The summer was always my favorite time as a teenager, and it wasn’t because of the pool trips to check out girls in bikinis or because of the Italian Ice that tasted perfect on 90-degree days. It was because the summer, when school was out, when the heat was in, and when everyone else wanted to watch re-runs of the Best Damn Sports Show Period, or go out to Friendly’s, I could get into the gym and go to work. As any basketball player will tell you, the summer is when you improve. Ask Kobe. After winning his first championship, Shaq came into camp out of shape. Bryant came in ready to rev himself up, having shot 2,000 jump shots a day and literally, never taking a breath, never taking a moment off. Ask Dwyane Wade. Before his second season in the league, O’Neal was traded to Miami, and D-Wade knew expectations in South Beach were suddenly different. The following season, he came in stronger, with a better handle and a better jumper, and led Miami deep into the playoffs.
Of course, players can grow in-season. Ask Klay Thompson about his rookie year. I used to joke during his first few weeks in the league that DeAndre Jordan might make his first jumper of the year before the Golden State rookie did. During those openings weeks, he averaged three points a game. In April: 18.6.
Some of that is growth. Some of it is confidence and opportunity. But in order to take the next step as a player – which is to become an All-Star – you need all of that. With our recent cover story about John Wall and his fight with his own All-Star expectations, I figured now was a perfect time to highlight the 10 young players most likely to become All-Stars next season. With a little growth, a little more confidence and a lot more opportunity, some of the guys on this list might just do it.
10. TYREKE EVANS
It was all mapped out. All of this. Whether it was written down or not isn’t exactly the point. The point is that it’s happening. As we speak.
The way this world works, hardly anything can ever be called a certainty. That’s especially true when looking far into the future; this helps to make assurances in sports even trickier. We are continuously searching for what’s next, and that’s part of the reason why guarantees are hardly ever guaranteed.
Once in a while, though, things just work out as planned.
There’s a mural of Tyreke Evans in downtown Sacramento, Calif., near where the American and Sacramento Rivers meet, in a city so small by industry standards that its tomato farming is famous. The size of the city makes the mural seem much larger than its reported 10-story height and 65-foot width.
When we think big, as in, “Let’s build this middle-schooler up to be one of the baddest, most ruthless dudes out there,” this is what we get. We get Tyreke Evans.
The blueprint you may know was made in 2001. This one technically began two years later. But its roots stretch much deeper than that.
I wrote that in a feature story in the summer of 2010, and no one batted an eye. Evans was coming off a rookie season that only LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson could match. At that point, we weren’t thinking All-Star Games. We were thinking MVPs, commercials, a mini-LeBron heaped down on us from the streets of Philadelphia. But in the past two seasons, Evans has made more highlights during the summer than he has on the court. Two seasons ago, he decided he want to prove he could shoot a jumper (listen up, John Wall) and the results were disatrous. His attempts at the rim dropped from 8.4 to 6.2 a game while he took a maddening amount of pull-ups from all over the perimeter. In one season, his shooting percentage dropped a full 5 points to under 41 percent.
Last year, he reversed course a bit, but with Sacramento still floundering under .500 and with Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins emerging, Evans literally took a backseat by being forcing to play the small forward.
While he may not even be in California’s capital by this time next year, he still has more size than Stephen Curry, more star power than DeMar DeRozan, and more of a mean streak than Klay Thompson, all wing players who nearly made this list ahead of him. Perhaps Brandon Jennings will overtake the man who beat him out for Rookie of the Year two seasons ago… I’ll keep the faith in Evans for another year.
9. GREG MONROE
If there was a reward for the NBA’s Joelle Carter – routinely putting out underrated and overlooked performances on Justified – it’d go to Monroe. In the hellhole that is Detroit, he morphed into a double-double machine last year, averaging 15.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game on the year. For most of the season, Monroe was in the top 10 in the entire league in PER, and finished at No. 15, juxtaposed between two future San Antonio Hall of Famers (Tim Duncan, Tony Parker).
