Al Thornton, F, Los Angeles Clippers
I want this kid to excel, and not only because he was my preseason pick to take home this season’s Rookie of the Year award. Los Angeles’ “other basketball team” has looked directionless for about, oh, a few decades now and they’re desperately in need of an electrifying young player to come along, give the franchise and its fanbase a much-needed jolt, and perhaps soften the blow of Elton Brand’s possible departure this summer or next via free agency. They also need someone to take Tim Thomas’ starting role away (a shame only management has the power to completely eradicate Thomas from the roster, period).
After a very, very slow start to his freshman campaign, Thornton has come on strong lately and just might be the guy to accomplish all of the above. Since January 30, the 6-8 product of Florida State has averaged 18.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 44% FG (a number which would be at least a few points higher if not for a 1-15 stinker on February 1 at Minnesota). It’ll be hard for him to maintain that kind of production once Brand returns, but the Clips have a less-than-zero chance of making the playoffs and will no doubt ensure their promising rookie gets plenty of burn. By this time next year, Thornton may have established himself as one of the top five in his draft class.
Hakim Warrick, F, Memphis Grizzlies
It’s true–young players on bad teams frequently put up big stats in the season’s waning months. We saw Walter “Fabio” Hermann do it last year in Charlotte, and it hasn’t done much for him this year beyond landing him a spot near the end of Detroit’s bench and celebrity status for his long, flowing locks. When guys like Hermann or third-year forward Hakim Warrick get starter-type minutes, it’s on them to not only post lots of meaningless points and rebounds, but to also really apply themselves and focus on the bigger picture of improving their in-game awareness, their intangibles, and their overall value. With that in mind, these next few months will comprise a key stretch for the Grizzlies’ 2005 first-round pick.
Athleticism has never been a problem for Warrick, but consistency and defense have. Heading into the season I thought Warrick would take big steps forward, but he’s actually seen his per-game minutes shrink from about 26 to about 16 so far. With Pau Gasol out of the picture, he should average somewhere north of the 26 he got last year, and the (very) early returns have been promising. Warrick was in the starting lineup for the team’s past two contests, averaging about 33 minutes/per with 23.5 points, 10.5 boards, 1 steal, and 63% FG. Those efforts came against the defensively challenged 76ers and Kings, mind you, but it was important for him to make such a good impression on coach Marc Iavaroni. The team needs to figure out if he’s capable of playing a large role in their long-term plans, and at the very least he’ll pair with Rudy Gay to form one of the league’s quickest and potentially dynamic starting SF/PF tandems for the rest of the season.
Eight more players who are bound to improve post-All Star break after the jump…
Brandon Bass, F, Dallas Mavericks
The 6-8 Bass is the first of a few players on this list who stand to directly or indirectly benefit from the likely Jason Kidd Trade, provided
Devean George is sufficiently bribed the Nets and Mavs figure out a way to get it done. Not only does Kidd have a well-documented history of making his frontcourt teammates look suave by setting them up with easy dunks and lay-ups, but his mere arrival would also ensure the ’05 second-round pick averages at least 24 minutes or so over the team’s final 30 odd games. With Desagna Diop relocated to the beautiful New Jersey swamplands, the Mavs will employ only the oft-injured Erick Dampier to man the middle, unless you include little-used rookie Nick Fazekas.
He’s too short to play minutes at center, but the Mavs will be thin in the frontcourt, period, and that’s good news for Bass, who’s proving to be a solid scorer and rebounder off the bench with decent shot-blocking potential. Largely an afterthought during his first two NBA seasons in New Orleans, Bass is averaging a respectable 8.2 points and 4.5 boards this season in about 20 minutes/per. Those averages figure to go up, and the experience of playing a pivotal role with a title-contending team (not to mention a future Hall of Famer) will be invaluable for his development beyond this season.
Randy Foye, G, Minnesota Timberwolves
We debated over a few names for this list, but Randy Foye was a no-brainer. It would be hard not to improve on his 8.5 points per contest in just 8 games so far. Because of the kneecap injury that sidelined him for a bulk of the season thus far, Foye has been a forgotten man from last season’s draft after he was swapped for Brandon Roy on draft night (a move that sent shivers of Marbury-for-Allen déjà vu up my spine).
