10 NBA Players Ready to Break out of Their Early-Season Funks
At this point of the NBA season, the title favorites have separated themselves from the pack. The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs lead the way in the West while the Cleveland Cavaliers have a stranglehold on the surprisingly competitive Eastern Conference.
While the playoff race is beginning to take form, it's difficult to ignore how some team's key players and X-factors haven't lived up to expectations at this point of the season. A lot of the players on this list stumbled out of the gate but have since started to show promise of improving down the stretch.
Before reading this, keep in mind that the predictions are based purely on averages on the season and in the past two seasons to see how each player played down the stretch. The predictions are hypothetical and will vary for each player.
The list is ranked 10-to-1 so without further ado, let's get started:
10. Jonas Valanciunas
Jonas Valanciunas is not having a bad year, it's just disappointing that he hasn't taken that next step yet.
Valanciunas is currently averaging 12.2 points per game and 8.9 rebounds per game—not far off his career averages of 11.0 PPG and 8.1 RPG. But coming into his fourth season, expectations were high for the big man out of Lithuania. He started off this season with a great game against the Indiana Pacers, scoring 21 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, but then scored six points in the very next game against the Boston Celtics.
Through November, Valanciunas' scoring settled around 12.6 PPG before he got injured and missed 17 games. He is back now and has scored in double figures in four of his last seven games, but he still has room for improvement.
With the All-Star break fast approaching, it'll be important for Valanciunas and the rest of his Toronto Raptors teammates to get some time off before the final stretch of the season for playoff seeding. Valanciunas hasn't been a huge factor for the Raptors late in the season and into the playoffs yet, but I feel that coming into his fourth season and what should be his third playoff appearance, Valanciunas will live up to his potential and become a regular double-double presence in the paint for Toronto.
Prediction: Valanciunas averages 15.6 PPG and 12.3 RPG from February through April.
All stats were used from ESPN.com and are current as of January 15, 2016.
9. Chandler Parsons
Does Mark Cuban regret giving Chandler Parsons a three-year, $46 million contract?
That's a question that it may be too soon to answer, but Parsons has not been worth $15.3 million a year at this point. To be fair, Parsons has had some injury issues that have plagued his production, but even last season he only managed to average 15.7 PPG and 4.9 RPG.
This season started slowly for Parsons as he recovered from injury, averaging under 19 minutes per game through the Dallas Mavericks' first eight games—two of which he did not play in. He only averaged eight points per game before December came around, and if the new year has shown anything, Parsons looks to finally have his feet back under him.
On January 12, Parsons scored 25 points in 41 minutes of action against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Mavericks lost, 110-107, but Parsons arguably played his best game of the season so far.
Parsons may never be worth his contract with Dallas, but the arrow is pointing up in terms of his production for the rest of the season. Toward the end of last season, Parsons came on strong and helped the Mavericks get into playoff contention. I feel that the script will be just the same this season.
Prediction: Parsons averages 16.2 PPG and 5.0 RPG from February through April.
8. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is one of the more interesting players in the NBA. He's loaded with upside, which is one reason why the Golden State Warriors want to keep him around for the foreseeable future, but he doesn't necessarily get the minutes he deserves.
That's no knock on the Warriors coaching staff, as Golden State is loaded with talent in the starting five and on the bench and Barnes has been injured for a good stretch of the season so far. Barnes, after missing 16 games due to an ankle injury, is back in the rotation and looking to regain the form he had in the first half of November, when he averaged 14.1 PPG in 30.1 minutes per game.
Barnes only returned to the rotation on January 4, and he has since averaged 11 PPG. If Barnes can re-establish himself in the rotation on a consistent basis—he scored 12 points off the bench on Thursday—then it would be no surprise to see him start sooner rather than later.
Prediction: Barnes averages 16.5 PPG and 4.5 RPG from February through April.
7. Kobe Bryant
Bryant started the season taking wild shots from everywhere on the court and, even though he missed so many, he still had the green light from head coach Byron Scott. Bryant is averaging 17.0 PPG while shooting 34.7 percent from the field. That field goal percentage is abysmal for any player, but it was so much worse for Kobe at the beginning of the season.
In November, Bryant averaged 14.9 points a game—not bad for a player recovering from a season-ending injury. However, Bryant shot 29.3 percent. For an entire month.
Since then, Bryant's shooting numbers have improved to 39.7 percent in the month of January and while it's still a low percentage, it's important to remember that Bryant is still trying to find his rhythm. The Lakers won't be in playoff contention at any point of the season, but there is no doubt that Bryant will play every game like it's his last. Because in many ways, it is.
Prediction: Bryant averages 19.0 PPG and 4.0 assists per game from February through April.
6. Dwight Howard
From firing Kevin McHale, to the disgruntled relationship between Howard and James Harden, according to Chris Sheridan of sheridanhoops.com, the Rockets have underachieved mightily through the opening months of the season. Howard, who is averaging his lowest scoring numbers since his rookie season—14.2 PPG this season compared to 12.0 PPG in his rookie year—averaged 13.6 PPG and 12.4 RPG for the month of November but has begun to show signs of life in the new year.