The Pistons’ lone bright spot still struggled at times last year to defend, and can occasionally be pushed off the block on the other end. But if Andre Drummond can ever get himself together, Monroe might have the help he needs to loft himself into the All-Star conversation.
8. JaVALE MCGEE
No one has been a bigger clown over the past few seasons than McGee. Despite his obvious gifts for dunking, and creating awesome YouTube mixtapes, McGee personified the recent lazy, immature Wizards teams. He should’ve teamed with John Wall to create an into-the-future big man/little man duo. Instead, he became a casualty of war.
In Denver, his numbers dropped to 10.3 and 5.8 a night, but when he was unleashed in the playoffs against the Lakers (15 points, 16 rebounds in Game 3, 21 points, 14 rebounds in Game 5) the dude looked like a force of nature. When you can turn Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol into diminutive, Earth-bound, mortal big men – even if it’s just for a quarter – you have something. The Nuggets have something, and now that they realize it, McGee will have an opportunity to show how much he’s grown this year.
7. MONTA ELLIS
Okay, so he’s not exactly young. Ellis turns 27 in October. But he still has a young man’s game: a whirling dervish who frequently breaks down plays and sets to launch himself head-first into the lane, going 100 miles an hour at the rim. Effective? It can be. It was for many years with Golden State, even if some bloggers will tell you they were better off without him.
In a way, I feel bad for Ellis. For two consecutive years from 2009 to the end of 2011, he averaged over 40 minutes and at least 24 points a night, and yet never made an All-Star Team. Now, he’s in Milwaukee, playing on another free-flowing offensive system, but as we saw at the end of last season when his numbers dipped to 17.6 points and 5.9 dimes a night playing next to Brandon Jennings, his best could be behind him.
In fact, despite his low shooting percentages, Jennings might actually have a better shot at making the Eastern roster. He’s been on record saying it’s time for him to be an All-Star, and if he can make some subtle improvements in his floor game, he could get there as well. For both of these guards, it’ll come down to Milwaukee and how close they get to the playoffs.
6. RUDY GAY
I spent part of my summer with Gay last year, and at the time, all I wanted to talk about was the All-Star Game. He was coming off a big injury that eventually outlined his importance in Memphis during a Game 7 loss to Oklahoma City, and the hurt shoulder helped conceal how great he had been during the first half of 2010-11. His scoring numbers hadn’t changed (19.8 points a game), but he shot 47 percent, the highest of his career, and nearly made 40 percent of his triples. Perhaps most importantly, he put up almost three dimes a night. Not world-beating numbers, but good enough to get All-Star consideration on a good team.
Gay was up and down last year, and now finds himself amidst trade rumors once again. Even as O.J. Mayo has resurfaced in Dallas, there’s only so much bread and fish to pass around with the Grizzlies, and not a single one of them is Jesus. Gay’s largest competition for the midseason classic will be his own teammates.
5. KYRIE IRVING
I have some family from Cleveland, and caught up with a few of my cousins this weekend. I told them about the World Basketball Festival, and they wanted to know what it was like being so close to all of the best players in the world. LeBron? “Uggghh. I hate him. He’s a traitor.” But Kyrie? They’re already in love. Who can blame them? He’s coming off a Rookie of the Year season which saw him vault above many of the best young point guards in the game, putting the Dukie on the cusp of entering the conversation with the best lead guards in the league.
With Dion Waiters beside him this year, and possibly Andrew Bynum inside, Irving may not need to repeat his 18.5 point average. But his assists (5.4 a night) and the Cavs’ win total (21, third worst in the East) will hopefully go up.
4. JOHN WALL
If you want our take on Wall’s future, just go hit newsstands and check out Dime #70 when it drops later this week. For all the criticism he received last season, the dude still put up great all-around numbers, and in the final five games of the year, Wall averaged 14.2 points, 12.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.6 steals, all on 46 percent shooting. He has it in him to become one of the most dominant floor generals in the league… simply, a bigger version of Rajon Rondo.
