The Detroit Pistons traded away Chauncey Billups because GM Joe Dumars wants to clear cap space and thinks very highly of second-year guard Rodney Stuckey. The 6-foot-5 guard from Eastern Washington showed flashes of stardom in last year’s playoffs, averaging 9 points and 3 assists, and parlayed that into a successful stint with the U.S. select team that drilled The Redeem Team while preparing for the Beijing Olympics. Several players and coaches associated with USA Basketball raved about Stuckey. With Billups gone and Allen Iverson headed for free agency at the end of the season, Stuckey should be an even bigger presence in Detroit’s plans and his meteoric rise gives the Pistons a bright future.
Stuckey is just one of several rising studs, who are either in their second or third season in the NBA, ready for a breakout season. A look at the others:
KEVIN MARTIN, guard, Sacramento Kings: With Mike Bibby, Chris Webber, Vlade Divac and Ron Artest all gone, the 25-year-old Martin is now the face of the Kings. Last year, he averaged 23 points a game. This year, he should flirt with 24 or 25 points per game considering the Kings don’t have much of a team, nor a coach, running with him.
DAVID LEE, forward-center, New York Knicks: His name always came up whenever teams inquired about trading with the Knicks. But the Knicks held their ground and kept Lee on the roster. The 6-10 third-year man, who was a walking double-double in limited action last year, has been named starter and should thrive in Mike D’Antoni’s free-wheeling system.
RUDY GAY, guard-forward, Memphis Grizzlies: With Pau Gasol gone, Gay becomes the focal point of the Grizzlies offense. He should surpass last season’s 20.1 average and will get serious all-star recognition. If general managers had to do it all over again, Gay probably would have been the first or second player chosen in the 2006 NBA draft. Seven players were taken before Gay: Andrea Bargnani, LaMarcus Aldridge, Adam Morrison, Tyrus Thomas, Shelden Williams, Brandon Roy and Randy Foye.
LaMARCUS ALDRIDGE, forward, Portland Trail Blazers: How can the Chicago Bulls get this wrong, again. The Bulls had Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler in their fold and dealt both away for, basically, a round-trip fare to the Bahamas. In 2006, the Bulls had the No. 2 pick in the draft and smartly selected Aldridge and then (head-scratcher) moved him to Portland. Hmmm. With the return of Greg Oden, Aldridge will face less double teams and can slide back to his more natural position, power forward.
DEVIN HARRIS, guard, New Jersey Nets: When Harris was traded from Dallas to New Jersey last season for Jason Kidd, the happiest man in the Western Conference was San Antonio’s Tony Parker. The Spurs point guard admitted that he hated playing against Harris, who defused Parker’s quickness during the 2006 playoffs. In 25 games with the Nets last season, Harris averaged 15.4 points and 6.5 assists. With a full training camp and a big endorsement from Coach Lawrence Frank and star guard Vince Carter, Harris is ready for a breakout season as full-time starter.
RAJON RONDO, point guard, Boston Celtics: We all saw him grow up during the playoffs. He just got better and better as the Celtics kept advancing. His performance in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Lakers was legendary. Another member of the draft class of 2006, Rondo has been given the keys to the Celtics’ sports utility vehicle and GM Danny Ainge is hoping he can drive them back to the NBA Finals.
AL HORFORD, forward-center, Atlanta Hawks: He’s a bit undersized as a center but plays a lot bigger than his listed height and weight (6-9, 245). You can argue that Horford had a much bigger impact last season than Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant because Horford led his team to the playoffs. The Hawks love Horford’s intensity and he brings toughness to a team ready to become a perennial playoff contender.
AL THORNTON, forward, L.A. Clippers: Thornton, an all-rookie honoree last season, is an exceptional athlete who never stops working. He should benefit from the extra playing time now that Elton Brand is in Philadelphia and Corey Maggette is in Golden State.
JORDAN FARMAR, guard, Los Angeles Lakers: Last season, Farmar showed flashes of what he can do. This season, Farmar will severely push incumbent Derek Fisher as the Lakers’ starting guard opposite Kobe Bryant. It’s similar to what Coach Phil Jackson had to deal with in Chicago with B.J. Armstrong and John Paxson. The younger Armstrong eventually won the job over the veteran Paxson.
JULIAN WRIGHT, forward, New Orleans Hornets: This 6-8, 225-pound former Kansas Jayhawk won’t make a dent on the stat sheet but his contribution will be on defense. His length and quickness is ideal for what Coach Byron Scott wants in the Hornets’ pressure defense.
NICK YOUNG, guard, Washington Wizards: While Gilbert Arenas heals from his knee surgery, the Wizards will be asking this former USC Trojan to fill in. Young is a capable scorer and his size (6-6) allows Coach Eddie Jordan to play him at guard or small forward.