With few exceptions, the process of incorporating young NBA prospects into prominent roles comes heavy with hazard. It's an endeavor into the unknown, and a partnership with those who by definition know little. Even the best young players have gaps in their understanding of the NBA game, bringing the risk of mistake-laden play and broken execution.
It should come as little surprise, then, that some coaches are so reluctant to lean on those fledgling prospects. Some young players are talented enough to be valuable despite their liabilities, but for many it takes time to earn respect and opportunity. Every year brings a new wave of coming-of-age types who are granted those luxuries, and this season is no exception. Here are five players set to have new, expanded roles despite a lack of pro-level seasoning -- the big breaks for those who still have much to prove.
Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City Thunder
Guard Kevin Martin might seem at first like an easily replaceable piece, but his contributions were vital in holding over a top-heavy offense when Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook went to the bench. In those occasions when Martin anchored the offense while both stars sat, the Thunder largely kept pace by scoring 108.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA Wowy -- a mark on par with the third-ranked Knicks' season-long output (albeit in a relative sliver of playing time) and just a slight downgrade from Oklahoma City's usual lofty marks. The Thunder were similarly successful with Martin and just one of Durant or Westbrook, all of which helped prop up what could have been the Thunder's more problematic lineups.
That was no fluke. Martin could carry a weak offense to sustenance and mesh perfectly with the Thunder's top players, a combination that could be missed dearly next season. OKC's mindful avoidance of the luxury tax led to Martin's departure and a series of only minor moves in free agency, positioning the 21-year-old Lamb, who was acquired from Houston in the trade for James Harden, to assume some of Martin's playing time and scoring opportunities.
Lamb will have help -- from Durant, Westbrook and ever-improving guard Reggie Jackson, among others -- but the Thunder are still risking their championship viability on the notion that the 12th pick in the 2012 draft can contribute without all that much evidence in support. Lamb did average 21 points and shoot 49 percent in 21 regular-season games in the D-League last season, but his NBA experience consists of only 147 minutes over 23 games and 24-of-68 shooting (35.3 percent).
While the hope is that Lamb becomes a rotation-caliber perimeter shooter, he doesn't seem to be a likely candidate to replicate Martin's success as a creator in the two-man game. Martin isn't a standout passer, but his chemistry with Nick Collison gave Oklahoma City a solid fallback option in its short-handed lineups. By getting some separation from his man and maneuvering the lane in fits and starts, Martin was able to draw fouls and create passing angles off the dribble. Lamb, by comparison, manages to get a step on his man and attract a few defenders, but he seems hesitant to make the lead passes necessary to generate consistent offense out of that basic pick-and-roll set. That could change as Lamb plays more and gets more comfortable with his Thunder teammates, but right now there's not much reason to be optimistic about his ability to work off a high screen.
Lamb's work without the ball also raises concern, if only because his default response to disorder is to float out to the three-point line. He made hard cuts last season when executing a prescribed play but drifted when operating more casually or when faced with a jammed play action. The latter figures to happen often on those occasions when Jackson and Lamb are the primary sources of offense, and how Lamb adapts to that responsibility could be an important factor in the Thunder's season.
Donatas Motiejunas, Houston Rockets
Coach Kevin McHale faces interesting decisions with his power-forward rotation. Dwight Howard's arrival alleviates some concern for production from that slot while also dictating specific needs. Considering both, and assuming the Rockets don't trade for a power forward, Motiejunas might be a decent option to start or at least play a lot. (Howard and last season's starting center, Omer Asik, will play together in spots, but I'd be surprised if that becomes a preferred or frequent option.) The 22-year-old from Lithuania logged only 538 minutes as a rookie last season, but in that limited time he showed a capacity to run the floor, convert on basic hook shots and hoist three-pointers as unapologetically as most every other Rocket.
Unfortunately, Motiejunas didn't convert those long jumpers -- which constituted nearly 40 percent of his shot attempts -- as well as Houston might have liked. He's decent from some perimeter spots (above the break on the left side of the floor and in both corners) but otherwise seems to be too willing to settle for threes. Because of that eager shooting, Motiejunas made only 28.9 percent from long range for the season.
