2010 NBA Preview: A dozen players ready to break out

Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love backs into New York Knicks forward Ronny Turiaf during their NBA preseason game in Paris on October 6, 2010. The Timberwolves won the contest, part of the annual NBA Europe Live tour, by the score of 106-100.  UPI/David Silpa Photo via Newscom

The 2010-11 NBA season starts tonight (Miami and Boston tip things off tonight at 7:30 ET on TNT) and while most eyes will be on one-name superstars like LeBron, Wade, Kobe and Melo, it’s fun to try to predict who this season’s breakout players will be.

It takes more than just talent to succeed in the NBA. It takes opportunity as well, and each of the 12 players I’ve listed before figure to play a more prominent role than they did last season. I didn’t include any rookies (or Blake Griffin, who qualifies as a rookie) because in order to break out, you have to have a baseline season to start from.

1. Kevin Love, Timberwolves
After spending most of last season coming off the bench, Love has started all eight preseason games and has averaged 18-11 while shooting 14-of-24 from long range. Neither Michael Beasley nor Darko Milicic are aggressive rebounders, so Love has a chance to lead the league in boards this season. I suspect Love will be in consideration for the All-Star team in January.

2. Darren Collison, Pacers
Indiana’s best move this offseason was to acquire Collison from the Hornets. He had a very nice rookie year, but the starting gig is his now and he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder wondering what’s going on with Chris Paul. He averaged 13-3-4 in the preseason, but I’d expect those numbers to rise with bigger minutes. He should be good for 16-4-6 this season.

3. Jrue Holiday, Sixers
Doug Collins is really high on Holiday, predicting that he’ll be a Top 5 point guard in the league sooner rather than later. He averaged 13-4-6 in March of last season and posted 12-6-5 in the preseason.

4. Roy Hibbert, Pacers
Hibbert averaged 12-6 in 25 minutes per game last season, but in seven preseason games, he has increased those averages to 17-9, though he’s shooting just 43% from the field, which is a little worrisome. Still, with Troy Murphy gone, there are a lot of minutes available on the front line, and Hibbert should get his fair share.

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NBA’s early season PER surprises

John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a nifty way to compare players with vastly different minutes played. For an explanation, check out this article. A score of 15.0 is average.

Here are a few surprise players that are filling the box score early in the season. All players are seeing at least 20 minutes of playing time per game.

POINT GUARDS

#8 Nate Robinson (21.33)

15.0 ppg, 4.3 apg, 3.9 apg, 2.8 spg
Thus far, Robinson is flourishing off the bench in Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense. He’s knocking down shots and is sharing the ball well.

#11 Ramon Sessions (19.36)
17.2 ppg, 6.2 apg, 3.6 rpg, 1.4 spg
The 22 year-old Sessions is proving that his late-season run last year was no fluke. His fine play is making the Bucks’ decision to trade Mo Williams a lot clearer. It looks like he’s the point guard of the future in Milwaukee.

SHOOTING GUARDS

#4 Nick Young (23.33)
16.6 ppg, 2.0 apg, 2.0 rpg, 55.4% FG%
Yes, his line is thin (i.e. he doesn’t do much but score), but boy can he put the ball in the hoop. The Wizards are struggling, but Young is providing points off the bench.

#7 Rudy Fernandez (21.31)
13.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 1.8 apg, 42.4% 3PT%
Usually, it takes rookies a little while to adjust to the NBA three-point distance, but Fernandez isn’t having a problem. He’s in the running for Rookie of the Year.

#8 Roger Mason (20.96)
16.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.4 apg, 52.7% FG%, 56.0% 3PT
Mason is doing his best Manu Ginobili impersonation. It looks like the fifth-year player is starting to break out, and once Ginobili returns, he’ll give the Spurs a much-needed fourth scoring option.

SMALL FORWARDS

#2 Trevor Ariza (24.09)
9.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.0 spg, 60.0% 3PT
Ariza has been remarkably productive in limited minutes. He should be starting, but he needs to show that he has a consistent jump shot before Phil Jackson can use him to space the court for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. For now, he’s bringing great energy off the bench.

#9 Thaddeus Young (18.12)
16.5 ppg, 4.3 apg, 51.9% FG%, 47.8% 3PT
After a stellar yet underrated rookie season, Young is making the most of the extra 10 minutes of playing time. He has shown great improvement from long range and from the free throw line (74% last season, 89% this season).

POWER FORWARDS

#7 Luis Scola (21.87)
13.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 56.7 FG%
He did much of his damage last season with Yao Ming sidelined, so it’s impressive that he’s been able to increase his rebound rate.

#13 Jason Thompson (19.71)
11.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 59.6 FG%
He’s not starting, but if he keeps this up, the Kings won’t bring the rookie off the bench for long.

CENTERS

#7 Nene (21.29)
16.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.7 bpg, 66.7% FG%
What is it with Brazilians and their one-word names? Nene is doing his best to make up for the loss of Marcus Camby. We all know that Nene is talented, but he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Maybe this is his year.

