There comes a point in every NBA player’s career that will define how long they play, how successful they are as individuals and what their future looks like with their team.
You have LeBron James in the 2012 NBA Finals, who took the step toward all-time greatness by embracing the leadership role on that first Miami Heat championship team.
This isn’t just about Hall of Famers, though.
Take Sean Elliott, who went from being a solid role player on mediocre San Antonio and Detroit teams in the early 1990s to a Spurs legend after returning to the team, becoming an All-Star and hitting the greatest shot in franchise history.
You also have players on the other side of success in this regard. Charles Barkley is considered a great player but not a winner after failing to push the Phoenix Suns to a title against Michael Jordan in 1993 or during the subsequent years when his rival had left the Chicago Bulls to play baseball.
Jeremy Lin proved to be a flash in the pan and settled for a journeyman’s career after an epic run with the New York Knicks.
NBA history is littered with players who did and did not take the next step up, and when basketball returns, there will be question marks hanging over the heads of many.
But development happens in different ways for different players: It could be the result of a coaching change, moving to a new team, or just the growth you’d naturally expect from becoming more experienced. Here are a few worth watching, as they’re on the cusp of defining quite a lot.
Returning from injury: Dejounte Murray
In just his second season, Dejounte Murray became the youngest player in history—and just the third sophomore ever—to be named to an All-Defensive Team.
But after tearing his ACL just before his third season, 2019-20 was a case of getting back to full strength after surgery rather than taking the next step. With nearly a full year back, it’s time for Murray to make his move.
There are few concerns about him on the defensive end of the floor, but Murray’s offense still needs a lot of work. With a career-high in minutes this season, he averaged more than 10 points for the first time, with 5.8 rpg and 4.1 apg to go along with it.
He is a great rebounder and has the speed to push the ball up the floor quickly, but the Spurs haven’t been built for pace in recent seasons.
As such, Murray has fallen into the mid-range basketball favored by teammates DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. But there is there less opportunity for Murray in his preferred spots with those accomplished scorers often taking up the same spots.
He has yet to diversify his game or recognition enough to overcome the loss of these comfort zones.
Nonetheless, with his speed and a slowly improving three-point percentage—he hit 37 percent this past season on limited attempts—he could become a more analytics-friendly player.
Murray’s next step will require working with head coach Gregg Popovich to adjust the system more around the point guard’s skillset, but he also needs to become more of a leader.
Aldridge and DeRozan are past their primes, and the Spurs organization is in need of direction. With Murray returning his ACL repair, it will be on him to show that his knee and his game are strong enough to support a greater weight of responsibility.
Natural progression: Kendrick Nunn
The 2019-20 Rookie Of The Year Award was more wide open than many thought as a result of Zion Williamson injuring his knee during Summer League. Memphis Grizzlies star Ja Morant was no surprise as the new frontrunner, as he more than lived up to the expectations of being a No. 2 pick.
And yet, few expected an undrafted 24-year-old to lead that race at the start of the season.
That’s exactly what happened with Kendrick Nunn, even as Morant caught up to and surpassed him by the time the season was suspended due to Covid-19.
The former Oakland University guard led the Miami Heat in scoring for their first five games as they went 4-1 in the process. H
e then settled into a good 15.6 ppg for the season, which ranks second among first-year players, just behind ROY favorite Morant—and discounting Williamson, who only played 19 games.
On a balanced team, Nunn is a gritty, determined, score-first guard with good defensive skills. But there is an opportunity for him to grow as a leader on the court: Arguably, the Heat’s only true point guard is 11-year veteran Goran Dragic.
Like everything this Heat group does, assists are racked up by committee—they have another ball-handler in Jimmy Butler, and Bam Adebayo is an excellent passer—but this is something that Nunn needs to lean into.
Averaging just 3.4 apg this season, he showed some ability to pass out of collapsed defenses and traps, leading to easy scores for his teammates.
But if he can improve on setting up the offense, he’ll carve an even bigger role for himself.
On January 2 against the Toronto Raptors, Dragic played just 22 minutes and much of the offense was run through Nunn. The latter scored just seven points but managed nine assists and led the game in plus-minus with +18.
He is mainly used as a secondary offensive wing threat, but there have been moments in this first year that suggest he could be a lead guard option in the future for such an egalitarian attack.
New role: John Collins
The Atlanta Hawks potentially have the most exciting small-big combination in the NBA. Pairing flashy point guard Trae Young with aerial big John Collins seems like a match made in “Lob City” LA Clippers-style heaven, circa 2013.
But Atlanta’s franchise leader seems to have little patience for a slow build into contending status.
Young’s request for more help might lessen Collins’ role in the offense going forward. It already saw the Hawks bring in another young big, Clint Capela, who is eager to show he is not just the one-trick pony he became with the Houston Rockets.
Collins and Capela technically play different positions, but the way Capela runs the center spot and Collins the power forward has a lot of redundancy.
Both enjoy operating as a screener in a pick and roll. Each are strong at catching lobs and require someone else to create a shot for them: 78 percent of Collins shots are assisted while Capela had help on 80 percent of his looks this season.
There is also the always-troublesome subject of contracts.
Collins is due a big payday soon. And with averages of 21 ppg and 10 rpg this year, he is expecting a maximum contract.
The problem is Capela’s contract rises to nearly $20 million until 2022-23, DeWayne Dedmon is still owed nearly $26m in the next two seasons, and young wings De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish must be considered for paydays in the coming years. The latter two will need to get plenty of run to show that they are worth it.
Collins must expand his game to do the same.
This season he averaged 3.4 three-point attempts per game. His accuracy was good at more than 40 percent, but he simply needs to shoot more to be a threat. The team also needs a player who can create his own shot when Young hits the bench, but Collins has so far shown little of that.
If he can make himself indispensable by improving in one or both of these areas, he will get his max contract and help turn the Hawks’ fortunes around in the process.
Huw is a TBW staff writer who grew up in Wales and currently lives in England where he coaches a local basketball team. He loves all sorts of basketball: men’s, women’s, wheelchair, international, good and bad. He has bylines with the NBA/WNBA’s UK broadcast rights partner Sky Sports, has featured on Sporting News covering FIBA events and is a Lead Writer with UK-based basketball website and podcast Double Clutch. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @coach_huw where he often posts about how Tim Duncan was the best player of his era.