5 NBA Stars Who Started Slow and Turned It Around
NBA stars rise on different schedules.
Some are no-doubt elites almost from the beginning. LeBron James entered the Association as a 20-point scorer. Luka Doncic just debuted like no one had since Oscar Robertson. Stephen Curry kicked off his career by wowing with three-point volume and efficiency.
But plenty of budding ballers needed more time to develop. And despite our current obsession with instant gratification, it's OK if a prospect isn't ready to rise right out of the gate.
In fact, if you find yourself waiting for an NBA youngster to overcome a slow start, take solace in knowing the following five NBA standouts already blazed that trail.
Kyle Lowry's career trajectory is the road never traveled.
The Memphis Grizzlies used the 24th pick to get him in the 2006 draft, then they shipped him to the Houston Rockets less than three years later. The Rockets coaxed better numbers out of him, but they also sent him packing three-plus years after he arrived.
He had developed a reputation for not playing well with others—"Me and authority didn't get along," Lowry told ESPN's Jordan Brenner—and didn't have the production to justify the trouble. When he headed north of the border in 2012, he brought along career marks of 10.4 points and 4.8 assists per game on 42.0/33.0/78.3 shooting.
Neither he nor the Toronto Raptors were sure about the other. As he wrote for The Players' Tribune, "I figured I'd do my thing and show my talents, but in two years I would become a free agent and I'd be gone."
The Raptors, meanwhile, nearly sent him to the New York Knicks in 2013 before New York bailed at the last minute.
But Lowry and the Raptors became the Association's surprise success story. They entrusted him with a starting gig and later the keys to the franchise, and he responded with on-court leadership and stat-sheet awesomeness. Since joining Toronto, he ranks among the NBA's top 20 in points (8,623, 20th), assists (3,506, eighth), three-pointers (1,223, seventh), steals (746, 11th) and win shares (62.9, 11th).
He made his All-Star debut in his ninth NBA season (2014-15), and he hasn't been left out of the festivities since.
Khris Middleton knew about starting and stopping long before he harnessed the defense-shedding ability to change speeds.
After building an NBA buzz over two-plus seasons at Texas A&M, his third campaign was disrupted by a meniscus tear. He only lost a month of games, but the damage went far beyond that. He wasn't the same player, and his draft stock tumbled from first-round lock to the 39th selection of the 2012 talent grab.
His NBA career started the way myriad second-rounders' have: on the bench and far off the national radar. As ESPN's Zach Lowe recalled, "Middleton fell behind fellow rookies Kyle Singler and Kim English."
For context, English's last NBA appearance came in April 2013, and Singler amassed a 7.5 player efficiency rating over his final four seasons.
After his rookie year, Middleton was traded from the Detroit Pistons to the Milwaukee Bucks to help match money in a Brandon Knight-Brandon Jennings swap. He was a different player with the Bucks, averaging 14.5 points on 45.0 percent shooting (40.5 percent from deep) over his first three seasons before a hamstring tore completely off the bone and delayed his fourth for three-plus months.
But Middleton again rose in the face of adversity, proving just how powerful perseverance can be in this league. He averaged 20 points for the first time in his age-26 season. He made his first All-Star appearance the following year and was the primary supporting actor in Milwaukee's rise to become a 60-win powerhouse.
He's a secondary scorer and playmaker who can lead the offense in either discipline, a shifty isolation creator, a lethal long-range shooter and a versatile defensive weapon. No one could've seen this ascension coming.
Paul Millsap was the 47th pick of the 2006 draft and a member of the 2006-07 All-Rookie second team. In almost any circumstance, that would make him a rapid-starter.
But context is critical. Weighed only against his draft slot, sure, he did more than expected early in his NBA career. Change the expectations to what he has become, though, and you never could've foreseen Carlos Boozer's former backup becoming a four-time All-Star.
Plus, you should read nothing into Millsap's All-Rookie nod. Those rosters were comically bad. Randy Foye, Jorge Garbajosa and Andrea Bargnani all grabbed first-team slots, while Millsap was joined on the second team by Walter Herrmann, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas and Marcus Williams. Some participation trophies are harder to get than this distinction.
Early-career Millsap was mediocre. He provided energy and smarts off the Utah Jazz's bench, and he rarely strayed outside his energizer lane. He finally spread his wings a bit once Boozer bolted following Millsap's fourth season, but his game was still muted by an inside-the-arc offensive assignment and limited involvement in distribution duties.
In 2013, he left the Jazz after seven seasons and took career averages of 12.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists with him. He joined the Atlanta Hawks and announced himself to casual NBA fans shortly thereafter. Tasked with a growing list of responsibilities that now included three-point shooting and secondary shot-creating, he crashed the league's most-versatile-player discussions and its All-Star Game.
Millsap was an All-Star each of his four seasons in Atlanta, and the Hawks were twice a 48-plus-win team during his tenure. He has since moved on to the Denver Nuggets and helped elevate them from outside the playoff picture to the West's No. 2 seed.
Though he was the 11th overall pick of the 2006 draft, expectations were modest for JJ Redick.
Teams figured he could shoot the long ball, and he did, clearing 37 percent from distance over each of his six full seasons with the Orlando Magic. What no one knew was whether he could bring more to the basketball court.
For the longest time, that answer seemed a resounding no. He averaged fewer than seven points his first three seasons and owned a single-digit career scoring average through eight campaigns. He didn't make a single start until his third season and wouldn't make 40-plus starts until his ninth.
But there was incremental growth along the way. Somehow, that still hasn't stopped. Redick posted a career-high scoring average in his age-29 season. Then he did so again at ages 30, 33 and 34. In 2018-19, he posted a personal-best 18.1 points per game—more than De'Aaron Fox, Kevin Love, Pascal Siakam, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Lowry.
Redick owns top-25 career rankings in three-point percentage (41.3, 18th) and three-point makes (1,704, 21st). He has earned more than $91 million, not counting the $13.5 million he'll collect from the New Orleans Pelicans this season. Not bad for someone who wasn't an every-night regular until his fourth season.
"If you had told me like 10 years ago as a third-year guy struggling to get into the rotation that I would score 10,000 [career] points, I would think you were crazy," Redick said in December, per NBC Sports Philadelphia's Noah Levick.
While it's possible some celebrated Kemba Walker becoming a double-digit scorer as a rookie and a 17-points-per-night supplier by Year 2, many reserved judgment until his shooting rates reached respectable levels.
That process dragged from one season to the next. He shot below 40 percent in three of his first four campaigns. He landed south of 31 percent from deep in half and below 34 percent in all four. It seemed he was entrenched in his NBA niche as a mid-volume, low-efficiency scorer.
"Walker knocked down just 31.8 percent of his threes through his first four seasons—a dreadful stat compounded by his number of attempts (1,165)—and he was the worst high-volume outside shooter in the league by a wide margin during that stretch," Michael Pina wrote for Bleacher Report in 2016. "In most cases, a wart that noticeable never disappears."
But Walker erased his biggest weakness with a mechanical adjustment—moving his shooting pocket to have a more direct line to the basket, per Pina—and tireless work. After finishing his fourth season with a 30.4 percent perimeter conversion rate, he rocketed to 37.1 in his fourth. He has maintained a 37.7 three-point percentage over the past four years, which might be the biggest factor in his All-Star emergence.
With a surer shot and more leverage on the defense, he has cemented himself among the league's most potent offensive weapons. He is one of only four players to average 20 points, five assists and two triples each of the last four seasons, and he made his first All-Star start at age 28 in 2018-19.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.