Can anyone believe the NBA season is almost at an end? The playoffs are almost upon us, which means some teams will be reaching for NBA championships while other teams will be at home reaching for the remote. Every season that passes by there are players that have taken their game to the next level. These players have made the “leap” essentially, star players finally asserting themselves as dominant, All-Star caliber talents.
Some of these are obvious and some of these players have made the jump without anyone noticing. Obviously Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin are the first two that come to mind, but let’s not forget about Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Ty Lawson and a couple others. Without further adieu, let’s get into the ten NBA players who made the jump this season.
Honorable Mention: Lance Stephenson
Born Ready took a few years to launch, but he’s beginning to get ready for takeoff. Every season since his rookie season in 2010, Stephenson has been the beneficiary of more minutes and has responded with increased production year after year. He’s playing a career-high in minutes this season at 35.5 per game and his production is worthy of the minutes.
Stephenson might actually be on the same floor as LeBron James in the playoffs this season, instead of issuing choke signals at him from the end of the bench. Stephenson is putting up 14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists this season on 49 percent shooting from the field. Who else was surprised to find out that Lance Stephenson is shooting 49 percent from the field? More surprising may be the fact that the Pacers are scoring 10.1 more points with Stephenson on the court this season (via 82games.com).
The reason Stephenson is only an honorable mention is because he can still be considered a role player on the Indiana Pacers. It could be argued that while Stephenson is important, the Pacers can thrive without him, which may explain the reason they brought in Evan Turner at the trade deadline. Both players are free agents at season’s end, so if a bidding war for Stephenson is too high, Evan Turner is a replaceable option.
Stephenson has began to take the “jump” but it’s nothing more than a simple hop at this moment. Depending on where Stephenson lands in the offseason could sway this opinion. His play next season could truly cement him as a player that has made the jump, if he proves to be a viable No. 1 option on a team. As of right now, the Pacers are potentially just as good with him, as they would be without him. That’s not discounting the amazing season Stephenson is having, however.
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10. Deandre Jordan
Just like his partner in the frontcourt, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan has suffered from being labeled as someone that isn’t capable of anything else besides dunking. While Griffin has taken his offensive game to another level this season, Jordan has done the same on the defensive side of the ball.
One of my biggest pet peeves in basketball is when legit 7-0 centers are incapable of grabbing 10-plus rebounds per game (COUGH, Roy Hibbert). For his first few years in the NBA, DeAndre Jordan was another person who could be entered into this category. Jordan averaged 6.5 rebounds per game for his first five years in the NBA, which is borderline pathetic. Only playing 24.5 MPG last season, it didn’t give Jordan much opportunity to excel and develop on the court. However, Doc Rivers has instilled faith in Jordan and he has responded by rewarding the Clippers and Rivers with his excellent play.
Playing 35.5 minutes per game this season, Jordan has career-highs in points, rebounds and blocks. Jordan is averaging 10.3 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. The 13.7 rebounds per game leads the NBA and his 2.4 blocks per game are tied for third in the NBA with Roy Hibbert. Jordan has swatted 180 shots this season, which is tied with Anthony Davis and only four less than Serge Ibaka. Jordan is converting on 67 percent of his attempts this season, which leads the NBA for qualified players and is one of only two players shooting over 60 percent this season. This weekend, Jordan put up a monster statline, compiling 20 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks, while converting on 7-of-10 shots from the field.
Jordan has also been one of the best rim protectors in the NBA this season. Opponents are attempting 10.5 field goals per game on Jordan, compared to 6.6 for Anthony Davis, 9.3 for Serge Ibaka and 10.0 for Roy Hibbert (per SportVU). Opponents are converting on 49.7 percent of attempts at the rim on Jordan, which is exceptional when one considers how many more shots he is seeing per game when compared to the other elite rim protectors in the NBA. Jordan has career-highs in every major statistical category, while having one of the lowest usage ratings of his career at 12.1, which is down almost four points from his usage rate last season of 15.9. Averaging close to 14 rebounds is insane when you consider that Jordan has grabbed less than 10 boards per game only six games this season, with only one of those times being back-to-back games. Jordan also has six games of grabbing 20 boards this season.
