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Six players looking to heat up this winter

Fran Blinebury

Approaching the end of the first trimester to the regular season, it’s about time that trends and habits start to solidify into traits that become permanent. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at a six-pack of players who need to begin stepping up their games before it gets too late:

Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks

While it wouldn’t be fair to place all of the blame for the Hawks’ troubles at the feet of just one player, there is no doubt that the fall from a 9-2 start to a 2-11 record over the past four weeks began when Schroder’s shooting went over the cliff. He’s readjusted his sights of late, but Atlanta simply can’t afford an up-and-down year from their point guard if this going to be a team that makes the playoffs and has a chance of advancing. Schroder was signed to a four-year, $70-million extension to be the steady leader of the offense and there are still problems connecting with center Dwight Howard.

Evan Turner, Portland Trail Blazers

Is that all there is? The Blazers landed him with a $70-million free agent deal with the expectation that he’d be a valuable offensive weapon to come off the bench and lead the second unit. But he’s averaging just 9.4 points per game while shooting 43.5 percent from the field and 28.6 on 3-pointers. His assist and rebounding numbers are also down from those last two productive seasons in Boston that got him the big contract on the other coast. If the sub-.500 Blazers (13-14) are going to be the on-the-rise playoff team that was expected, Turner has got to bump it up.

Chandler Parsons, Memphis Grizzlies

He was coming off two straight seasons that ended with knee surgeries, which made the $95-million free agent deal from the Grizzlies a surprising eye opener. Then after late start to his season, Parsons played in just six games before going back to the sidelines with a bone bruise in his knee and hasn’t played in nearly a month. Memphis has been one of the big surprises of the early going with the usual amount of grit and grind defense. But if the Grizzlies are eventually going to become real threats to do any damage in the playoffs, they’ll have to overcome the old bugaboos of lacking transition buckets and outside shooting and that’s where Parsons was supposed to make a difference.

Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan shuffled off into retirement. Manu Ginobili is carefully protected like an antique crystal vase. At 34, the calendar is catching up to Parker too. Nagging injuries have allowed him to play just 17 games so far. His 9.4 points and 4.6 assists per game are the lowest since his rookie season back in 2001-02. The Spurs are 20-5 with Patty Mills performing as their best point guard. He’s lost several steps over the past two seasons and isn’t ever going to be the end-to-end finisher of his All-Star prime. Still, the Spurs need a fit Parker back in the lineup consistently to hold off the Clippers and Rockets for the No. 2 seed in the West and then to have any shot of running down the Warriors in the playoffs.

J.R. Smith, Cleveland Cavaliers

The temptation is to just make jokes about him taking off his shirt or greeting Milwaukee’s Jason Terry with a hug while the ball was actually in play and say, “That’s J.R.” But the fact is that until he popped in 23 on Tuesday night against Memphis, Smith has simply not been engaged this season. He’s shooting a career-low 32.9 percent from the field and averaging only 8.5 points off the bench. The Cavs certainly have their solid three-man core of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love running on all cylinders, but Smith is that freewheeling, free-shooting lightning bolt that needs to still crackle at times when the long grind of the playoffs comes around. Right now, there’s no electricity.

Stanley Johnson, Detroit Pistons

After a strong finish to the 2015-16 regular season, the Pistons claimed the No. 8 seed in the playoffs, were swept by the Cavs and hoped to come back stronger for the experience this time around. Figuring in those plans was a significant contribution from second-year forward Stanley Johnson, who showed flashes as a rookie and then averaged 19 points in the Orlando Summer League. However, the 20-year-old bundle of talent has found himself in coach/team president Stan Van Gundy’s doghouse due to a poor work ethic and his lack of development is holding back the entire team.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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