These are players poised for a breakout season. They are all recognized as good
players, but these five have their statistics trending in the right direction, and if the progression continues, they will finally be recognized as great
Point Guard: John Wall
Wall was the top overall pick in 2010, but he has yet to establish himself as a star in the NBA. He led all point guards in minutes played and managed to raise his efficiency (both FG% and FT% increased). Pessimists will point to Wall’s AWOL jump shot, but there are two sides to that coin. Sure, he ranked dead last in the NBA in three point percentage (7%), a number that unofficially encouraged Andrew Bynum to start launching triples (career 11% three point shooter), but look at his three point attempts. He decreased his shots from behind the arc by 53% per game, a calculated move that shows a bit of maturation. The ability to determine a weakness and either eliminate it or improve it is the sign of a player willing to adapt to improve his game. Need proof? Josh Smith has had very little success from three point land (career 27.8%) but his career attempts per game have risen over each of the last two years. He can’t shoot, but he isn’t willing to acknowledge change. On the other hand, LeBron James has taken at least 1 fewer three pointer per game each year since joining the Heat, turning him from a great player to an all-time great player. It is reasonable to think that Wall continues to play more and more to his strengths, especially with the addition of marksman Bradley Beal to stretch defenses.
Shooting Guard: Andre Iguodala
He was the best player on a very competitive team, but has never been titled a “star” quality player. That could change this year, as he is now on a more offensive team that should allow his statistics to flourish. He ranked ninth in the NBA in AST/TO (2.95) and was the only player taller than 6’5” to rank in the top 40 in assist to turnover ratio. His playmaking ability should mesh nicely with the specialists on the Nuggets roster, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he sets a career high in assists this season. He and LeBron James were the only players to be their team’s best defender, distributor, and scorer, and his new situation isn’t likely to change that. Iggy is turning 29 years old this season, and very well could put together his most complete season to date. He is a near lock to make his second consecutive All-Star game, and I don’t think it’s a reach to say he’ll deserve to start (fan voting leaves the actual starter up in the air) in the game.
Small Forward: Paul George
George was the preseason pick for the Anti-Gilbert Arenas Award and I’m not backing off of my love for the versatile wing from Indiana. He saw a nine minute bump last season, and his production increased in a big way. If you assume that his minutes per game increase by three minutes, putting him at a reasonable 32.7 minutes per game, George is ready to enter the elite. By extrapolating his statistical increases from last season over a three minute boost George is on pace to average 6.3 rebounds, 1.6 three pointers per game, and shoot 80% from the free throw line. There were only three players to achieve all three of those benchmarks last season, and all of them were considered elite players for 2011. Ryan Anderson had a career year and was awarded with title of Most Improved Player in the NBA. The other two are among the top 10 players in basketball (Kevin Love and Kevin Durant) and are widely considered the future of the league. George has the potential to be that good, and the Pacers are no longer going to be viewed as a team without a star player.
Power Forward: David Lee
Lee is a proven player in the NBA, but this is the year in which he is in line for the greatest workload of his career. He attempted more shots per game (16.2) last season than at any other point in his career, and that number could well rise this season. The Warriors dealt volume shooter Monta Ellis, theoretically opening the door for Lee to surpass the 20.1 ppg he average last season. The fragile ankles of Stephen Curry figure to result in Golden State focusing more on the short range game, where Lee excels. I fully expect Klay Thompson to emerge as a top notch deep threat, thus stretching defenses and allowing Lee to dominate single coverage. His ability to take the ball to the rim and hit mid range shots is similar to the game of LaMarcus Aldridge, but without the hype.
Center: Al Jefferson
Heavy usage, the ability to stay on the floor, and the awareness to make teammates better are all signs of an elite player in any sport. Big Al possess all of those qualities and could well emerge as the game’s best center this season. Yea, I said it. The best. He made 68 more field goals than the next best center (DeMarcus Cousins) last season despite playing three fewer games. The scoring is nice, but Jefferson is a sneaky good passer as well. We see the household named big men (Andrew Bynum, Dwight Howard, etc.) struggle when they are not scoring, but Jefferson led all Center’s with an impressive 2.16 assist to turnover ratio. That number is 24% better than the next best center, and I like him to keep, if not improve, that gap. Dominant bigs are often the only players that can stop themselves, but Jefferson averaged a career low 2.5 personal fouls per game last year. He has a unique skill set, and with a nice sidekick in Paul Millsap, Jefferson is as complete of a 5 man as there is in the league today.