Blakely's five guards poised for breakout season

Blakely's five guards poised for breakout season
September 2, 2014, 2:00 pm
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BOSTON — Breakout performers come in all shapes and sizes, but today we'll take a look at the little fellas -- guards -- who are poised to make an impact on this upcoming season.

When I think of young perimeter players on the rise, one of the first names that comes to mind is Portland's Damian Lillard.

But he's an All-Star already, so to lump him with others on the come-up doesn't seem right. Because, frankly, those guys are trying to get where Lillard already is . . . which is among the best in the league.

And then you have folks like pint-size guard Isaiah Thomas, Mr. Irrelevant (the last player drafted) in 2011, who parlayed three strong scoring seasons in Sacramento into a four-year, $27 million deal with the Phoenix Suns.

Or Washington's Bradley Beal, who is poised to carry on the silky smooth-shooting ways of former Celtic Ray Allen.

But those guys shouldn't make the list of breakout performers to watch when you consider Thomas averaged more than 20 points per game last season and Beal put up 17 and change while playing in the same backcourt with another high-scoring guard, John Wall.

This group consists of players who are relatively young (all 25 years old or younger), have shown progress already and, with that improvement, the potential to be significantly better this season.

Here is's list of guards to keep an eye on for what should be a big, breakout-type season.

5. Ben McLemore, SG, Sacramento Kings

2013-2014 stats: 8.8 ppg; 1 apg; 2.9 rpg. Shot 37.6 percent from the field, 32 percent on 3s. Scored a career-high 31 points in Sacramento's last game of the season, a 104-99 loss to Phoenix.

McLemore is a rare breed among this generation's shooting guards. He not only has the kind of long-range shooting that draws favorable comparisons to former Celtic and future Hall of Famer Ray Allen, but McLemore has above-average athleticism that makes him the rare talent who is legitimately good enough to compete in the league's slam-dunk contest as well as its 3-point shootout.

Sacramento drafting Nik Stauskas with the No. 8 pick in last June's draft certainly gives reason to pause as to what impact this will have on McLemore's minutes. But the departure of Thomas and his 20.3 points per game, coupled with the struggles Stauskas will likely have when it comes to defending in the NBA, should be more than enough to allow McLemore to continue building off his success near the end of last season.

4. Avery Bradley, SG, Boston Celtics

2013-2014 stats: 14.9 ppg; 1.4 apg; 3.8 rpg. Shot 43.8 percent from the field, 39.5 percent on 3s. In 2013, Bradley was named to the NBA's all-Defensive second team.

When you look at Bradley's body of work since coming into the NBA in 2010, there's a lot to like. Known primarily as a defensive pest, Bradley has expanded his game offensively every year.

He has evolved from a bit scorer, getting points on cuts to the basket and corner 3s, to a more face-up shooter who can knock down shots from all points on the court in addition to scoring off the dribble.

The biggest concern with Bradley since becoming a Celtic has been his health. A series of unrelated injuries have either held him out or limited his effectiveness at some point in each of his four NBA seasons.

That was why more than a few eyebrows were raised when the Celtics and Bradley's camp came to terms on a four-year, $32 million deal in July. The issue wasn't whether his talent warranted such a deal, but whether he would be healthy enough to play in enough games to make it worthwhile.

Improvement has been the one constant Bradley has brought to the floor every year since he has been in Boston.

And when you consider how this Celtics roster still has a decent amount of instability, Bradley showcasing an even more all-around game this season seems likely.

3. Tim Hardaway Jr., New York Knicks

2013-2014 stats: 10.2 ppg; 0.8 apg; 1.5 rpg. Shot 42.8 percent from the field, and 36.3 percent on 3s.

Hardaway Jr. was among the more pleasant surprises in what was an otherwise disappointing season for the Knicks.

He put folks on notice in the preseason when he drilled a game-winning shot along the baseline to hand Boston a 103-102 loss in Providence, R.I.

From there, he established himself as one of the team's better perimeter players despite even though the roster included Iman Shumpert and former Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith.

All three are back this season, although Hardaway Jr.'s play certainly has him positioned for an even more prominent role going forward under rookie head coach Derek Fisher and New York's new man-in-command, Phil Jackson.

2. Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls

2013-2014 stats: 13.1 ppg; 4.9 rpg; 2.6 apg. Shot 39.7 percent from the field, 28.3 percent on 3s. He was named to the NBA's all-Defensive second team in 2014.

Butler had already established himself as a viable fill-in prior to the Bulls trading away Luol Deng in January. But with Deng's departure, it afforded the Bulls to see what Butler could provide as a regular starter.

The 6-7 guard didn't disappoint in showcasing the ability to score in a multitude of ways, while still playing the kind of stingy, man-to-man defense that his coach, former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau, loves to see.

Because he is such a tough defender, often that has a way of impacting a player's shooting. Folks around here have seen that to some degree when it comes to Avery Bradley.

But there's no question the ability to improve is there in Butler, who remains one of the true feel-good stories among players in the league.

1. Victor Oladipo, SG, Orlando Magic

2013-2014 stats: 13.8 ppg; 4.1 apg; 4.1 rpg. Was named to the NBA's all-rookie first team in 2014.

Of the previously mentioned players as breakout performers to watch this season, Oladipo stands out them for several reasons.

First and foremost, the dude can flat-out play. When you look at his size (6-4, 215), quickness and basketball instincts, he will be a force in this league sooner rather than later.

Oladipo first burst on to the national scene at Indiana because of his defense. In a game against then-No. 1 ranked Michigan, he defended four different players while limiting them to a combined four points.

In the NBA, Oladipo's defensive prowess has carried over from his college days. As a rookie he averaged 1.6 steals per game, which was second among rookies to Philadelphia's Michael Carter-Williams, the league's reigning Rookie of the Year.

Going forward, Oladipo has to continue improving on his perimeter shooting in addition to using his muscular frame to score attacking the rim.

As one NBA scout told me: "Just imagine Dwyane Wade coming into the league with about 15 more pounds of legit muscle. That's Victor."

The scout added, "But the sooner he can develop a reliable perimeter game, the better off he'll be long-term. We're starting to see all those falls Wade used to take early on his career by drawing contact . . . it's catching up to him. That's one of those things Oladipo can learn from."