NBA Breakout out Players for 2011
Sun, 08/01/2010 - 3:17pm
By Sam Littman
Contrary to common suspicion, the word 'upside,' as it relates to the game of basketball, is not just reserved for high schoolers, lottery picks and 7-footers that can put the ball on the floor. Plenty of NBA players still have a great deal of potential that they're yet to realize, potential that they could soon parlay into All-Star appearances and a great many wins for their team. The rules governing this list are simple: the player must have two years' experience while averaging less than 10 points per game for his career. Here are the ten most potential-laden players in the league:
10. C.J. Miles
The 6-6 swingman from Skyline High School has been brought along slowly, and only started making major strides in the 2008-09 season, his fourth in the league. Miles is 23 and has five seasons under his belt, and with Utah's increasing confidence in him, he's finally starting to realize his potential. Miles came into the league a shooter and now boasts a much more well-rounded offensive repertoire, able to pick-and-pop with better accuracy and finish more forcefully. A superior athlete with ideal size for the 2 or the 3, Miles made great use of his physical gifts and experience in the playoffs this year, averaging 14.4 points and 1.5 three-pointers a game in 33.7 minutes while matching up against the likes of Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony. Miles will never compare those aforementioned superstars, though his ceiling is still very high.
9. Shannon Brown
Despite potentially being relegated to a seventh or eighth man role yet again, Brown is unmistakably one of the most potential-laden players in the Association. Arguably the most athletic guard in the entire league, with his inhuman 44.5" vertical and recurring role on Sportscenter's top plays, Brown is as explosive as they come, and is slowly but surely developing a fine offensive game. Brown's shot has been steadily improving, averaging 1.3 three-pointers last year. He's a great free throw shooter, an absolute menace on the fast break, fits into any team dynamic, and already has two championship rings. Once he puts it all together there isn't a single player in the league that won't dread guarding him.
8. Bill Walker
After plummeting in the draft and struggling as a rookie, Walker was written off by nearly everyone. One of the most show-stopping talents ever to grace the AAU circuit, Walker's NBA career was resuscitated when he was traded to the Knicks, averaging 11.9 points in 27 games. At 6-6/220 Walker excels at both shooting guard and small forward and despite having undergone a number of surgeries, he is still a tremendous athlete; anyone that doubts him need only consult this brief highlight reel. He's also developed a very smooth jumper, averaging 1.9 three-pointers a game for the Knicks, which would have placed him among the league leaders had he played the whole year in New York. Where many suspected that he would become a great player in spite of his lack of range, one wonders what he might be capable of doing now that he's become a formidable threat as a shooter.
7. J.J. Hickson
The Toronto Raptors thought so highly of Hickson that they would have been willing to deal Chris Bosh to Cleveland with the 21-year power forward as the centerpiece of the package they would have received in return. Hickson was extremely impressive in his second pro season (he was the #10 recruit out of high school and averaged 14.8 points and 8.5 boards in one year at NC State), and if his performance in this year's summer league was any indication, he's ready to dominate in bigger minutes. At 6-9/242 with a great combination of strength and agility, Hickson is your prototypical power forward, and has all the tools to become a star. He's a great athlete, competes exceptionally hard on every possession, and is a natural born scorer. If the Cavs are smart, they'll recognize that Antawn Jamison is not their best power forward.
6. Amir Johnson
He's no Chris Bosh, but he's no stiff, either. Just 23 years old and entering his sixth season in the league, Johnson has played for winners and losers, occasionally earning big minutes though he's been underutilized for the most part, trying to find his way. Now he will finally get a chance to show why the Raptors believe he's worth $34 million. Johnson was 6-9 when drafted but has reportedly grown to 6-11 and boasts a frightening combination of athleticism, fluidity and strength which qualifies him as an elite physical talent. A career 59.9% shooter with great defensive instincts (he averages 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes for his career) and a knack for snagging rebounds at a high rate (9.9 per 36 minutes), Johnson is explosive but also exceptionally efficient. In a newfound starting role in Toronto, he'll show what he's able to do when given the playing time that his talent warrants.
5. Joakim Noah
He's the best player on this list right now, but these rankings are governed by how much room these players have to improve, and one wonders what Noah's ceiling might be. He will never be a great scorer and his rebounding numbers won't improve significantly now that he'll be playing alongside Carlos Boozer, but he still has the potential to become one of the best big men in the league. He averaged 11 rebounds in only 30.1 minutes last year (13.2 boards per 36 minutes, .5 less than Dwight Howard on the same scale), and blocked 1.6 shots per game as well. He drastically improved his free throw shooting last year (74.4%), and now that he's playing alongside Boozer, he'll never draw much attention on the low block. Seeing how he noticeably elevated his game in the playoffs (14.8 points and 13 rebounds), his ceiling might still be very high after all.
