The Next Big Thing
By Chad Ford
Training camps get underway next Tuesday – and we'll finally get our first real look at who spent their their summer vacation sipping gin and juice by the pool and who spent the offseason improving their game.
For a number of top young players in the league, the opportunity to break out from obscurity to stardom is there for the taking in October.
Last year it was young players like Zach Randolph, Andrei Kirilenko, Carlos Boozer and Ronald Murray who came on strong. This year?
In the spirit of the preseason and the optimism that exudes from just about everywhere, Insider examined depth charts, summer league performances and talked to NBA GMs and coaches to find 10 players who could be on the brink of breakout seasons.
Some are young (rookies, however, are excluded), a few have some experience under their belt, all of them have the ability to make significant contributions to their team this season.
Al Harrington, F, Hawks
You've got to be careful what you ask for. Harrington, tired of playing the sixth man on a championship-caliber team, asked Larry Bird to trade him to a team that would give him more minutes and a more prominent role in the offense. Bird pulled the trigger and sent him to the Hawks – a team desperate for just about everything. Expect Harrington's numbers to explode in Atlanta, especially if Antoine Walker ever gets around to passing the ball. He's just 24 years old and still has plenty of room to grow offensively. He's got a great chance of averaging 18 and 10 this season. Hopefully, the better stat sheet will make up for all of the losses he's going to suffer through this season.
Samuel Dalembert, C, Sixers
Was there a better young big man toward the end of last season? In March and April, Dalembert averaged 12.3 ppg, 12.4 rpg and 4.4 bpg while shooting 52 percent from the field. With the exception of a rocky February, he improved every month of the season. Dalembert has the size, athleticism and work ethic to be a Ben Wallace-type defensive force somewhere down the road. Given what the Pistons did this year, that's a skill that is suddenly a hot commodity.
Willie Green, SG, Sixers
Dalembert won't be the only young player the Sixers will be counting on this season. New head coach Jim O'Brien fell in love with Green in the summer league (19.3 ppg, 4 rpg) -- so much so that he traded away Eric Snow to free up a spot in the starting rotation for Green. Now Allen Iverson will play the point, and Green is expected to win the starting two-guard position. Green, like Iverson, is relentless taking his player off the dribble and getting to the basket. He's also quite a gunner, which should be interesting if AI and Green are Philly's starting backcourt next season. If Green and Dalembert pan out, the Sixers will be a force in the East. If they bust, it's going to be a long season in Philly.
Carlos Arroyo, PG, Jazz
Did anyone in the Olympics do more to improve their stock in the NBA than Arroyo? He faded a little bit by the end, but during the preliminary rounds, he looked like one of the best point guards in the world. He dropped 24 points and 7 assists against Team USA in an opening-round shocker for Puerto Rico and ended up averaging 18 ppg and ranking second in the Olympics in assists. He looked good for the Jazz last season, but with the added confidence he picked up this summer -- as well as a nice four year, $16 million deal -- look for Arroyo to take the next step toward being one of the top point guards in the West this season.
Josh Howard, F, Mavs
Howard continued to prove this summer that the entire league totally whiffed on him when he slipped all the way to the 29th pick in the 2003 draft. He averaged 24 ppg and 8.8 rpg at the Southern California Summer Pro League and a solid 16.2 ppg and 5.6 rpg at the Rocky Mountain Revue. Howard's scoring ability, rebounding and improved 3-point shot should make him a staple in the Mavericks' offense now that both Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison are out of the picture. Howard, on any other team, would be a threat for 18 and 8 every night this year; however, the Mavs are so loaded offensively that it's unlikely he gets enough touches to score that on a regular basis. Still, folks around the league believe Howard will take another big step this season.
Jiri Welsch, G/F, Celtics
Welsch was the unheralded X-factor for the Celtics last season and looks like he'll continue that role this year under Doc Rivers. In the 35 games the Celtics won with Welsch in the lineup, the Czech native shot 46 percent from the field and 44 percent from three. In the 46 they lost? He shot 40 percent from the field and 34 percent from three. Having Ricky Davis on the roster muddies things a little bit for Welsch, but the Celtics are still expecting big things from him this season.
Mickael Pietrus, G, Warriors
Of the Warriors that got significant playing time last season, only the departed Brian Cardinal had a better plus-minus statistic on the team. Former head coach Eric Musselman called him the best defender he had ever seen, and several opposing coaches around the league agree. Pietrus has the strength and toughness of Ron Artest, but he's much more athletic and doesn't suffer from bouts of insanity. Pietrus is still pretty raw offensively, but according to Warriors insiders, his perimeter shot has gotten more consistent this summer. Given coach Mike Montgomery's philosophies about defense and playing the right way, it's just a matter of time before Pietrus makes Jason Richardson expendable.
Tayshaun Prince, F, Pistons
Larry Brown loves him – and for good reason. Prince is everything people thought Mike Dunleavy Jr. was going to be. He's an excellent passer, good shooter and plays the game with unusual maturity. To make things sweeter, he also uses those long arms to create havoc on the defensive end. Now if the Pistons can just convince him to be more aggressive on the offensive end. He passed up way too many open jumpers last year. For a team that needs offense wherever they can find it, Prince could play a critical role this year – if he's willing to shoot the ball. Expect Brown to use Prince to initiate the offense at times in Detroit next season, leading to increased production in points and assists for the third-year forward.
Leandro Barbosa, G, Suns
Barbosa was the best player at the Rocky Mountain Revue, and now some folks in Phoenix are wondering whether he might be a star in the making. Sources claim Barbosa has been awesome in informal scrimmages in Phoenix this summer. His quickness, especially on the defensive end, has given Steve Nash all that he can handle. He'll come off the bench this year, but he'll still get plenty of minutes. The Suns want to limit Nash to no more than 30 mpg, and Barbosa will also see time backing up Quentin Richardson at the two.
Primoz Brezec, C, Bobcats
The Bobcats have a ton of candidates for this spot when you consider that their whole team is made up of young players who have had few opportunities to play in the NBA. Gerald Wallace, Jason Kapono and Melvin Ely might be more obvious choices here. Wallace should be the go-to guy on offense, Kapono is the sharp shooter and Ely is the muscle. Guys like Jason Hart, Theron Smith, Brandon Hunter and Tamar Slay also have the capability to shine if they earn minutes. But watch out for Brezec. The Pacers did everything in their power to convince the Bobcats not to take him, believing he was on the verge of a breakout season. Bobcats GM Bernie Bickerstaff fell in love with him in the summer league and his numbers (14.6 ppg and 6.7 rpg) were impressive enough that Bickerstaff is considering handing him the starting center job this year and a nice contract extension. No one is predicitng stardom here, but he's got his first real chance to shine in Charlotte. Will he take advantage of it?
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.