Nine months later, not much seems to have changed—not on the surface, anyway.
Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo are (still) out with knee injuries. Kyrie Irving might be sidelined by one of his own, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com), mere days after Russell Westbrook went back under the knife for the third time since the spring. Steve Nash has been a question mark for so long that Los Angeles Lakers fans seem to have all but forgotten that he's still under contract with the Purple and Gold.
I could go on and on, but I'm not here to rehash the same exercise from last season.
Rather, with rookies like Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo making their respective marks, so many other youngsters working their way up the ranks and even more on the way, with Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart and Australian stud Dante Exum expected to enter the 2014 NBA draft, now seems as good a time as any to look closer at those floor generals who either have jumped or seem likely to jump to the next level at their position and to highlight where in the hierarchy they now find themselves—from first-time All-Stars to rising studs to new faces you should recognize.
Surefire First-Time All-Stars
Qualifications: Have yet to be chosen as All-Stars, but seem all but assured of playing in New Orleans in mid-February.
Stephen Curry should've been an All-Star in 2013 and almost certainly will be this time around. The sharpshooting Golden State Warriors guard ranks eighth in points (22.9 points), second in assists (9.5) and 10th in steals (1.8), in addition to once again shooting well over 40 percent from three-point range.
Better yet, Curry's Warriors have won their last six games in a row to solidify their standing as a playoff team in the crowded Western Conference.
John Wall's Washington Wizards won't have to work so hard to maintain their own postseason hopes. The bulk of the Eastern Conference has been terrible thus far, to the point where Washington's 14-14 record is good enough to lock down the fifth seed on that side of the bracket.
Wall has all but carried the Wizards to the .500 mark amid myriad injuries up and down the roster. The fourth-year speedster out of Kentucky has thus far posted career highs in points (20.2), assists (9.0) and steals (2.1), the latter two of which are top-four marks among his peers. Wall's still not much of a shooter, though his accuracy from three-point range (.311) has improved.
As well it should, if he's going to continue to jack 3.6 treys per game.
Both Curry and Wall should benefit from the injuries that have riddled their point guard rivals. As of Dec. 26, they were the third- and fourth-highest All-Star vote-getters among guards in their respective conferences. Curry's stuck behind the sidelined Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, while John has three perimeter players with bad knees (Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose) to leapfrog.
Either way, Curry and Wall are virtual locks to play in the Crescent City.
Qualifications: Could be All-Stars if not for the incredible depth at the position.
Lillard has gotten plenty of positive publicity for the Portland Trail Blazers' success, as well he should. The reigning Rookie of the Year has upped his scoring (21.1 points) and three-point shooting (.438) while cutting down his turnover rate and establishing himself as, perhaps, the most "clutch" player in the NBA so far this season.
Lillard, though, remains a subpar defender, isn't exactly an elite assist man (5.5 per game) and is shooting worse from two-point range, despite taking more shots in close and fewer from mid-range than he did last season, per NBA.com.
Lawson has seen a similar slip in his own two-point percentage, though, like Lillard, just about every other aspect of his game has seen improvement. He's racking up more helpers (7.9 assists) and scoring more points (17.9 per game) than ever before.
The secret? For one, he has the ball in his hands more (career-high usage rate of 24.1 percent). More importantly, Lawson's getting to the line far more frequently; his 6.4 free-throw attempts per game are the 10th-most in the NBA.
If his Denver Nuggets weren't on the wrong end of a seven-game slide, Lawson would surely garner more serious consideration as an All-Star.
Ellis' Dallas Mavericks have had no such trouble hanging on to the eighth seed in the West. Monta has been particularly helpful in that regard, with averages of 20.3 points and 5.9 assists to date in Big D.
To be sure, Ellis isn't on pace for career bests in any major statistical categories. He's scored more, shot more efficiently and dropped more dimes on multiple occasions in his time as a pro.
But never before has he done so on a squad that boasts both a winning record and a solid shot at a playoff berth.
At this point, though, Dirk Nowitzki seems like the only lock among Mavs to be named a Western Conference All-Star. Monta might be a better bet to slide in as a reserve if the Mavs were more than a mere eighth seed.
Coming of Age
Qualifications: Have taken time to develop, but are finally finding their respective grooves.
Ellis would find himself squarely in this category if not for his eight seasons of NBA experience and past years of scoring at an All-Star level on bad teams.
If anything, Eric Bledsoe may find himself in the All-Star Game before Ellis ever does. The fourth-year stud has garnered a ton of attention for his part in making the presumably tank-tastic Phoenix Suns not only watchable, but also more than worthy of a spot in the postseason.
Bledsoe's numbers (18 points, 5.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals, .486 from the field) haven't been too shabby, either. Neither has the fact that his turnover numbers, while still high, haven't entirely exploded during his first foray into life as a full-time starter in the NBA.
