The NBA season is once again upon us and while there are a staple of stars that everyone is salivating to see lace them up and get on the hardwood, there are also a plethora of rookies who are touted to be the next best thing since peanut butter met jelly. But what about those in between guys? You know, those players who either didn't get the minutes, had not become accustomed to the NBA grind or haven't fully made the mental transition yet? Of these there are many. Indeed, their upside is enough to warrant being on anyone’s watch list. But we only picked the five that had an upside that was too apparent not to acknowledge. Sorry not-so-old veterans, if you've been in the league for more than five years then you already are all you're ever going to be-for better or worse. But these talented tweeners are still rising and are on track to be stars, if not superstars, given the right conditions.
SG/SF Andrew Wiggins
The first, and most glaringly obvious of this cabal on the come-up is last year’s NBA Rookie of the Year SG Andrew Wiggins. There was tremendous pressure on Andrew Wiggins since his high school days when it was clear that he would pan out to be a better basketball player than his older brother (and current teammate) Nick Wiggins, who was one of the best high school players in Canada at the time. By the time Andrew became a high school junior he was already looked upon as a one-and-done collegiate prospect who would certainly be an NBA All-Star one day. Well, ladies and gentleman, that day has arrived. After starting of the 2014-15 season with a bit of inconsistency summed up by six single digit scoring outings in his first 20 games, Wiggins went on to average 17 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists per game for the season. Funny thing is, he looked like he wasn't even trying. There were some reports that said Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders had to actually coax the young talent into being more assertive. With a year under his belt, some work on his dismal 30 percent touch from downtown, a full season alongside pass-happy point guard Ricky Rubio, and some new young talent to take some of the spotlight (Karl Anthony-Towns), Andrew Wiggins is a heartbeat away being a perennial All-Star. Athletic ease, a mid-range game and a slithery slashing ability make him a headache to guard. You can book him for at least 23 points and 6 rebounds per game from here on out.
PG Michael Carter-Williams
Michael Carter-Williams jumped on the scene, crispy and clean, for the Philadelphia 76ers when he was drafted with the 11th pick overall back in 2013. Although his exploits were wasted on a team riddled with injuries and poor coaching, Carter-Williams managed 16 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in the 70 games he played in that season. An injury limited his time with the Sixers the following season and he was eventually shipped off to the Milwaukee Bucks after 41 games.
He would be inserted into Coach Jason Kidd’s then-crowed backcourt and saw his minutes diminish behind Jerryd Bayless, O.J. Mayo and Kendall Marshall. Funny thing is, only one of the three aforementioned players are actual point guards. Early philosophical clashes with Kidd, a wretched shooting touch and a propensity for turning the ball over are all things that can be solved with time and effort, and Michael is reportedly a hard worker.
Look, the man has had a full training camp under a coach who is one of the greatest point guards ever, knows the system inside and out, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates. It’s now or never for this triple-double waiting to happen. (MCW had three last year. LeBron James had two.) A 6ft 6in point guard who’s proficient at rebounding, penetrating, has court vision, and is a willing defender. Man, he’s just too versatile to be a bum, right? Well, his career field goal percentage of .401 is a god-awful eyesore to look at. But all those other gifts are just too tantalizing for him not to be on this list. Michael Carter-Williams will average a double-double in points and assists this season and shoot over 42 percent from the field.
C Hassan Whiteside
Hassan Whiteside should be the NBA poster child for resilience. I mean, really, how many people do you know would have stuck to their dreams as long as he has in the midst of some of the greatest basketball minds on the planet constantly saying ‘Sorry, kid. You’re just not good enough.’ Oh, the gut-wrenching, soul-extinguishing agony. But it pays to be hard-headed in life. Drafted in the second round of the 2010 NBA draft after one season at Marshall University, Whiteside struggled to see time at the center position behind allegedly cantankerous All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and was sent down to the NBA Developmental League where he would play for three NBDL teams over the next two seasons before pro-ball stints in Lebanon and China. When he was called up again it was to the Memphis Grizzlies and their crowded frontcourt featuring Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Eventually, after yet another D-League stint, Whiteside would find himself riding the pine for the Miami Heat in November early in the 2014 season. But Hassan was thrust into the rotation due to injuries in the Heat frontline and it was like a light went off, or maybe he just said ‘Funk that bench crap’ and decided to ball so hard to make the commish want to fine him. He did eventually get fined by the commish (for fighting) but the hard-ballin' never stopped.
