A common topic used by other people who write on the interwebs is the attempt to find the next great player. Whether it's a local columnist raving about a player who hasn't yet stepped onto the national scene, or a fantasy sports writer (nerd alert) advising readers to target a specific sleeper in late rounds, the concept is fairly simple. Who makes "The Leap?"
BockerKnocker: Paul George, Indiana Pacers SF
Let's start off with a fun fact that I couldn't possibly have made up: Paul George's parents are Paul and Paulette George. That's fantastic.
But back to the business:
George attended Fresno State, where he played for two years before the NBA. He never produced a collegiate body of work worthy of a top-5 selection. In fact, his own school labels him as "the program's premier free throw shooter, an astute defender, multi-dimensional scorer and leader by example." You'd think that if your school FIRST describes you as its best free throw shooter, George would be of the Caucasian ilk. But then again, he can do stuff like this:
In his rookie year, George didn't really make an impact in the box scores: 7.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, and a steal in a shade under 21 minutes per game. He struggled to keep up with the scoring prowess of teammate Danny Granger. Additionally, George often deferred running offensive sets to point guard Darren Collison, despite showing a nimble passing touch since his days at Fresno. But for all of his offensive troubles last year, George was a lockdown stopper on defense. As Indiana made a late season playoff push, coach Frank Vogel inserted George into the starting lineup for the final 24 games of the regular season, providing a defensive complement to the Pacers' run-and-gun offense. His moment came in the postseason, as he was assigned the task of shadowing Derrick Rose for all 5 playoff games. While the 1-seeded Bulls easily dispatched the young Indiana squad, Rose shot an inefficient 18-57 from the field; a 32% clip is hardly ever, if at all, connected to the league's MVP. The nation met Paul George during that series, saying hello to a player who used his elite athleticism to become a force on defense (my favorite type of player).
But you can't make The Leap without improving on both ends of the court. What made me choose George for this BQ was the fact that he lists Kobe Bryant as his favorite athlete. No, I'm not worried that he'll get all busy in Colorado. The importance in choosing Kobe is that George says that Kobe "works harder than anyone else to be the best." While nobody questioned his ability to defend on the perimeter, George did consistent work in the offseason with his offensive game, noting that he "didn't want to be an offensive liability" for the Pacers anymore. And that work ethic has resulted in a favorable uptick this year, through 10 games: improvements in almost every statistical category, including an eye-opening 25% jump in 3-point shooting percentage.
And it's not just the stuff that he can control, either. George was reported to have grown a full 2 inches, which would list him at 6'10". Not too surprising until you realize that he's a freaking swingman! This year, the Pacers have run more offensive plays through George, especially when Granger is on the bench. In a shortened season, I'm going with young legs and an attitude that won't quit.
KOBEshigawa: Ty Lawson
I will see you with that fun fact BockKnock and raise you: Ty Lawson was the 18th player selected in the 2009 NBA Draft. He was the 3rd out of 4 (!) First Round draft choice of the Minnesota Timberwolves, and yet Lawson was only the 3rd out of 4 (!) guards selected by the Wolves in the First Round. Between fellow draft choices Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn and Wayne Ellington, Lawson might end up being Minnesota's finest choice on the night June 25th, 2009. Too bad that at approximately 9:25 pm that night, Lawson was traded to the Denver Nuggets for a future first-round draft choice, who turned out to be current D-Leaguer Luke Babbit (in fairness, the Wolves traded Babbit to the Portland Trailblazers for Martell Webster...who has suited up for 46 out a potential 92 games so far).
There is a whole lot about Ty Lawson that impresses me, but least of all are his raw numbers:
2009 - 2010: 65 games played, 20.2 mpg, 51.5 FG%, 75.7 FT%, 41 3P% 8.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 3.1 apg, 0.7 spg, 1.3 topg
2010 - 2011: 80 games, 26.3 mpg, 11.7 ppg, 50.3 FG%, 76 FT %, 40 3P%, 2.6 rpg, 4.7 apg, 1.0 spg, 1.7 topg
2011 - 2012: 10 games, 33.2 mpg, 16.4 ppg, 49.6 FG%, 84 FT%, 33 3P%, 3.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.9 spg, 2.2 topg
In nearly every category you'd want him to improve in (he's even committed 0.3 less fouls this year than last year), Ty Lawson has worked to improve. With any NBA player, this is exactly what you look for - progress. His points, rebounds, assists and steals average have increased every single year, along with his minutes, shots and free throws. Yet his peripheral shooting numbers have all managed to stay relatively even.
It's not the desirable fantasy-basketball based statistics that I find most impressive; it's that every year, his responsibilities on the Nuggets have increased. Back when he was drafted, Lawson was asked to serve as backup to Chauncey Billups, who was playing 34 minutes a night. The next year, playing increased minutes as still as a backup, but dramatically increased when Billups was dealt to the Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony trade. The Nuggets were completely reshaped following the deal, and no one (including myself) really thought that Denver would even be considered a playoff team. So, with zero expectations behind him, and newly-acquired Knicks starter Raymond Felton backing him up, Lawson played excellently as one of the best 3 players on the post-Carmelo Nuggets.
And now we're here in 2012. Lawson is having a career year, and is the best player on a Denver squad that is destined for a 5 or 6 seed in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Saddled with an even larger responsibility on the offensive end to not only score, but to facilitate for the rest of his team, Lawson has blossomed into one of the best point guards in the game. Not bad for a 5'11" guard that Minnesota didn't consider better than now-Houston Rockets benchwarmer Jonny Flynn or Ricky Rubio, who only appeared in a Wolves uni two years later.
Lawson's play on the court mirrors his attitude towards his team. He plays with a fearlessness reserved for only the coldest 4th quarter killers in the game and oddly enough, unconscionable chuckers amongst the likes of Nick Young and Antoine Walker. He knows what is expected of him, and rather than shirk the responsibility or fade under pressure, he has used his style of play to mold the team set before him. He is tough beyond his size (his rookie year, I saw all 5'11" of Lawson drive the lane and him dunk on Josh Powell (6'9") and DJ Mbenga (7') ) and completely unafraid to take the last shot of the game. His court vision ranks amongst the best in the league, and his ability to run a offense with as many moving pieces as the Nuggets is uncanny. Beyond his ball-sharing ability, Lawson has proven that he can be the one go-to scoring option on the Nuggs when they need a bucket.
These are all great reasons why Lawson could take The Leap this year. However, not all guys that are built with these types of skills and this kind of drive are able to take it to the next level.
We're in a league where JJ Barea is considered a championship-worthy piece, and a team like the Lakers are willing to give up to guys over 6'10" to trade for a 6'2" guard with bad knees. It's a time when Steve Nash can win two MVPs and Monta Ellis is a major match-up problem at shooting guard. With less restrictions on zone defense and no hand-checking, the NBA has turned into a league where quick, penetrating guards can prosper, and garner the types of aforementioned success that I just named. With his shooting ability, court awareness and willingness to mix it up in the lane, and being towards the best in each, I can see how the time would best assist a guy like Lawson in making The Leap.
Ty Lawson has gotten better every season because he's wanted to get better every season. He's met every expectation heaped on him and defied every one that wasn't. He's got every physical skill that would make him into a superstar guard in the league, and the intangibles to take him there as not only a great player, but a great leader. What we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Burning Questions series has ended. For a recap, check out the other Burning Questions leading up to the 2011-12 NBA season: