On opening night everybody is undefeated and optimistic. But that doesn’t mean some players — young and old — aren’t more under the gun to step forward and establish their place in the league. So we present a couple of fistfuls of guys who need to hit the ground running:
Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers – It’s been four seasons now of occasional flashes and teases. Now that Brandon Roy and Greg Oden are simply yellowed pages in the history books, it is time for Batum to be the twin support along with LaMarcus Aldridge that is a bridge to the future. Rookie of the Year candidate Damian Lillard might draw a lot of attention in the backcourt along with fellow newbie Meyers Leonard in the middle, but after getting his big paycheck, Batum must deliver the goods every night.
Michael Beasley, Suns — As Bob Dylan might have sung, how many roads does a man walk down before he’s considered a bust? This is already the third stop on the reclamation tour of the former No. 2 overall pick, and if he can’t succeed in coach Alvin Gentry’s offense-friendly atmosphere in Phoenix, what’s left? Beasley can score. He can rebound. What he has to prove is an ability to keep his head in the game and with the program.
Andrew Bogut, Warriors — There’s virtually nobody in the league that questions his ability as a passer, scorer and defender in the middle. The only question is his durability. It’s been four years since Bogut played more than 69 games in a season and twice he’s managed only 36 and 12. Coming back from a fractured ankle, he missed the entire preseason schedule and only practiced for the first time on Monday. The Warriors need him on the floor to even think of making a run at the playoffs.
Carlos Boozer, Bulls — If there was ever a time for Boozer to make a case that he can be a significant part of a championship contender it is now while Derrick Rose is still on the mend. His numbers fell off noticeably last season and that puts him on the hot seat now. The current inclination in Chicago is probably to re-sign Taj Gibson and try to move this veteran on, unless he can change some minds fast.
Andrew Bynum, Sixers — As long as Kobe Bryant was around, the Lakers were never going to be Bynum’s team. Now the Sixers most definitely are. But, of course, he’s going to have to actually get onto the court and play for that to be a good thing. He’s already had several injections in his right knee, didn’t play at all in the preseason and won’t be ready for the opener. As marriages go, this is like dropping the bride across the threshold.
Tyreke Evans, Kings – If you pushed a boulder off a cliff it might not fall faster than Evans’ stock. Just two years after he was named Rookie of the Year, he’s been pushed out of the Sacramento starting backcourt and could be pushed right out of town if he doesn’t show some kind of spark right off the bat.
Andre Iguodala, Nuggets — After eight seasons of coaching changes and expectation shifts and complaining that he never really felt comfortable in Philadelphia, Iguodala gets a breath of fresh air in the Rockies. He is expected to thrive — even excel — at both ends of the floor in George Karl’s wide open style in Denver. He’ll have to show that he’s more than just the valuable U.S. Olympic Team role player to make the Nuggets the Western Conference contenders they claim to be.
Jeremy Lin, Rockets – Nobody benefited more from the Rockets trade for James Harden than Lin. Despite all of the hullaballoo that came with “Linsanity” last February in New York, there were considerable questions about whether he was ready to take on the burden of being the face of the franchise. The question remains whether he can live up to the hype and play better than Goran Dragic did in this spot last season.
O.J. Mayo, Mavericks – On paper, he should have been the perfect complement in Memphis to the inside power game of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. But on paper the indiscriminate Mayo was just a 43.3 percent shooter over four seasons with the Grizzlies. Will getting open looks playing off Dirk Nowitzki rather than Z-Bo and Gasol suddenly make him a better shooter? It will have to if this built-on-the-fly roster is going to keep the Mavs in the playoff picture.
Brook Lopez, Nets – The starting lineup for the Brooklyn debut shoulda, coulda, woulda had Dwight Howard in the middle if all had gone according to plan. Instead he’s playing on the other side of the continent and the Lakers are being talked about as challengers to the Heat. Talk about carrying a heavy burden. In his first three seasons, Lopez proved to be a solid, capable low post man at both ends of the floor. Now he’s got to come back from last season’s broken foot and raise his game, especially on the backboards. If it happens, the Nets chase Miami. If it doesn’t, the shadow of Howard looms.