Basketball season is fast approaching. It will be tough for the NBA to follow on the heels of last season, which was one of the most memorable in the league's storied history. But who's to say we won't get more of that? The Warriors will be as exciting to watch as they will be to root against. The Cavaliers will be atop the Eastern Conference again, surely.
The NBA has changed significantly over the summer. One of the best players in the world just joined one of the other three best players in the world and two of the top 20 players in the world. Dwight Howard is in Atlanta, while Harden and Westbrook are lone gunslingers now. It's going to be an interesting season to say the least.
The NBA isn't the most unpredictable league in professional sports. People have a pretty good sense of who will be competing for a title come spring-time. Predicting how players will perform, though, in the upcoming season, is never that easy. You never know when a player is going to reach that next level or if they're even going to reach it at all. So who's going to blow up this year? What rookies will thrive? Which sophomores are going to make the leap to that next level? Who is going to return to form this season and remind us of their stardom? If these are the kinds of questions you're asking, look no further.
15 Pau Gasol, Spurs
Pau Gasol may be entering his sixteenth year in the league, but he's also coming off a second-straight All-Star season. Now he's on a contender for the second time in his career. Not only that, he's on the Spurs, which means he will have his minutes limited and won't have to put too much strain on his 36-year old body.
Gasol certainly isn't Tim Duncan in his prime, but he is a step up from the skeleton of Tim Duncan that played for the Spurs last season. In the 2015-16 season, Gasol averaged twice as many points, four more rebounds and just less than a block more than Duncan. In basically every measurable way, the Spurs starting lineup has improved and Gasol is a big part of that.
14 C.J. McCollum, Blazers
C.J. McCollum averaged only 6.8 points per game during the 2014-15 season. In 2015-16, he averaged 20.8 points per game. That's a 14-point increase, which is quite remarkable. You can see why he was the near-unanimous 2015-16 NBA Most Improved Player Award.
Look at the big picture though. Last year was McCollum's third season in the league, which means he's not a late-bloomer, like MIP's often are. He's only experienced one season in which he played more than 15 minutes per game and been a bonafide NBA semi-star.
Stars tend to improve over the course of a couple seasons after they have their breakout-year. Curry's breakout season in 2014-15 was incredible, but ultimately, it was a footnote compared to his brilliance last season (sans The Finals). There is no reason McCollum shouldn't continue to improve over the next couple seasons. He and Lillard could be the league's next dangerous duo.
13 Rajon Rondo, Bulls
Rajon Rondo is one of the best pure passers in the NBA. And basically, we don't expect that to change. For the most part, we stopped hoping he would develop a jump-shot a long time ago. I know from a coach's point of view he can be a pain to deal with, and for a team with a structured offense (like Dallas), he's a liability. Last season, Rondo led the league in assists and we'd bet our left arm that he will do it again this upcoming season on his new team (barring season-costing injuries).
Rondo is one of the most underappreciated players in the NBA, today. Since LeBron James entered the NBA, only two players have outplayed him in a playoff series. Dirk Nowitzki in the 2011 Finals. And Rajon Rondo in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
There are holes in Rondo's game for certain, but when he is at the top of his game, there are only a handful of better point guards in the world.
12 Jordan Clarkson, Lakers
Few players as talented as Jordan Clarkson have been in more awkward situations than Clarkson was in his rookie year. At six-feet and five-inches tall with a wingspan that is surely longer than he is tall, Clarkson is a natural shooting guard. Logic says that he should've been splitting minutes with Kobe last season. But, really, who's going to tell Kobe Bryant he has to split his minutes with a second-year player? So Clarkson ended up being Kobe's backup and one of the Lakers three, rotating point guards for his first year. In his second year, Kobe moved to small forward, which opened up shooting guard for Clarkson, which led to a nearly 4 point improvement in points per game for him.
Now with Kobe out of the picture, the Lakers can move Clarkson permanently to the shooting guard position. Also, with Kobe gone, there will be about 20-25 more shots per game to go around. His contributions last year to the Lakers were overshadowed by Kobe's never-ending farewell tour, but don't be surprised if Jordan Clarkson averages close to twenty points per game this season. It's his time now.
