The offseason and trade deadline are good times to find players who are newly on notice — ones thrust into larger roles or facing increased pressure because of contract realities or a new roster context. Below is a look at players who fit the bill now. I’ve tried my best to de-emphasize guys entering the fourth years of their rookie contracts because they are the most obvious candidates, striving for extensions or fat new contracts in free agency. Also, I’ve already taken detailed looks at four such players — Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, DeMar DeRozan and Stephen Curry – so there’s little need to repeat what has been said. In a broader sense, young players are always “on notice” to show the expected refinements that come with age. The goal here is to spotlight some cases that are more interesting, for whatever reason.
Already Got Paid
• Rudy Gay, Memphis Grizzlies. The notion that Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay don’t mix well is a myth; Memphis played significantly better when the two were on the court together, per NBA.com. But Gay’s development as a defender, passer and pick-and-roll creator flatlined last season as he recovered from shoulder surgery, and his uneven performance against the Clippers in the playoffs was one of many small factors that added up to a seven-game loss for the Grizzlies. In a reloaded Western Conference, the Grizz have jumped over the luxury tax to see if this core, fully healthy, can emerge as a true title contender. If it can’t, the team figures to make a cost-cutting move. That won’t necessarily mean moving Gay and his rapidly increasing contract, but the 26-year-old small forward’s play will be huge determining factor in the path this franchise charts.
• Jeff Green, Boston Celtics. Covered extensively here. Green’s four-year, $36 million deal is fully guaranteed, save for a fourth-year player option, per HOOPSWORLD’s Eric Pincus. The 26-year-old forward is getting paid a salary nearly twice the league’s average regardless of performance. Now he has to earn it for a team that needs him to far exceed what he has done in the past if it wants any realistic hope of beating a healthy Miami club four times in seven tries.
• Michael Beasley, Phoenix Suns. The three-year, $18 million deal Phoenix gave Beasley is an overpayment, but not a horribly damaging one. The Suns can carve out enough room for a max-level post-rookie deal next summer (James Harden?) by declining an option on Wesley Johnson, and they can flaunt significantly more room the following summer if they strike out before then. And it’s only a three-year deal at a price you can move. But it’s still a lot for a player whose best skill appears to be some modest relative scoring efficiency on isolation plays, the least efficient plays in the game. Beasley, 23, has to show something like league-average skill as a passer or defender in order to be a productive player, and on this roster, he’ll have to do it playing lots of small forward.
• O.J. Mayo, Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs think Mayo can be a star even though he’s nearly 25 with a résumé that clearly screams “nice role player.” And that’s fine! The league needs nice role players, and in Memphis Mayo showed a willingness to develop the non-glamor parts of his game — defense on and off the ball, running around screens for catch-and-shoot chances, etc. That stuff works in any context, and in Dallas, with Darren Collison and an army of combo guards, Mayo figures to get minutes and a chance to run some pick-and-rolls with Dirk Nowitzki. Ask J.J. Barea how much money Dirk can earn a productive pick-and-roll partner. Mayo has a $4.2 million player option for 2013-14, and though Dallas is saying all the right things about wanting to keep him, Mayo is surely hoping for a bigger payday. Would Dallas give him one in the event of an opt-out, squeezing its already tighter-than-perceived cap sheet for next summer?
• Nicolas Batum/Wesley Matthews, Portland Trail Blazers. Portland is paying more than $18 million combined to Batum and Matthews in each of the next two seasons, which is too much based on their respective records of NBA play — and enough to take Portland out of big-name free agency chases in each of the next two summers as things stand now (once you factor in likely team options and future picks). Both are solid role players, but neither has progressed much at creating offense with the ball, something that has left an enormous burden on LaMarcus Aldridge and could place one upon Damian Lillard immediately. Matthews’ shooting percentage on close shots fell off dramatically as he tried to go it alone more last season. Almost all available statistics paint Batum as a minus on defense despite his general look as a long-armed menace capable of guarding four positions, though the lineup jumbling that Gerald Wallace’s acquisition and departure forced probably had something to do with those numbers. Regardless: If Portland wants to keep Aldridge happy, it’s time for something more than tiny incremental progress from these two.
• Amir Johnson, Toronto Raptors. The 25-year-old big man has cut his fouls per minute to a semi-manageable rate and continues to do well as an explosive finisher on pick-and-rolls, cuts and the offensive glass. He’ll even show a mid-range jumper once or twice a game. He functioned well enough on defense last season under coach Dwane Casey. But Johnson is still a string bean and struggles to clean the defensive glass, and he just hasn’t shown any consistency with these positive skills over extended minutes. What happens this season, with Jonas Valanciunas on board?
