Monday August 24th, 2015

In his fourth NBA season, Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler made a profound leap into “star” territory. He posted career highs in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, made his first All-Star team and took home the league’s Most Improved Player Award by a massive margin.

Like Butler a season ago, who had much to prove after a disappointing first year as a full-time starter (39.7% shooting from the field, 28.3% from long range), a variety of guys drafted in 2012 are entering their pivotal fourth season in the pros. This is an important time for the players on this list as they enter into contract years and sit on the cusp of a chance to capitalize in free agency.  

The 2012 NBA draft featured an influx of talent including Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard—two guys who have already combined for four All-Star appearances. Their stardom has been well-established in the early stages of their careers. A variety of other players in their class, meanwhile, are either looking to earn their keep as bonafide difference-makers or make Butler-esque improvements to All-Star caliber.

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Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Hornets

One such player is Charlotte’s defensive-minded small forward: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He was selected No. 2 overall back in 2012, right behind fellow Kentucky Wildcat Anthony Davis and four selections ahead of Lillard. His defense has no doubt lived up to the hype, but offense (particularly his jump shot) remains a sticking point.

The 21-year-old finished well at the bucket, but his efficiency from farther out left a lot to be desired. He also didn’t attempt a single three-point shot last season—he’s 3-of-18 career from beyond the arc. In today’s NBA, where the value of “three-and-D” wing players has grown exponentially in recent years, Kidd-Gilchrist fails to fit in because of his broken jumper. Fortunately for Hornets fans, former assistant coach Mark Price took the youngster under his wing during his time in Charlotte.

“When I'm working with someone's shot, there is minor surgery which includes a few tweaks and there is major reconstructive surgery—this is reconstructive,” Price said back in 2013, per “He (Kidd-Gilchrist) gets frustrated sometimes, but like I've told him: ‘This is a process. It's not going to happen overnight. You're not going to be Chris Mullin next week. It's going to take some time.’”

Price is one of the best shooters the NBA has ever seen. His career 40.2% mark from three-point territory ranks him 27th all time, and he’s second only to Steve Nash from the free-throw line.

MKG likely won’t morph into a steady outside shooter next season, not even after two seasons under Price's guidance. But if the soon-to-be 22-year-old makes some strides in his fourth year as a pro, his basketball ceiling could heighten from lockdown defender to two-way star down the road.

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Bradley Beal, Wizards

Another guy entering his pivotal fourth season is Wizards two-guard Bradley Beal. Unlike Kidd-Gilchrist, Washington’s young stud is already an elite shooter, and perhaps on the cusp of his first All-Star berth following a breakout performance in the 2015 playoffs.

In 10 postseason games, Beal improved his scoring output to 23.4 points per game while grabbing 5.5 rebounds and dishing out 4.6 assists. His scoring efficiency wasn’t great (40.5% overall), but the confidence he exuded was certainly a welcome sign.

NBA skills trainer Drew Hanlen, who has worked with Beal dating back to his high school days, told me he thinks the former Florida Gator will be a first-time All-Star in 2016. From the looks of his workouts, it’s difficult to argue with that sentiment.

If there’s a fourth-year player who will follow in Butler’s footsteps by taking things to the next level next season, Beal is the safest bet.

• MORE NBA: Will Wizards' Beal win Most Improved Player?

Thomas Robinson, Nets

When Thomas Robinson was suiting up for the Kansas Jayhawks, he experienced a breakout junior year that vaulted him up NBA draft boards. After averaging 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore, Robinson dominated the collegiate atmosphere by averaging 17.7 points and 11.9 rebounds per contest. He notched 27 double-doubles in 39 games and was one of the NBA’s top power forward prospects.

Instead of transitioning college success to the next level, Robinson has bounced around to four different teams. Brooklyn will be his fifth. He’s collected nearly as many technical fouls in his brief NBA career (six) as double-doubles (eight).

The Nets already have Thaddeus Young and Brook Lopez starting in the frontcourt, but Robinson should garner minutes as one of the first bigs off the bench. Having a defined role from the outset should help him settle in.

It’s unclear at this point if he’s found a long-term home, but Robinson runs the risk of becoming a career journeyman if he doesn’t produce for his new team.

Dion Waiters, Thunder

Considered by many pundits and fans to be a reach at No. 4 overall in 2012, Dion Waiters hasn’t done much to shake the naysayers. He finished the 2014–15 season on a high note by pouring in 33 points against the lowly Timberwolves, but a career PER of just 12.8 and a career defensive rating of 110 show that the former Syracuse standout still has to make plenty of strides to fit as net positive in the NBA.

True to (unrealistic) comparisons to Dwyane Wade—something that apparently extends to his looks as well—Waiters was not an effective three-point shooter last season for the Cavaliers or Thunder. That would be fine if the shooting guard could pick up the scoring slack in other areas, but converting 47.3% of his attempts in the restricted area (well below league average of 54.4%) isn’t a promising sign.

Pressure will be on Waiters this season not only to make strides as an individual, but also to contribute to a championship-caliber OKC team around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If his wild inconsistency on both ends of the court continues, it’s tough to imagine KD and Russ dragging their teammates through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference playoffs.

More from Ben Leibowitz:

The Best Nationally Televised NBA Games for 2015-16

Fantasy Football Preview: Best Value Picks and Sleepers

Ranking the Oldest NBA MVPs in History

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