Busting Loose: Eastern Conference
Criminally underused in his first three NBA seasons, Marquis struggled to overcome injuries and the numbers crunch in Dallas. With Stephen Jackson's future in Indiana indeterminate (though team president Larry Bird will be hard-pressed to find a trade partner for the troubled wing), Daniels' long arms and scoring instincts could serve him well in spot or starter duty.
Ford is probably better used as a change-of-pace guard off the bench, but because new GM Bryan Colangelo traded stud scorer Charlie Villanueva for the 23-year-old point guard, the Raptors will afford him big minutes. Throw in coach Sam Mitchell's reluctance to hand the keys to backup point guard Jose Calderon, along with the plethora of scorers on the Raptors' roster, and Ford should rake in the assists this season.
Frye's play as a rookie was the lone bright spot in New York's abysmal 23-win 2005-06 season. He surprised by showcasing a deft scoring touch, scoring in and out of the paint, while holding his own on the boards. Murphy's Law being what it is, Frye suffered a torn knee ligament and missed the final month of the season. With New York's muddled frontcourt situation now partially cleared, Frye should continue to score at a high rate in his second season.
He's the best big man you've never heard of; Gadzuric's rebounding skills and shot-blocking ability were somehow overlooked by the Milwaukee coaching staff last season. Although foul trouble isn't a problem for this well-coordinated center, he never started and averaged only 12 minutes a game. With Jamaal Magloire traded to Portland and Andrew Bogut now nursing an injury, this 28-year-old center should get a chance to put up big numbers.
The rap on the power forward remains the same: He has minimal interest in passing and defense, and he isn't as consistent as you'd like a starter to be. Yet few players of Gooden's talent have dealt with the upheaval he has, having played for three teams and seven coaches in his seven seasons. Promised the starting job ahead of Donyell Marshall and with a new contract in hand, Gooden can finally exhale -- and, possibly, start to put it all together.
Philadelphia's other A.I. didn't improve as expected last season -- his shooting percentages rose only slightly, while his rebound, assist, steal and block averages stagnated despite his averaging five minutes more per game. Still, if Philly's veterans fade in 2006-07, Iguodala is due to pick up the slack. Even with like-minded rookie Rodney Carney trying to find his way on the 76ers, Iguodala (who, like Carney, is 22) should take off in his third season.
Saddled with weight issues and injuries to both ankles last season, Jefferson struggled to improve on his impressive '04-05 rookie campaign. Expect better things this season, as the 21-year-old is fresh off an operation to remove bone spurs in his right ankle and has impressed the Celtics braintrust by shedding 30 pounds in the offseason.
The troika of Jefferson, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter worked together last season, with the consensus being that Kidd and Jefferson stepped aside to let Carter dominate the offense. This year, look for R.J. to ply his all-around trade more often. The 26-year-old can play three positions, guard all comers and contribute seamlessly without demanding the ball.
Melvin Ely was re-signed, Emeka Okafor appears healthy and Othella Harrington and Walter Herrmann were signed as free agents. So how will May round into a breakout player? First of all, he should be in better shape than a year ago, when he struggled with injury and conditioning from the outset -- and still averaged 8.2 points and 4.7 rebounds in just 17.3 minutes a game. If Okafor or Ely struggles, May could pick up the slack.
The early candidate for Most Improved Player, Milicic is only 21 and came on like gangbusters in limited action with the Orlando Magic last season. In 21 minutes per game, Darko averaged 7.6 points (with very few plays being run for him) while adding an impressive 2.1 blocks and 4.1 rebounds. This month Milicic showed up to Magic camp in even better shape; if afforded 30-plus minutes per game, he'll certify his status as one of the NBA's best young big men.
Nocioni carried the Bulls to a playoff spot in the final month of the season, averaging 17.2 points and 8.7 rebounds in the final 23 games, while improving those averages to 22.8 points and 9.6 rebounds in Chicago's six-game opening-round loss to the Miami Heat. The man they call "Chapu" won't turn 27 until the second month of 2006-07 and should continue to improve as he enters his prime.
You know what you're getting with the Pistons. Rip Hamilton uses screens to clear enough space for his jump shot, Chauncey Billups fills in the blanks with his penetrating drives and three-pointers, while Rasheed Wallace spends too much time behind the three-point line. Then there's the long-armed, 26-year-old Prince: not the most athletic guy on the court, but often the smartest. Five years into his NBA career, he should begin to push the envelope on offense.
The Heat are set in their ways, a team full of veterans on the downside of their careers, save for Dwyane Wade. As good as Wade is, however, it's hard to see him improving greatly upon his Finals MVP season from 2005-06. The 23-year-old Simien, who played in only 43 games during his rookie campaign, could find a niche as a David West-style scoring forward as he rounds into NBA shape.
He can't guard Wes Unseld (even at age 60), or post up the Sunday edition of the Washington Post, but Songaila will wow Wizards fans with his pinpoint high-post passing and ability to space the floor offensively. Songaila will make it easier for Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison to roam the baseline for quick-hitters, he'll find Brendan Haywood with lob passes when the immobile center is fronted, and he'll allow coach Eddie Jordan to add more elements of his beloved Princeton offense to the Washington attack.
Williams struggled to find a role in his rookie season; he seemed caught between forward positions and put up mild -- albeit promising -- numbers (8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.3 blocks per game) despite solid minutes (24.7) in Atlanta's crowded frontcourt. The good news? Al Harrington has been shipped back to Indiana, and Williams, who turned 20 in the offseason, was the Rocky Mountain Revue summer league's MVP. He'll get lots of opportunities to shine.