chuck Hayes and Landry, with Luis Scola manning the center position.
In the nine games where Landry logged 28+ minutes, he averaged 14.0 PPG and 7.1 RPG. Landry also scored 20, 21 and 22 points in the three games where he played 30+ minutes. If Landry locks down a starting spot this year, he should post some very nice stats.
Indiana Pacers: Brandon Rush, G/F
The decision of Pacers GM Larry Bird to decline the option to keep Marquis Daniels over the upcoming season can be viewed as a vote of confidence of sorts for Brandon Rush. With Daniels gone, Rush becomes the Pacers primary backup wing player behind Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger. And with Dunleavy playing only 18 games last season, Rush may see plenty of time as a starter this year. There is also a possibility that Rush moves into the starting lineup anyway with Dunleavy coming off the bench.
In his 19 games as a starter last season, Rush put up some very respectable averages of 15.9 PPG and 5.4 RPG in 36.3 MPG while shooting 41.1 percent from behind the arc. That was as a rookie. With the same minutes and another year of experience under his belt, there should be nothing in the way of Rush and a breakout season for the Pacers.
Los Angeles Clippers: Eric Gordon, G
Eric Gordon performed very well as a rookie last season with averages of 16.1 PPG, 2.8 APG and 2.6 RPG. So how could he possibly surprise people this year? Two words: Blake Griffin.
With the addition of Griffin, Gordon has yet another post presense to draw double teams down low and free up the sharpshooter from outside, a dangerous thought. With more looks and another year of maturity, there is no reason to not expect Gordon to top the 20 PPG mark in the 2009-10 season.
Los Angeles Lakers: Josh Powell, F
Josh Powell stands to be the man with the most to gain from the potential departure of Lamar Odom. If Odom walks, then Powell becomes the primary backup big for the NBA champs.
Powell would backup both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, with one of those two manning the center spot when the other goes out, leaving Powell to play power forward in both scenarios.
Last season as a backup Lamar Odom averaged 29.7 MPG. Josh Powell only saw 25+ minutes of court action twice last year, but in those games he posted averages of 16.5 PPG and 8.0 RPG, and there is no telling what he could do with extended minutes in 2009-10. Good things look to be on his horizon if Odom leaves.
Memphis Grizzlies: Mike Conley, G
Mike Conley is the player who benefited most from the coaching change in Memphis last year. Over the final two months of the season (not counting the March 2nd game where he played two minutes before getting injured), Conley averaged 16.2 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.7 RPG and 1.7 SPG in 38.0 MPG.
Memphis gave Conley a huge vote of confidence on June 25th, passing on Spanish phenom Ricky Rubio and hometown hero Tyreke Evans, solidifying Conley as their point guard of the future. There is no reason to believe Conley will do anything but continue to progress this year under Hollins.
Miami Heat: Michael Beasley, F
This was probably the easiest pick to make. With Shawn Marion being dealt last year, the door has opened for Michael Beasley to secure a starting job with the Heat this season, be it at small forward or power forward.
In his 19 games as a starter last season, Beasley put up 16.7 PPG and 6.7 RPG while shooting 37.9 percent from beyond the arc. He has the versatility to play either forward spot, and that versatility should earn him a good deal of playing time and a significant boost in production.
Milwaukee Bucks: Amir Johnson, F
With the imminent departure of Charlie Villanueva, the Bucks have a hole to fill at power forward. Enter newly acquired Amir Johnson. Johnson fell into the doghouse with Detroit after his inconsistent play and foul-prone style last season, however, he should find a niche in Milwaukee.
Johnson will likely be the front-runner to start at power forward with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute manning the small forward spot vacated by Richard Jefferson's departure, while Joe Alexander backs up both positions.
If Johnson can land a starting spot and keep his fouling in line, he should be in prime position to be a good player on a solid young team in Milwaukee. Johnson has a very raw offensive game, but is an explosive shot blocker (he averaged 1.6 BPG when he played 20+ minutes last season) and will bring a good defensive presence to the team.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Ryan Gomes, F
Ryan Gomes started 76 games last year and averaged 13.3 PPG and 4.8 RPG, which are very respectable numbers. However, I expect him to increase those numbers significantly this season.
When Al Jefferson went down last season, Gomes became the team's third scoring option behind Randy Foye and Mike Miller. With both players now in Washington, Gomes looks to be in position to become the Timberwolves' secondary scorer this season.
In the 32 games after Jefferson went down with his injury last year, Gomes averaged 16.2 PPG and 5.4 RPG while playing 32.7 MPG. With Foye and Miller gone, Gomes should see those numbers jump in 2009-10.
