NBA Season Preview: UK Players In The NBA
10/30/2012 11:24 PM
With the 2012-13 NBA season getting underway and 20 former UK players in the league, KSTV’s Thomas Beisner takes a look at some of the key questions facing former Cats this season.
Is Anthony Davis A Lock For Rookie Of The Year?
Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes. The more appropriate question might be to wonder how long it’s been since a rookie held such a preseason lock on the postseason Rookie of the Year award. Derrick Rose in 2008? He was a part of a strong group that included (at the time) Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and O.J. Mayo. LeBron James in 2003? There was a strong case for Carmelo Anthony. Tim Duncan in 1997? That may be the one we have to reach back to and there are a lot of similarities in the thinking.
Like Duncan, Anthony Davis enters the NBA with advanced mastery of skills that will translate immediately into the league. He will block shots and he will rebound and he will do both at an impressive rate. Offensively, he’s not as polished as Duncan, but this isn’t a comparision with The Big Fundamental as much as it is an analysis of Davis’ abilities versus the rest of his draft class. Having said that, Davis is not nearly the project offensively that some of his critics make him out to be. His much-discussed growth spurt allowed him to retain some of the skills he honed as a perimeter player and, more importantly, allow him to see the game as more than just a big man. That advanced basketball IQ, along with a freshman year where he took the fifth-most shots on the team (heard that before?), makes him able to understand how and when to find efficient shots. In the preseason, Davis averaged 14.8 points per game on 47% shooting – a stat drastically hurt by two games where he shot a combine 6-24. Total disasters? Hardly. Unable to find his rhythm offensively, the #1 overall pick settled for 13 rebounds per game and his two best outings from the free throw line. Even on an off night, you can count on him to impact the game.
The other luxury afforded to Duncan in 1997 was the veteran team that allowed him to settle into his role slowly and figure out where he fit into their gameplan. And while no one is picking the Hornets to win the NBA Finals in Davis’ first season like the Spurs did with Duncan, it’s a team that was better than most teams picking first overall and should have reasonable expectations of playoff contention. The Hornets, like the Spurs, were handicapped by playing the entire season with their best player as Eric Gordon sat out 57 of the team’s 66 games. Unlike that Spurs team though, which went 4-16 to close out the season, New Orleans showed some promise in the season’s final stretch, winning 8 of 13 and beating four Western Conference playoff teams still fighting for seeding position. Add a versatile scorer (Ryan Anderson), a starting center (Robin Lopez) and a player some think could be a draft day steal (Austin Rivers) and you have a team that could be a playoff contender. Team improvement + Nightly Impact + Stats could just equal a unanimous Rookie of the Year award for Anthony Davis.
How Much Can Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Change The Bobcats?
Not much. At least not in the win-loss columns. Kidd-Gilchrist is everything the Bobcats needed in a player at the second overall pick in June’s NBA Draft, which is to say he can help them in about three thousand different ways, the most prominent being actually expecting to win games. But Kidd-Gilchrist joins the worst team in NBA history who shook the entire NBA world with offseason additions of Ben Gordon and Brendan Haywood. Not exactly Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. On top of that, Kidd-Gilchrist isn’t the type of player that can carry a franchise on his back. Yet.
No one expected MKG to be instant offense and, well, he didn’t exactly defy expectations in the preseason. Kidd-Gilchrist shot 31.9% from the field and only made six field goals in his final six games, good for 5.8 points per game. His warrior-like approach to working on his game, along with the private sessions with coaches where they’re completely rebuilding his jump shot will improve his offensive game in time and as the Bobcats transform the roster, his impact should multiply exponentially. In the end, he’ll probably be best suited as a Scottie Pippen to someone else’s Michael Jordan, who ironically is the one flying the plane blindfolded in Charlotte. However, Kidd-Gilchrist does have the ability to completely flip the mentality and expectations of the entire franchise. Just not this year.
DeMarcus Cousins, Superstar?
DeMarcus Cousins didn’t have a quiet offseason, but did you really expect anything less from the most debated player of the John Calipari era? After a season where he supposedly demanded a trade and played a part in Paul Westphal being fired, Cousins dominated at the Olympic Training Camp this summer. Of course, in all-too-familiar fashion, his performance was overshadowed by Charles Barkley calling him “a knucklehead” and a confrontation of Jerry Colangelo over comments that Cousins had “a lot of growing up to do”. The question this year is the same as it’s ever been. Has DeMarcus Cousins grown up?
On the court, Boogie took a leap forward last year after Keith Smart took over for Paul Westphal as the team posted their best winning percentage since the 2007-08 season. Cousins became a double-double machine, averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds in the final 21 games of the season, putting him squarely among the elite centers in the NBA. Cousins was the leading scorer among centers league-wide and only Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum averaged more rebounds. On the court, Cousins clearly stepped up a level worthy of being considered one of the game’s franchise players. But for DeMarcus Cousins, it’s rarely been about what happens on the court. It’s about maintaining his composure off of it.
