HANG TIME, Texas — Fire up the grill. Ice down those frosty cold beers. Nothing says summer like a backyard barbecue.
Or sitting out in the hot sun daydreaming.
Sure, the NBA schedule comes out in a few days. Sure, the season openers are less than three months away. But why stop there? Let’s continue to wander all the way out to next spring when the 2013-14 season is over and get a head start on candidates for all the awards.
Today we’ll look at my handful of picks for Most Improved Player and you can chime in below.
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs — Doesn’t everybody already know about the many splendored talents of the guy with Charles Barkley’s favorite name after he played a key role in the Spurs’ run to The Finals last last season? Of course, Leonard drew the toughest defensive assignment though every round of the playoffs, doing a creditable job on LeBron James. There were also nights when he had bust-out games on offense. But the feeling here is that Leonard has only scratched the surfaced of what he can do. It’s no longer a stretch to think he could live up to coach Gregg Popovich’s “face of the franchise” prediction. As the years keep piling up and the minutes keep getting restricted on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, The Quiet One is going to get every chance to make big noise as he shoulders more of the burden. He could take the leap that last year’s winner Paul George did for the Pacers.
Harrison Barnes, Warriors — Before he conked his head on the floor and eventually had to leave Game 6 of the West semifinals, Barnes was doing all that he could to force a Game 7 in the series with the Spurs. A member of the All-Rookie first team, he averaged 9.7 ppg and 4.1 rpg in just 25.4 mpg. When coach Mark Jackson went to him more and more in the playoffs, Barnes showed more and more of the things he can do. He got to the basket. He drained 3-pointers. In other words, as the games got bigger, he showed why Golden State made him the No. 7 pick in the 2012 draft. With Andre Iguodala around to run the floor and get plenty of attention from opposing defenses, the opportunity will be there for Barnes to take that big step up.
Jonas Valanciunas, Raptors — After being named MVP in the Las Vegas Summer League, there are lot of folks on both sides of the border who are expecting the young Raptors’ big man to take off this season, especially now that he doesn’t give up minutes to Andrea Bargnani. He’s done work building up the upper half of his slim body without seeming to have surrendered quickness. His rookie numbers of 8.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg and a 55.7 field-goal percentage in 23.9 mpg showed that there’s room for growth with increased playing time, particularly on offense for a player who makes smart decisions and doesn’t force shots. But the Raptors will have to make an effort to get him to the ball. He gets to the foul line, trailing only Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Barnes among last year’s rookies in free throw attempts. As long as he keeps building up his bulk and strength, he can be a solid rim protector on defense. There is every reason to believe he can be the guy that Toronto spent the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft on and then waited for year to get him to join the NBA. If not this season, then the next.
Eric Bledsoe, Suns — There were a lot of places where Bledsoe could have wound up that would seem to make more sense than Phoenix. The Suns already have Goran Dragic at the point. But rookie coach Jeff Hornacek will likely play them in tandem and Bledsoe’s got the chops to play at the ‘2’ and use his defensive prowess to get steal and create transition chances and easy buckets for the offense. He’s been champing at the bit to get out from under Chris Paul’s shadow with the Clippers and if he can rein in a tendency to get a bit wild with his shot selection, Bledsoe could put up some nice numbers for a Suns team that will be thirsting for offense.
Jeremy Lamb, Thunder — He moves around the court and makes every thing look so slow and easy that half the time you want to check to make sure that those sleepy-looking eyes are really open. He didn’t see much playing time as a rookie, doing a constant shuttle between OKC and Tulsa in the NBA D-League to get game experience. He scored big and played well at the Orlando Summer League and now with the departure of Kevin Martin, the door is wide open for the No. 12 pick in the 2012 draft to come in and knock down all those wide open shots that are created by playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If those eyes are wide awake, Lamb could see his way to some very big things on the championship contender.