New Jersey Nets: Courtney Lee, G
Courtney Lee had a nice rookie year with the Magic, but those numbers should pale in comparison to what he will put up in New Jersey, where Lee will be counted on as the team's third scoring option behind Devin Harris and Brook Lopez.
Last year in Orlando, Lee averaged 10.1 PPG and shot 39.9 percent from beyond the arc in 42 games as a starter while being stuck behind Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson in the struggle for shots, and should see a significant boost in scoring in New Jersey. Lee is primed to have a very big sophomore year for the Nets.
New Orleans Hornets: Hilton Armstrong, C
With Tyson Chandler missing 37 games last year and almost getting traded to the Cavs this offseason, Hilton Armstrong is in position to get a boost in playing time in New Orleans this season. Even when Chandler played last year, he posted poor numbers and his play did not meet expectations. His explosiveness was noticeably missing as a result of his injury and it hurt his play.
So, what does all that mean for Armstrong? Likely an expanded role in 2009-10, regardless of whether Chandler plays or not. Armstrong still has a lot of work to do on his offensive game, but the fact that New Orleans was willing to trade Chandler this offseason shows that they plan to play Armstrong a lot this season, and there is no reason to think he can't improve on his numbers as he matures.
New York Knicks: Larry Hughes, G/F
With Quentin Richardson being traded to Memphis on draft day, Larry Hughes looks to be the Knicks starter at shooting guard this season. He will be playing in Mike D'Antoni's system. Do I even need to say anything else?
All anyone needs to do is look at what D'Antoni did with Joe Johnson in Phoenix to get excited about the possibilities of Hughes in New York this season. That's not to say that Hughes will put up All-Star numbers like Johnson currently does, but he could see some really nice scoring numbers in New York's fast-paced offense.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Shaun Livingston, G
Oklahoma City did something last season that no other team in the league was willing to do: they gave Shaun Livingston a chance. The Thunder played Livingston 23.8 MPG in eight games with the club last year, and Livingston posted averages of 7.8 PPG, 2.0 APG and 3.3 RPG. If Livingston can beat out Earl Watson to be Russell Westbrook's primary backup this season, he could post some respectable numbers all season long.
Don't expect an All-Star season from Livingston in 2009-10, but expect him to be a reliable backup in Oklahoma City and, if Westbrook goes down, expect him to be a solid stopgap.
Orlando Magic: Mickael Pietrus, G/F
There have been rumors flying around that the Orlando Magic will try to sign Rasheed Wallace to play power forward for them, allowing Rashard Lewis to slide back to his natural small forward position with Vince Carter playing the shooting guard spot.
I don't think it'll happen. If Sheed goes to another team like Boston or San Antonio, then I think Lewis stays at the power forward spot with Carter and Pietrus interchangeable at shooting guard and small forward. If that happens, look for Pietrus to break out in 2009-10.
In 25 games as a starter last year, Pietrus averaged 11.7 PPG and 4.0 RPG while still losing minutes to rookie Courtney Lee. With Lee now in New Jersey, Pietrus will not have to share his minutes nearly as much, and it is not inconceivable for him to average somewhere around 15-17 PPG this year.
Philadelphia 76ers: Lou Williams, G
Last season, Lou Williams played admirably for the 76ers, averaging 12.8 PPG in 23.7 MPG while appearing in 81 contests.
While Williams didn't start a single game for Philadelphia, in the 22 games where Williams was on the floor for 28+ minutes, he averaged 17.7 PPG, 3.5 APG, 2.5 RPG and 1.2 SPG. And in the nine games where he played 30+ minutes? 19.7 PPG, 3.4 APG, 3.0 RPG and 1.8 SPG.
With Andre Miller appearing to be on the way out and a very raw rookie in Jrue Holiday joining the team, new 76ers coach Eddie Jordan will likely look to Williams to handle the bulk of the minutes at point guard, which means he should average somewhere between 28-30 minutes per contest, and likely will be able to sustain averages close to the ones listed all year.
Phoenix Suns: Robin Lopez, C
This one was pretty obvious. With Shaq leaving Phoenix, Robin Lopez is in line to become a starter in his second season, and should post good numbers in Phoenix's up-tempo style.
In the 11 of games last year where Lopez saw 20+ minutes of floor time, he averaged 6.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG and 1.8 BPG. When he played 25+ minutes? 9.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 1.8 BPG. He should post higher numbers than those if he locks down a starting job this summer, which he most likely will.