DeAndre Jordan has been living in the paint this season, whether its swallowing boards or swallowing shots–this man is eating. It’s arguable the Clippers wouldn’t be in the position they are as the third seed in the West without the elite and improved play from DeAndre Jordan. Just imagine if Jordan gets some sort of reliable offensive game.
DeAndre Jordan has definitely made the jump this season as he continues to jump over opponents for bone-chilling alley-oops.
9. Isaiah Thomas
Has there ever been a “Mr. Irrelevant” that has actually had the opportunity to make the jump? Maybe from the end of the bench to a rotation player on occasion, but Isaiah Thomas is way past that. The former last pick of the draft in 2011, Isaiah Thomas has spent each of his first three seasons in the NBA fighting for the starting point guard spot with the Kings. Whether it was Aaron Brooks, Jimmer Fredette or Greivis Vasquez, there has always been competition for Thomas. Before Vasquez was shipped to the Raptors, he was still starting over Isaiah Thomas. Thomas has always performed with adversity, being drafted with the last pick comes with that territory. He’s performed every season in the NBA, even though he only stands at 5-11. Last season, Thomas averaged 13.9 points and 4.0 assists playing 26.9 minutes per game. This season, however, Thomas has made a quantum leap in his performance, proving he can be the point guard of the future for Sacramento.
Isaiah Thomas has increased his scoring by seven points and his assists by two and a half this season. He’s averaging 20.7 points and 6.4 assists this season, which are as close to elite as someone can come at his size. How elite is it? The only other players averaging those numbers are Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. That’s some good company to be mentioned with when you were one pick away from being undrafted.
Once the reigns of the Kings were handed over to Isaiah Thomas, he showed why he deserves to be solidified as the starting point guard. Thomas is having the best season of his young career and the sky’s the limit for the 5-11 cannonball.
8. Ty Lawson
Does everyone remember Ty Lawson? He’s having his best season as a pro and is playing like one of the best point guards in the NBA, without a single person noticing. This is all being done on a Denver Nuggets team that is out of the playoff race in the West and has been terrorized by injuries. Ty Lawson is the conductor of a train that is constantly being taken off the tracks for repairs, even though he continues to excel. Remember that Danilo Gallinari has missed the entire season, along with Nate Robinson, JaVale McGee and J.J. Hickson suffering season-ending injuries this season.
Even with all of those injuries, Lawson has increased his assists per game this season, from 6.9 to 8.8. His 8.8 assists per game are second in the NBA to Chris Paul. Add this to the fact that Lawson is scoring 17.8 points per game. The only other person that can boast those statistics this season is CP3, who is averaging 18.7 points and 10.9 assists this season. That’s damn good company for a point guard that has received no attention. Imagine what Lawson will be able to do when the Nuggets roster isn’t riddled by injuries.
Lawson has been overshadowed by a brutal Western Conference and a roster lacking talent, yet he continues to excel. It’s hard to get recognition playing in the same conference as Chris Paul, Westbrook, Tony Parker, Steph Curry and others. Paul has Blake Griffin, Westbrook has Durant, Parker has Duncan and Curry has Bogut–what about Lawson? He’s done all of this by himself and without the help of a quality big man, unless you have a great opinion of J.J. Hickson and JaVale McGee. Standing at 5-11, Ty Lawson is just another example of disproving the notion that short point guards can’t reach success in this league. He’s made the jump this season and while no one may be watching, we noticed his All-Star worthy production.
7. Kyle Lowry
The Toronto Raptors are the third seed in the East and the surprise team of the season. After trading Rudy Gay, it was assumed the Raptors would be playing for ping-pong balls, not a top three seed in the East. The Raptors can thank two players for this, mainly Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeMar DeRozan will be discussed later, but this is Lowry’s time to shine. Last season, which was Lowry’s first in Toronto, wasn’t anything groundbreaking. Lowry averaged 11.6 points and 6.4 assists, playing 29.7 minutes per game. After his sixth year in the league, most people assumed that Lowry was nothing more than a run-of-the-mill point guard. He’s good, but not great and could be easily replaced…right?
