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Eric Gordon believes Pelicans ready to take next step
3:17 | NBA
Eric Gordon believes Pelicans ready to take next step
Thursday July 30th, 2015

​​Big-name NBA stars like Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Love are looking to rebound from injury-riddled campaigns. The pressure they face is secondary, however, to a variety of guys joining new teams or stepping up in place of players who bolted elsewhere.

For one reason or another—role, salary, promotions—the following NBA players have big shoes to fill in 2015-16. Coaches, fans and the media will be eyeing these players closely to see if they’ll step up or disappoint.

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Thabo Sefolosha, Hawks

The Hawks were able to bring back versatile power forward Paul Millsap via free agency, but three-and-D wing DeMarre Carroll inked a lucrative contract with the Raptors and will now embrace the #WeTheNorth hashtag next season.

Losing Carroll is a big blow for a team that shocked the NBA community en route to a franchise-record 60 wins last season. The 29-year-old had the best season of his career by averaging 12.6 points (on 48.7% shooting from the field and 39.5% from beyond the arc), 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. But where he truly shined—and earned his new paycheck—was in the postseason.

Carroll upped his numbers nearly across the board compared to the regular season. He was particularly adept against Brooklyn and Washington prior to suffering a scary left knee injury in the Eastern Conference Finals that looked far worse than it actually was. The small forward scored 20 points or more in six consecutive contests across the first two series.

But now that he’s gone, Atlanta will need to embrace the old “next man up” mantra. When asked how he plans to replace DeMarre in a Q&A with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Chris Vivlamore, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer noted a collection of potential substitutes.

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“Having Thabo having played for a year with us and having him know how we do things defensively and offensively (will help),” Budenholzer said. He also noted Kent Bazemore’s “growth and development” as well as the addition of former Knicks swingman Tim Hardaway Jr.

All three of those guys can certainly man the small forward position by committee, but Sefolosha has the most experience to his name and is by far the best defender of the bunch.

 

He’s still recovering from a broken right fibula and ligament damage he suffered in an off-court incident with NYPD earlier this year. And though getting himself back to full health is priority No. 1, Atlanta is really going to need his veteran presence next season without Carroll locking down the starting role.

Otto Porter, Wizards

In a move that many thought would happen during the 2014 off-season, Paul Pierce opted to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers and former coach Doc Rivers this summer. There’s no way to sugarcoat it, losing “The Truth” will hurt for the Wizards.

The future Hall of Famer is on his last legs, but it’s difficult to replace his veteran savvy, locker room leadership and his ability to create his own shot—particularly in clutch situations. Off-season pickup Jared Dudley can replicate some of the veteran knowhow and three-point shooting prowess, but ultimately it’s going to be time for former No. 3 overall pick Otto Porter Jr. to live up to the hype.

The 22-year-old Georgetown product finally started to show flashes of promise in the playoffs against the Hawks. Through the first three games of the series, Porter averaged 14 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists while draining six of his 14 three-point tries (42.9%).

He fell back down to earth after the fact as Washington squandered the series lead, but there was a lot to like about the youngster’s performance on the big stage. If he can springboard those outings into a more confident campaign this fall, then the Wizards will have little trouble moving on from Pierce.

Brandon Knight, Suns

Let’s rewind to the 2013-14 season for a minute. The Phoenix Suns entered the season with a first-year head coach (Jeff Hornacek) and basement-level expectations following a woeful 25-win campaign (last in the Western Conference in 2012-13). Nobody expected Phoenix to compete, but Hornacek implementing the two-pronged point guard attack of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic resulted in a 48-win shocker of a season.

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It appeared as if the Suns were trending in an upward direction. However, management’s decision to bring in yet another point guard by way of Isaiah Thomas in free agency miffed Dragic—who didn’t want a lesser role on the team. After the parts failed to jell, Dragic was traded to Miami and Thomas was shipped up to Boston in a three-team deal that netted Phoenix a new point guard: Brandon Knight.

A borderline All-Star in Milwaukee, Knight really struggled to find his groove in the desert. He played in 10 games before spraining his ankle on March 9, then returned for one game, shot 1-of-10 from the floor and was promptly shut down for the remainder of the season. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on April 17.

Dragic was a fan favorite in Phoenix and genuinely had a good rapport with Bledsoe as his running mate. Now the Slovenian southpaw has been replaced with Knight, a promising young guard facing questions about his health and team fit.

Because Dragic thrived in Hornacek’s system, Knight is under big-time pressure to fill in seamlessly beside Bledsoe—a fellow Kentucky Wildcat. He’s proven himself as an All-Star-caliber talent, but Suns fans have only seen that in a different colored jersey thus far.

Rajon Rondo, Kings

While it’s true that Rondo won’t technically be filling anybody’s shoes in Sacramento, he could very well supplant incumbent floor general Darren Collison. Critics will argue that Collison has already proven himself as a more promising talent right now, but that didn’t stop the Kings front office from taking a $10 million gamble on Rondo.

Collison scored more points at a more efficient clip, posted a superior PER and is almost two years younger than the former NBA champ. Rondo, meanwhile, posted a true shooting percentage of 44.8% last season, which ranked him No. 429 in the league.

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The Connect Four aficionado undoubtedly has the talent to be a better option than Collison, but the basketball community hasn’t seen that talent rise to the surface in quite some time. The four-time All-Star might think the “sky’s the limit” for the Kings next season, but he has to go out and prove it first.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

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