The problem with Wall’s expectations are that they don’t stem from him. Because Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook have been so successful, Wall’s adequate start is deemed a failure. Rose was drafted onto a talented team that had made the playoffs in recent years while Westbrook latched on with a superstar. Neither one of them were drafted into a situation as desperate as Washington’s was. They still had Gilbert Arenas, still had Andray Blatche, and had no one to mentor or counsel Wall.
Washington has graduated from Clown U, and we expect Wall to do the same. He’ll be putting up 18/5/10 averages very soon. Need a taste? In April against Cleveland, Wall became just the fourth player in the last 25 years to throw up a 21-13-7-7 line.
3. DeMARCUS COUSINS
Jerry Colangelo might diss him as an immature baby. Teammates might’ve complained he was selfish last year. But Cousins is the most productive young big man in the game (18.1 points, 10 rebounds a game, and a 21.72 PER).
Back when DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors were the two best big men in high school, I wrote a double feature on them before the 2009 Hoophall Classic. To see them now, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear them talk then. Favors was excruciatingly quiet, and our conversation lasted perhaps five minutes. He answered nothing definitively, and everything within two sentences. It wasn’t like he was a bad kid. Not at all. But he was shy and somewhat timid, and that played out over the next two years on the court.
Cousins wasn’t exactly loud, but he was sure of himself and made more than a few statements you don’t typically hear from calculated and hardened high school superstars.
I’m not surprised at all to see where the two of them are going into the 2012-13 season. Cousins is busy destroying people on the blocks, and frustrating others with his “Give me” attitude, which is what makes him a special talent, and sometimes, a special headcase. Meanwhile, Favors has continuously flashed All-Star potential in Utah but is stuck coming off the bench because he hasn’t really exploded yet, hasn’t completely forced out Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap.
2. ERIC GORDON
Anthony Davis will soon become the best player in New Orleans. But for now, that title still belongs to Eric Gordon. He’s only played in nine games with the Hornets, and yet it was clear last year he was already – even at just 23 years old – one of the best two guards in the league outside of Kobe and D-Wade. New Orleans knows that too, and even if Gordon burned some bridges there with his actions and comments this summer, they still knew they HAD to match Phoenix’s four year, $58 million offer sheet.
Because New Orleans is likely to suck this year (No, not even the presence of Davis is going to give them a shot at the playoffs), Gordon won’t get into the All-Star Game unless he blows up… unless he starts pumping in 25 a night, locking up Kobe when they matchup and hitting game-winners every now and then to remind people “Hey, I’m still here!” But the thing with Gordon is, he’s capable of all of that, and he’s done all of that throughout 205 career games in the NBA.
I’m not sure if he’ll make it next season, but if Gordon can stay healthy all year, I know he’ll at least put up All-Star numbers. The rest isn’t up to him.
1. JAMES HARDEN
Don’t get me wrong, I love Harden as a player and know his true value as a guy off the bench who can close out games for one of the best teams in the league. But over the course of last season, his value became somewhat overrated. Yes, he sported a 21.13 PER and averaged nearly 17 points on 49 percent shooting. Yet Harden is not a franchise cornerstone, and may never be one. He’s a perfect third option on a great team, and is in the perfect position to succeed with the Thunder. This only means – if I know how the NBA works – someone may overpay him once he hits the market next year and he could leave the best breeding ground in the NBA to be the No. 1 option on a bad team.
Is Harden a better player than Eric Gordon? I’m not sure. I know he’s a better playmaker, and I know he can stay healthy. But I am sure he’ll get All-Star love first because he’s playing for the best team in the West. That’s the difference. He also may have a moment or two in the sun over the next two weeks in London. AND he has that beard, which believe it or not, will help his cause. You’ll always remember someone with a forest growing on their face.
With the lack of quality wings in the West (I know, surprising right?), Harden may just make the All-Star Game this season as the third leg in what could be the best trio in the league.
Who do you think has the chance to make the jump?
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