All this week, ESPN.com will be looking ahead a few years in an attempt to see what the NBA will look like in the year 2010.
Mon., 9/18: Which current cellar dweller could turn into a champ?
Tues., 9/19: Which current elite team could find itself in the lottery?
Wed., 9/20: Who will supplant Dirk as the NBA's best international player?
Thurs., 9/21: Which player will rise from mediocrity a la Boris Diaw?
Fri., 9/22: A time line on the rise of the NBA's next young superstars.
We asked some of the top NBA writers from around the country to weigh in with their thoughts.
Here's today's roundup:
Q: Which player will rise from mediocrity a la Boris Diaw?
Chris Sheridan, ESPN Insider: I'm going with Carlos Arroyo, who was stuck with a coach who hated him (Jerry Sloan) and then stuck behind an All-Star (Chauncey Billups) before moving to Orlando last season in the Darko Milicic trade.
Carlos was arguably the best point guard at the World Championship, carrying the scoring burden for a weak Puerto Rico team with almost no other offensive options. He's quicker than people give him credit for, and he's a rare playmaker who can finish as well as he creates. If the Magic can find a way to utilize him in tandem with Jameer Nelson, he'll have a huge breakout season.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA and international basketball for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
John Denton, Florida Today: The pick here is Gerald Wallace, whose stellar season was overlooked because of the Bobcats' expected struggles.
Maybe the only ones who were aware of just how dominant Wallace was last season were those who had him on their fantasy teams. Few players in the league could match Wallace's production across the board.
The cat-quick small forward with awesome athleticism ranked first in the league in steals (2.51), 11th in blocked shots (2.09) and fourth in field-goal percentage (53.8 percent). The only negative for Wallace, besides playing on a league doormat, was that he was limited to just 55 games because of injury.
Wallace will be a free agent next summer, making this season even more important to him. Expect his numbers to rise over those he put up last season -- and to be likely even better than those of Diaw.
John Denton covers the Orlando Magic for Florida Today.
Marc J. Spears, The Denver Post: The next Boris Diaw will be Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith. Smith averaged 10.3 points as a rookie during the 2004-05 season and was a two-time Western Conference Rookie of the Month. But during his second NBA season, he struggled with the New Orleans-Oklahoma City Hornets as his scoring average dipped to 7.7 points per game and he didn't see eye to eye with Hornets coach Byron Scott.
In July, Smith was traded twice in six days. The Hornets traded him to Chicago in a trade involving Tyson Chandler and soon afterward the Nuggets acquired Smith in exchange for guard Howard Eisley and a second-round pick. The Nuggets are raving about how Smith, who just turned 21, has performed during pre-training camp workouts. Unless the Nuggets land free agent Bonzi Wells or another marquee shooting guard, Smith will end up starting at shooting guard.
Either way, Smith will be entering this season with a motivational chip on his shoulder after last season. With his talent, shooting ability and upper echelon athleticism, expect Smith eventually to blossom into an NBA star. The key for the New Jersey native will be coming into training camp in shape, being on the same page with coach George Karl, dramatically improving his weak defensive play and taking the ball to the hole more instead of settling on jumpers. Expect NBA teams to compliment the Nuggets in the future for landing Smith for nothing.
Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA for The Denver Post, is a contributor to ESPN.com.
David Thorpe, Pro Training Center: What happens behind the scenes when players go from little production one year to being a serious contributor the next season? Did they suddenly improve their game enough to get into the playing rotation? Or did they just get a chance to play due to another player's injury/departure?
In the case of Hakim Warrick's upcoming season, I think the answer will end up being "both."
Warrick struggled last year as a rookie, prompting people to question his ability to play. "He's too skinny to play the 4" goes the common thought on him, and most think he lacks the skill to play as a small forward. But two things happened this summer that lead me to believe we'll see more positive plays out of Warrick this season.
Pau Gasol's injury in the World Championship was unfortunate for both him and Memphis, as he truly is one of the NBA's top pivotmen. But it does open a door for Warrick, as someone has to fill the 39 minutes per game Pau played last year. Combine that with the serious work Warrick put in this summer on his overall game and you have a recipe for a much better stat line this season.
Warrick spent much of the summer training with former college teammate Carmelo Anthony in Denver, and we all saw how well 'Melo played for Team USA. I've heard reports from other people in the gym that Warrick was terrific in those workouts as well. He was solid in the summer league, too, averaging 17 and 5.
His athleticism and intensity will fit in nicely with Memphis' effort to get more athletic on the floor, and his enhanced offensive skills will allow him to play some 3 as well. Improvement on the defensive end is still needed, and if he shows signs of progress there, he'll get all of the playing time he wants. NBA arenas better dust off their replacement rims. Here comes Hakim!!
After the rash of injuries early on, everyone seemed to forget the Bobcats were in the NBA last year. Perhaps that's why few seemed to notice just how well Felton played in his rookie season. His stats (11.9 ppg, 5.6 apg in 30 MPG) were nice and all, but he quietly impressed many with his leadership qualities.
He shot just 39 percent, which surely will improve, especially when he learns to trust his skills and instincts, and takes the ball to the basket more instead of settling for jumpers. He was second on my ballot for Rookie of the Year.
Udrih was solid as rookie two years ago, playing 80 games for the world champs (last season he played just 56). Left-handed with good size (6-3, 200) and world-class point guard skills, he always seems to make the correct decisions with the ball. He won't put up huge numbers until he's running his own team but there are more than a few GMs who would love to give him that chance someday.
Brian Windhorst covers the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal.
Ian Whittell, The (London) Times: Keeping it close to my roots, I'm going to present you with the Chicago Bulls' British-based forward Luol Deng. Though, he might be viewed as more "average" rather than "mediocre."
There's no doubt that Diaw had to escape a wretched team (Atlanta) and join a great one (Phoenix) for his potential to be realized and, although there is no way the Bulls of the past two seasons are anywhere near as bad as the Hawks, Deng is going to be playing for a very different Chicago team in 2006-07. Think Ben Wallace and P.J. Brown aren't going to make everyone around them better? Think again.
Deng's stats took a big leap in most statistical areas last season from his rookie year (points up 11.7 to 14.3 per game, rebounds from 5.3 to 6.6, minutes from 27.3 to 33.4 per game while turnovers were down from 1.93 to 1.35 per game). Okay, so maybe he's better than "average" but, having followed Deng's career for the past four or five years, I believe there is still a lot of improvement to come.
Plan B, by the way, might yet see him leave the Bulls, a trade oft rumored last season. There were times Scott Skiles seemed to just want Deng to play as a spot-up shooter on the wing and there is far more to his game than that. Maybe another team would bring that full potential out of him.
Ian Whittell covers the NBA for The (London) Times and BSkyB.