Posted Aug 31 2010 9:38AM
You'll hear it in about five weeks. It happens every training camp, how this player is much lighter, and that player is much stronger, and such-and-such is much wiser, blah, blah. It's almost cliché to say certain players are poised for a breakthrough, and when April arrives, nothing special happened. He's still the same player.
Every now and then, though, it's true. A player does take the next step, and his foot doesn't land on a banana peel in the process.
You can almost see who's ready to elevate their status. Some already showed improvement late last season. Others will see a new life with a new team. And certain players will get more playing time because a spot opened up.
That said, here's a list of players primed for a big leap in 2010-11:
• Darren Collison, Pacers: The Pacers have never had an All-Star point guard, and the club's all-time assists leader is Reggie Miller. That's a roundabout way of saying the Pacers aren't exactly point-guard central. Could this change in the near future? Collison gets his own team to run, something he earned after spelling Chris Paul so smoothly last season in New Orleans. Quite surprisingly, the Hornets' point guard position didn't suffer as much when Paul sat two months with injuries, which made Collison an unexpected surprise and trade bait. Although occasionally sloppy with the ball, Collison showed poise and savvy for someone so young and untested, and averaged 18.8 points and 9.1 assists over 37 games. The potential drawback, though, is putting too much weight on those 37 games. The NBA graveyard is full of players who soared in limited action, then were exposed as teases once given a bigger load over a longer stretch. Given the Pacers' history with point guards (Mark Jackson excepted) and their current options, the bar isn't exactly set high here. Collison should clear it with room to spare.
• J.J. Redick, Magic:. It's only a matter of time before he replaces Vince Carter, or at least gets more minutes in the rotation. That was assured when Redick outplayed Carter in the playoffs (especially against the Celtics in the conference finals) and when the Magic matched the 3-year, $19 million offer sheet he received from the Bulls. It's no secret that Redick's biggest fan, after Coach K, is Stan Van Gundy, who showed plenty of confidence in Redick during the post-season by using him in big spots. Redick has spent the last two years toning his body, working on his dribble game and his defense, to the point where neither are major weaknesses anymore. With more time and responsibility, he could become the Magic's most reliable outside shooter, ahead of Rashard Lewis. This should be the season Redick averages double-figures and makes people pay for doubling on Dwight Howard.
• Andray Blatche, Wizards: Arguably, nobody improved so suddenly after the All-Star break than Blatche, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise forgettable Wizards season. Blessed with length and velvet skills for someone 6-foot-11, Blatche knows his way around the rim and gained confidence in his jumper as the season wore on. Not shy about rebounding in traffic, either, Blatche was a revelation in the final 32 games, averaging 22 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.5 steals. His numbers may even increase with John Wall finding him. Of course, Blatche's ego soared right along with his productivity, which led to a late-season benching by Flip Saunders. And Blatche is known for being a free spirit. So, the question is: Has he matured following a series of missteps (driving recklessly, solicitation, benching), and if not, will further episodes limit his growth?
• Robin Lopez, Suns: He has a ways to go before he's the best player in his own household. But he could gain on twin brother Brook this season, or at least give the Suns an inside presence with Amar'e Stoudemire gone. The opportunity is there for Lopez, who brings good size and high energy, which compensates for being fairly raw offensively. After becoming a starter, Lopez averaged 11.3 points, shot 59 percent with 6.3 rebounds. Realistically, he's cut in the Joakim Noah mold, although not as aggressive a rebounder as Noah.
• Carl Landry, Kings: He's a critical piece to the renaissance taking place in Sacramento, and gave a hint last season after arriving from the Rockets that he's the real deal. In 28 games with the Kings, he averaged 18 points, shot 52 percent and had good chemistry with Tyreke Evans. Is he the next good, young power forward? Perhaps. Not sure how many touches he'll have playing next to rookie center DeMarcus Cousins, but at the very least, Landry should be a major weapon for the Kings this season, his first as a full-time starter.
• J.J. Hickson, Cavaliers: Who needs LeBron? OK, bad joke. Anyway, Hickson has "ready" stamped on his forehead after some encouraging moments last season, to the point where the Cavaliers deemed him untouchable in any mid-season deals. He's not polished and his mid-range game needs major work, but the basics are there and perhaps the will as well. Should the Cavaliers endure a losing season, as anticipated, Hickson could get the playing time and numbers. Somebody's got to score, right?
• Stephen Curry, Warriors: He's already the best all-around shooter in the game. Yes, already, with all due respects to Ray Allen. But to dwell on shooting wouldn't be doing Curry justice. In the latter half of his rookie season, Curry showed solid passing skills and even drew raves for his passing on Team USA this summer. Just a hunch: Curry will make the All-Star Game, finish among the top 3-point shooters, lead the Warriors in assists and average well over 20 points. This would shock you?
• Greg Oden, Blazers: Is this the year it happens? Does Oden make it through in one piece and flash signs of being a franchise-type player? Both are iffy propositions, based on history if nothing else. For sure, much is riding on 2010-11 for Oden. This is a money year; the Blazers can offer him an extension, which would remove him from the restricted free agent market, but they'd be foolish to spend big before seeing some progress. Also, this is a reputation year; Oden (if healthy) has a chance to finally build a foundation for himself. What's crummy is that after missing 21 games and then 61 games the last two seasons, Oden's still raw offensively; he'll need at least a full season to develop a move or two. But the basic big man stuff is there (rebounding, defense) which is enough for him to contribute in a meaningful way. Steering clear of injury and silly fouls are the immediate goals, although that's easier said than done.
• Kevin Love, Timberwolves: He operates in an unconventional world. Love is a walking contradiction. For two years he averaged only 26 minutes a night for a losing team, and yet is one of the Wolves' better players. He's a solid rebounder who lacks low-post moves, and a deft passer who plays a rugged position. Maybe this is the year the Wolves figure out how to best use Love and keep him on the floor. He's always around the ball and tends to make something happen. And he wasn't chosen to Team USA this summer by accident. With no Al Jefferson around, Love finally has his chance to become the low-post presence for a team that doesn't have many. You think the Wolves will finally, you know, put him in the starting lineup?
• Tyrus Thomas, Bobcats: He can be a bit flaky, and undisciplined at times on the court, but there's no denying the physical gifts here. Thomas brings tremendous hops and a desire, if not the technique, to play solid defense. Larry Brown thinks Thomas can be a star. We'll see. The Bobcats were smitten enough to keep him from escaping as a free agent this summer, something the Bulls, who had him for three years, were unwilling to do. Thomas will be given the platform to prove himself, because the Tyson Chandler experiment in Charlotte was a short one and there really isn't another big-man option in town (Kwame Brown? DaSagana Diop? Nazr Mohammed?). He'll need to develop a trusty mid-range game and tone down the mistakes to fulfill Brown's hope. At the very least, Thomas should begin to challenge Emeka Okafor as the best big-man in Charlotte's short history, for what it's worth.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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