In his absence Sebastian Telfair has emerged as a pure point who will continue to start (seriously, Bassy is putting up 6.0 assists and just 1.8 TOs per night – who knew?). That will leave Foye backing Telfair up at the point and competing for off-guard minutes with Marko Jaric and Rashad McCants — it shouldn’t be hard to find 30 minutes a night. And while Foye may never be 100% this season, we still think he will emerge as a leader in the backcourt for Minnesota down the stretch. He’s a strong player who plays tough defense, plays well around the basket for a guard, can finish inside, knocks down jumpers outside and comes up big in the clutch. He finally had a great game in the Wolves’ last contest before the All-Star break with 18 points, 3 assists, 3 boards, 4 threes and a steal. Expect something in the neighborhood of 14 points, 4 assists, 4 boards, 1.5 threes and 1 steal from here on out.
Mike Conley, Jr., G, Memphis Grizzlies
After the Pau Gasol dump Memphis is in full-on rebuilding mode now, and they will turn it over to the youngsters. They have a glut of young and talented guards with Conley, Juan Carlos Navarro, Javaris Crittenton and Kyle Lowry, but Mike is the best of the bunch and should be in line for heavy minutes. He’s still just 19, but Conley showed what he is capable of in 13 January starts: 10.3 points, 5.4 assists, 3 boards and 1.2 steals. Those are very strong numbers for the rookie, and when he gets healthy they should get even better.
Conley is a very smart player who brings it every night. And while Junior is never the best athlete on the floor, he can score in a variety of ways and uses his basketball IQ to find open spaces and the open man. His jumper will need some improvement in the years to come, but we expect him to see as many minutes as he can handle after the break and think he should produce around 13 points and 6 assists per game with strong steals totals.
Dorell Wright, G/F, Miami Heat
We’re very psyched to see Dorell finally logging the minutes he deserves. He’s outplayed Ricky Davis all season, but has seen his minutes jerked around by Pat Riley just because he’s a young guy that occasionally suffers from typical young-player lapses of concentration (as opposed to Ricky Davis, who is a veteran that frequently suffers from typical young-player lapses of concentration). Wright is lean and rangy and a superb athlete like a lot of these guys, but he’s also shown great restraint and polish on offense. In his 31 games as a starter Wright only attempts 7.9 shots per game, but that’s good for nearly 10 points per because he hits about 50% of his FGs (admittedly, many of those from close range) and over 80% of his FTs. On defense Wright runs the floor like a deer and can block shots as well as any SG in the league, averaging 1.1 blocks per game in addition to nearly a steal/per as a starter.
Wright’s improved play on both ends of the floor will certainly earn him some minutes. It also bodes well for Wright that Miami has transitioned into a running team since the departure of Shaq and the arrival of Marion, because Wright is one of the best pure run-and-jump players in the league. He’s also playing for a Miami Heat team that will be gunning for a high draft pick and planning a rebuilding process, so there’s no reason not to get the youngster out there to develop and evaluate him down the stretch. Look for Wright to take advantage of the increased playing time by filling up the stat sheet with points, blocks, steals, boards and the occasional three-ball, all of it done efficiently on low TOs and strong shooting percentages.
Amir Johnson, F, Detroit Pistons
It just wouldn’t be a week at ETB without at least one mention of Mr. Johnson, now would it? This time, however, we’re not just salivating about his potential or calling for more minutes: the 20-year-old has actually solidified a spot in the Pistons’ rotation, is coming off perhaps the best one-week stretch of his professional career, and just may start popping up on fantasy rosters. If you need blocks and boards, you might consider adding him to your fantasy team. Johnson’s minutes will likely fluctuate over these last 30 games or so, but he logged a season-high 30:37 Wednesday night in a blowout win over the depressing Pacers and certainly made the most of the opportunity: 8 points, 9 boards, 7 blocks, 1 steal. Folks, that’s damn near a triple-double the hard way.
