Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers. MVP of the Summer League just passed, and having just turned 20 this kids ceiling is pretty high. We didn’t see the best of him in college at UCLA, but there he was in a system where he played off the ball more than he did on it. Last year at Phily he eventually took over the reigns at point guard and gave glimpses of what’s to come, especially in the month of March when he had his best output, averaging 13 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds. Standing at 6’4″, he plays a lot bigger than that due to his long wingspan, which in time should enable him to be a more than capable defender at the point guard spot. I’m looking forward to seeing how ho co-exists this upcoming season with incoming rookie Evan Turner, if those two gel then Philadelphia has something special to look forward to for the foreseeable future.
Mike Conley Jr., Memphis Grizzlies. Was probably my favourite college player coming out in 2007, so you can understand why the past few seasons for me regarding Mike have been utter disappointment. I thought this guy was going to make the transition from NCAA to the NBA like a duck to water, but it just goes to show not all stars in college do it immediately in the pros. Last season was a major stepping-stone for my boy Conley though, with more starts and minutes came higher production. His scoring and assists went up, as did his steals and shooting percentage in a season where he was handed the keys to the Memphis offense. I’ve full confidence in this guy to make a splash in the NBA this season, but he’ll have to do so with limited touches seeing as he plays with perennial ball hogs in Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and OJ Mayo. Could be a good shout for the MIP award this year – and it’s always good to see a Buckeye shine, right?
Courtney Lee, New Jersey Nets. I was shocked when the Magic gave this guy up, because outside of Dwight Howard he had the most potential to develop into a star on that team. As a rookie – on an NBA Finals team – he started 42 games and averaged 13 points a game, then he gets traded to a team that would win 12 games, a very up down year for Lee you have to admit. With renewed hope in New Jersey under Russian Billionaire Prokhorov and new head coach Avery Johnson, expect Lee to have a bounce back season with the Nets. Easily their best defender on the wing, Lee should start at the shooting guard spot next to Devin Harris and will be called upon to guard the guys Harris can’t, which could be a lengthy queue. A more than capable shooter and able to get to rim, expect a rise in scoring from Lee this year also. Avery Johnson is very demanding of his guards having played that position himself; he could be the best thing to happen to the career of Courtney Lee.
Kevin Martin, Houston Rockets. Kevin Martin with this Rockets team for a full season and after a full training camp should be fun to watch. In a system where shots get very evenly dished out, Martin will need to find his stroke early and often for the Rockets, something he should do quite easily when you consider the numbers he puts up when actually on the court. Granted, he sometimes needs a lot of shots to get his points – last season he took 22 shots to get 29 points against Atlanta in November, 18 shots to get 23 points against Washington in January and 17 shots to get 15 points against the Spurs in February to name but a few – but those were all with Sacramento. In Houston he had some games where he needed lots of shots also, but other games where he was just lights out – 32 points off of 13 shots against the Jazz, and had ten games of 25 points or more for Hosuton. Along with Aaron Brooks he is part of one of the most electrifying backcourts in our league, but if these guys continue to live and die by trying to outscore their opponents every night rather than playing the odd bout of defense, Houston may be lottery bound again.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers. Looking at the Clippers roster you’d find it hard to name just one of their guys to keep an eye out for this season, but none will be in the spotlight more than the Number One pick from 2009 – now in his rookie season. Standing at 6’10” and having the leaping ability of Nate Robinson, Griffin will be key to anything the Clippers hope to accomplish this season. A beast in college with the Oklahoma Sooners, Clipper fans should be bursting with excitement to see this guy finally fit and ready to go this season. Once he gets fully accustomed to the NBA and the way the Clippers play, he’ll be a 20/10 guy night in night out. He has a reliable jumper – for a big man – but it’s around the rim he flourishes, be it soaring high for a dunk or using his excellent footwork to make space for himself, Griffin is very polished in the paint. He’s also a very strong rebounder, just look at his numbers from college and they’ll tell you. If him and Baron Davis develop an understanding in training camp, expect regular slots on highlight reels with the commentary sounding something like, “Davis up top to GRIFFFFIN!!!!” The Clippers should be fun to watch this season, but for all the right reasons this time.
Brandon Rush, Indiana Pacers. Part of the National Championship winning Kansas team a few years back, this former Jayhawk took a major step forward last season. It wasn’t so much that his numbers were off the charts, but his game matured – which should be the case given he’s already 25 years old. His starts went from 18 in his rookie season to 64 the season just gone, and at times provided a reliable sidekick to Danny Granger in the scoring column. He should be a better rebounder for a guy his size and with his athleticism at his position, but I guess there aren’t many rebounds flying around with Roy Hibbert sweeping the glass. 41% from three point range last year (as opposed to 37% his rookie year) was proof of him working hard to develop, and with another summer of him working his butt off the Pacers should be counting on him to make even further strides this campaign. Paul George breathing down his neck for a starting spot should provide all the motivation necessary for him to produce a career year in 2010.
