What a difference a year makes. And another 60 draft picks. And coaching changes. And trades, free agency and retirement. And medical updates. Especially medical updates.
Paul George getting hurt creates an unexpectedly large opportunity for Solomon Hill with the Pacers, C.J. McCollum gets a training camp in Portland and a running start into 2014-15, Alex Len tries to keep up with the other Suns after missing almost all of a second consecutive summer league because of health problems, and that’s just a partial list. Many of last season’s rookies to watch are this season’s special intrigue, second-year players who will be under a spotlight beyond the usual tracking.
We’re talking playoff implications here and serious questions about career direction. Including:
Victor Oladipo, Magic — Oladipo greatly enhanced his draft stock by dramatically improving his perimeter game as a junior compared to the first two seasons at Indiana, then regressed to 32.7 percent on 3-pointers and 41.9 percent overall as an NBA rookie. That was either a typical difficult transition to the pros, compounded by playing a lot more point guard than before, or the start of chatter that he was a one-hit wonder as a college shooter.
That, in turn, matters in a big way in Orlando. The potential impact of the No. 2 pick in 2013 who at the time projected as a two-way player, based on that final season with the Hoosiers, would be stunted if opponents don’t need to break a sweat when he gets the ball 18 feet from the basket. Beyond that, the Magic need shooters. If Oladipo isn’t one, they need them even more.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks — New coach Jason Kidd wants to give Greek Freak, a small forward as a rookie, a look at point guard, despite Kidd’s many options at the positions. There isn’t the same need after adding Jerryd Bayless and Kendall Marshall later in the summer — in addition to returnees Brandon Knight, Ramon Sessions and Nate Wolters — but the implications of Antetokounmpo succeeding or failing at the point are big. If it works, Milwaukee could throw a matchup problem of historic proportions at a opponents and projected power forward Jabari Parker, the No. 2 pick of 2014, would have more of an opening to show versatility at small forward.
Cody Zeller, Hornets — When Josh McRoberts went from Charlotte to Miami as a free agent, Zeller went from likely backup to the new starter after a 2013-14 of 17.3 minutes per game and a drop to 13.3 in the first round. He is a good fit next to center Al Jefferson, an athletic power forward to offset the center’s slower pace and post game, a good passer who will find Jefferson and new offensive threat Lance Stephenson, but Zeller needs to produce no matter what to help make the Hornets in a playoff a regular sighting.
Alex Len, Suns — Ankle problems last summer, a fractured right pinkie this summer. The 2014 issue isn’t nearly the concern in Phoenix, but the No. 5 pick in ’13 needs to show he can stay healthy. He played 42 games as a rookie, mostly watching as Miles Plumlee, just acquired from the Pacers, took complete control of the starting job at center. Len has a lot of ground to make up.
Anthony Bennett, Timberwolves — The good news is that the first pick in 2013 does not face the same pressure in Minnesota as he did in Cleveland, not with Andrew Wiggins, No. 1 this year, headlining the package that went to the Twin Cities for Kevin Love. Of course, that’s also the bad news. People are expecting that little of Bennett.
Counting him out after one season, even a season of 4.2 points and 35.6 percent from the field, is a mistake. Bennett may have been the top choice only because it was a bad draft and likely would have gone somewhere around the middle of the lottery this June, and there may still be questions about whom he defends, but this is a bounce-back opportunity. Then it’s up to him.
Gorgui Dieng, Timberwolves — Speaking of Minneapolis big-man watches. The difference is Dieng went No. 21, was always going to be a good value pick in that range, and showed the kind of improvement the second half of his rookie season that makes a team look forward to what comes next. Nikola Pekovic, Dieng, Thaddeus Young, maybe Bennett — Minnesota has a chance for a center/power forward rotation.
Ben McLemore, Kings — Sacramento officials couldn’t stop celebrating its good fortune a year ago that McLemore was still on the board at No. 7. Then he was given a clear path to the starting job at shooting guard and couldn’t hold it, finishing at 37.6 percent from the field. Then the same Sacramento officials used the 2014 lottery pick on another shooting guard, Nik Stauskas. While saying all the right things about remaining committed to McLemore, of course.
Solomon Hill, Pacers — Even if Chris Copeland gets the start at small forward in place of the injured George, any measurable bench production from Hill, the No. 23 pick a year ago, will be important. To Indy, of course, in trying to turn longshot hopes for another playoff run into reality, but also to Hill in the wake of getting just 8.1 minutes in 28 regular-season appearances.
C.J. McCollum, Trail Blazers — Limited to just 38 games by a broken left foot, a repeat injury from college, he is now an integral part of hopes in Portland. A solid (or better) contribution from McCollum and the Trail Blazers have a proven backup shooting guard who could play emergency point guard. Poor production and the Blazers have more depth problems with a bench built mostly on players trying to squeeze another season or two out of their career or prospects all about unrealized potential.
Trey Burke, Jazz — From the third-leading vote getter for Rookie of the Year, behind Michael Carter-Williams and Oladipo, to possible transition mode within months after Utah spent its 2014 lottery pick on Dante Exum, who has made it clear he is a point guard and wants the ball in his hands. Maybe Burke and Exum play together, especially with Exum projected as being able to defend shooting guard, although he has yet to show the consistent perimeter game to handle the role on offense. Maybe Burke’s relative experience and leadership skills keep him first on the depth chart as Exum makes the jump from high school ball in Australia. But one of the best parts of the Jazz last season is far from locked into the job.