As the 2008-09 NBA season begins to unfold this month, the crop of veterans who will make their run for the league’s MVP award and highlight the All-Star game will probably look very familiar: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Tim Duncan. These household names will remain dominant forces on their talented, playoff-bound teams, but the infusion of young talent into the league over the last five years is crowding the landscape with players who are itching to break out.
All-Star weekend will be illuminated by its perennial bright stars, but keep a watchful eye out for the following players to punch their first All-Star ticket to Phoenix this February.
Despite the horror show that the New York Knicks have been putting on at Madison Square Garden over the last five years, David Lee is among one of the few bright spots for the team and has a serious chance of being New York’s first All-Star since Allan Houston in 2001. Lee has a unique set of skills and his youthful, energetic style of play seems to fit perfectly with new coach Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun coaching style. The 6’9″ 240-pound forward from the University of Florida is in his third year and can play the small forward or power forward positions.
D’Antoni has made it clear in the first three games of the season that overpaid and underperforming center Eddy Curry will be a reserve, giving the more talented Zach Randolph free roam in the paint. This should allow for Randolph and Lee to build a solid rapport working from the wing and the low block.
In 29.1 minutes-per-game last season, Lee was bouncing in and out of the starting lineup and averaged 10.8 points and 9.0 rebounds-per-game. New addition Chris Duhon, who is more of a true point guard than Stephon Marbury, will distribute the ball more from the top and, in turn, Lee should see more looks on the wing.
Lee’s size and mid-range jumpshot give the Knicks a great inside-outside option that can potentially lead to good results this season. Look for Lee to break out this year and average 20 points and 10 rebounds-per-game.
Out in the Western Conference, guard/forward Rudy Gay is looking to have a breakout campaign and lead his Memphis Grizzlies back to winning ways now that he is the go-to man in the offense. Gay, who is in his third year out of UConn, has been perceived since college as the best in his draft class to follow through on his NBA potential.
At 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, Gay is an agile, incredibly athletic swingman who is always a threat to score around the basket. He has a first step that other players his size have trouble keeping up with, which makes him deadly as a pull-up jump shooter and a slasher.
After trading for the highly anticipated O.J. Mayo on draft day last April, the Grizzlies hope Mayo’s size and penetrating ability will open up Gay on the outside and give him more touches now that Pau Gasol has left for the bright lights of Los Angeles.
Gay should expect more touches this season and will look to improve on his 20.1 points-per-game clip last season. Averaging 6.1 rebounds-per-contest, Gay’s jumping ability adds to his natural skill and will be a serious triple threat for the Grizzlies this season.
The Utah Jazz gave the Western Conference Champion Los Angeles Lakers a serious run in the opening round of the playoffs last season, and despite losing four games to two, every game was highly competitive and fast-paced. Although stud point guard Deron Williams and All-Star forward (and now Olympic Gold medalist) Carlos Boozer attracted the spotlight, Jazz swingman Ronnie Brewer showed glimpses of a rising star.
Now at 6-foot-7, 227 pounds, Brewer has put on some bulk, and his natural athletic ability will give Williams a nice option on the wing. Williams, along with Chris Paul, has emerged as a premier point guard in the NBA and has the ability to make those around him better, much like Jason Kidd and Steve Nash.
Just as Paul’s vision and passing ability guided New Orleans Hornets power forward David West to his first All-Star selection last season, Williams’ talents may prove just as beneficial for Brewer and the whole Jazz squad. Brewer’s minutes-per-contest should increase this year from last years 27.5 now that he has a full season under his belt, so look for him to improve on his 12.0 points-per-game total of last year.