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From great to superstar in 2012-13?
Irving, Anderson and Bynum are poised to reach new heights this season
Updated: September 17, 2012, 1:51 PM ET
By Tom Haberstroh | ESPN Insider
Irving, Anderson and Bynum are all poised to take a huge step toward superstardom this season.
It's that time of the year, when we start hearing about players being in the best shape of their career. They either lose 15 pounds of fat or gain 15 pounds of muscle. Everyone is optimistic about the upcoming season, and expectations are high.
But for some players, exuberance wouldn't be irrational. Every season we see players break out from pack, but it's even tougher to make the leap from star to superstar. Who's the next star to catapult into the MVP discussion in 2012-13, as Kevin Love did last season?
Here are three prime candidates as we head into training camp season.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
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Kyrie Irving was a model of efficiency during a spectacular rookie season.
You could make the argument that no NBA player has ever been this good this young. It's almost impossible to exceed expectations as a No. 1 overall pick, but Irving managed to do that as a rookie for the rebuilding Cavaliers team. Irving averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds last season while shooting incredibly efficient from deep (39.9 percent on threes) and at the free throw line (87.2 percent).
All in all, Irving registered a 21.4 player efficiency rating and dominated crunch time. These numbers are impressive on their own, but they become staggering when you consider that a) he was a teenager last season and b) he barely played 30 minutes a game.
It's the best PER we've seen from a 19-year-old in NBA history -- better than the likes of LeBron James, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant when they entered the league. Irving's minute count is especially important to note because there's little chance that Irving will have a governor on his playing time like he did in his rookie season. Because the Cavs were ultraconservative with his minutes on the floor, Irving's numbers may come off as a little lower than those of a bona fide star. However, this is a guy who averaged 21.8 points, 6.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds when we translate his stat line to a per-36 minute level.
There's good reason to believe that his efficiency will only go up in Year 2. For one, he'll get his pick-and-roll partner back in Anderson Varejao as the recently jettisoned Antawn Jamison ranked as one of the worst pick-and-roll finishers in the league last season, according to Synergy. Pretty much anyone is an upgrade to Jamison there. Dion Waiters was a surprise pick at the No. 4 slot in the 2012 draft, but his athleticism should be a welcomed addition at the 2, a position that was split between Anthony Parker and Alonzo Gee last season.
Irving exploded onto the scene in his rookie campaign and aside from a minor hand injury during the summer, all signs point to Irving having a monster sophomore season. And did I mention he's 20 years old?
Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Hornets
Soobum Im/US Presswire
Can Ryan Anderson continue his upward trajectory in New Orleans?
Wait, am I really picking the 2011-12 Most Improved Player award winner to make another big leap next season? Sounds greedy, but here's why that's asking too much of the 24-year-old: he didn't exactly "improve" last season so much as his minutes did. Anderson has been this good for years now, but 2011-12 was the first time that his playing time matched his immense talent.
He's more than just another Rashard Lewis. No one drained more threes last season than Anderson, but he sets himself apart from the regular cast of stretch 4s in that he also registered one of the best offensive rebounding rates in the league. It's a testament to Anderson's rare skill set that a guy who lives on the perimeter can snag so many second-chance opportunities. In fact, he became the first player in NBA history to hit at least 150 threes and grab more than 200 offensive rebounds in a single season.
Is Anderson nothing but a product of Dwight Howard's dominance? That seems to be a lingering question that has shadowed Anderson for his career, but who's to say that Howard isn't also a beneficiary of Anderson's floor-spacing ability? It's a two-way street. Anderson may be the perfect complement to Howard's paint attack, but that doesn't mean he's fully dependent on Howard.
There's a chance that we haven't seen Anderson's best yet. When Howard was on the court last season, Anderson averaged 19.3 points and 9.4 rebounds every 36 minutes, according to the fantastic NBA.com stats tool. In the 756 minutes that Anderson played with Howard on the bench last season? Anderson averaged 21.1 points and 9.9 rebounds. Yeah, I'd say Anderson can produce without Howard.
In his new digs in New Orleans, Anderson has a chance to shed the label that he's just a Howard free rider. As the second-highest salaried player on the team, the Hornets have 34 million reasons to give Anderson every opportunity to prove he's the league's next 20-and-10 guy. Like Irving, playing time might be the only thing standing in his way.
Mark D. Smith/US Presswire
Philly's focal point on offense and defense, All-Star Andrew Bynum could rise to even loftier heights.
Andrew Bynum, Philadelphia 76ers
There's no question that Bynum has the talent to crash the superstar party, but playing alongside Bryant and Pau Gasol may have been his barrier to entry. Can Bynum be a franchise player without having to share the spotlight with those two?
We actually know he can because he did it last season. Bynum spent about 20 percent of his playing time without both on the court in 2011-12 (384 minutes). How did he do in that time? To give you an idea, he posted a 23.2 PER in those 384 minutes. His overall PER? 23.1. Virtually identical.
Now, it's certainly the case that Bynum faced his fair share of second units in those minutes without Bryant and Gasol. But even if it wasn't stiff competition, it also meant that they could throw multiple bodies at Bynum without worrying about leaving a star open. Bynum saw his touches skyrocket without Bryant and Gasol out there (his usage rate soared from 19.2 percent to 28.7 percent), but the key is whether Bynum could maintain a healthy shooting efficiency with the extra scoring burden.
With the likes of Troy Murphy and Matt Barnes trying to dissuade defenders from creating a miniature flash mob in the paint, Bynum still shot 58.9 percent without Bryant and Gasol on the court, which is far better than his seasonal rate. His assisted rate plummeted from 73.4 percent to 56.4 percent, indicating that the dump-it-down-to-Bynum-in-the-post strategy happened a lot more (looking at the film confirmed there was a lot of this going on without Gasol and Bryant on the court). Still, Bynum flourished, not floundered, when he was forced to go it alone.
He'll have to do that against the starting lineups of the East next season, but he'll be banging with Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh underneath, not behemoths like Marc Gasol and Marcin Gortat. And don't forget that Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut conveniently left the East as well. Bynum has proven in short bursts that he can thrive as the first, second and third scoring option all at once. If he can stay healthy and lead the Sixers to the upper half of the East playoff picture, don't be surprised if he's at the center of the MVP discussion.