#NBA2015: Players to Watch - Part One

With the 2014-2015 NBA season beginning in fewer than 10 days, I found it just right to look at some players we should all keep tabs on. There are no-brainers like LeBron, KD, CP3, and James Harden, of course, but there are also many other characters on whom we should put the spotlight. In this first of five parts, we’ll take a look at some key guys for the Hawks, Celtics, Nets, Hornets, Bulls, and Cavs.

A few guys hoping to make the jump, a couple who might get traded, and a
former MVP trying to return to form.

Jeff Teague (ATL) - Jeff Teague’s name doesn’t really come up in conversations about the best point guards in the NBA. That’s reserved for guys like Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, and… Tony Parker. Parker, yes the French guy who led his country to the 2013 Eurobasket title and the Spurs past the Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals. When current Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer was still in San Antonio, he helped Parker on his way to becoming the slicing, spinning, and scoring playmaker he is today. Like Parker, Teague was never known as a terrific passer. Teague is really more of a scoring PG, but whereas Parker finishes really strong in and around the paint, Teague, historically, has a better-looking stroke from the perimeter. Who knows? Perhaps under Budenholzer Teague can continue building on the gains from last season and make a good case to be part of the “league’s best” conversation pretty soon.

Rajon Rondo (BOS) - The big question for Big Green fans is this — is their once all-world point guard ready to return to his old form, or will he get shipped elsewhere as the final concession for the team’s rebuilding? Let’s face it. The Celtics aren’t making the Playoffs even in the weaker conference, and there’s not much prime talent around Rondo to help maximize his strengths. Rondo is great, yes, but he’s not exactly someone who can push mediocre players up a notch ala Steve Nash. One of the best destinations, it seems, is the Big Apple, where the Knicks are thin in the backcourt and someone like Rondo can actually make once-promising guys like Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani potentially relevant again. The fact is, as good as he was in Boston’s run from 2007-2010, Rondo still has some left in the tank. All he needs is a a team with more star power than the Cs can provide this season.

Deron Williams (BKN) - Another guy on the trade table is a point guard who once made a strong case for being better than Chris Paul. That’s no longer the case now, of course, as D-Will has limped, quite literally, through the past few seasons. He left his best in Salt Lake City and has never really been able to blossom into the ultra-dominant playmaker the Nets hoped he would be. In addition, the exits of Shaun Livingston and Paul Pierce compound the notion that any Brooklyn renaissance is still a long time coming. Naturally, all this hinges on how well (and how healthy) former All-Star Brook Lopez is going to be. When he’s playing, Lopez is a world-beater, but he has also missed a total of 150 games the past three seasons. Joe Johnson, for his part, is going to be this team’s most potent offensive force, but it goes without saying that the Nets will need D-Will to be consistently productive. Otherwise, he’ll probably swap unis sooner rather than later.

Lance Stephenson (CHA) - Is “Born Ready” ready to to lead the reborn Hornets? Many think he should’ve been an All-Star last season (with pretty good reason, too), and he’ll team up with a couple of potential All-Stars in Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker this season. Things are getting pretty exciting for last season’s seventh seeds, and some have sealed them as a postseason lock in the East. They key for Stephenson, of course, is will we continue to see exponential growth in his game? I mean, he’s come a long way from averaging just 3 point in his first three pro seasons. He showed how all-around he can be last year with around 14 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, all of which he’ll need to do or improve if the Hornets want to move up a few notches in the conference ladder. Oh, and no more blowing in the ears, please. I guess that’s the difference, at least for now, between true number one guys and an on-the-fence player like Stephenson. Lance can dance, sure, but can he lead?

Derrick Rose (CHI) - I’m rooting for Rose and the Bulls, if only because I’m a sucker for hometown hero stories and I want the Bulls to regain lost glory. I’m also a Pau Gasol fan, and I’d like to see him find success beyond the shadow of Kobe Bryant. The rest of the Bulls are happy their de facto leader is back, but, naturally, they hope he’ll stick around for much longer than the past two years. A lot of people have said that for Rose to produce more, he has to expend less, whatever that means. For me, I really think he’s at the point where he has to reinvent himself. I think the past couple of seasons have proven that his putting the pedal to the metal non-stop is just not sustainable. He needs a better midrange game (not just hoisting floaters). He needs to be a more consistent catch-and-shoot guy. Give him a post-up game for God’s sake. He was MVP once, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement here, and he’ll need to produce the numbers if he wants to be more than the team’s rallying point. Needless to say, this season will be critical in determining where Rose really stands among the game’s current elite.

Kyrie Irving (CLE) -  Rookie of the Year in 2012. All-Star in 2013 & 2014. All-Star MVP in 2014. FIBA World Cup MVP in 2014. Irving already has the trappings of an NBA superstar, but, much like Teague, can we truly put him alongside the game’s current cream? He has never been able to lead Cleveland to the postseason. He has never given the Cavs a winning season. The brutal reality is that though there are stars, All-Stars, and superstars, the truly great ones are measured by how they impact the game, and the most tangible measurement of that is winning. Now that he has a mentor in LeBron James, a young running-mate in Kevin Love, a bemedalled coach in David Blatt, and now that Cleveland has more talent than even in LBJ’s best years, Irving has the golden opportunity to win. Remember that the Cavs won a combined 57 games in the last two seasons. With so much to work with, it stands to reason Kyrie might get that many wins in just a single campaign. And when that happens, there’s definitely no denying him a place in the top shelf.

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