11 Hassan Whiteside, Heat
Hassan Whiteside is slowly mastering the more-nuanced skills a rim-protector needs to be to become the elite defensive player that Whiteside clearly has the potential to be. In his second season with the Miami Heat, Whiteside's blocked shots average increased from 2.6 the previous season to 3.7. That's a lot of blocked shots. Enough to lead the league last season by a margin of 1.4 blocks per game.
He is only going to improve on the defensive end. Practice and experience will make him a more savvy defender. That, coupled with his tremendous ability to block shots could lead to future Defensive Player of the Year consideration. If he can develop a polished post game and become a productive scorer too, NBA is going to be in some serious trouble.
10 Jaylen Brown, Celtics
The NBA has become so three-point obsessed that a guy like Jaylen Brown is no longer a sought-after commodity. After the Celtics took him with the third pick in the draft, skeptics came out of the woodwork to criticize Boston for selecting a player known for having an inconsistent jump-shot. Have we forgotten how important a slasher can be for a team? Guys like Curry and Thompson are incredible, but shooting jumpers doesn't get you to the free-throw line regularly. Dwyane Wade single-handedly willed the '06 Miami Heat to a championship by slashing; getting to the basket and drawing fouls.
Jaylen Brown is one of the best driving-oriented shooting guards/small forwards to come out of the draft in the last few years. If this were 2005, he would've been talked about significantly more prior to the draft than he was in 2016. There's a chance Brown's jump-shot will hinder his stardom, but you know the great thing about shooting? You can always get better.
9 Blake Griffin, Clippers
We are going to assume Griffin will stay healthy enough to play at least seventy games this season. Mainly, because we hate the idea of the NBA without him. Whatever your opinion of Griffin is, it can't be denied that the man is a living highlight-reel. And to some people, that's what basketball is all about.
Griffin re-aggravated his quad injury and was sidelined after only four playoff games. The setback wasn't serious though and Griffin had the entire summer to recover. He is expected to be at 100% when the season begins. If he is at 100%, you know what to expect. The high-flying dunks and gravity-defying finishes we've seen over the past several seasons should be on full display during the 2016-17 season. Let's just hope he can stay healthy.
8 Ben Simmons, Sixers
Let's be honest. Ben Simmons looked incredible at LSU. Not only is he one of the most impressive physical specimens we've seen, he knows how to use that athleticism. His open-court game is incredible and he isn't one-dimensional, which is one of the most important, and often overlooked, attributes of a star.
Something tends to happen to elite athletes when they reach the NBA, and that is their ability to utilize their physical gifts. We don't know exactly what it is—maybe it's the training—but players learn to maximize their athletic potential when they reach the NBA. Think about how much more versatile Karl-Anthony Towns is on the T-Wolves compared to when he was at Kentucky, backing people down for easy buckets; using his size rather than his agility. Derrick Rose wasn't nearly as explosive when he was at Memphis as he was only a couple years later with the Bulls. Simmons should fall into the same category.
7 Dwight Howard, Hawks
Will Dwight Howard be happy anywhere? Orlando? Nope. Los Angeles? Guess not. Houston looked promising, but that boat sailed quickly. Now he's in Atlanta and you have to wonder: Atlanta? Really? It is his hometown, so there's hope that this will be the spot where he finally finds happiness.
From a purely basketball standpoint, he's found himself in a great situation. Paul Millsap is one of the most underrated power forwards and defensive forces in the league. That frontcourt is going to be deadly. The primary reason we expect big things from Dwight this season is that he's somewhere new. That didn't go well in L.A., but Kobe never made that transition easy for Howard. At the very least, Dwight isn't going to realize he hates Atlanta for at least one year. He'll be happy and playing with energy. And an energetic Dwight Howard is a fearsome Dwight Howard.