That all appeared on point, until this season occurred. This bulldog from Philadelphia has the Raptors fans coming to Toronto to see the Raptors and not just to have a chance to see Drake. This season, Lowry is averaging 17.5 points, 7.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds, all career-highs. Lowry is also shooting a career-high from deep at 38 percent, with over 170 made triples this season. These numbers are a far cry from his career averages of 11.6 points and 5.4 assists. Lowry has two triple-doubles this season and three in his career with Toronto, which ties the Raptors franchise record held by Damon Stoudamire. This explosion didn’t come out of nowhere for Lowry, who knew he had to perform like this.
“I had to look at myself in the mirror,” Lowry told Yahoo! Spors’ Adrian Wojnarowski (via Bleacher Report). “I know what people are saying now, ‘Oh it’s a contract year,’ but it’s bigger than that for me. … But I want to win. I want to grow. And to grow, you’ve got to be able accept coaching. You’ve got to be able to be coached.”
The month of March has been exceptional for Lowry, as he continues to push the Raptors to the playoffs–a place Toronto hasn’t been in five years. In March, Lowry is averaging 19.9 points, 7.3 assists and 5.9 boards while knocking down 38 percent of his triples. After his All-Star game snub, Lowry is putting up 19.6 points, 7.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds. Besides his individual statistics, Lowry is turning the Raptors into winners. Per basketball-reference.com, Lowry’s 11.2 win shares this season is only rivaled by Blake Griffin (11.2), Kevin Love (13.3), LeBron James (13.8) and Kevin Durant (17.4).
Lowry’s defense has been on-par with his outstanding play on offense. According to 82games.com, Lowry is holding opponents to a PER of 14.7 when matched up against him, which falls below the league average of 15. Opponents are only shooting 42 percent overall and 41 percent on isolation plays on Lowry (per Synergy). Remember that Lowry only stands at 6-0, which shows how ferocious his defense has been this season when he is forcing opponents to shoot 42 percent when most tower over him.
All in all, Kyle Lowry has been a beast this season. He’s appeared in all 73 games, which is a key to the Raptors success. Wanna know what would keep Lowry out of a game? “Dead. Being dead,” Kyle Lowry told Frank Zicarelli of the Toronto Sun. “Not being able to walk. I’m always going to try to go out there and fight for my teammates and try to win the game, no matter what the situation is that we’re in.”
The Raptors are on the verge of their first playoff berth in five seasons and a lot of that is due to the play of the Philadelphia pitbull, Kyle Lowry.
6. DeMar DeRozan
When Rudy Gay was shipped out of Toronto, it was basically the Raptors telling DeRozan that this was his time to shine. How has he responded? By playing like one of the best shooting guards in the NBA en route to his first All-Star appearance of his career. Yes, DeRozan is one of the best shooting guards in the NBA this season. Check out this player comparison between him and Paul George, who is the victim of being overhyped to the tenth degree this season. All of their numbers are eerily similar, yet DeRozan is never mentioned in the same breath as George. It’s time some people start giving DeRozan the respect he deserves.
With the similar seasons that George and DeRozan are having, it can be argued that DeRozan has been the second-best two-guard in the NBA behind James Harden this season. To date, DeRozan is averaging 22.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists. DeRozan has four 30-point games in March alone, along with 15 30-point games on the season plus a 40-point outing. Besides his offense, DeRozan is holding shooting guards to a PER of 12.6 and small forwards to a PER of 12.0 when being guarded by him. Consider the fact that the league average PER is 15.0 and this will tell you how impactful DeRozan has been on both ends of the court.
More importantly, the Raptors have clinched their first playoff berth since a first-round exit in 2007-2008. The city of Toronto is buzzing with excitement as the Raptors climb out of the cellars of the Eastern Conference and back towards the top. Add these facts together and there’s no doubt that DeRozan has made the jump this season, even if people aren’t noticing him.
The Raptors haven’t been relevant since Chris Bosh left town, but DeMar DeRozan has the Raptors on the doorstep of relevancy with his elite play.
5. Goran Dragic
For his first three seasons in the NBA, Goran Dragic started a total of eight games in the NBA. The next season, he started 28, then 77 last season and he’s started 68 out of 69 games this season. Ever since he’s been starting more games, the minutes and numbers have increased. However, this season, Dragic is only playing one more minute per game than last season. A player truly has made the leap when his statistics are rising, yet his minutes have barely increased–which is the exact case with Dragic.
