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The NBA's Top Candidate for a 2nd-Half Breakout at Every Position

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterJanuary 16, 2016

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 7: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates after scoring against the Sacramento Kings on January 7, 2016 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

When the 2014-15 NBA season began, the Utah Jazz looked like a run-of-the-mill lottery team. Some of their up-and-comers, like Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, were finding their way on offense, but the team's defense, with Enes Kanter in the middle, was stuck in reverse.

Then, in one fell swoop around last season's midway point, Utah traded Kanter to the Oklahoma City Thunder, bumped a wiry French center named Rudy Gobert into the starting lineup and became the stingiest defensive squad in the NBA. The Jazz, 19-34 before the swap, went 19-10 the rest of the way while Gobert barged his way into the Defensive Player of the Year race.

Who will emerge as this season's Stifle Tower? The league is filled with candidates across the court. Here are the best bets at all five positions, with honorable mentions below. 

Point Guard: D'Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers

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At this point, D'Angelo Russell is too far behind Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor to realistically compete in the NBA's Rookie of the Year race. A role off the bench, operating in the background of Kobe Bryant's farewell tour, hasn't made it easy for the No. 2 pick to keep up with his draft classmates.

But the Lakers' admission that player development isn't their top priority hasn't stopped Russell from evolving.

Since Byron Scott benched him, Russell's put together a handful of promising performances: 23 points in a narrow overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 9; 24 points and six assists two nights later in San Antonio; 19 and seven in a blowout win over Milwaukee; 16 and three to send the Mamba off in style in Boston; and a career-high 27 on 11-of-16 shooting to drag L.A. back from a 27-point abyss in Sacramento.

Week by week, the swagger that convinced the Lakers to pluck Russell out of Ohio State is showing up on the court—and catching the eye of Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding: "Russell is the alpha male who believes in his star quality as a maestro basketball conductor. He will warily keep some distance until you earn his trust. Yet he wears his self-confidence prominently whether he likes you or not, whether his shot falls or fails."

With Bryant nursing aches and pains from night to night, Russell should find the minutes he needs to shine more consistently.

Honorable Mentions

Shane Larkin, Brooklyn Nets: With Jarrett Jack (torn ACL) done for the season and the Nets desperate for hope, Larkin is in line for some serious playing time.

Jerian Grant, New York Knicks: Grant's struggled with his shot all season but finally came up big (16 points, eight assists) in the Knicks' critical win over the Boston Celtics on Jan. 12.

Cameron Payne, Oklahoma City Thunder: OKC's 2015 lottery pick has scored in double figures four times since surpassing D.J. Augustin on Billy Donovan's depth chart in late December.

Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Detroit Pistons

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's shot still isn't as sharp as advertised when the Pistons picked him No. 8 in the 2013 draft. He's hit 33.3 percent of his career attempts from beyond the arc and is shooting worse than that this season: 32.1 percent, which is below the league average of 35 percent.

But Caldwell-Pope is so much more than a supposed marksman. While his shot plays catch-up, he's grown into a pesky perimeter defender. Just look at the list of KCP's victims, as laid out by MLive.com's David Mayo:

Stephen Curry of Golden State scored 22 points against the Pistons, and averages 29.7. Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City scored 14, and averages 25.3. Bradley Beal of Washington scored seven, and averages 19.8. Dwyane Wade of Miami has averaged 10.5 points in two games against Detroit, compared to 18.5 for the season.

The difference for Caldwell-Pope? Preparation. He's taken greater pains to master his mark's tendencies prior to tipoff.

"You've got to study your opponents, each and every game. It's someone different every night," Caldwell-Pope told Mayo.

The 22-year-old's offense is rounding into form, too. During a seven-game stretch from New Year's Eve through mid-January, Caldwell-Pope scored 20 or more points four times—as many as he did in his first 32 appearances of the 2015-16 season.

Better yet: Over that same span, he's drained 38.6 percent of his 6.3 threes per game.

Honorable Mentions

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks: Matthews, who tore his Achilles late last season, hit 44.2 percent of his threes and scored in double figures 10 times during an 11-game stretch between late December and mid-January.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Since taking over for the injured Eric Bledsoe (season-ending knee surgery) on Dec. 28, Booker, the NBA's youngest player, has averaged 13.7 points on 46.5 percent shooting.

Small Forward: Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Since the calendar flipped to 2016, Danilo Gallinari has played easily his best basketball since tearing his ACL in 2013, if not the best of his NBA career. During his first six games of January, the 27-year-old Italian tallied 26.2 points and a whopping 12.3 free throws per game—more than James Harden, the league leader in nightly foul shots, has averaged for the season.

