There will be no escaping the usual suspects. The stars as well as the up-and-comers who play for the NBA’s popular or successful franchises, the players who will be on national and international TV broadcasts regularly and will be talked, videoed, blogged, interviewed, ‘liked’, instagrammed, or tweeted about multiple times once the season gets underway.
But we believe that the NBA is a level-playing field, where, at the start of a new season, every team starts with the same record, and theoretically, every team is as capable of success as every other. So what if the chances of the Suns finishing with a better record than the Heat are only about as likely as their former point guard Steve Nash actually playing for Inter Milan? Since most of the upcoming young talents in the NBA’s non-playoff teams will be ignored during the season, let’s give them some of their due early.
So here are my top five players – in teams currently that did not qualify for last season’s playoffs – whom you should keep your eye out on for the next season. They could be the NBA’s hidden gems that beckon a League Pass subscription in case you get bored of the same old LeBron-Kobe-Durant-Dwight overdose. These are the next season’s breakout ballers:
Eric Bledsoe (Phoenix Suns)
Why does a player like Bledsoe – who has averaged less than 7 ppg for his career as a backup guard for the Clippers – get so much hype? That’s because close followers have seen the potential in the 23-year-old athletic scorer as someone who could truly make a splash in the league if given the right opportunity. That opportunity is finally here. Stifled by limited minutes and limited scoring opportunities behind a star-studded cast in LA, Bledsoe got traded over the off-season from one of the top teams in the West to the conference’s bottom-placed Suns. The Suns are going anywhere this season, as they will become one of the frontrunners in the Anthony Wiggins Tankfest while incorporating young talents like Alex Len alongside Goran Dragic and Marcin Gortat in the roster. Bledsoe, on the other hand, will suddenly have the keys to the offense, and have a chance to showcase his full potential. He isn’t going to be an All Star, but don’t be surprised if he messes around and becomes one of the league’s Most Improved Players.
Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)
Life hasn’t been pretty in Piston-land in recent years, and the once proud franchise have struggled through an unsuccessful, rebuilding process. But they saw some potential in rookie Center Andre Drummond last season. This year, instead of joining the fray of other tanking squads, they decided to move into the offensive, signing Josh Smith as a free agent and trading for Brandon Jennings. Now, also loaded with big man Greg Monroe, the team looks good enough to make the playoffs in the East. Whether or not they break into the offseason, expect an entertaining year for this young squad, and some solid development from their big man. Drummond is an exciting, athletic, and high-IQ talent. A slew of other talented teammates might take away his shots a bit, or conversely, help open his own offensive opportunities. We hope for the latter.
Derrick Favors (Utah Jazz)
Hard to believe that Favors – a 22-year-old forward/center – has already played three seasons in the NBA. This is because in those three years, he started a total of just 44 games, and only 21 in the three seasons after being traded to the Jazz from the Nets two and a half years ago. Favors, a talented defender in the post, was always limited in a backup role to Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in Utah. Now, with Jefferson off to Charlotte and Millsap in Atlanta, the Jazz are in full tank mode and have handed the keys to the post to Favors and Turkish big Enes Kanter. There was a reason why the Nets made Favors the third pick in the 2010 draft: he had shown great flashes as a youngster in combining size, speed, and talent. Now, with all the opportunities ahead of him in a team where he’s finally assured of being a regular starter, he has the potential to finally show his worth.
Jonas Valanciunas (Toronto Raptors)
Valanciunas was a teenage prodigy back in his homeland of Lithuania before even playing a single game in the NBA, winning several youth and junior European tournaments and individual awards, including leading his team to the gold medal with an MVP performance at the 2011 FIBA World Under-19 Championship. He struggled to translate that success in the NBA last year as a rookie for the Raptors, but began to improve as the season progressed and won the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Year Award in March. The progress has continued into this off-season, where Valanciunas dominated the Summer League to win the MVP award with 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game. Now that he seems to have found his footing in North America, expect more performances from the 21-year-old 7-footer that will be a reminiscent of his dominant years back in Europe.
Kemba Walker (Charlotte Bobcats)
Kemba Walker is a winner. He was in the number one ranked High School team in the nation and won a spot on the McDonald’s All American Team. He played three seasons of college ball for Connecticut and took them to a national championship victory against the odds in 2011. But when he joined the NBA’s most depressing franchise in Charlotte, Walker’s world changed, and he went from being an underdog success story to facing humiliating losses on a regular level. A year after being part of the NBA’s least successful season of All Time with the Bobcats, Walker responded in his sophomore season by upping his scoring average to 17.7 ppg (from 12.1 the year before) and dishing out 5.7 assists a game. Expect the stages of development to continue next season. Now with Al Jefferson in Charlotte, the Bobcats have a decent – if unspectacular – inside-outside combo. This still isn’t a playoff squad, but Walker still has that winner’s mentality, and as he continues to take strides towards individual improvement, his work will reflect on the improvement of the team as a whole.