Is there any word that excites fans more about an individual player than “potential?”
Hardly anyone comes into this league a finished product. With rare exceptions like Tyreke Evans and Michael Carter-Williams, almost every player that makes it in the NBA gets better after their rookie season.
Some young players need more time than others. The ones who do usually either can jump out of the gym or have the intangibles to fit into the modern NBA. A fair amount of the time, these said players have both.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the perfect example of this. After being selected 15th overall in the 2013 draft, Giannis came into the NBA as a relatively unknown prospect. He didn’t set the world on fire his rookie season, but we saw from his frame and body control that he could be a special talent for the foreseeable future.
His All-Star career didn’t even come right away. While steadily improving year by year, “The Greek Freak” didn’t come into his own until his fourth season, when he put up averages of 23 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.6 steals on 52 percent shooting from the field.
In year six, who everyone thought the man could become is now showing himself before our very eyes. With a better coach, a better team built around him and a more filled out body, we’re seeing Giannis at full throttle. Posting averages of 26.7 points, 13 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.3 blocks, and 1.1 assists on 59 percent shooting from the field, Antetokounmpo has emerged as the frontrunner for Most Valuable Player.
As great as he has become at 24 years old, Giannis is the absolute best-case scenario for young players who come into this league with little polish and a high ceiling. Guys like him only come so rarely. The problem with taking guys who have raw talent is that there’s no guarantee that they’ll put it together.
They may have all the right cogs physically to form a fantastic career, but the mental aspect of the game is also very crucial for them to advance as a player. We’ve seen players struggles with this in the past.
For every Giannis Antetokounmpo, there’s a Michael Beasley, OJ Mayo or Jeff Green, a.k.a. guys who come into this league oozing with potential but never quite get there. Teams invested in those guys gave them time to become the players they wanted them to be, but wound up disappointed.
Currently, there are several teams who have players that are believed to have much promise, but their progress has been delayed. So much so that it makes one wonder how much time they get before the team gives up. The progress in some of these players has varied for different reasons.
1. He’s shown glimpses, but no consistency.
The player who fits this bill is Dante Exum. Earlier this summer, Jordan Hicks wrote an article detailing why Exum could be an important fixture in Utah’s future as their third star. To be honest, he’s not wrong about Dante’s potential.
Exum is a 6-foot-6 point guard with a 6-9 wingspan who possesses freakish athleticism and tenacity on defense. Should he figure out his place in the NBA, he could present so many matchup problems for opponents. Labeling him a “star” might be pushing it for now, but Exum could be such a unique player in this league.
Exum’s three-year/$33 million extension was met with cautious optimism after some positive signs from his performance in the playoffs. The belief was, if the Australian guard could show more offensively, he could potentially be a bargain with that contract if he shows more improvement.
32 games into the season, Exum has failed to do that. Defensively, Utah is plus-5.6 with Exum on the floor but is minus-7.6 offensively. The 23-year-old is currently averaging the lowest minutes on average in his short career. Across the board, his stats have all taken a step back since last season, and it’s probably going to get harder for him to make up for that.
With the addition of Kyle Korver and the Jazz interested in adding Jabari Parker, finding minutes for Dante is going to be difficult. He’s definitely had his good games here and there, but Utah can’t settle for an occasional good performance with the Western Conference playoff race as tight as it is.
The fat lady hasn’t sung just yet, but Exum has still only teased us with his talent. If he wants to justify his extension, he has to prove he can play on both sides of the floor night in and night out.
2. He’s shown consistency, but not much growth
Myles Turner comes to mind for this one. Turner has the tools in place to become the quintessential modern big in the NBA. He’s a respectable three-point shooter – 34.6 percent for his career – and has shown that he can block shots – averaging two a game for his career.
With the league putting great emphasis on bigs who have both of those skills, it seemed that Turner’s future as a star was a foregone conclusion. In his second season, the Texas native put up 14.5 points a game on 51.1 percent shooting from the field including 34.8 percent from three as well as 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.
Since then, Turner’s progress has been stagnated. While his numbers haven’t taken a major step back, he hasn’t exactly turned into the player everyone thought he would be. Averaging 12.5 points on 49.1 percent shooting including 34.5 percent from three isn’t bad, but for a guy who seemingly has all the skills to become a primetime big, that’s disappointing.
That’s not to say Myles hasn’t been important to the Pacers’ success. Turner currently ranks second in the league in blocks per game with 2.8. Those aren’t empty stats either, as the Pacers currently have the second highest-rated defense at 103.2, and their D is a plus-1.6 with Turner on the floor.
Still, this was the guy who was supposed to be the face of the future after Paul George was traded. Even if Victor Oladipo has upstaged him, Turner should be better than what he’s shown this season.
Turner’s lack of progression may just be a result of Indiana’s newfound success cutting into his production. However, with management giving him a four-year extension that could pay him as much as $80 million, and Domantas Sabonis arguably outplaying him, Turner’s got a lot to prove.
3. He’s shown significant growth but has regressed
Look no further than Jaylen Brown. There’s regression, and then there’s whatever has happened to Brown so far. After a very encouraging sophomore season, Brown has struggled to say the least, as the Celtics have mixed and matched the talent on their roster.
Now a drop off was to be expected with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward coming back, but while the Celtics have started to figure the kinks out, Brown still shows much uncertainty in regards to his role on the team, and his numbers have suffered for it.
His scoring average has gone down from 14.5 points to 11.4 points. His field goal percentage has gone down from 46.5 percent to 40.7 percent. His three-point percentage has gone from 39.5 percent to 27.1 percent. His play has been so bad that he’s been relegated to the bench in favor of Marcus Smart, which has done wonders for Boston’s offense.
It’s dumbfounding because Brown’s surge last season was not a fluke. He was one of the best players on a team that was a few shots away from making the NBA Finals. He was the youngest Celtic in franchise history to score 30 points in a playoff game. He has the makings of a star.
His struggles on an improved roster show that he still has work to do. Even if the Celtics future is very bright, there’s still a lot of questions surrounding it with Brown very much being at the center. He still may very well have an all-star career.
It just may not be in Boston.
It’s hard to say whether or not these three, among the other number of projects in the NBA, will get it together. All we can do is wait to see how everything unfolds. Even if they have struggled, they still have time.
That being said, you never know when teams decide that time’s up. Phoenix, for example, drafted Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender in the 2016 lottery because both were regarded for having high potential, even though they were high-risk. Two years later, Chriss has been traded in a salary dump, and Bender’s third-year team option has been declined.
It may not be too late for any of those guys because we’ve seen some players just needing the right situation, like Victor Oladipo. Both Orlando and Oklahoma City gave up on ‘Dipo, and nobody blamed them when they did. It took not playing next to Russell Westbrook and being put in a system that was built for him to thrive. Stories like those don’t happen every day, but they happen.
Banking on raw talent will always be a calculated risk. It can be the final nail in the coffin just as much as it can be the final step to glory.
The only way to know for sure is to flip that coin.