#8 Josh Boone (18.60)
9.0 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.4 bpg, 55.3% FG%
It’s Boone – not lottery pick Brook Lopez – that’s starting at center for the Nets. The team needs to rebound and he’s getting it done.

#10 Spencer Hawes (17.67)
12.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.0 bpg
Hawes filled in admirably for Brad Miller, and it looks like he’s going to be a solid NBA center.

Six NBA players who are about to break out

The NBA season is underway, and every year there are a few players that raise the level of their games. This might stem from maturity, improvement or increased opportunity. These players aren’t household names, but they could be by season’s end.

Here are six players that have a great shot to break out. These guys aren’t rookies; but they’re all relatively young and for whatever reason, they just haven’t reached their potential. I’ve ranked them in the order of just how certain I am that they’ll break out this season.

1. Jose Calderon, Raptors
Calderon was the #4 PG last season in terms of PER, but he posted great numbers while T.J. Ford was out, which prompted the Raptors to trade Ford to the Pacers for Jermaine O’Neal. In 56 games as the starter, Calderon averaged 13.0 points, 9.1 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals. He’ll probably see 35-38 minutes per game this year, so those numbers are probably a baseline. On the season, he shot 52% from the field, 43% from 3PT and 91% from the charity stripe, making him one of the most efficient shooters in the league. Moreover, he’s just 27 years old and the Raptors wisely locked him up with a five-year deal worth $43 million, which might seem like a bargain in a year or two. Since he’s Spanish and plays for the Raptors, he’ll probably still be ignored. What a shame.

2. Devin Harris, Nets
Before his trade to the Nets, Harris already had something of a breakout season with the Mavs, averaging 14.4 points and 5.3 assists per game. In 25 games with the Nets, he averaged 15.4 points and 6.5 assists. After the trade, his shooting percentage dipped, so if he can get that back up to his career 47% mark, a 17/7 season is not out of the question. Harris is lightning quick – especially for someone that’s 6’3” – and he has an improving jumper. (He shot the ball well while at Wisconsin, but seemed to lose that touch a bit once he hit the NBA.) His numbers could jump even more if the team is able to trade Vince Carter. Do you think the Mark Cuban will regret the trade after he pays Jason Kidd $21.3 million to shoot 39% from the field resulting in a first-round playoff exit for the Mavs? Me too. Harris is one of the young pieces that the Nets will use to try to lure LeBron James to Brooklyn in the summer of 2010, and the Mavs never should have traded him away.

3. David Lee, Knicks
Last season, Lee finished ahead of bigger names like Emeka Okafor, Lamar Odom and Rashard Lewis in terms of PER, and now that Mike D’Antoni is in town, I fully expect Lee’s minutes to increase from the 29.1 he got last season (Isiah, what were you thinking?) to something in the 35- to 37-minute range. He averaged 10.8 points and 8.9 rebounds on the season, but in 27 games as a starting forward, he averaged 12.9 points and 10.0 rebounds in 33.1 minutes per game. (I’ll ask again – Isiah, what were you thinking?) His hard-nosed, energetic play fits D’Antoni’s style, and while he’s due for an extension next season, the Knicks have so many bad contracts that they might have to include Lee just to get a fresh start. The key will be for the Knicks to find a taker for Zach Randolph and the $33 million he coming to him over the next two seasons. Eddy Curry’s contract isn’t quite as bad, so if the Knicks can get out from under Randolph’s, they may be able to hold onto Lee.

4. Thaddeus Young, 76ers
In terms of PER, Young was the #18 small forward in his rookie season, finishing just behind Danny Granger and ahead of Tayshaun Prince. That is impressive company, especially for a first-year player. He averaged just 8.2 points and 4.2 rebounds on the season, but in 22 games as a starter, he posted 10.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 29.1 minutes. But what was most impressive was his 55% shooting as a starter. Elton Brand’s arrival should free Young up to make more plays. Expect Young to average 12-15 points and 5-7 rebounds per game.

5. Randy Foye, Timberwolves
Foye isn’t a pure point guard, but he can play the position. In 31 games as a starter, he averaged 14.3 points and 4.8 assists even though he was coming off of a “stress reaction” injury in his kneecap. Now that he’s had an offseason to recover, he should get off to a fast start this season. He’s very solid from long-range (41%) and the free throw line (82%) and doesn’t seem to have any major holes in his game. Along with Mike Miller, the duo will make for a sharp-shooting backcourt that will keep opposing guards from double-teaming Al Jefferson. GM Kevin McHale hasn’t done a whole lot right over the past few years, but Foye was a pretty good get.

6. Mike Conley, Grizzlies
He had trouble shooting the ball (43%) in his rookie season, but he missed time due to shoulder and rib injuries, so we should probably cut him some slack. The Grizzlies drafted him to be the point guard of the future, so he should get lots of opportunity to prove he’s the guy this season. The Grizzlies want to run, and with O.J. Mayo on one wing and Rudy Gay on the other, they could be an exciting team to watch with the super-quick Conley running the show.

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