To help us map the NBA’s changing landscape, let’s borrow the key premise from a snack-cracker commercial.
This particular ad stars a wheel of cheese that’s having a difficult time achieving emotional growth. If and when that occurs, he gets baked into a cracker. But this isn’t nearly as easy as it might seem.
Anyway, with aging cheddar as our theme, we now look at a few NBA players whose maturation could define their teams’ potential for improvement this season.
The star of our premise is first-year Philadelphia 76ers center Andrew Bynum, whose lane-dominating potential could transform the young Sixers from plucky to downright nasty … in a good way.
Well, a good way for them and their fans.
Those who aren’t exactly thrilled about Bynum’s departure from the Los Angeles Lakers include a personnel executive employed by another Eastern Conference team who has consented to assist us with some perspective.
“For quite a while, we assumed that if he (Bynum) left L.A., he’d end up in Orlando,” the executive said. “Well, we knew that — for now, at least — Orlando didn’t have quite enough to get it done with (Dwight) Howard anymore, and they probably would have had even less to put around Bynum.
“But the Sixers have a lot of good players to go with him. I think they’ll miss Lou Williams as a consistent scoring threat off the bench, and they’re hoping Nick Young can replace that productivity. By the way, Young is another guy you might want to put on your ‘looking to mature’ list.”
So what’s the deal with Bynum? Well, intelligence and maturity can be mutually exclusive. Always known as a smart kid, the 7-foot Bynum — who won’t be 25 until later this month — has had a few demonstrations of cheddar-style silliness under the L.A. spotlight.
His history includes a flagrant clubbing of J.J Barea in the 2011 playoffs and an insubordinate flirtation with the 3-point shot during Mike Brown’s first year as coach of the Lakers.
Bynum also has had injury predicaments that helped delay his rise to stardom while working with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, but I used to watch Dr. Phil,” our personnel guy said, “so I feel sort of safe saying that Bynum may be a lot more comfortable away from the Lakers and the whole Hollywood thing going on out there. And if he does, look out. While I’m not saying being in L.A. is an excuse for not always having your motor running on the court, he could be motivated like never before. And with his skill on the block, the Sixers could be really good. That doesn’t make me very happy, though.”
OK, Bynum is our headliner, but several players could use a dose of emotional growth to help their teams either reach those greater expectations or rise above anticipated slouching.
DWIGHT HOWARD, L.A. LAKERS
Now that he’s really in a fish bowl, our contemporary Superman could do himself a favor by clamming up when Shaq (for example) levels his next batch of criticism.
And if it takes Brown a while to figure out the best way to keep Dwight and Pau Gasol involved on offense, be patient. Steve Nash will find a solution.
“Some people have said playing next to Kobe should help Dwight’s approach,” the personnel guy said. “But it didn’t quite work for Bynum, did it? Then again, Dwight and Andrew probably have different ways of accepting advice. Even though he’s surrounded by solid veterans like Nash and (Antawn) Jamison, don’t underestimate the challenge of playing under the glare in Tinseltown.”
DEMARCUS COUSINS, SACRAMENTO KINGS
Right, the Kings may not be that good even if Cousins approaches his considerable potential.
Here’s a positive sign: Cousins arrived for camp in pretty decent physical condition.
“He’s so versatile,” our personnel smarty said of the former Kentucky star. “He has a pretty mature game already; if he starts to approach that with his conduct, Cousins should be an All-Star eventually.”
MICHAEL BEASLEY, PHOENIX SUNS
After the Minnesota Timberwolves waved bye-bye to the second overall pick (by the Miami Heat) from the 2008 NBA Draft, the Suns took a reasonable risk by signing the gifted lefty in July.
If he goes off the rails, his contract won’t damn the organization for several years. But if mentor Norm Nixon really has helped Beasley reach some emotional stability that translates to the court, the Suns may have a steal.
“That sounds really good,” said our personnel guru, who needs more convincing. “What also concerns me is that the Suns, like the T-wolves, seem set on playing him at small forward. Although he’s not 6-10 like he’s been listed, I like Beasley more as a power forward. He’s really a tough cover as a four. And he can board. I think I’d rather give him help against post-ups on defense than have him chasing threes on the perimeter.”
The insider’s point probably has something to do with gaining maturity through working in your comfort zone.
JOSH SMITH, ATLANTA HAWKS
The Hawks have unloaded some salary (a dozen forklifts were required to move Joe Johnson’s contract), leaving Smith as the man in Atlanta.
Smith has been behind management moves during the offseason, but — in the final year of his contract — it’ll be interesting to see if he grows into a leader should the Hawks go plummeting toward the lottery.
“Maturity also could include recognizing shots you can make and those you have little chance, percentage-wise, of making,” our insider said.
JOHN WALL, WASHINGTON WIZARDS
During his second pro season, the first overall pick from 2010 was 39th in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Although Wall seems mature enough as a person, maturity in making on-court decisions could go a long way toward helping the Wizards’ veteran front line perform.
When he returns from injury, Wall will find rookie Brad Beal at shooting guard. Not to worry though: Beal is a mature kid with a mature game.
GLEN DAVIS, ORLANDO MAGIC
Anyone hauling around the nickname “Big Baby” probably received a longer maturity pass than most. And even though little is expected of the Magic, things could go truly haywire if Davis doesn’t grow up a little to help out Jameer Nelson, Al Harrington and Arron Afflalo in a march toward respectability.
What makes us think Davis needs to age more gracefully? Well, his Media Day chatter included reviews of Dwight Howard’s flatulence.