Remember when Steph Curry dropped 54 at MSG? Or when Paul George went head-to-head and shot-for-shot with LeBron? How about when James Harden finally made a name for himself as one of the premier players in the league? Those were all moments when great players made “the leap” to star players.
It can happen at any time, so we at Dime want to prep you readers on who to look out for this upcoming season. With an era of stars beginning to ride off into the sunset — Kobe, Duncan, Garnett, Kidd, Dirk — a new group of studs must fill that void. These are the players most likely to make “The Jump” next season…
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While Summer League play shouldn’t be read into too much, there’s no question that Valanciunas looks miles further in his development than last year. Taking home MVP honors, the Raptors big man nearly averaged a 20/10 line and dominated inferior competition with his newly-added bulk.
Defensively, he should be able to bang bodies with the toughest centers the East has to offer. He already showed incredible promise in his rookie season, and his increased size should only add to his interior presence.
At just 21 years old, I think we should temper expectations a little bit on Valanciunas. I do believe, however, that he’ll be a force to be reckoned with sooner rather than later.
Walker shined on one of the worst teams in the league last season, mainly because there weren’t many other options on the court at any given time. Surrounded by the likes of the inconsistent Byron Mullens, the project that is Bismack Biyombo, and a struggling Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte relied on its point guard to carry the load.
Now, he has a legit center in Al Jefferson, who he can just feed the fall to and watch him go to work in the paint. They also added Cody Zeller through the draft, who lit it up during Summer League and showed much more promise than many Bobcat fans initially thought. With the new weapons around him, Walker should find himself much more at ease than in his prior two seasons. If he can refine his decision-making, then we could see him in New Orleans on All-Star Weekend.
With the departure of starters Jefferson and Paul Millsap, it’s finally time to see the new, young frontcourt in Utah flourish. Derrick Favors, 22 years old, and Enes Kanter, 21, will see their minutes, and play, skyrocket. Kanter shined in his two starts this past season, inclunding one outing where he grabbed 22 boards to go along with his 23 points. His per-36 minutes stats suggest that he should be a double-double machine when given more playing time.
Favors should also benefit greatly from his new role on the team as a primary scorer. The exit of Jefferson and Millsap left the Jazz with a pressing need for others to step up on offense, and Favors seems like the likely candidate to help fill that void. He’s already entering his fourth year in the league, so he’s used to the grind of a NBA season. With a starting lineup that may consist entirely of guys younger than 25, it should be really intriguing to see what Utah’s new big men can bring to the table.
We may have watched Thompson’s “jump” on display during Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals. The lengthy marksman shot an absurd 8-for-9 from deep while setting career-highs in both points and rebounds. As one half of the duo dubbed the greatest shooting backcourt in league history by Mark Jackson, Thompson is establishing himself as a stud in his own right. There’s no shortage of confidence on this Golden State squad, and the Klayzerbeam seems to have only benefited from sharing the ball with Steph Curry.
The sky is the limit for these two, who could each go off on any given night. With Curry demanding most of the attention on the wing, Thompson should get his fair share of open looks and he should take advantage of them. Data shows that Thompson is turning into an elite one-on-one defender, with opponents contributing just 0.79 points per possession against him. If he can find a way to hold onto the ball a bit better and cut down on turnovers, Thompson could be an All-Star this season.
In an age where more and more teams rely on their point guards to be way more than just facilitators, Rubio is the outlier. Despite his prowess as a ballhandler and passer, the third-year Spaniard can’t shoot worth a lick, hitting just 36 percent of his field goals this season. There’s no doubting his superior court vision, but at times he seems like more of a burden for Minnesota than a playmaker.
But the reason I think that Rubio will vastly improve this season and finally live up to the hype is the addition of Kevin Martin and the return of Kevin Love. Martin comes to a team whose top outside threat, J.J. Barea, connected on only 35 percent of his threes. The newcomer completely changes the dynamic for the team, allowing more floor spacing and is a perfect backcourt mate for Rubio. Love will become the focal point of defenses once again and give the point guard a fantastic option on the interior. I think we’ll see Rubio in the double-double range by the end of next season, and with an improved jump shot, maybe even an All-Star appearance.
I believe that Monroe will be the true beneficiary in the move to acquire Josh Smith in free agency. Many of you probably think that Andre Drummond‘s name should appear on this list, but he’s still too raw for me to think that he’ll be a star as soon as next season. Monroe’s game is much more polished and with Drummond’s expanded role and the addition of Smith to the mix, he should have much less pressure to carry the interior load.
His average defense should be overshadowed by his new frontcourt mates, and if anything, improve it.
Leonard shined brightest under the lights of a national audience, putting up stellar numbers throughout the postseason, including an insane 19-point, 16-rebound performance in Game 7 of the Finals. With the aging foundation of the Spurs slowly slipping away into their twilight years, San Antonio will soon look to the 22-year-old to become the new face of the franchise.
The Finals surely left a sour taste in his mouth, and Leonard is probably itching to get back on the court. They say you must fail in life to truly succeed, so we’ll see what Leonard learned from his first Finals appearance. With a guy who was thought to be limited offensively coming out of college, the Spurs have to be pleased with what they’ve seen from him through his first two seasons. The defense is already there, the killer mentality is already there, it’s now just a matter of time until Kawhi is the guy.
The Rookie of the Year had one of the most outstanding freshman campaigns in recent memory, even gracing the cover of our February issue. While playing every game for the Trail Blazers, Lillard put up some fantastic numbers, averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists on the season. With the first year jitters gone, there’s no doubt in my mind that Lillard will easily be able to drop 20 a night.
On the other side of the ball, Lillard was less than spectacular. He ranked 306th in the league when defensing in isolation and also struggled coming off of screens on pick-n-roll plays. It seems he understands where he needs improvement, recently quoted by Blazers.com, “I know that, offensively, there’s some things I need to improve on. But offensively, the game comes easy to me. Defense is how I’m going to get myself to the next level as a player.”
Sure, the injuries are a bit of a concern, but Davis quietly put together a fantastic rookie season. Many forget that this guy was just a teenager for most of the year while he casually put up 17 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes. Let’s make a quick comparison here:
Player A: 28.8 min | 13.5 PPG | 8.2 RPG | 1.8 BPG
Player B: 28.7 min | 10.4 PPG | 6.3 RPG | 1.6 BPG
Player A is Davis at 19, and player B is Kevin Garnett at the same age. And as we know, offense isn’t even Davis’ strongest asset. His defensive play was also highly regarded throughout his rookie campaign and his rim protecting translated smoothly from his days at Kentucky. The Brow has much more talent surrounding him this year, and has openly stated he’s working to perfect a midrange jumper, a deadly weapon for a guy his size. I think we should just reserve a forward spot on the All-Star team for Davis for the next 10 years.
Wall’s return in January marked an unbelievable change in culture for the Wizards, actually helping Washington to a winning record over the final three months. He looked every bit of the guy the Wizards had hoped he’d be when they invested their first overall pick on him in 2010. Wall put up remarkable splits of 20.7/4.5/7.7 after the All-Star break.
The biggest knock on the uber-athletic Kentucky product is his inconsistent jump shot, but he’s taken that criticism and shoved it right back in doubters’ faces. Take a look at his heat maps from the past two seasons and tell me you don’t see a vast improvement.
Bottom line is, at just 22 years old (23 by next season), Wall has all the ingredients to lift his game to the next level: stardom.
Which players will make the leap to superstardom this year?
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