With training camps officially underway, here are 10 players who seem primed for a major uptick in their play this season. Some are well-established players who should be even better, while others are youngsters poised for stardom or set to break out as their role increases.
Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets: Counterintuitive though it may seem considering players are often guilty of easing up after a big payday, the word on Williams is that he's a man on a mission after landing his maximum contract.
"I expect an MVP-type season from him," said one scout who saw him numerous times up close during the summer. "He looks that good right now. His conditioning is probably better than it has been in three or four years. The Olympics really helped him, and I think he'll get off to a fast start."
Some front-office types and coaches still regard Williams as the best point guard in the game, but he's become far less efficient since being traded from Utah to New Jersey (now Brooklyn) midway through the 2010-11 season and being asked to carry a heavy load for an undermanned team (the Nets were 22-44 last season). Though Williams averaged a career-high 21 points per game last season, his career-low 40.7 percent shooting from the field was tied for the worst mark among full-time starting point guards. The addition of Joe Johnson, retention of small forward Gerald Wallace and return of center Brook Lopez (who played only five games last season because of injury and was re-signed in July) will allow Williams to be a point guard again as opposed to a lead scorer.
Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings: Why do I see Evans ending his two-year decline and having a bounce-back season? Take it away, Geoff Petrie.
"In Tyreke's case, you can make X [amount of money] now, but if you want to make X-plus, then certain things have to happen," the Kings' basketball president said last week.
The 2009-10 Rookie of the Year isn't expected to get a new deal before the Oct. 31 deadline for '09 first-round picks to sign extensions, with Petrie saying "it's not something that's on the front burner." As such, Evans, 23, will try this season to recapture some of that old magic with the hopes of landing a huge deal as a restricted free agent next summer.
Make no mistake, Evans and his camp see him as a max player. That's laughable now (which, to be fair, they realize), but all it would take is one sensational year to make the chuckling stop and reposition Evans as one of the game's best young stars.
Sacramento coach Keith Smart ended the Evans point guard project last season and began using him off the ball. Evans had his fair share of good moments in the new role. But nothing has changed about the fact that the Kings' roster is full of remorseless gunners (Evans among them), meaning chemistry will be a major challenge.
"I'm real confident that Tyreke is going to come in as the best prepared and best conditioned for this season -- better than any season since he's been here," Petrie said. "He wants to be in the conversation of an All-Star-caliber player. He's had to continue to try to address things in his game, [like his] conditioning. He's put in a summer of real commitment in those areas, and I think he's coming in with some real purpose."
Eric Gordon, New Orleans Hornets: Speaking of questionable max contracts, there's the curious case of Eric Gordon. Talk about the toughest of terms: The Hornets gave Gordon the max (four years, $58 million) only because Phoenix forced them to match, and they did so even though the 23-year-old shooting guard made it abundantly clear that he had no desire to be in New Orleans. This came, of course, after the Hornets had Gordon for all of nine games last season because of a right-knee injury.
Nonetheless, a source close to Gordon insists that the entire saga is no longer a factor and that he will be a professional this season. Beyond all the drama, the fact remains that Gordon -- who averaged 22.3 points in 56 games for the Clippers in 2010-11 -- is a big talent who will have a major chance to shine while leading a young team that includes top pick Anthony Davis.
Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers: There's a trend forming here, that of the players who are either seeking max deals or trying to prove they're worth one. Holiday qualifies as the former. The fourth-year point guard averaged 13.5 points (on 43.2 percent shooting), 4.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals last season -- hardly max material by a long stretch. His two-way abilities and versatility are certainly valuable, but Holiday needs to play more efficiently if he wants to make his case heading into restricted free agency next summer (assuming he doesn't sign an extension before Oct. 31).
But here's the part that comes in handy: Andrew Bynum's arrival. By acquiring the former Lakers center as part of the four-team Dwight Howard trade in mid-August, the Sixers gave Holiday an elite post-up player who makes everyone's game easier. Add in the likes of guard Evan Turner, center Spencer Hawes, shooting guard Nick Young and forward Thaddeus Young, and Holiday will have ample opportunity to have a valuable influence on a quality young team.