This season, Dragic is putting up 20.5 points and 5.9 assists, shooting 51 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep. Maybe his field goal percentage increasing by nearly eight percent and his three-point percentage up by 10 percent can explain why he’s scoring six more points per game with only an increase of one minute per game. Besides the individual statistics, Goran Dragic has spearheaded a team without star power to the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference. The Suns had won their past six games before a loss to the Lakers and eight of their last 10 overall, with Dragic shooting 50 percent or better in every game during the win streak. In a Western Conference where seeds five through ten are separated by four games, the Suns have strung together victories at the most opportune time. Even with Eric Bledsoe missing valuable time, Dragic kept the Suns above water and showed that he’s capable of shouldering the load on a playoff contending team.
Goran Dragic has made the jump this season. He has his team in playoff contention in the toughest conference, with a roster that looks like it should be towards the bottom of the Eastern Conference. The Suns are 10.8 points better on offense with Dragic on the court, compared to him off the court (per 82games.com). This shows how valuable Dragic is to the success of the Phoenix Suns.
The combination of Jeff Hornacek as coach and Goran Dragic as point guard should be a terror in the West for years to come. Once Popovich and Parker hang up the towel, Hornacek and Dragic might step into their place. For now, Goran Dragic has asserted himself as one of the most efficient point guards in the NBA and has made the leap to relevancy this season.
4. Joakim Noah
Joakim Noah has been in the league for six years and everyone knows what to expect from him: insane hustle and energy, a shooting form that makes Shawn Marion look like Ray Allen and a desire to never give up. The story of the Chicago Bulls of the 2013-2014 season can best be explained by the famous song “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey. After the injury to Derrick Rose, all brakes were pushed on any deep playoff run for the Windy City. When Luol Deng was traded, it appeared this team was purchasing a ticket stub to tank the rest of the season away. Looks like we were all fooled and the play of Joakim Noah is the main reason.
The Bulls are sitting as the fourth seed in the East with a 41-32 record. Sitting a half game back of Toronto, the Bulls can jump up as high as the third seed–this is all without Luol Deng and Derrick Rose. Joakim Noah has exploded and even has his name in the MVP discussions, behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Noah has improved from being a hustle and energy player to someone capable of holding the team on his back and carrying them to the promised land. This season, Noah is putting up 12.5 points, 11.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.6 blocks with a PER of 20.21. As one can tell, he’s literally been doing it all for Chicago. Per 82games.com, the Bulls score 7.5 more points on offense when Noah is on the court.
It’s not often the NBA has a center who can be considered a walking triple-double, except Noah. Just in March, Noah is averaging 13.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 7.7 assists. That’s without the 1.9 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. Noah had two triple-doubles alone in March, both resulting in victories for Chicago. Joakim Noah has made the jump from being a complementary piece on the Bulls, to being the unquestioned leader. He’s the heart and soul of this franchise and is giving the Bulls a serious reputation of a team that will never give up.
With Noah at the head of the charge, the Bulls have emerged as a serious contender to meet up with Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. There is no denying that Joakim Noah has become a top-10 player in the NBA and is on the doorstep of becoming the best center in the NBA.
3. John Wall
Let’s be honest, the Washington Wizards haven’t been relevant in years. Probably since Michael Jordan donned a Wizards jersey, but they still weren’t very good. The Wizards have only been out of the first round twice since the 1979-1980 season–there’s no typo in that sentence. That’s decades upon decades of mediocrity and lottery picks for the fans of this team to go through, which explains why John Wall has this city abuzz.
At 23 years old, in his fourth season, Wall is averaging 20.0 points and 8.7 assists per game this season. Most improved from Wall are his shooting percentages. Wall has never been known as a threat from deep, but he’s knocking down 36 percent of his attempts this season, while taking about four shots from three per game. This is mightily improved from his 27 percent shooting from three last season. Many argued that Wall would never be considered a top point guard without being able to stroke it from deep–well that argument is now obsolete. Wall is averaging close to nine assists this season, a steady rise from his 7.5 assists per game last season.
