5 Young NBA Stars Who Could Fill Paul George's Void Next Season
Paul George's brief stint with Team USA was cut short long before he could contribute to the club's FIBA World Cup competition in Spain.
"I plan on making a full recovery," George recently told reporters. "It will make me stronger."
He added, "I would love to play this year. I know there's a possibility that I won't be back this year, I'm aware of that."
The setback couldn't have come at a worse time for the rising star, especially as his Indiana Pacers attempt to improve upon their recent postseason performances with a legitimate title push. George has established himself as a brilliant all-around two-way player, even garnering some MVP consideration during the early stages of the 2013-14 campaign.
In December of last season, ESPN Stats and Info's Sunny Saini noted, "The NBA MVP award has been given to the player on a team that finished with the best record 58 percent of the time since 1990 and in four of the past five seasons. If George continues to lead the Pacers to a No. 1 seed, he could become the first Pacers player to win the NBA MVP award."
The IndyStar's Candace Buckner later ranked George as the league's fourth-best player in February, writing, "The next big player in the NBA is no doubt Paul George."
With George sidelined, who replaces him as the next big thing in the interim?
5. Klay Thompson
Stephen Curry has already established himself as at least one of the league's next big things.
But could Golden State Warriors teammate Klay Thompson soon join him?
Already regarded as one of the NBA's best pure shooters, Thompson began cementing his reputation with commensurate production last season—just his third. He averaged a career-high 18.4 points per game and converted on 41.7 percent of his three-point attempts.
Though his solid defense is probably underrated, there still remains room for improvement in the 24-year-old's game. He's not especially adept at creating for others (just 2.2 assists per contest last season), while his in-between game and ability to put the ball on the floor could also use some work.
In short, Thompson's next step involves diversifying his game and relying less exclusively on spot-up shooting—a difficult habit to break for a guy who's such an elite shooter.
At the moment, the Washington State product will also have to contend with the fact that Curry is very justifiably overshadowing him.
Fortunately, there's almost certainly enough room in Golden State's offense for Thompson to continue coming into his own. Curry may be getting the lion's share of accolades, but this backcourt could soon be characterized by the full-on emergence of a second superstar.
4. Eric Bledsoe
While his contract situation with the Phoenix Suns remains unsettled, Eric Bledsoe is poised to erase any doubts he's worth every penny he wants.
Despite playing in just 43 games last season due to injury, Bledsoe racked up solid numbers across the board, averaging 17.7 points, 5.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. He's a capable three-point shooter (35.7 percent last season) and uses his exceptional speed to get to the basket.
Assuming the Suns and Bledsoe arrive at an agreement, this season could be a special one for the 24-year-old.
Even as Phoenix relies on an ensemble effort to get the job done, the team desperately needs a legitimate superstar who can carry the load at times. It remains to be seen whether Bledsoe has that kind of pedigree, but he's certainly the organization's best hope at the moment.
And thanks to the Suns' blistering pace, Bledsoe will continue to get plenty of touches and scoring opportunities, helping pad those numbers and potentially yielding some of the All-Star variety.
3. John Wall
John Wall didn't make the cut with Team USA, but the 23-year-old's fourth season with the Washington Wizards was easily his best so far, and it showed.
En route to an eventual second-round playoff showing, Wall averaged 19.3 points, 8.8 assists and 1.8 steals per contest during the regular season. Long known for his quickness and elite slashing ability, the Kentucky product is beginning to add a perimeter dimension to his game. He posted a career-high 35.1 percent from the three-point arc, and that figure could still improve further.
Wall's status is aided by the Wizards' climb into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Last season was the first since 2007-08 that the club made the postseason.
With Team USA cutting Wall before FIBA World Cup competition in Spain, you can also count on a little extra motivation elevating his game this season.
"You want to make every team you try out for," Wall recently told reporters. "When you don’t, it’s more motivation for me."
With 21-year-old shooting guard Bradley Beal at Wall's side, Washington boasts one of the most impressive young backcourts in the league. As the duo continues to develop some chemistry, both of their games may reach another level.
2. Anthony Davis
Like the top player on this list, Anthony Davis has just two NBA seasons under his belt.
And it was the second one that really opened eyes.
Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game last season for the New Orleans Pelicans. His much-improved mid-range game has made him a scoring threat from all over the floor, but it's his imposing defensive skills that make him a real standout talent.
Unfortunately, the attention paid to Davis' ascendance is hampered by the fact that the Pelicans haven't been very good.
With a promising young roster returning to full health this season, that could change. In turn, you might actually start hearing about Davis' meteoric improvement on a semi-regular basis.
Davis is currently preparing with Team USA to take the FIBA World Cup in Spain by storm. His role with the club now takes on renewed importance in the wake of George's injury and Kevin Durant's decision to withdraw from the competition.
U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski recently explained, per USA Today's Chris Strauss:
Anthony would have had a huge role no matter what. Anthony's one of the best players in the NBA. Scoringwise, he'll get more opportunities. If you have Durant, you're going to put things in for him. When he's not there those things aren't in so for everybody it becomes a little more available. Anthony played a great [exhibition] game against Brazil, not a good game. He had an influence on every exchange offensively or defensively while he was in there.
Davis' contributions to Team USA are almost certainly a sign of things to come. Having added some strength during the offseason, the bigger and better 21-year-old is poised to leave his mark on the NBA this season.
1. Damian Lillard
But the super-clutch bucket was the cherry on top of the 24-year-old's first All-Star season.
In just his second season, Lillard averaged 20.7 points and 5.6 assists per contest, establishing himself as one of the league's brightest young point guards—indeed, one of its emergent superstars. The Weber State product was named 2013's Rookie of the Year after posting 19 points and 6.5 assists per game.
As much as Lillard has already accomplished, his career with the Portland Trail Blazers is still young. The best is almost certainly yet to come, and it could come sooner rather than later.
Lillard has spent this summer's Team USA experience learning from former MVP Derrick Rose.
"It was a lot of fun," Lillard said of working with Rose in training camp, per ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell. "Not only to play against him but to play with him, to watch his habits. I think it's a great thing for a guy coming up in this league to be able to play with and against a guy who's been an MVP, been to the conference finals."
Before long, Lillard could be vying for MVP considerations of his own. He's a deadly long-range shooter with a rapidly improving in-between game.
With some growth in the facilitation department (and a serious step forward on the defensive end), it may become increasingly difficult to find a better floor general.
Lillard is already getting head-turning endorsement deals, landing a massive deal with Adidas last season even before his postseason heroics raised his stardom to another level. Adidas is certainly paying attention, and the rest of us should be too.
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