Jordan Crawford has been a party to a renaissance of his own while captaining the similarly surprising Boston Celtics. Once regarded as little more than a "gunner," Crawford has stabilized the C's backcourt next to Avery Bradley. In 27 starts, the recent Eastern Conference Player of the Week has averaged 14.3 points and 5.8 assists.
Crawford's still shot appreciably better off the bench than he has as one of Brad Stevens' "Fave Five," though Boston has lost all four of its games with Crawford among its reserves, as opposed to its 13-14 record with him handling the team's starting point guard duties.
Kemba Walker's been penciled in as the Charlotte Bobcats' starting point guard for some time now.
Or, at least it feels that way. In reality, Walker is in just his third season of pro ball, with a slight reputation for chucking that seems to have subsided somewhat. Walker's assists are down (to 4.7 per game), but his scoring (18.6 points), rebounding (4.3 boards) and three-point shooting (36.2 percent) are all up significantly from last season.
More importantly, the 'Cats are winning games—with solid defense, no less. A 14-18 record may not be worth a letter home, but it sure beats the deplorable pace Charlotte set in each of the previous two campaigns with Walker at the helm.
The Atlanta Hawks have been winning at the same pace for the last half-decade or so, thanks in large part to the play of Al Horford. But with Horford out for the rest of the season on account of a torn pectoral muscle, the onus now falls on Jeff Teague to pick up the slack from the backcourt.
Not that Teague hasn't already upped his own ante in Year 4. He's already on pace for personal bests in points (17), assists (8.3) and free-throw attempts (5.5). His shooting percentages have slipped a bit across the board, though that's to be expected from a guy who's still adjusting to an expanded role in Atlanta under first-year coach Mike Budenholzer.
And he will have to even more now that he no longer has Horford on whom to lean up front.
Qualifications: Not quite All-Star-caliber, but still putting up good numbers and playing well in secondary roles.
Like Teague, Goran Dragic has thrived under the direction of a rookie head coach in Phoenix. With Bledsoe by his side and Jeff Hornacek watching from the bench, Dragic has exchanged his previous duties as a pure point guard for a freewheeling role that's far more befitting of his unconventional skill set.
The slippery Slovenian is still averaging close to six assists per game, but now finds himself scoring more efficiently and more frequently than he had under any other coach. He's third in field-goal percentage among point guards, behind only Tony Parker and Bledsoe, and ranks among the top 10 in scoring at his position.
More impressive still, Dragic has parlayed his left-handed craftiness and penchant for transition baskets into nearly six free-throw attempts per game.
Not bad for a guy who many assumed would be trade bait coming into the season.
Isaiah Thomas has been the chief individual beneficiary of his own team's role in the latest round of "Rudy Gay Hot Potato." That trade sent Greivis Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors, all but guaranteeing that Thomas would no longer be relegated to backup duty for the Sacramento Kings.
To the surprise of no one (probably), Thomas has performed brilliantly since then—on offense, anyway. In 12 starts, the 5'9" water-bug-of-a-guard has averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals with strong shooting splits of .474/.448/.846.
Reggie Jackson won't get to audition for a spot as a full-time starter with the Oklahoma City Thunder now that Russell Westbrook is out again, though Jackson's latest stint as the first-string point guard should give him ample opportunity to peddle his wares for other interested onlookers.
Jackson's actually scored more off the bench (12.8 points) than he has as a starter (11.6 points)—which actually makes some intuitive sense. His minutes between the two roles are nearly identical, and he doesn't have to worry about deferring to OKC's resident All-Stars quite as often when he's coming in with the second unit.
He may not be the superstar-in-waiting that James Harden turned out to be, but Jackson is nonetheless doing an excellent job of carrying forward the Thunder's proud mantle of productive sixth men.
Old Habits Die Hard
Qualifications: Some signs of progress, though the holes in their games are still glaring.
Ricky Rubio can't shoot a lick. As Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry recently pointed out, Rubio's on track to be one of the least accurate shooters of the NBA's modern era, in large part because he converts just 38.8 percent of his looks in the restricted area.
Which, by the way, is the worst mark in the league.
On the bright side, Rubio's hitting a passable 33.9 percent of his three-point attempts, remains one of the most gifted passers in basketball and turned all of 23 this past October. In other words, time is still on Ricky's side, and his game just might join him there if the generally underperforming Minnesota Timberwolves can help him open up the floor a bit.
The same could be said for Brandon Jennings, who's shooting under 40 percent from the field for the fourth time in five seasons as a pro. Jennings has always struggled to finish at the rim—which shouldn't surprise anyone, since he's a rail-thin 6'1" and 169 pounds—but lack of spacing next to the Detroit Pistons' frontcourt trio of Andre Drummond, Josh Smith and Greg Monroe hasn't made things any easier for him.
Chances are, Jennings would reap the rewards of any trade involving, say, Monroe for a competent starting shooting guard. For now, though, the 24-year-old will just have to settle for whatever (awful) looks come his way.
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