John Wall has made the jump from being one of the most electric point guards in the NBA to being one of the most competent point guards in the NBA. He’s no longer just a human highlight reel, he’s capable of leading a team to victory. His game is complete and the Wizards are benefitting from it immensely. In only his fourth season, his game has improved leaps and bounds.
John Wall will appear in his first playoff series this season, which will be his chance to prove that he can play with the big boys of the NBA. The bar can only be raised from here and Wall has a lot of success ahead of him.
2. Blake Griffin
Do I even need to explain this one? For his first few seasons in the NBA, all Blake Griffin’s game consisted of was SportsCenter highlight reel plays. This is no secret and he was criticized for his ability to do nothing but dunk. We’ve all probably maligned Griffin before, but now even the casual fan has realized that Griffin has turned into one of the most dangerous interior players in the NBA. The Del Negro administration wasn’t too kind for Griffin and Jordan, but Doc Rivers showed up and changed the landscape of these young players’ game for the better.
Griffin’s jump is more detailed than basic stats, even though he is averaging 24.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists this season. His biggest improvement has been his ability to lead the Clippers by himself when Chris Paul isn’t available to play. Playing without CP3 is no longer a crutch the the Clippers and Griffin is quite capable of leading L.A. to victory. Griffin led the Clippers to a 12-6 record when Paul missed time with an injury, totalling 26.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Griffin showed a transformation from being someone who needed Paul to succeed to being able to thrive without him on the floor.
In the month of February, Griffin averaged an absurd 30.0 points and 10.7 boards–this included five 30-point performances and one monster 43-point, 15-board and 6-assist effort. Griffin has also dispelled the notion that all he can do is dunk by adding a repertoire of offensive moves. Per Synergy, Griffin is scoring .97 PPP on post-up opportunities which account for 29 percent of his offense and is ranked 23rd in the NBA. He’s shooting 49.3 percent on his post-ups. Griffin is still an unstoppable force in transition, which is evident by his 1.41 PPP and 81 percent conversion rate in transition. According to basketball-reference.com, Griffin is shooting a career-high 41 percent from shots 10-16 feet away from the basket, which shows his increased ability to hit the midrange J.
Blake Griffin is now one of the biggest threats at the power forward position and his leap to superstardom has the Clippers in position to take over the Western Conference.
1. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis just turned 21 years old a few weeks ago–he celebrated his birthday by throwing his name into the MVP conversation in just his second season in the NBA. The season Davis is having in just his second year is literally insane, there isn’t an adjective out there that does it justice. His stats from his rookie year showed his limitless potential, scoring 13.5 points, grabbing 8.2 boards and swatting 1.8 shots per game. Even his per-36 stats from his rookie year couldn’t imagine the leap Davis would make in his second pro season, showing 16.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. The words “sophomore slump” and “Anthony Davis” shouldn’t even be allowed to be spoken.
In his sophomore season, Davis has averages of 21.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and 1.4 steals per game. He’s playing 35.7 minutes per game and is shooting 52 percent from the floor. As the P-n-R man, Davis is scoring 1.12 PPP, while converting 54.7 percent of these opportunities. Davis has numbers in transition that rival Blake Griffin, scoring 1.55 PPP, while converting on 79 percent of his transition attempts–these stats rank first in the NBA (per Synergy). Davis has a PER of 27.02 this season, which is fourth in the NBA and is higher than players like James Harden, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. There’s no shortage of stats to confirm that Anthony Davis has been one of the best players in the NBA this season and is without a doubt a top-10 player in the NBA. Everyone expected this potential to be tapped eventually, but not this early in his career.
Just imagine what this kid will be doing in five years, the sky isn’t even a large enough limit for him. It’s not crazy to imagine him rivaling with Kevin Durant and LeBron James for the best player in the NBA in a couple years, is it? I’m not sure the NBA has ever seen a player like Davis, he can literally do everything on the floor. He’s shooting 43 percent from shots 10-16 feet away from the basket (shot 37 percent in his rookie season) and his range is just going to keep increasing.
Whatever constitutes a player making the jump, Davis has made the biggest leap out of any player this season. New Orleans has finally found their superstar since the departure of Chris Paul and it has come in the form of Anthony Davis.
What do you think?
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