The Young Guns
• John Wall, Washington Wizards. It figures to be one of the more prominent storylines this season: Exactly how good is John Wall? He passes every eye test at first glance and obviously has potential to be a perennial All-Star. But dig into the stats and the tape, and you find some disturbing stuff — horrid jump-shooting numbers, shaky finishing on drives in the half-court, a nonexistent three-point shot, uneven defense and difficulties running his defender into screens on pick-and-roll plays. Some of those things, especially the up-and-down defense, are typical of young players, and the Wizards, until now, haven’t given Wall anything resembling a credible supporting cast of shooters or big men capable of running a legitimate pick-and-roll. Shooting is still a major issue here, but Wall now has an interesting set of bigs and a better overall roster around him. The Wizards, and the rest of the league, are anxiously awaiting the appearance of a true franchise centerpiece.
• Evan Turner/Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers. Addressed at length in the aftermath of the Dwight Howard/Andrew Bynum/Andre Iguodala megadeal, but worth mentioning here. Holiday is a “B-” two-way player who wants an “A” paycheck and has flashed occasional skills at least approaching that level, especially in the playoffs. But his defense hasn’t been as lockdown as anticipated, and his offense has featured too much dribbling, too many pull-up jumpers and not enough free throws or three-pointers. Turner’s poor shooting has cramped Philadelphia’s spacing, and though he has done intriguing work as a nifty interior passer, post-up bully against smaller guards and tricky off-the-dribble force, we haven’t seen those skills on anything like a consistent basis. The departure of two other ball-handlers — Iguodala and Lou Williams — should give both of these guys the chance to show what they can be; Holiday, remember, is barely 22. They are set to be free agents in successive years, and their cap holds will be large enough to potentially rob the Sixers of any cap room at all in each of the next two summers. Lots at stake here.
• Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks. Playing next to a ball-dominant wing like Joe Johnson has its benefits. Teague, 24, has been able to develop gradually — perhaps too gradually — and has learned to work off the ball as a screener for Johnson and aggressive finisher on kick-out passes. But with Johnson gone, Teague should get more time to work what has generally been a productive pick-and-roll partnership with both Al Horford and Josh Smith, especially in the playoffs. That should lead to more free throws and more confidence in a decent three-point shot that Teague has passed up too often when open. The presence of Lou Williams and Devin Harris complicates things a bit, but Teague should still see much more of the ball.
Hey, Remember Me?
• Brook Lopez, Brooklyn Nets. Lopez, 24, put up embarrassing rebounding numbers in 2010-11 after battling a severe case of mono and essentially lost last season due to a broken bone in his foot. The Nets, already over the cap at the time, maxed him out anyway, taking themselves out of the Dwight Howard derby and committing one of the league’s hottest franchises to an overpriced four-man core over the long haul. It’s a solid core, but one that has to prove it can be even an average defensive team anchored by a combination of big men — Lopez and Kris Humphries — that has been unable to contain ball-handlers in space or protect the rim adequately.
• Raymond Felton, New York Knicks. The Knicks won’t make the jump from second-tier contender to something more unless the cap-clogging Carmelo Anthony/Tyson Chandler/Amar’e Stoudemire trio meshes better (especially on offense) than it did in a lockout-compressed 2011-12 seasib of tiresome drama and nagging injuries. In that regard, it’s tempting to dismiss the rest of the roster as semi-irrelevant to the team’s big-picture fate. But a decent point guard can help the meshing process, both by running the offense when Anthony permits and doing it well enough to allow for the reorganization of the team’s rotation and offensive sets in optimal ways. The Knicks signed Jason Kidd to do some of this, but Kidd’s game is already in severe decline as he approaches his 40th birthday. Felton’s ability to work a drive-and-kick game on the pick-and-roll could be a huge asset, but he has to be in shape and cut out the laughably frustrating late-game turnovers that defined a miserable year in Portland.
• Wilson Chandler, Denver Nuggets. Chandler already has a nice mid-sized contract that pays him through 2015-16, but he basically punted the 2011-12 NBA season by playing in China during the lockout, and he returns now to a team absolutely loaded on the wing. That crowd includes Iguodala, an ace defender deserving of major minutes, and Danilo Gallinari, who can work more effectively than Chandler as a small-ball power forward because of his far more developed off-the-dribble game and three-point range. Still, Arron Afflalo’s departure has left a hole at shooting guard, and Kenneth Faried is the only reliable power forward on the roster. Chandler has played both positions as part of big and small lineups in New York, and coach George Karl is among the best at finding productive minutes for versatile players. He’ll do so with Chandler, who should develop into both an on-court asset and another Denver trade chip.