Marcus Thornton, New Orleans Hornets. Darren Collison maybe could be here, but he got enough publicity last season and was even mentioned as being the reason the Hornets may consider trading Chris Paul, so fellow sophomore Thornton comes in here on our list ahead of the former UCLA Bruin. There aren’t many things not to like about the former LSU standout; the Hornets should count their lucky stars to have in their possession a young, cheap shooting guard who can fill it up on any chosen night. While his three point shooting leaves a lot to be desired – accuracy and the sheer volume he takes both need to change – his offensive game is a lot more polished than your average second round pick going into his second year. Us Cavalier fans should know what he’s capable of; he tore us up to the tune of 37 points in February, but we weren’t his only victims. San Antonio, Phoenix, Dallas and Charlotte also felt the wrath of his scoring prowess to name just a few. What I’m looking for this season is a more all round game from Thornton – he should be dishing out way more assists for a guy with his ball handling skills, and going by his speed and strength his defense should come on leaps and bounds too. With this being the last year on his current deal with the Hornets, smart money says they lock him up now – because with the season he’s fixing to have there’ll be plenty of suitors for this scoring machine.
Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves. Al Jefferson leaving Minnesota could be just the tonic for Love to show the world what we all know he’s capable of. The picture of consistency last season when on the court, Love should see his minutes and touches go up this season seeing as he could very well be the number one option down low for a perimeter orientated Timberwolves squad. While he isn’t the tallest guy you’ll see play center, or most agile for that matter, his off-the-charts basketball IQ makes up for it. He has a nose for rebounds and gets himself in great positions to get them, defensively and offensively. His outlet passing and all-round game was well documented coming out of college, and while we’ve had brief glimpses of it in the NBA, we’re still to see the best of Kevin Love’s immense talents. If his minutes reach early to mid thirties, there’s every chance he’ll average 20/10 this upcoming season for the lottery obsessed Timberwolves. Need proof? 32 minutes against Phoenix results in 23 points and 22 rebounds, 15 or more rebounds 9 times and out of the 60 games he played in he had double-digit rebounds in 40 of them. The franchise leader for Minnesota in rebounds is Kevin Garnett with 10, 542. Kevin Love after two seasons is already 11th on that list with 1,392. Just saying…
JaVale McGee, Washington Wizards. Recently named as Brook Lopez’s replacement in Team USA for the upcoming World Championship, the up and coming bigman is on the cusp of being a dominant force for the Wizards. A superb athlete for his size, all this guy needs is minutes to fully blossom into the center Washington needs. Expect his game time to increase drastically this year, and as a result his numbers could sky rocket. With John Wall feeding him under the rim – and above it – he should more than double his scoring from last season. He came into his own in the last month of the season, putting up 13 and 9 in 23 minutes for a Washington side that lost just as many games as they won in that space of time. Also racked up eight games with 4 or more blocks, including 6 rejections two separate occasions. One of those occasions came against Philadelphia – in 14 minutes. That’s six blocked shots in 14 minutes play. If he gets 30 minutes plus a game this season, he could push Dwight Howard all the way for leading the league in blocks.
Rodney Stuckey, Detroit Pistons. While it’s risky placing a Piston on top of this list, what with it being a Cavaliers website and all, I confess that Stuckey is firmly on my man crush list in the NBA. I absolutely love this guy’s game and am a firm believer that he is good enough to someday be the starting point guard on a Championship team. He has great size for his position, is strong as an ox and knows how when to dish and when to do it himself. The shining light on a dismal Detroit team, Stuckey was a star last term, putting up career highs in points, rebounds and steals. While his shooting percentage dropped from two years ago, that can be explained by looking at the roster around him and maybe him thinking the best thing for the team was for him to shoot more than in the past, he averaged 15 shots per game last season as opposed to 11 the season previous. I wouldn’t blame the guy for taking more shots; you need to take what you can get with Ben Gordon around. With a reliable bigman in Greg Monroe this term, look for Stuckey and Monroe to develop a lethal two man game with numerous variations of the pick and roll or pick and pop – both guys have more than enough intelligence and even more skills for it to work like a dream. Rodney Stuckey is Detroit basketball, which is rather unfortunate for other teams considering how good he’s going to be.
I can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org for the Stepien Rules mailbag, Twitter @DOL17 or via Facebook.