After putting together the modified Top-50 list of players from ’08-09, I had about 50 leftovers who just missed the cut. And from that, there could’ve been a whole sub-category titled “Wait ‘Til Next Year.”
Russell Westbrook — Summer league doesn’t mean anything, right? Tell that to the Warriors, who are ready to hand their franchise over to Anthony Randolph after his summer breakout, or Marcus Williams, who earned himself another chance at an NBA paycheck with a strong summer showing in Vegas. Far from that spotlight, Westbrook lit up the lower-profile Orlando Summer League, and is ready to join the NBA’s elite class of PG’s in his second year. Overshadowed last season by fellow rookie PG Derrick Rose and OKC teammate Kevin Durant, Westbrook (15.3 ppg, 5.3 apg) put up numbers not far off R.O.Y. winner Rose. And even when Westbrook hit the wall — after averaging 20 points, six boards and just under six assists in the month of February, in April he averaged 11.9 points on 34% from the field and 18% from three — his assist and steal numbers still improved. Stronger and more prepared for Year 2, Westbrook is about to blow up.
Aaron Brooks — Sans Yao, the Rockets have committed to running, and Brooks is one of the fastest point guards in the world who has been directing up-tempo offenses since high school. Taking over the starting PG job midway through last season after Rafer Alston was traded, Brooks really showed his game in the playoffs (16.8 ppg, 3.4 apg), which included a 34-point outing against the Lakers and two other games of 25-plus points against L.A. and Portland, respectively. Leading a crew that includes new pickup Trevor Ariza, constantly improving Luis Scola, a healthy T-Mac and a crew of hustling bench guys who can run, Brooks will put up numbers, even if the Rockets aren’t that good.
Gilbert Arenas — It’s been two years since we’ve seen the real Gilbert Arenas, but this season he’s (allegedly) back to form. Everybody from Wizards coach Flip Saunders to D.C. reporters to Barry Farms playground ballplayers who have seen Gil say he’s showing no ill effects of the knee injuries that have slowed down his career. And most importantly, he appears to be over the psychological hurdles that go with having a major injury or two. In his brief return to the court last season, Arenas averaged 13 points and a very un-Arenas-like 10 assists per game; if he can still be the scoring threat he once was while also taking on more of a playmaker’s mindset, the already potent Wizards offense (Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Randy Foye, Mike Miller, Nick Young) becomes highly flammable.
Steve Nash — In what was undeniably a down year, Nash still put up 15.7 points and 9.7 assists, respectively eighth and third among NBA point guards in each category. Last year, the Suns were plagued by a controversial coaching/system change (Nash didn’t do Terry Porter any favors by not buying into the system), a change back to the “old style” midway through, constant trade rumors surrounding superstar Ama’re Stoudemire, then Stoudemire’s season-ending eye injury, and an eventual spot in the Lottery. Today, things are more stable in Phoenix, even if they’re not exactly better. Shaq is gone, Amar’e is back, the D’Antonio system (via Alvin Gentry) is back, Grant Hill is back, J-Rich is there for a full season, Leandro Barbosa has been playing well at the FIBA Americas tourney this summer after a down season of his own, and Nash just signed a two-year $22 million extension. If he’s only got one more big season left in him, this will be it.
Kemba Walker — If you only saw the first part and the last part of UConn’s season, you saw what then-freshman PG Kemba Walker has to offer. In the second and third games of his college career, the (generously listed) 6-foot-1 Walker averaged 22 points against Hartford and La Salle; then in the Elite Eight against Missouri, dropped 23 points to help send the Huskies to the Final Four. As a sophomore, the key for Walker will be finding that spark consistently throughout the season. But with former starter A.J. Price gone to the pros, Kemba will at least have the playing time necessary to do it. The Bronx native is one of the quickest players in the country, plus a defensive demon who has all that stereotypical New York heart/swagger the announcers are always talking about. A big season and another deep NCAA Tournament run should propel Kemba into a position where he may enter the 2010 Draft.
(Editor’s note: Because they made last season’s Top 10 list, Chauncey Billups, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, John Wall, Deron Williams, Tyreke Evans, Chris Paul, Ty Lawson and Devin Harris ARE NOT eligible for this list.)