In the interest of keeping the starters fresh, and since he’s starting to prove that he belongs and is ready to make an impact, Johnson will continue to get anywhere between 8 – 25 minutes on any given night, depending on the matchup/score. That game-time experience alone will help this kid improve, but so will the presence of “Mother Goose,” better known as Rasheed Wallace. Bob Wojnowski shared this nugget in Friday’s Detroit News:
Wallace’s locker sits between Maxiell’s and Johnson’s, a perfect mentoring place. As Johnson was giving an interview the other night, Wallace leaned in and offered sound, thoughtful advice as only he can. “Get some bass in your voice, dawg!” Wallace yelled at Johnson, before falling into laughter. “You’re talking like a little girl!” Johnson grinned, then continued with his soft-spoken we-gotta-keep-working-hard mantra.
Thaddeus Young, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers
As the 76ers’ first-round pick this season, Thaddeus Young was expected to be more of a project than immediate contributor. Just 19 years of age and with a wispy 6-8 frame, Young will need some time to bulk up before he can truly hang with the stronger NBA forwards. And while Young’s offensive game showed improvement last year at Georgia Tech, he still needs polish there. But his extremely quick feet and hands make Young a solid defender already, although at 210 lbs he can’t bang with many people underneath. Additionally, it’s not very plausible to have franchise player Andre Iguodala, last year’s first-round pick Rodney Carney and Young on the floor at the same time. Basically, we didn’t expect to see too much of Thaddeus this season, but he’s changing our mind.
After reaching double-digit points only once in all of November and December, Young started to show flashes of offense in 2008. In January he had six double-digit scoring games. He was inserted into the starting lineup for February and has responded with impressive averages of 11.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1 steal on a very clean 59.7% FGs and 75% FTs in 31 minutes per game. He’s clearly leapfrogged Carney in the rotation and figures to log heavy minutes for a Philadelphia team that is suddenly in the playoff picture. The 76ers have now won five straight games and seven of their last ten, and the lefty’s play has been a big part of their recent success.
Louis Williams, G, Philadelphia 76ers
We wrote about Mr. Williams for our Untapped Potential piece a few weeks back. As we mentioned, Williams was a member of the McDonald’s All-American East Team and the Naismith Prep Player of the Year as the nation’s top high schooler before he was drafted in 2005. He’s always had great potential. We love Sweet Lou’s quicks and natural scoring ability, and he’s going to be an 18+ PPG player in the next couple of seasons. He may not be quite as good on defense and around the basket, but Williams is a lot like Monta Ellis in Golden State. Pure scorer, former second-round pick, shows flashes of brilliance and is so lightning quick that he’ll be impossible to stop once defenders have to honor his jumper.
After the Kyle Korver trade a lot of minutes have opened up for young guys in Philly like Young and Williams, and they have responded well. February has been the finest month of Williams’ career with averages of 11.3 points, 2.9 assists, 1 steal and nearly 1 three per game on a very respectable 44.8% FGs and 84.6% FTs. Look for Williams to continue to improve and mature as the season wears on no matter what, but we also suspect an Andre Miller trade could be on the horizon, in which case Williams could explode if given 30+ minutes per game.
Kirk Hinrich, PG, Chicago Bulls
Poor Hinrich. He’s the lone “proven veteran” on this list — there are certainly others in the same predicament out there, they’re just not mentioned here — who finds himself having to re-establish himself all over again after having an absolutely dismal start to the season. Just how bad has it been for the fifth-year guard? His field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, points, assists, and steals are all down compared to last season, though to his credit the turnovers have stayed under control (2.4/per). But beyond the raw stats, Hinrich has not stepped up and become a leader for the Bulls like many thought he would… and this team needs someone to assume that role in the worst way.
To be fair, various injuries have limited him (as well as teammates Ben Gordon and Luol Deng), not to mention locker room issues and a coaching change. As guys presumably get healthy and the team works through its kinks, we think Hinrich will settle down and elevate his game back to where it should be. He’s too good not to. Captain Kirk has come off the bench for the last two games with Chris Duhon playing well, but that won’t last. And Hinrich has shown signs of awakening with a couple of 30+ point and 8+ assist outbursts over the last month.