Predicting Next Wave of Breakout Stars for 2014-15 NBA Season
The NBA has long been a star-driven league, and a new crop of players will make the leap to that rarefied talent tier in the upcoming season.
Ascending to stardom has to do with more than just someone's raw ability. Mitigating factors like supporting cast and scheme can provide the boost from very good to great, and they can even more easily hold a would-be elite guy back.
On a basic level, a star has to be someone in a position to carry his team—if not every night, at least on any given night—on at least one end of the floor. That doesn't even necessarily mean these breakout players are the best on their respective squads; rather, the surrounding players can maximize the star's strengths while shoring up his weaknesses.
We're talking about a very selective sphere of players here. Few have a shot to join the ranks of stardom in 2014-15, and most likely not all of these five will. They are simply the closest ones to grasping greatness.
Let's take a look at who could make that leap.
Elevated play in the postseason can be a precursor to improved future performances, or it can be a small-sample-size aberration.
In the case of Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards have to hope they just witnessed the former.
The stat sheet doesn't portray a major jump in production between the 2013-14 regular season and playoffs. His scoring ticked up to 19.2 points per game from 17.1, but he also played just under seven more minutes per game and his shooting percentages changed negligibly.
Rather, Beal started operating offensively in more varied ways. Effective yet inconsistent beyond his spot-up shooting game before, Beal displayed newfound comfort with his off-the-bounce attack, emerging as a capable secondary ball-handler alongside John Wall.
Wall will still be the guy through whom the Wiz play, but opponents will commit to bottling up his pick-and-roll game. Beal will have opportunities to punish defenses either in isolation or through secondary actions following kickouts, and his emergence as a 20-point-per-game scorer will create more room for Wall to operate as well.
The Memphis Grizzlies' cornerstone center missed 23 games last season between late November and early January with a sprained MCL. Before he returned on January 14, the Grizz were 17-19, but they crushed the league for the remainder of the season; they went 33-13 to finish out their schedule—the best record in the NBA over that stretch.
Because the Western Conference was so strong last season, that late burst only lifted Memphis to the seventh seed, so few gave the team the credit of being a juggernaut, as it deserved.
Obviously that speaks to Gasol's greatness, but he was already known as one of the league's premier two-way centers heading into 2013-14.
Conley, on the other hand, was relatively unheralded as he put together a personal-best season. His 17.0 points per game and 45 percent shooting from the field were both career highs. Tack on his 6.0 assists, and Conley's numbers are just a cut below what Spurs point guard Tony Parker produces.
Yet while Parker, 32, has only become a bigger defensive minus as he as aged, Conley is one of the best lockdown point guards around.
If his team stays at full strength and plays up to its potential from the season's start, Conley will begin to get the acclaim he deserves. Strictly speaking, it won't be a breakout, but it will be the emergence of a new star.
Last season's Detroit Pistons provided Andre Drummond with one of the worst possible environments in which to develop as a franchise center.
He has limitless potential as a rim protector and roll man, but he shared the floor with both Greg Monroe, a post scorer and defensive minus, and Josh Smith, who is too slow to play small forward anymore and too terrible a three-point shooter at 27.9 percent for his career to space the floor around the other bigs.
Enter Stan Van Gundy, a man who knows a thing or two about building around physical marvels at center, as Detroit's coach and president. In the heyday of the Dwight Howard Orlando Magic, SVG surrounded his interior star with shooters at all four other positions, and Drummond would thrive in a similar setup.
Van Gundy already committed just under $7 million per year over three years to Jodie Meeks and has shopped Smith to the Sacramento Kings, per ESPN's Marc Stein, a clear statement that the Pistons will put more shooting on the floor next season.
Even in a broken system, Drummond was able to post 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, as well as a PER of 22.65, fourth-best amongst centers and better than Howard. Just imagine what he'll do with an organizational mandate to clear the middle for him to work.
It's bizarre to say after he took home the Finals MVP award, but Kawhi Leonard has yet to prove he can sustain star-caliber performance.
Leonard certainly did earn his individual glory against the Miami Heat. He hit 61.0 percent from the field and 58.0 percent from beyond the arc, averaging 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while guarding LeBron James on the other end.
Then again, his conference finals play was not nearly on that level. Matched up with Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Leonard put up just 11.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, shooting 41.0 percent from the field and 26.0 percent on threes.
Those stat lines represent five- and six-game samples, respectively. So which one represents the real Kawhi?
Probably neither. Though he's better than the guy who battled OKC, he's not going to shoot as well as he did against Miami over any extended stretch, nor will anyone else in the NBA.
What he did show against Miami, and what he will likely be able to repeat, is his ability to create for himself within the San Antonio Spurs. When the ball swung around to him, he was confident taking his man off the bounce, getting to the rim and hitting contested jumpers as well as open looks.
Durant's 6'9" length bothered him, but Durant is also probably the only guy long enough to give Kawhi that sort of trouble. Against the other 28 opponents, he'll thrive.
His efficiency won't stay so high without the hot hand, but he'll continue to grow as a focal point for what San Antonio tries to do on offense as well as defense.
Between his offensive arsenal and the Milwaukee Bucks' cellar-dwelling state, Jabari Parker has a chance to establish himself as a star from the onset.
The moment he stepped on the floor at Duke, Parker—who led the Blue Devils with 19.1 points per game last year—was already an excellent finisher at the rim. He has a feathery touch that will allow him to keep scoring inside even if he can't power through tougher professional bigs, and he can generate enough separation for himself to knock down semi-contested shots off the bounce.
Playing with Brandon Knight will also give him a better distributor with whom to work than Quinn Cook was. Milwaukee is not rich in scoring threats, which will give Parker all the touches he can use, and he'll still get better spot-up looks than he has ever had before.
On top of that, Parker will benefit greatly from the support he'll get on the defensive side of the ball. Giannis Antetokounmpo will take the opponent's most dangerous assignment, and the Bucks will do whatever is necessary to hide the sieve-like Parker on nonthreatening foes. Even then, he'll have Larry Sanders lurking in the paint behind him as a safety net.
Jabari's Bucks have a mediocre ceiling of next season, but he'll be the guy from day one. If that's not the most ringing endorsement of stardom, try this: He'll approach 20 points per game, doing so efficiently while contributing on the boards. From a traditional stats standpoint, his box scores will look better than Kawhi's.
He may have gone second in the 2014 draft, but Parker will run away with the race for Rookie of the Year. It's just as well; at his level of NBA readiness, the established scorers of the league are more appropriate comparisons for him.