The Big-Name Veteran Free-Agent-To-Be
• Al Jefferson, Utah Jazz. There will be other star free agents, of course, but I’m not sure any have a value quite as difficult to peg. Jefferson has added to his game on the edges. He’s a solid one-on-one post defender now, having held opponents to 39 percent shooting on post-up plays last season (per Synergy Sports), and he has gotten better at passing to cutters from the high and low post. But he’s still the same Big Al in the macro sense — a low-post guy who needs the ball, shoots a ton, hits half his shots, earns very few fouls shots and struggles as badly as any big man in the league in guarding the pick-and-roll. Jefferson has value; Utah would not have made the postseason or ranked among the league’s top-10 offenses without him. But it’s hard to see any team playing Jefferson 35 minutes a game cracking the championship conversation in a pick-and-roll league — unless Jefferson makes a leap on defense as he approaches free agency. Will Utah pay the 27-year-old Jefferson, even with Paul Millsap (a better player) also entering free agency and four recent lottery picks set for big raises over the next few years? And if Utah’s out, what’s the market for Jefferson?
• Tyrus Thomas, Charlotte Bobcats. Charlotte would have had to pull the amnesty trigger on either Thomas or DeSagana Diop in order to fit rumored big offers for Lopez or Humphries, and with Diop entering the last year of his contract, one of the last remaining amnesty spotlights falls on Thomas. A meniscus tear derailed a promising start to Thomas’ first full season in Charlotte in 2010-11, and an ankle injury ruptured his 2011-12 season before it got going. But when Thomas did play (often out of position), he looked confused, was unproductive and clashed with former coach Paul Silas. Will things change this season?
• Kendrick Perkins, Oklahoma City Thunder. The luxury tax concerns are real with James Harden now extension-eligible. Also real: Perkins’ value as a post defender, brutal screener and all-around setter of a nasty tone. But Perkins’ reputation as a Dwight Howard stopper is nearly two years out of date, and he’s not nearly good enough at his strengths to justify his pricey contract once you factor in his glaring limitations — poor hands, endless traveling violations, shaky speed and sky-high turnover rates. There aren’t many worse offensive players in the league, at least among regular rotation guys. Perkins needs to get healthy and show a bit more, on both ends, to quiet the amnesty chatter.
Hanging On To Relevancy
• Tyler Hansbrough, Indiana Pacers. Big men just can’t last in big roles shooting 40 percent, playing so-so defense and grabbing defensive boards at the rate of a small forward — even if they get to the free-throw line a ton.
• Gary Neal/Patty Mills/DeJuan Blair, San Antonio Spurs. Something is going to give in San Antonio in both the backcourt and the frontcourt, with Matt Bonner another tradable piece alongside these less-known quantities. Mills needs to translate his international success onto the NBA level. If Mills does so, Neal might be out of a key rotation role, unless he shows some improved ball-handling. Blair’s ground-bound, gambling-heavy defense leaves him out of position and out of the Spurs’ rotation at money time.
• Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas Mavericks. Once a potential savior for a late-career Nowitzki, Beaubois just hasn’t shot accurately or made the proper “pass or shoot?” reads enough to earn regular playing time. That kind of time might be even harder to come by this season, with Delonte West, Collison, Mayo, Dominique Jones, Jared Cunningham and Vince Carter all competing for some of the guard minutes. With Dallas hoarding future cap space, Beaubois’ future is very much in doubt.
• C.J. Miles/Omri Casspi, Cleveland Cavaliers. Two low-risk acquisitions for the Cavs, with Miles signed on the cheap and Casspi obtained from Sacramento, along with a first-round pick (!), for J.J. Hickson. Casspi projects as a three-and-D guy who lost the “three” part of the equation last season, and Miles, despite bristling over minutes in Utah, has never put up a league-average PER and shot a hair below 40 percent combined over the last two seasons. Both can play small forward (Casspi’s ideal position), which helps, with Dion Waiters and Daniel Gibson set to soak up most of the two-guard minutes. Alonzo Gee likely starts the season ahead of both of them.
• Ed Davis, Toronto Raptors. He’ll struggle for minutes with Valanciunas around, especially once you toss in Linas Kleiza as a small-ball power forward. Davis, 23, just hasn’t developed much, on either end, and looks more and more like a fringe rotation player — if he sticks in the league.
• Wesley Johnson, Phoenix Suns. Twenty-five-year-olds with single-digit PERs, sub-40 shooting percentages and zero record as an off-the-dribble threat don’t get playing time for long. The Suns may well have to decline Johnson’s option for 2013-14 in order to open up max-level cap space. That doesn’t happen much for No. 4 picks, but it’s on the table for Johnson.