Here’s how it works. Good player wants more. Good player practices all summer. Good player comes back way better. It’s called “The Leap.” Here are the five young guys I think make a move this season.
Eric Gordon - SG, Los Angeles Clippers
Every time one of these national teams is put together, someone always comes out much better on the other side. Somebody watched his teammates and appreciated their hard work. Someone felt challenged in practices and decided to really grind out the summer working.
This year, I think Eric Gordon fits the bill*. His jumper has no wasted motion. None. It’s wet. Crazy wet. Plus, he has a stout body, can get to the hole, and should pick up a few things from playing alongside Baron Davis (who has similar capabilities).
I think a lot of people were surprised by Gordon’s inclusion on Team USA. I think he might have been a tad surprised too. But when the wheels touched down in Turkey, and Eric Gordon laced ‘em up, he looked around and said to himself, “I belong here.” He fed off his teammates, his confidence grew, and his game got better as the summer dragged on.
Career highs in everything is a reasonable goal.
*I think the bill seems big enough for another Team USA’er. Stay tuned.
JJ Hickson - PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
When JJ Hickson got serious burn, the Cavs were damn near unbeatable. If Varejao starts in place of Shaq, and JJ starts at PF for Varejao, the Cavs win the title. Just thinking out loud here.
Hickson has the same hustle that makes you hate Varejao, but Hickson’s more athletic and runs the floor better. He also has a much more refined offensive game. JJ combines workable post moves and a good first step, with nose-for-the-ball offense. JJ’ll (important no vowel contraction) save a ball under the basket and lay it in. He’ll strip a center of a rebound and score near the basket. He’ll dive for a loose ball and get rewarded late in the game.
I think the Cavaliers step up to the plate this year. I think they’re a little ticked off, and I think that shows up in their play. Fans will be pulling for the Cavs. They’ll be loose and fun to watch, and I think JJ Hickson will be the biggest beneficiary of LeBron’s departure. I think he has an outside shot at making the All-Star team.
Al Jefferson - PF/C, Utah Jazz
I know Al Jefferson’s been in the league for 6 seasons, I know he’s gotten some pub prior to this, and I know his numbers were all steadily increasing up until last year. But no one’s considered him a real monster. This year, I think it happens.
He’s never been in a better opportunity. He’s never played with a better PG. He’s never played in a more supportive fan base. He’s never been supported with a center who could step out, knock down 3’s and clear the lane for his post-up game. And he’s never played for a better coach.
Jerry Sloan’s had 3 seasons of sub .500 basketball in his 25 year career. And let’s be honest, a lot of those post-Malone/pre-Deron Jazz teams were filled with garbage and scrap. He knows how to put post players in the right spots, and he knows how to get the most out of his guys. Plus, he’ll be playing all year in a Western Conference that lacks dominant post play.
If Jefferson has it in him, we’ll see it this year.
Darren Collison - PG, Indiana Pacers
Total East Coast bias here. Saw Darren Collison once in college. I assumed Jrue Holiday was going to be the better player of those two just because he went earlier in the draft. That’s how little I knew.
And then last year, Chris Paul got injured. I’d be lying if I told you I started watching his games then. What I did do was pick him up in my fantasy league. Mainly to pinch the owner who drafted Chris Paul, but additionally, to firm up my backcourt. I didn’t expect much from him.
What happened next blew me away. Fantasy-wise, he basically stepped into Chris Paul’s statistical gap. And we’re not talking about Morris Peterson numbers here. We’re talking about the numbers of a first-round fantasy pick.
That’s when I started watching him. He has long arms. Strong defensively. Runs the break and finishes well. A jumper with potential. He continues to stretch his range, and best of all, he’s a floor general. A good, ol’ fashioned point guard. Now he’s stepping into a plum job on a young team, with good leadership.
The dominoes are set up for Darren Collison.
Russell Westbrook - PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Excuse me for one second. I’m listening to my gut.
Okay, my gut’s feeling like Russell Westbrook makes the biggest move this year, and the reasons are three-fold (in ascending order):
3.) He plays with Kevin Durant. Durant isn’t just a phenomenal player who makes the game easier for everyone else. He’s also perfectly built to play in the offense OKC runs. Russell Westbrook is too. They’re both freakishly athletic and run like colts. Two young studs, in the perfect system, helping each other out. If he learns to manage a game, he’ll be in the best PG conversation when OKC makes it to the Western Conference Finals.
2.) He wants it. He cares. If you watched the FIBA World Championships, you probably noticed Uncle Rusty likes to dunk the basketball (brand new nickname - I expect compliance). What I liked more than his incredible dunks was the way he shot the gaps to get the steals that lead to the incredible dunks. What I liked more than him shooting the gaps was his reaction after shooting the gap to get the steal that lead to the incredible dunk. He’d scream. You could see his passion, how much he cared, bubbling over.
This guy hated his defender playing off of him. He hated it so much, he took jumpshots to force his opponent to play honestly. Maybe it wasn’t a great idea, but he couldn’t let the other guy win the battle.
I got the strong impression that Uncle Rusty didn’t just want to win games. He wanted to blow the other team out.
1.) I just have this gut feeling.