O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks: As smart NBA players go, I'd put Chauncey Billups on my short list any day. So when news surfaced that the Clippers' guard played a significant part in Mayo's decision to sign with Dallas, it stood to reason that the third pick in the 2008 draft was a must on anyone's list of possible breakout players. Billups told Mayo how Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle helped him as a coach in Detroit and predicted similar progress for the 24-year-old shooting guard if he signed there.
It's entirely possible that Mayo could return to the production levels of his first two seasons (18.5 and 17.5 points per game, respectively) as opposed to his last two (11.3 and 12.6 points with diminished minutes). And considering Carlisle no longer has Jason Terry to rely on for wing scoring after the former Sixth Man Award winner signed with Boston, Mayo could be on the verge of a renaissance.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: It's one thing for lesser coaches to prop up their players for some sort of publicity stunt, but Gregg Popovich is something different altogether. So it was worth taking notice when the San Antonio coach told Spurs.com recently that he sees Leonard's becoming "the face of the franchise" and "a star." Leonard was a pleasant surprise as a rookie small forward last season, sparking comparisons to Bruce Bowen for his defense while showing glimpses of an offensive game that has plenty of room for growth. Leonard, the 15th pick in 2011, who was traded on draft night from Indiana to San Antonio for guard George Hill, averaged 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 24 minutes last season.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: It's not hard to connect the dots here. The mid-March trade that sent Golden State shooting guard Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for center Andrew Bogut opened the way for Thompson, who did a phenomenal job filling some enormous shoes down the stretch. The then-rookie averaged 18.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals in the final 28 games of the season. Thompson, the 11th pick last year, led all rookies overall in three-point percentage (41.4) and was fourth in scoring (12.5 points).
The long-range specialist's game should get even easier now that Bogut is expected to finally join the Warriors on the floor. The center, a capable passer and low-post scoring threat, was recovering from an ankle injury last season and should be ready for the regular season.
Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia 76ers: Anyone who watched him closely with the Lakers got the sense that he longed for the chance to have his own team, to be the main attraction instead of playing in Kobe Bryant's long and imposing shadow. And now that Bynum will be just that, it's hard not to see him breaking out in a big way -- provided he responds well after sitting out the first three weeks of the preseason with a bone bruise on his right knee. The Sixers will have other weapons, but the 24-year-old center could find himself in the MVP discussion if he plays to his potential on both ends. He posted career highs in scoring (18.7 points) and rebounding (11.8) last season while averaging 1.9 blocks (sixth in the league).
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers: The reigning Rookie of the Year is fully recovered from the broken right hand he suffered in mid-July, when he slammed a padded wall out of frustration during Cavaliers practice and was subsequently out for eight weeks. Scouts and front-office executives consistently say he's on the path to becoming one of the game's best point guards, which is quite the compliment considering the state of today's game at the position.
Irving last season joined Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Alvan Adams, Grant Hill and Tyreke Evans as the only rookies to average at least 18 points, five assists and one steal while shooting 45 percent or better. He also dealt with significant injuries to himself (15 games missed) and several teammates in what was an inconsistent year for the Cavs. If he can stay healthy and mesh with No. 4 pick Dion Waiters in the backcourt, then Irving may take his game to the next level.
DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: Cousins could join Howard and Bynum on the short list of elite centers this season, his third. The 22-year-old further refined his game over the summer after averaging 18.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks last season. "It has the potential for a really significant growth year for him," Petrie said. "On the physical side for sure, he really consistently worked on his conditioning, played every day for the past couple weeks here getting ready. He's shooting the ball very well. He's coming into camp in the best shape I've ever seen him, really." (For much more on Cousins, click here.)
Five more to watch:Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks; Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz; Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors; Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets; Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks.