The NBA is back. And while the league still belongs to LeBron James until we see a reason why it shouldn’t, the 2013-14 season also brings with it a number of intriguing players who will be looking to rattle the landscape of the league, even if they aren’t quite ready to take it away from the King. Here is a look at the seven Most Interesting Players in the NBA — the ones whose upcoming years could be either major statements or just terrifically huge bummers.
1. John Wall
This offseason, the Wizards put their pocketbook behind Wall, giving him a five-year, $80-million extension. That’s franchise-player money, which means that Wall, long one of the NBA’s most promising point guards, is finally expected to put it all together. He’s certainly capable: the Wizards have given him the strongest supporting cast they’ve had in a long time, including backcourt running mate Bradley Beal and Nene and Marcin Gortat in the front court. If the Wizards don’t make the playoffs this year, though, expect the word “bust” to start trailing the former No. 1 overall pick, rightly or wrongly.
2. Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond is a freak: a 6-10, 270-pound hyper-athlete who can potentially do anything you’d expect out of an NBA big man. And he’s only 20 years old. A highly raw prospect coming from UConn, Drummond has already evolved at a faster rate than most people expected, and his per-36-minutes numbers last year were insane: 13.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks. Whether he can keep that up in increased action remains to be seen, as does whether he can improve his dismal 37 percent free-throw rate. But it helps that he’ll be a part of the best Pistons starting lineup since the championship years, along with Greg Monroe, Brandon Jennings and Josh Smith.
3. Anthony Davis
Like Drummond, Davis had a dominant preseason and looks to be in line for an increased role with his team after a strong rookie season. Unlike Drummond, though, the expectations were unanimously high right out of the gate for Davis. When you’re almost viewed as a disappointment just because you didn’t win Rookie of the Year — even though Davis still had a strong season — you know you’re dealing with a potentially stifling environment, but Davis’ running mates are also improved enough this season — including Jrue Holiday at point and the Tyreke Evans / Eric Gordon combo at shooting guard — that the biggest question is whether the lack of a truly starting-quality center could hold Davis back. (Sorry, Greg Stiemsma.)
4. Jeremy Lamb
Look: it ain’t easy being the guy OKC got in exchange for James Harden. Particularly when Harden’s quickly taking possession of the role as the league’s best shooting guard, and you’ve never done anything in an NBA game. That’s why the expectations being placed on Jeremy Lamb are so interesting: with Kevin Martin out of town and Russell Westbrook hurt to start the year, the Thunder don’t just hope Lamb can contribute 10 points or more a game — they pretty much need him to. Kevin Durant can score, but he can’t score every one of his team’s points. And it’s up to Reggie Jackson and Lamb to compensate. If they can’t do it — and there’s no guarantee that they will be able to — this Thunder team’s floor could be shockingly low until Russ returns.
5. J.J. Redick
J.J. Redick has become a testament to the idea that no NBA career is truly lost until that guy’s out of the league. During his first few seasons as a pro, Redick was a disappointment compared to his net-scorching college performances and his relatively high draft position. But Redick learned how to play defense, developed a handle that allows him to serve as a team’s secondary ball-handler, and kept improving his already terrific 3-point shooting capabilities. Now with the third team of his career, Redick will be expected to carry a pretty large portion of the backcourt duties alongside Chris Paul and Jordan Crawford — including a starting spot, if all goes well. And the Clippers’ championship aspirations don’t really allow for him to fail.
6. Rudy Gay
Aside from becoming one of the greatest issues of contention between advanced-stats mavens and traditional basketball observers, Rudy Gay has cemented his position as one of the NBA’s most highly paid players to actually improve his teams when he’s off the court. The Grizzlies knew this, and they dealt him to the Raptors; now the Raptors and new GM Masai Ujiri need to figure out whether he’s worth building their heightened, Drake-centric future around. Because that career 16.1 PER — just barely above average-NBA-player levels — is not a testament to his massive contract.
7. Gordon Hayward
Gordon Hayward has long been an intriguing player for truly dedicated NBA fans, but he didn’t really show up on mainstream radars until this offseason, when Doc Rivers said he had a man-crush on the Jazz forward. Now, Hayward takes the lead role on a team that is pretty clearly tanking for the Wiggins/Parker/Randle/Gordon treasure trove promised in the 2014 draft. With Derrick Favors already possessing a $12-million-a-year deal and Hayward reportedly looking at similar money, Utah basically belongs to both guys. If Hayward can raise his scoring efficiency in front of the 3-point-line to what it is behind it, he could establish himself as one of the NBA’s most versatile and promising swingmen.