Five Breakout Candidates For 2011-12
In the NBA rookies don’t always get their big break right away. Perhaps an injury holds them back or their new team has two veterans ahead of them in the rotation at their position. It’s easy to jump to conclusions when a rookie plays only 30-some despite being healthy that perhaps he simply won’t make it at the top level.
That’s presumptuous and unfair. The true answer is when a rookie becomes a major cog in the machine right off the bat it’s not always simply because of their talent. Here are five names from the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft who didn’t get a chance to really show themselves as rookies.
Elliot Williams, Portland Trail Blazers: There are many around the Portland Trail Blazers who would like to see the team play at a faster pace, which would be perfect for Williams. Extremely athletic and a vertical the best on the team, Williams excelled in the open floor for Memphis after transferring from Duke and built a reputation as an intelligent player. When Portland drafted him no one questioned the talent, but they did wonder about the fit. He plays the same position as All-Star Brandon Roy, they had Rudy Fernandez at the time, and then they signed Wesley Matthews as a free agent. Roy’s injuries have been well-document and it could have opened up some minutes here and there for Williams if he had been healthy. Roy and Greg Oden got all the hype for missing games, but Portland’s first-round missed the entire season after dislocating his right patella in a game of one-on-one with fellow rookie Luke Babbitt. Williams has been cleared to play since late spring and circumstances have changed. Fernandez is gone and there are many question marks around Roy. At the very least, Williams is going to make the guard rotation very interesting.
Damion James, New Jersey Nets: Small forward is the weakest position on the New Jersey Nets’ roster. Last summer they thought they had something good, with signing Travis Outlaw to a five-year, $35 million contract and drafting James as a senior out of Texas. Outlaw went on to the worst season of his career and James played only 25 games due to various injuries, including a broken foot. Coming out of college James was noted for his rebounding, athleticism, and shooting range out to the three-point line. He did get nine starts in those 25 games; in those games he averaged 23.1 minutes, 6.8 points, 4.1 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.3 steals, and shot 59% from the field. Outlaw’s performance has left the small forward position wide open and if James can maintain those numbers in 35 minutes he will make quite an impact on a team that needs scoring, toughness, and athleticism. He could become a very nice complement to Deron Williams and Brook Lopez.
James Anderson, San Antonio Spurs: Drafted as a junior out of Oklahoma State, Anderson promised to inject some youth and athleticism into an aging San Antonio Spurs organization. His presence and scoring ability was going to give a break to Manu Ginobili’s minutes and take some of the pressure off Richard Jefferson. Unfortunately, Anderson broke a bone in his right foot and missed two-and-a-half months while recovering. After being cleared, Anderson shuttled between the Spurs and their D-League team, the Austin Toros for about a month before spending the rest of the season in San Antonio. In Austin Anderson started all seven games, averaging 14.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 steals, and shot 45% from the field. After being recalled to the Spurs in late February his minutes were sporadic, but he did manage two starts; one in late March and one in April. It’s a small sample size, but in those two starts he averaged 4.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and half a steal, shooting 50% from the field. The Spurs are limited by the salary cap – no matter what it is – because of the contracts they have on the books, so they need Anderson to become a good player for them.
Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics: Like a lot of veteran teams, the Celtics are capped out, having $64.4 million in obligations for next season to just six players. They drafted Bradley out of Texas (Damion James’ teammate) for his scoring ability with the hope he could improve his ballhandling in order to give Rajon Rondo a break (at 6-3 he’s a small shooting guard). Part of that was also Ray Allen was a free agent last summer and they needed insurance just in case he didn’t re-sign, but even with him around the Celtics were (and are) thin in the backcourt. Add in his good defense and he could form a formidable lockdown pair with Rondo. Instead Bradley ended up playing mop up duty for most of the season, totaling more than 10 minutes just twice and scoring 52 points in the entire season; 20 of those game in the season finale when many Boston starters got a break in a game that didn’t mean anything to them. Bradley spent nine games with the D-League’s Maine Red Claws and showed plenty of his college game there, scoring 20 or more points four times and putting together a nice stat line: 17.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 3.0 steals, 45% FG%, and shooting 37% from three-point range. Turnovers (4.3) were still a problem, but given the general age of the Celtics and their need for players, he should be a contributor.
Lazar Hayward, Minnesota Timberwolves: Listed as a 6-6 small forward, Hayward was a bit of a surprise at the last pick in the first round by the Wolves in 2010. With a game more suited to a big man but with the size of a wing, Hayward was billed as being able to hold his own at any of the frontcourt positions in college. The problem is, of course, that it’s almost impossible to be 6-6 and play in the post in the NBA (some have done it, but not many). After factoring in Minnesota’s plethora of forwards on the roster – Kevin Love, Anthony Randolph, Michael Beasley, Nikola Pekovic, and now Derrick Williams – perhaps it’s not a surprise Hayward only posted 3.8 points and 1.7 rebounds over 10.0 minutes in 42 games as a rookie. However, the Wolves never sent him down to the D-League and in the last two months of the season scored in double figures four times. His field-goal percentages – 36% and 28% from three – were abysmal overall, but they improved as the season went on (he shot 45% from the field in April). It’s going to be difficult for him to find minutes in a crowded forward rotation with the Wolves, but if a trade happens – maybe with Beasley, perhaps? – Hayward could get his chance to prove he belongs. Or perhaps another team could be intrigued with the possibilities, giving him a much larger opportunity on a roster not as forward-heavy.
Will any of these players become busts? Or will they become stars? Put an asterisk next to them now, with a “Needs More Information.” They still have plenty of time to develop.