NBA Stars Ready for Career Years in 2018-19

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 3, 2018

NBA Stars Ready for Career Years in 2018-19

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    An apex and a plateau all in one, the NBA career year is often inherently bittersweet.

    It means it's as well as a player will ever perform.

    Most of the guys on our list are still young enough to sustain the peak levels we're predicting for a few more years. But the overarching idea is that 2018-19 will represent the absolute best we can expect for the player's career.

    Example: Stephen Curry peaked in 2015-16 with his unanimous MVP honor. He's still a top-five player, but he's never going to be his 2015-16 self again. That's just how aging and career trajectories work.

    Health has to be a factor because you can't turn in a career year if you miss a bunch of time. For some, like Joel Embiid for example, predicting a career year in 2018-19 means forecasting excellent health while also implying breakdowns might still be on the more distant horizon.

    More broadly, the players we'll highlight are at points in their careers where their skills, smarts, team situations and athleticism combine to portend big things. The biggest, actually.

    For these guys, it'll never get better from a performance perspective than 2018-19.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Maybe it's a mistake to start with a prediction this bold. After all, saying Anthony Davis is in line for a career year in 2018-19 means disregarding the phenomenal season he had in 2014-15. For most players, that season would have represented an awe-inspiring peak.

    Davis, 21 at the time, posted a box plus-minus of plus-7.1 while averaging 24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and a league-leading 2.9 blocks. Though his counting stats have improved in subsequent seasons, Davis has still never matched the BPM or NBA-best player efficiency rating of 30.8 he managed in that remarkable campaign.

    That said, AD is going to top 2014-15 (and every other year before and after it) this season.

    Davis is 25 and seems to have settled into an ideal role as the lone big in a pace-pushing offense. His physical peak (Davis is far stronger now than he was as a 21-year-old) has arrived at a time when his mental understanding of the game is at an all-time high. The guy who finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season had a superior understanding of positioning and rotations than the version who swatted shots but wasn't always in the right spot four years ago.

    Defensively, Davis can do everything you'd want from a conventional center—rim protection, rebounding, shot-blocking—and everything modern schemes demand of undersized bigs. AD can switch, trap, tag or drop in the pick-and-roll, which makes him more resistant to small ball than almost any other player his size (6'11"). 

    Don't be surprised if Davis posts averages of 30 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks while knocking down 36 percent of his threes on solid volume. If he manages those stats, which are only marginally better than the ones he posted last season, it won't just be his best year. It'll be the only such season we've ever seen from anyone.

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

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    The scariest part of banking on a career year for Bradley Beal is that it largely depends on the health and effectiveness of John Wall, who missed 41 games last year and clearly looked to be on the decline.

    Wall doesn't need to be his best for Beal to thrive; he just needs to be on the floor.

    Last season, Beal shot it better from the field and from deep when Wall was on the court. He also rebounded at a higher rate and turned the ball over less frequently. Though he's improving incrementally as a facilitator, Beal still works best as a play-finisher when set up by others. Wall, obviously, is integral to that.

    A rolling Dwight Howard should suck the defense into the lane more effectively than Marcin Gortat did, and another step forward from Kelly Oubre would give Washington one more weapon defenses have to burn calories worrying about.

    There's significant downside risk if the Wizards' chemistry is as bad as many expect, but if these guys keep it together, Beal should be in his best-ever position to produce.

    At 25, Beal is an established sniper with consistently improving foul-drawing and passing skills. He set personal bests with 4.5 free-throw attempts, 4.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game last year. And that was all with Wall missing half of Washington's season.

    The arrow is angling up for Beal. As long as the Wizards don't tear each other apart in the locker room, he's set up to play his best ball.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    If not for a freak collision that broke his face and cost him the final eight games of the regular season, Joel Embiid would have cracked the 70-game mark last year. That makes betting on his health a little less intimidating, but we're still dealing with a guy who played 31 games in his first three years.

    We're walking a bit of a tightrope here by expecting a fully healthy year while also implying that won't be the norm going forward.

    If Embiid stays on the floor, it seems reasonable to project at least 26 points, 13 rebounds and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Those might even be modest expectations after a 2017-18 season that included averages of 22.9 points, 11 rebounds and a second-place finish behind Rudy Gobert for DPOY. Minor upticks would get Embiid to the level we're anticipating.