Yes, he was a slow starter and often reminded me of the 79 Chevy Nova I drove in high school. All you needed to do was take it to a steep hill, give it a good shove, jump in, turn the key and I was all set. And Whiteside's engine is just getting going.
After sputtering along with some ‘ho-hum’ games through November, Whiteside caught on with a 14 point, 7 rebound, 3 block game against the Houston Rockets and Dwight Howard, a double-double against Brooklyn, and then a 23 and 16 game against the Los Angeles. And how could we forget the 14 point, 13 rebound, 12 block triple-double he put up on the Chicago Bulls-by far the best frontcourt in basketball last season.
He went on to average 11 points on 63 percent shooting, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks for the season in only 24 minutes per game and didn't start in most the games he played in. By comparison, Detroit's Andre Drummond averaged 13 points, 13 rebounds and 1.9 blocks while playing nearly 8 more minutes per game as a full time starter. Hassan would at least equal those numbers if given the same minutes and he's a better free throw shooter to boot. Whiteside's nose for the ball allowed him to score with ease without a single low post move. (Well, maybe one or two) An offseason of weight training, refinement of low post moves, and veteran teammates who trust him, and your boy might mess around and sneak on an All-Star team in the Eastern Conference. Hassan is looking like 15 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks per game this season.
SG/SF Giannis Antetokounmpo
The Greek Freak is just that, a freak of nature. Standing at nearly 7 ft tall but weighing a relatively svelte 222 pounds, Giannis Antetokounmpo can do things on the basketball court that most only dream of. He can run with the runners, jump with the jumpers, rebound with the rebounders, can play and defend four positions and is a basketball sponge according to some reports. He’s the type of player that makes opponents begin arguing about who “is” and who is “not” going to guard him the moment he steps in the gym. A matchup nightmare is something of an understatement. More like a matchup cataclysm, a wave of physical contradictions all wrapped up into one incredibly unique and talented player.
The scary part about it all is he’s only 21 years old entering his third season as a professional basketball player. He doubled his average from 6 points per game his rookie season to 12 per game last season while increasing all other stats across the board. There’s nothing that says Giannis can’t transcend his prior limitations to become the sickest thing out of Greece since Leonidas and the 300 Spartans. But a more consistent shooting touch would go a long way toward making certain that happens. 15 percent from three-point range is a liability, but shooting nearly 50 percent overall balances that out some. I see this Greek freakin’ 19 points and 9 rebounds a night.
PF/C Nerlens Noel
Drafted with the 6th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, Nerlens Noel was shelved for an entire season while recuperating from a horrific knee injury suffered while he was still playing for the Kentucky Wildcats. But he was worth the wait. Athleticism, shot-blocking, speed and agility are through the stratosphere for this young man. Although he’s tabbed as a center, Noel will likely slide over to play power forward alongside fresh new lottery pick Jahlil Okafor. Noel and Okafor might just be a top five center-power forward tandem right out the gate-with Noel excelling in areas that Okafor is said to be deficient in (rebounding, defense, and rim-protection). However, Jahlil has already shown that he’ll be a one-on-one problem for just about center and will likely get iso plays because of his ability. That leaves plenty of wide open mid-range jump shots and weak side offensive rebounds for Noel to feast upon when Okafor draws too much attention.
Additionally, you would be hard pressed to find five power forwards in the league today who get up and down the floor as quickly as Noel. That’s saying a lot in the small era in which agile and undersized post players seem to be a necessity. Last season, Nerlens averaged 10 points, rebounds and 2 blocks per game on a team whose primary mission was getting a lottery pick. Imagine what he’ll do now that there’s actually some serious talent to play with? I’m imagining 15 points and 10 rebounds per game.
PG D'Angelo Russell (Los Angeles Lakers) (My Rookie of the Year)
SG Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards)
SF Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks)
SF Gordon Hayward (Utah Jazz)
C Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)
# # #