Shoals Unlimited: In Search of Breakout NBA Players and X-Ray Time Machines

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
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The 2008-09 NBA season is less than two months away. Depending on how you look at it, that's either reason to whip out obscure rankings because there's nothing else to do, or get started on the margins of preseason analysis. ↵

↵So today, it's about the breakout players, the guys who will either come out of nowhere and contend for Most Improved Player or who, after a season or two of up-and-down play, solidify their place in the league. In alphabetical order, here's my top five picks to excel, or maybe even become household names. And no, Andrew Bynum picking up where he left off last winter doesn't count. Nor does Greg Oden's rookie year that feels like a sophomore season. ↵

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↵David Lee, New York Knicks: In the days of Isiah, Lee was a ball of energy who could rebound in bunches and, according to his cult of fans, badly needed more minutes to turn hustle play into greatness. Ironically, it was not so unlike Zach Randolph during his first season or two in Portland. But take those same aspirations, and set them into motion at Mike D'Antoni speed, and all of a sudden David Lee goes from worker bee extraordinaire to brawny photon particle. In fact, this might be one of the first places we see D'Antoni put his stamp on New York's rotation. ↵

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↵Rodney Stuckey, Detroit Pistons: Anyone watching the Eastern Conference playoffs knows Rodney Stuckey can play. The Pistons rookie performed so strongly, whether starting for the injured guard Chauncey Billups or providing scoring punch off the bench, that over the summer there were rumors of both Billups and backcourt mate Rip Hamilton leaving town in a trade. Claims that Billups and Hamilton were now expendable proved premature, but Stuckey could fill in at either slot, and showed the potential to grow into the point guard role like Mr. Big Shot himself had to. While he could use some range, Stuckey can get to the rim like no one's business, which should secure him his fair share of minutes as the Pistons gradually hand the team over to its youthful bench. ↵

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↵Marvin Williams, Atlanta Hawks: Not because Williams is primed to explode, but because, in his quiet, smooth, deceptive way, it's just that time. Between the surprise showing against Boston, Josh Smith's new contract and Al Horford's strong rookie year, the Hawks are movin' on up. The loss of Josh Childress means more minutes for Marvin, and the North Carolina product -- who is only 22 years old -- is more than capable of scoring, boarding and finding his way around the floor. He can fill the classic three role with panache and is very likely emerging as a bigger, more orderly, Richard Jefferson. ↵

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↵Julian Wright, New Orleans Hornets: Wright is kind of like a poor man's version of Josh Howard before the fall. That is, if Howard had been reared as a point guard, had a higher basketball IQ and was so scrappy it bordered on ragged. Needless to say, he was a non-factor for much of the year, both because Byron Scott doesn't like rookies unless they're Chris Paul, and because weird things always happened when he went in the game. Then, during the playoffs, Wright kind of showed a jumper, calmed down a little, and developed some chemistry with Paul around the basket. In New Orleans's uptempo game, that's the makings of a potent X-factor. ↵

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↵Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia 76ers: Young is a natural in the Sixers' ballhawking defense and transition offense thanks to his hyper-athletic, efficient style. As a small forward forced into a power forward's role, he exceeded all expectations last season. Maybe it was some small-ball experimentation on the part of coach Maurice Cheeks, but there is no doubt everyone is feeling more confident now that Elton Brand is holding down the four, which moved Andre Iguodala to the two and allows Young to get the starting nod at the three. The Memphis native turned 20 over the summer, and between his youth, intelligence, and determination, his 2008-09 could surprise us every bit as much as his maiden voyage. ↵

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↵P.S. I would show you the X-Ray Time Machine that I found, but it's stranded in 2013, where J.R. Smith is Vice President of Alaska and Amir Johnson owns B.E.T. They won't give it back, and we are all the poorer for it. But you should know those two guys will do well this year, too. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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