But the biggest problem was that defenses largely ignored Motiejunas when catching the ball so far from the basket -- an indication of their clear lack of respect for his shot. If he were able to at least draw some attention, he could wind up playing off of Howard nicely with his off-ball movement and occasional shooting. Without that respect, though, opponents will gladly leave Motiejunas to double up on Howard, James Harden or another more pressing threat. He's in a position to exploit that inattention with quick cuts to the rim (and did a good job of seeking such opportunities last year), but without improved shooting Motiejunas could still be an awkward fit at times alongside Howard.
Nevertheless, Motiejunas could be the best conventional fit for the position by default. Greg Smith is a fine pick-and-roll player, but he attempted all of eight shots outside the paint last season. Second-year forward Terrence Jones has decent potential, but he is still far too raw in skill and awareness.
Alec Burks, Utah Jazz
This summer, Utah parted ways with Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson and the very pretense of competing for a playoff spot immediately. The youth movement is in full force, and while prospects such as power forward Derrick Favors, center Enes Kanter and point guard Trey Burke will step into big roles for the Jazz, I'm particularly interested to see what third-year guard Burks does with the opportunity.
Burks, 22, the 12th pick in 2011, is already a decent perimeter shooter who gravitates toward the corners and navigates the baseline as a cutter well. He's a good enough ball handler to make moves in transition or take advantage of lax defense, but he's better suited for life off the ball. That could be a problem if he were expected to create more consistently, but Burks is set to fill a nice role in between the ball-dominant Burke and the more versatile Gordon Hayward in Utah's perimeter rotation, from which he can space the floor and attack selectively.
He'll need to work on his defense, though, as Burks reads help situations poorly and is still learning how to navigate screens. He'd benefit from not having to defend point guards on such a regular basis. When not trying to keep up with the super-quick, Burks did OK at keeping ball handlers in front of him and fighting to make up ground when his man got past him. He's just susceptible to so many of the little quirks that plague young defenders -- biting on pump fakes when trailing, digging down to help against a post player at the wrong moment, mishandling the process of going under a screen, etc. He can learn a bit by playing more, but Burks has to improve his fundamental understanding of defense if he's ever going to be a starting-caliber player on a good team.
Byron Mullens, Los Angeles Clippers
Mullens was not a good NBA player last season with Charlotte. The 24-year-old 7-footer's willingness to take any shot at any time obliterated any value he added through size and passable shooting skill. As a result, more than half of his shot attempts were jumpers, of which he converted a woeful 32.1 percent. He took turnarounds from the post, leaners off hand-offs and spot-up jumpers aplenty, and dabbled in the pick-and-pop. None of it really worked, though it's difficult to draw a distinction between Byron Mullens' game and the more general desperation of being a Bobcat. If he were playing on another team -- a more talented team -- would he still have given himself an efficiency-tanking green light?
We'll soon find out. Mullens will assume a new role this season that's slightly smaller but of much greater consequence. The Clippers' only other big man beyond starters Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is the practically unusable Ryan Hollins, meaning that Mullens will be counted on to provide regular minutes for a potential title contender. That could well be a disaster, though it's worth noting that Mullens actually finished fairly well around the basket last season and could see more of those shots on a team as loaded as the Clippers. At the very least, Chris Paul will make Mullens' life easier on offense.
But on the other hand, backup point guard Darren Collison doesn't exactly excel in driving to create looks for his teammates at the rim. Mullens will be tempted frequently to step outside and launch jumpers, but he'll have to find a way to space the floor without shooting on first touch.
John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks
After the departures of high-usage starting guards Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, the Bucks will look in part to up-and-comers such as Henson to play a more active role in the offense. It's tough to say if the 22-year-old second-year forward is quite ready. Henson did well to score and rebound in limited minutes as a rookie, but he doesn't have a strong enough lower body to get deep into the post against certain opponents. He'll do fine for the most part as more teams shift wing players up to play the 4, but Henson needs to boost his scoring efficiency in general to better complement Larry Sanders' limited offensive game.
The bulk of that effort will center on Henson's sharpening his work on the block, but he'd do well to develop a baseline jumper that could be leveraged with pump fakes. His shooting from anywhere outside the paint was pretty dreadful last season, though Henson was aware enough to express reluctance in taking those shots. That's wise for a young player looking to earn minutes under a tough coach, but earning slightly more latitude in his second season could empower Henson to build out his offensive game. A face-up repertoire will help Henson succeed in the kind of role that the Bucks will likely need him to fill. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.