Predicting how Cousins will mature as a teammate and whether it even makes a difference in terms of his public perception is a guess at best. But after an offseason where he’s lost around 20 pounds and an impressive preseason showing, Cousins appears ready to continue his ascension on the court into one of the NBA’s premier big men. He will be a star, without a doubt. Playing nice with others will only serve to determine if it’s in Sacramento or elsewhere.
Will John Wall Ever Be An Elite Point Guard?
To call John Wall a disappointment after two years in the NBA would be a great mistake. The former UK point guard has career averages of 16.3 points and 8.2 assists per game for the Washington Wizards, but the team has only won 29% of its games. Couple that with his nearly four turnovers per game and shooting percentages last year of 42% from the field and 7% from three and it’s fair to say that fans hope for more from Wall, who followed joined Derrick Rose, Allen Iverson and Magic Johnson as the only guards taken first overall in the 31-year period between 1979 and 2010.
If Wall is going to take that step forward to an All-Star and potential franchise-carrying level, it won’t be immediately. He’s sidelined until mid-November with a knee injury. But the good news for Wall is that when he returns to the court, he’ll find a roster that, for the first time in his NBA career, is completely void of knuckleheads. Gone are Gilbert Arenas, Javale McGee, Nick Young and the Andray Blatches. In their place, general manager Ernie Grunfeld has placed veterans like Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor, Martell Webster and Nene. Add to that group a young returning playmaker (Jordan Crawford) and one of the most complete players from last year’s draft (Brad Beal) and there are actual makings of an NBA team. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the most stable group of players Wall will have played with in his career and a nice foundation for taking a step forward in his third season.
How much that matters, though, is up to Wall. In a recent article in ESPN The Magazine, Wall was painted as a player who had become accustomed to the NBA lifestyle (making a four-block, thirty minute commute in his red Bentley) but didn’t feel comfortable yet as an NBA star on the court. Wall told Kevin Van Valkenburg, “At Kentucky, my teammates pretty much accepted me getting all the pub. In the NBA, I didn’t want to step on toes.” If there were any toes that he needed to avoid stepping on, they’re most certainly gone now. This is John Wall’s team more than it’s ever been and a franchise that has won only one playoff series in the last 28 years desperately needs him to make the step from good to great.
Is Enes Kanter The Future In Utah?
The Turkish big man’s Kentucky career ended before it really got started, leaving him as something of a mythical figure whose lasting legacy is more tied to fan pictures posted all over the internet than actual basketball. But it was his combination of size, skillful footwork and record-breaking performance at the Nike Hoops Summit in 2010 that impressed the Jazz enough to take him with the fourth overal pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. One year into his career, though, the question still lingers. Is Enes Kanter a legitimate NBA building block or some sort of combine superstar? After a preseason where he put together four double-doubles and closed by averaging 19.5 points in the final two games against Portland, the hope is there that he could be the future of the franchise.
What plagued Kanter in his rookie season – a year where he averaged just under five points and rebounds per game – appeared to be a mixture of rust, uncertainty and a lack of athleticism. After dropping 51 pounds in the offseason (good enough to launch a new series of He-Man pictures for the thirsty internet), Kanter no longer appears to be the plodding big man that relied more on pushing people around than anything resembling a skilled offensive game. More importantly, the Jazz have found confidence in their young big man and Kanter rewarded them with 58% shooting in the preseason. If the Jazz can again make the playoffs this season, Kanter will be a big part of that success. And even if Utah finds themselves back in the lottery, Kanter may just establish himself as the face of the franchise as Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap head to free agency.
Which Former Cat Has The Best Shot At A Ring?
It was a summer of moviing on up for a handful of UK players as Jodie Meeks left the 76ers for the Lakers and DeAndre Liggins said goodbye to Orlando and joined a championship-caliber club in Oklahoma City. Both players have a great shot at a ring, as well as Nazr Mohammed and Marquis Teague (assuming he’s not dropping dimes to Ravern Johnson in the D-League) with the Chicago Bulls. If I’m picking one Cat to ride in ticker-tape in June though, give me Josh Harrellson with the Miami Heat.
It has less to do with Harrellson’s role on the team, though I think he can be excellent for them in what he does, than it does with just how good the Heat are again this season. They were, without question, the best team in the league last year and with Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis opening driving lanes for LeBron and Dwyane Wade and giving Chris Bosh space to work, they’re primed for back-to-back titles. Plus, if you haven’t learned yet that you shouldn’t doubt LeBron James’ ability to answer criticism with other-worldly dominance on the court, you will soon enough. He’s the best player on the planet and he appears to be as hungry as he’s ever been. It’s Miami and then it’s everyone else.