    Imagine if Ben Simmons improves and Markelle Fultz gives the Sixers another creator/scoring threat. Even if Fultz is still hesitant from the perimeter, he'll be a blur in transition and a chaos-creator when attacking in the half court. At the very least, it's safe to assume he'll warrant greater defensive attention and free up his teammates more than TJ McConnell did last year.

    Embiid could see many more lobs and easy clean-up buckets on the offensive glass with Simmons and Fultz relentlessly getting into the lane and drawing help.

    The training wheels appear to be off, and Embiid enters 2018-19 with the bitter taste of playoff defeat in his mouth. Motivation shouldn't be a problem, and for a player who struggled with his conditioning, hard work in the offseason that produces better stamina could make all the difference. Remember, Embiid averaged just 30.3 minutes per game last year. If he bumps that figure up to 34, he won't even have to improve his efficiency to reach the counting numbers we're looking for. 

    There's risk that Embiid can't hold up physically, but that's always going to be there. Ultimately, we're wagering this is the season everything comes together.

Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

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    Jimmy Butler won Most Improved Player in 2014-15 and posted three straight superior seasons. CJ McCollum won it after Butler and followed suit, producing two better years immediately afterward. Giannis Antetokounmpo chased his MIP win with a nearly MVP-worthy effort in 2017-18.

    All that goes to show that winning Most Improved has recently meant there's even more in store.

    Which brings us to Victor Oladipo, last year's winner and a player we're anticipating will take another step forward.

    Oladipo is already 26, a bit older and more toward what ought to be the middle of his prime than anyone on this list. That makes it easier to say he'll go bonkers this year and then level off or decline.

    He has more playmaking help than he did a year ago with Tyreke Evans aboard. That should lead to Oladipo scoring more efficiently and making even greater contributions on D. In other words, last year's league leader in steals per game could easily increase his average of 2.4 swipes—if only because he won't be exhausted after singlehandedly controlling everything the Pacers do on offense.

    If Myles Turner expands his range and Doug McDermott hits threes at the clip we're accustomed to, Oladipo's assists could spike. What's more, better spacing could produce clearer driving lanes for one of the NBA's best downhill attackers.

    Finally, according to J. Micheal of the Indianapolis Star, appearing on the Dunc'd On Basketball Podcast, last summer was the first time Oladipo learned how to approach offseason work:

    "I think that was off the court, that he wasn't sure how to be a professional, how to be an NBA player, the work required and the dedication necessary. You can work hard and spin your wheels...he had to learn that stuff on his own, and he said his first few years he was rudderless. He didn't know how to structure workouts, who you should hire, why you should hire this guy over this guy and things like that. He had to figure all of that out."

    Now armed with the knowledge of how to keep improving, Oladipo is going to reach another level in 2018-19.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo has a better chance of making this prediction look bad than anyone else on the list—not because he'll struggle to produce his best year to date, but because it's harder to make the case he'll be done improving after this season.

    His ceiling is incalculable.

    That said, Antetokounmpo could easily put up 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and finally add a reliable three-point shot to his game. An MVP award is attainable, and there's no telling how impactful he might be on defense in new head coach Mike Budenholzer's schemes.

    Because there's no question about Antetokounmpo posting a monster season, the tougher sell job remains arguing he won't top it in 2019-20 and beyond. To make the case, we have to acknowledge how important athleticism is to Antetokounmpo's game and wager his age-24 season will represent a physical peak. Maybe an injury will slow him down later in his career, or maybe the latter half of his 20s won't feature the same loping strides in the open floor and ruthless finishing power at the rim.

    That's no sure bet.

    This prediction also requires faith in the Bucks. If you're assuming Antetokounmpo is a surefire MVP candidate, you're probably giving the Bucks at least 50 wins and a top-three seed in the East. That's possible, but it's far from certain.

    Budenholzer is a major key here, as he'll be tasked with unlocking the talent on Milwaukee's roster after too many seasons of nonsensical strategic decisions under Jason Kidd. If Budenholzer delivers sound schemes on both ends that empower the considerable talent in Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo has a better chance of ascending to the level we're expecting.