4. Nicolas Batum
Why, you wonder, did the Blazers turn down a trade from Minnesota that would have given them the fourth pick in the draft in exchange for just Nicolas Batum? Because Batum is going to be very, very special. The Frenchman was on every scout's radar after torching the US in international play as a teenager, and it is not hard to see why the Blazers hold him as a franchise cornerstone: he's a silky smooth 6-8 swingman who can shoot the lights out (1.5 three-pointers per game on 40.9% shooting), score in a variety of ways inside the arc and defend three positions. Batum has the type of length, quickness and versatility that causes GM's to salivate, and he's already proven his worth as a starter for a team that, when healthy, is a contender. And he's only 21.
3. JaVale McGeeJaVale McGeeJaVale McGee
The 22-year center out of Nevada nearly made the Team USA roster despite averaging just 6.5 points and 4.1 rebounds last. His being selected to tryout came as something of a shock to many, but it shouldn't be, as he could very well become one of the top five centers in the league relatively soon. Last year, McGee finished 11th in the league in blocks…despite playing just 16.1 minutes per game, averaging a league-leading 5 blocks per 48 minutes (Chris Anderson, the runner-up, averaged 4.1 per 48 minutes). Players with his combination of size (7-0/252 with a 7-6 wingspan) and athleticism are extremely rare, and he's the rare 7-footer who's willing to exercise his physical gifts to the max. McGee was known for occasionally drifting in and out during games, but that was when Gilbert Arenas, a trigger-happy, shoot-first point guard, was running the show. Rookie John Wall will certainly keep the 7-footer on his toes, as evidenced by the chemistry that they developed at the summer league, where McGee averaged 19.5 points and 9.3 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 68.8% form the field. Considering the lack of quality centers in the league, McGee's time might come as early as this November.
2. Greg Oden
Everyone wants to know just what exactly the deal is with Greg Oden. At this point, it is an unanswerable question. Last year Oden appeared to finally be putting it all together, achieving an outstanding PER of 23.01, placing him eighth in the league, ahead of Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Steve Nash, before he went down with yet another injury. So what are we to make of him now? The question now is less "Will he ever be the same" than "Will he ever be the same as he was in 2009-10." The good news for Blazers fans, and those who believe in him and want him to succeed, is that if his stats wind up to be just half of what scouts expected of him out of high school, they should still be good enough to make him an All-Star. A very legit 7-feet with a muscular 285-pound frame and a great skill set, Oden will at the very least be a dominant defensive presence in the league, and could still be a Hall of Fame talent, as he is in a great position to anchor an excellent Blazers squad and realize his tremendous potential on the offensive end. But will he every be healthy? Will he ever regain his confidence and claim his throne? These are the unanswerable questions surrounding Oden, questions that prevent us from figuring out just what exactly the deal is with the most heralded college recruit since Lew Alcindor.
1. Anthony Randolph
It's hard to recall the moment that I realized Anthony Randolph was going to one day be an All-Star, maybe something more. Was it when I first saw him play? No. Was it when he averaged 15.1 points, 10.6 rebounds in April of his rookie year when he was the youngest player in league? No. Was it when he broke the summer league scoring record with a 42-point outburst against the Bulls? I don't think so. Come to think of it, it wasn't a moment, rather, but a slow-building appreciation for his defense. Most players with Randolph's physical gifts don't care at all to put forth their best effort on both sides of the ball, but Randolph is different. Randolph averaged 2.3 blocks as a freshman at LSU, averaged 1.2 blocks in just 17.9 minutes as a rookie (2.4 per 36 minutes), and 1.5 blocks in 22.7 minutes in his second year in the league (2.5 per 36 minutes). Had Randolph played 36 minutes per game and retained his pace, he would have finished third in the league in blocks, and in an era where great shot-blockers are all but extinct, that is quite an accomplishment, especially for a lanky 21-year old who rarely guards centers. An athletic, long 6-10/205, Randolph is quite simply the ideal prospect, the versatile big man who can play any one of three positions, score in bunches and intimidate his opponent on defense. Because of his tenacity on both ends of the floor, he has become what Darius Miles, DeMarr Johnson, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Darko Milicic and Yi Jialian could have been if they only cared. He's the epitome of potential, and thus has a great chance of becoming one of the elite versatile big men of his time.