6 Damian Lillard, Blazers
Damian Lillard has a legitimate chance to lead the league in scoring this season. The NBA is filled to the brim with elite point guards, but only a couple of them can score like Lillard. When he gets it going, especially from the outside, it's over. Don't forget, this is the guy who stole Anthony Davis' Rookie of the Year award back in 2012/13.
If Lillard has one weakness, it's his mediocre shooting percentage. But as his offensive skills increase, his percentage should too. At twenty-six years old, Lillard is primed to assert himself as a top five point guard in this league. Add to that the fact that he got snubbed from the All-Star game last year. Damian Lillard is a driven man, and he's ready to take over.
5 Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Kawhi Leonard is an interesting basketball player. He has the mentality of a supporting player and lacks the offensive instincts that elite scorers have. Yet, he has turned into one of the most potent threats on both ends of the floor. Even so, on the offensive end, Leonard sometimes looks like he has more raw talent than he can handle. But every step along the way, Leonard is learning; learning when to attack and where, learning how to be more versatile scorer.
Here is a guy who made the jump to elite-three-point-threat over one summer. Add to that the fact that he is one of the NBA's hardest working players and Leonard's ceiling appears to be limitless. There's no way of knowing how good he can be until it is all said and done.
He is also a shoe-in for consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award, again.
4 Paul George, Pacers
It's always nice to see a player comeback from such a gruesome injury. George's injury was certainly awful, but it was also just bone, and for athletes, any injury that doesn't mess with your tendons, ligaments or joints is considered somewhat fortunate.
Not only did Paul George return to his previous level of play, he actually elevated it. He posted career highs in points, steals, and assists last season.
PG-13 will be only 26 this season, which means he should be smack-dab in the middle of his prime. Similar to Kawhi, George is one of the NBA's premier two-way players and he has proven that he can add to his game during the off-season. At the very least, George will continue to play at the level he played last season and during the Olympics. But we're expecting a little more from PG-13.
3 Anthony Davis, Pelicans
Last season was a tough one for Anthony Davis. Heading into the season, Davis was being touted as a possible top candidate for MVP and DPOY. Long story short, he didn't come close to either. A shoulder injury cut his season short, but even before the injury Anthony didn't look the way he did the year before. His blocks per game dropped significantly and his field goal percentage was at a career-low.
But it's a new year. As long as Davis can stay healthy for the majority of the season, he should be a top five player again. Let's say, at a minimum, he mimics his 2014-15 season and averages 25 points, 10 rebounds and roughly three blocks, per game. We expect even more from Davis, but that stat line would certainly qualify as 'BIG'.
2 Karl-Anthony Towns, Wolves
Let us start by saying this: Karl-Anthony Towns (KAT) is the real deal. You probably got distracted last season by Steph Curry's brilliance, the Warriors unbeatable-ness and Kobe's farewell tour. You probably watched KAT, at most, twice during the regular season. And that's okay, but now that must be rectified. Towns was an absolute beast as a rookie in Minnesota. His averages exceeded those of Anthony Davis' rookie season in every category except steals.
Now he's a sophomore. No more rookie mistakes, as he knows how the NBA game works now. He has plenty more to learn, but players become noticeably more savvy after their rookie year. His numbers will go up and he will probably be selected as an All-Star this season. Get ready, Karl-Anthony Towns is the next big thing.
1 Russell Westbrook, Thunder
We don't think the world is ready for this. We can ramble for days about Durant's controversial signing with Golden State, but for now we're going to focus on appreciating the Superstar still residing in Oklahoma. Remember what happened two seasons ago when Durant only played 27 games? Westbrook went on a tear that is rarely seen in this league. He led the league in scoring; was fourth in assists, and second in steals.
With Durant gone permanently now, it's Russell's time to shine. It's gonna be triple-double mania. He's led the league in that category the last two seasons and we would be shocked if he didn't do it again. One of the most overwhelmingly athletic freaks of nature the NBA has ever seen has officially been unleashed on the rest of the league. There are big things ahead for Russell Westbrook.
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