The "new year, old me" mentality has paid dividends for Howard.
Howard seems to have turned back the clock as of late, averaging 18.2 PPG and 13.2 RPG through five games this month, and the Rockets finally seem back on track. Howard seems healthier than he has been over recent years, and that will only improve entering the All-Star break with Houston in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Prediction: Howard averages 18.5 PPG and 15.0 RPG form February through April, securing a top-six seed for the Rockets in the Western Conference.
5. Amir Johnson
Amir Johnson is not an elite player, but he is one of the tougher post defenders in the league.
Johnson is averaging 1.2 blocks per game with the Boston Celtics, a career high, but his production has been questionable at times. Johnson did not start his tenure with the Celtics very well, averaging 6.9 PPG and 5.5 RPG through the month of November.
But whatever happened over Christmas, Johnson has reemerged in the new year, averaging 12.3 PPG and 9.3 RPG. The Celtics started the new year slowly, but Johnson came up huge against Indiana this past Wednesday to break the team's four-game losing streak, scoring 14 points and grabbing a season-high 18 rebounds en route to a 103-94 victory.
It's hard to predict how Johnson, and the Celtics for that matter, will continue for the remainder of the season, but expect Johnson to see more playing time if he continues this level of play. Who knows, maybe he'll play so well that general manager Danny Ainge might trade him.
Prediction: Johnson averages 12.0 PPG and 8.0 RPG from February through April and doesn't get traded by the trade deadline on February 18.
4. Wesley Matthews
Wesley Matthews signed a four-year, $70 million contract with the Dallas Mavericks this offseason, which seemed a little risky since Mathews was coming off a torn Achilles. But during his time with the Portland Trail Blazers, Matthews proved to be a valuable asset as one of the league's most consistent two-way players, averaging 15.9 PPG and 3.7 APG last season with the Trail Blazers.
This season, Matthews is averaging 12.8 PPG and 1.7 APG, which aren't bad numbers seeing that he still has some rust he needs to shake off as the season progresses. Matthews averaged 11.2 PPG in November and increased those numbers up to 15 PPG for the month of December.
Matthews has been struggling recently, scoring 36 total points in his past four games, but still has plenty of time—and the All-Star break—to get back in form before the playoffs begin. Currently, the Mavericks have a hold of the fifth seed, 14.5 games back of the Warriors, and if Matthews can begin to show the consistency he has shown in the past with Portland, the Mavericks could make some noise down the stretch.
Prediction: Matthews averages 14.5 PPG and 3.0 APG from February through April.
3. Timofey Mozgov
Remember when Timofey Mozgov was one of the best players for Cleveland last season?
Mozgov is averaging 6.0 PPG and 4.3 RPG this season—a far cry from his 8.5 PPG and 7.8 RPG last year with the Denver Nuggets and Cleveland. Mozgov is one of the only players on this list who actually started the season strong and then tailed off.
Mozgov averaged 7.5 PPG and 4.5 RPG in November, but his minutes have diminished over recent months from 20.2 per game down to 15.0. This month, Mozgov is averaging 4.5 PPG and 4.5 RPG, but that is surely to increase as the playoffs draw closer.
Prediction: Mozgov averages 6.0 PPG and 7.0 RPG while gaining more minutes in the rotation down the stretch.
2. D'Angelo Russell
Drafted second overall by the Lakers, expectations were high for the point guard out of Ohio State. The original results weren't very promising, as Russell shot poorly from the field coming into the league, shooting 32.1 percent.
He's scored in double-digits consistently since entering the league and has recently received more ball-handling duties from Bryant as the season has progressed. In his last two outings for the Lakers, he has scored 13 and 14 points, respectively.
Bryant is passing the torch—and the franchise—to the next generation of Laker players and Russell will soon be at the forefront of the team's success, and he will begin to play more consistently as the season progresses.
Prediction: Russell averages 14.5 PPG and 6.0 APG from February through April.
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
The biggest signing of the offseason and the biggest free-agent signing in Spurs history, LaMarcus Aldridge is the future of Spurs basketball—in tandem with Kawhi Leonard.
It was expected that there would be growing pains with Aldridge after he left Portland and it showed, as he averaged 15.9 PPG and 9.4 RPG in his first month as a Spur. Those numbers aren't pedestrian by any means, but seeing as he averaged 23.4 points and 9.0 rebounds per game last season, those numbers seemed a little disappointing.
Now, however, Aldridge is turning back to form in the new year, averaging 18.2 PPG and 10.2 RPG in January. It's hard to think that the Spurs are an underrated team by any means, but they may be better than they ever have been under Gregg Popovich with a 35-6 record so far this season—just 2.5 games back of the Warriors. And if Aldridge continues this level of play, it won't be long before the Spurs become the favorites to take home the Larry O'Brien trophy.
Prediction: Aldridge averages 19.3 PPG and 12.0 RPG from February through April as the Spurs finish the season with the NBA's best record.
All stats are courtesy of ESPN.com.