Portland Trailblazers: Jerryd Bayless, G
Jerryd Bayless is in an interesting position. The Trailblazers have been rumored to be interested in Andre Miller, possibly in a sign-and-trade deal involving Steve Blake. If this happened, Bayless would still be my surprise player.
Why? Simple. He compliments the style of both Blake and Miller perfectly.
Miller and Blake are both true point guards who look to set up teammates before scoring themselves. Bayless is the opposite, a scoring point guard who will look to fill it up and get his own looks before sharing the rock. Last season Bayless had some trouble as a rookie after playing just one year of college ball at Arizona, averaging a disappointing 4.3 PPG. But with Sergio Rodriguez gone, Bayless becomes the primary backup to whoever starts at point for the Blazers in 2009-10, and should see a nice pickup in his PPG category, and it is possible he cracks double-digit PPG as a sophomore.
Sacramento Kings: Jason Thompson, F
The Kings not landing the top pick in the draft was a blessing in disguise for Jason Thompson. With Blake Griffin not landing in Sacramento, the path has cleared for Thompson to become a full-time starter in his second season.
In the 56 games he started last season, the rookie showed a great deal of promise by posting averages of 12.3 PPG and 7.8 RPG. With a year of experience under his belt to make him better and a rookie point guard relying on him to be a scoring threat, Thompson should step up this year and see his averages increase on a young and promising Sacramento team.
San Antonio Spurs: Drew Gooden, F/C
Assuming Rasheed Wallace doesn't sign with the Spurs, Drew Gooden looks to be in line for a solid increase in minutes in 2009-10. Last year Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas averaged 12.5 and 17.8 MPG, respectively. With both of those players gone, Gooden will be picking up the slack down low.
After playing for three teams last season (Chicago, Sacramento, San Antonio), Gooden was obviously not able to establish great chemistry with any one team. With a full offseason to establish chemistry in San Antonio, Gooden may even be able to push Matt Bonner for the Spurs' fifth starting spot. If he does, look for some solid production. In his last full season as a starter (2006-07), Gooden averaged 11.1 PPG and 8.5 RPG. It would make sense to expect similar numbers if Gooden starts for the Spurs this year.
Of course this is all contingent on Gooden staying in San Antonio, which most likely depends on the Rasheed Wallace situation.
Toronto Raptors: Joey Graham, G/F
Joey Graham is in a great position this upcoming year. The drafting of DeMar DeRozan likely means that Anthony Parker will walk, and with Shawn Marion also departing in free agency, Graham looks like he will take over a starting spot this season.
With DeRozan being far from a finished product, Raptors coach Jay Triano will likely look to start a veteran at the shooting guard position. This means that even if Toronto makes a move for Hedo Turkoglu, Graham is in position to start.
In 10 games as a starter last season, Graham averaged 11.1 PPG and 4.0 RPG. This season he could post even better numbers as he develops chemistry with the other Raptors starters.
Utah Jazz: Kosta Koufos, C
Even with Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer staying, Kosta Koufos looks like he could surprise in Utah next season. This is because with Boozer and Okur "opting in" for the 2009-10 season, matching any offer made to restricted free agent Paul Millsap will be easier said than done. If Millsap walks, then Koufos is in line to be the primary backup big for the Jazz.
Millsap averaged 13.5 PPG and 8.6 RPG in 30.1 MPG last season. When Koufos was on the floor for 25+ minutes, he averaged 10.6 PPG and 6.8 RPG. If Koufos is given playing time in 2009-10 that is even remotely similar to the time given to Millsap in 2008-09, the results could be very good for both him and the Jazz.
Washington Wizards: Randy Foye, G
Last year Randy Foye was relied on as the secondary scoring option for a dreadful Timberwolves team prior to Al Jefferson's injury, and the primary scoring option after it. He responded by averaging 16.3 PPG despite receiving very few open looks.
In Washington, open looks will be bountiful for Foye, as he will be playing with the likes of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. So what does that mean for Foye? Likely a slight increase in scoring, three-point percentage and field goal percentage. Last year he shot 40.7 percent from the field and 36.0 percent from beyond the arc. This year, it wouldn't be surprising at all to see his three-point percentage top 40 percent.
He may not have a dramatic increase in his scoring output, but he will settle nicely into a role that allows him to get open looks and not be relied on to carry a team. Washington fans are goin to love Foye as a sidekick to Arenas, Butler and Jamison.
Well, that's my prediction for who to watch out for on each team in the NBA this season. Please keep in mind that I do not know for sure what will happen in free agency or trades, and cannot see into the future. These are simply my predictions based on previous stats combined with my opinion.
Hope you enjoyed reading this, and I hope you enjoy the 2009-10 NBA season.
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