"I'm feeling pretty good," Gallinari said, per the Denver Post's Christopher Dempsey. "My body feels good, and I'm pretty confident. So I think that I'm playing at a pretty good level. But hopefully I'm playing good, and the team is winning. If I'm playing like this, but the team doesn't win, it doesn't work for anybody."

More often than not, Gallo's big games work for everybody in the Mile High City. The Nuggets are 11-5 when he tops the 20-point mark.

"He is to me, if we keep on winning and he keeps on playing at that level, he's a guy that you should talk about making an All-Star team," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said in praise of Gallinari, per Dempsey. "If he can continue to play at such a high level. He puts the time in, and the biggest thing is he'll get there if we continue to win."

At the very least, Gallinari will make the Nuggets feel good about the three-year, $45.5 million extension they handed him in August if he keeps this up through April.

Honorable Mentions

Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks: If his performance since New Year's Eve (13.7 points on 50.9 percent shooting, nine straight double-digit scoring games) is any indication, Parker is finding his groove following major knee surgery that ended his rookie season.

Doug McDermott, Chicago Bulls: The longer Mike Dunleavy Jr. is on the shelf with back trouble, the more Dougie McBuckets will get to shoot his way to nights like the 17-point showing he had in Philadelphia on Jan. 14.

T.J. Warren, Phoenix Suns: Should the Suns move Markieff Morris, Warren would become the team's top bench scorer—and get to put up more games like the 29-point explosion he posted against OKC on New Year's Eve.

 

Power Forward: Terrence Jones, Houston Rockets

HOUSTON, TX - JANUARY 13: Terrence Jones #6 of the Houston Rockets shoots the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 13, 2016 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

The Rockets have waited more than three years for Terrence Jones to make good on his considerable promise as the No. 18 pick in the 2012 draft. And Jones, for his part, has been waiting on his body to hold up long enough to follow through.

After missing time in training camp with a bruised rib and five games recovering from a laceration on his right eyelid, Jones is finally delivering. He scored in double figures three times during a recent four-game stretch, including a 20-point spurt to help Houston blow out the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 12.

His part could get even bigger from here on out. On Wednesday, Jones, who's spent most of the season on the bench, got the nod to start the second half of Houston's win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

With Donatas Motiejunas still sidelined by back problems and Clint Capela limited offensively, Jones could secure the Rockets' starting spot at power forward so long as he continues to separate himself.

Honorable Mentions

Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers: As Bryant hogged the spotlight in Oakland on Jan. 14, Randle was busy racking up 14 points, nine rebounds and three assists while looking more and more like a one-man wrecking crew.

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic: In the seven games leading up to the Magic's trip to London, Gordon poured in 8.7 points and 6.7 rebounds in 24.5 minutes, draining 38.5 percent of his threes.

 

Center: Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

Now that Tristan Thompson is starting in Cleveland, that five-year, $82 million deal no longer looks so outlandish.

Thompson showed the world what he could do as a starter during the 2015 playoffs, when he averaged 10.6 points and 12.1 rebounds in place of the injured Kevin Love and helped nudge the Cavs to within two wins of the franchise's first title.

But those starts all came at power forward. Timofey Mozgov's struggles coming back from offseason knee surgery all but forced head coach David Blatt's hand to give Thompson big minutes at center.

Though undersized for the position at 6'9", the 24-year-old Torontonian is once again thriving up front. Since leapfrogging Mozgov on Cleveland's depth chart Dec. 28, Thompson has averaged 9.6 points and 8.9 rebounds while hitting 60 percent of his field goals in nine starts. He was particularly prolific against the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 14, piling up 18 points and 14 rebounds against a team the Cavs could see in a Finals matchup.

Cleveland can count on Thompson to gobble up rebounds, second-chance buckets and lobs. He's the NBA's active iron man with 326 consecutive games played.

"Some guys are going to be all-time leading scorers, 20-time All-Stars," Thompson said, per the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd. "This will be my lane right here: rebounding and consecutive games played."

It's a lane Thompson fills well and should have locked down in Cleveland for the rest of the 2015-16 season, if not long past that.

Honorable Mentions

Cody Zeller, Charlotte Hornets: Al Jefferson (knee surgery) could be out for another month, leaving Zeller (11.1 points on 50.7 percent shooting, 8.8 rebounds since Big Al went under the knife Dec. 30) to shine as a starter in Charlotte.

Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics: The C's need shooting to open up driving lanes for Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner and Jae Crowder, and none of their bigs fling it better than Olynyk (41.2 percent from three).

 

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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