In a superstar-driven league, you are either one of two players: a superstar or not. There comes a time in a player’s career that would be considered a tipping point of how things will finally take course. On one end, you become a bust or a failure, on the other hand, you prove all the doubts wrong and rise to the occasion and go beyond your current stardom.
With all that is on the line in each player’s career, may it be franchise hopes and dreams, a draft billing, or a championship, here are five NBA stars who have everything on the line when the regular season tips.
5. Hassan Whiteside
It already feels like forever, but it was just two seasons ago when Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside had a breakout season averaging 17 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 55 percent from the field. The former 33rd overall pick seemed headed into stardom. Unfortunately, Whiteside gets to be the victim of the quick evolution of the modern game. With court spacing and uptempo pacing at a premium, the hefty multi-year contract that he signed two-years ago seems like a disaster.
Nearly buried in the bench with minutes getting lesser by the game, Whiteside is in the brink of being irrelevant. Not that he is not talented enough, on the contrary, his immense traditional talent makes him a target for quicker small ball matchups.
4. Zach LaVine
Chicago Bulls shooting guard Zach LaVine is secured for the long run. Recently signing a four-year, $78 million contract, he is pretty much set for now. Although that large paycheck did not come with small-scale expectations, he is officially one of the franchise building blocks of the Bulls according to contract.
The key piece in moving Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, LaVine is expected to break out this upcoming season. Getting enough preparation and recovery time from his ACL injury last season, there is just a tiny window for the former Slam Dunk champion to make any reasonable excuses about his performance this season. With the trust and the paycheck given, all eyes will be on him in Chicago.
3. Dwight Howard
The 1st overall pick of the 2004 NBA draft, Dwight Howard is expected to make a difference in the league. Despite still being a physical specimen, gone were the days that a team’s future would revolve around him. Count it on rough patches and drama from his tenure with the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles, then with the Houston Rockets, he accumulated all different types of bad publicity that stuck to the eight-time All-star’s persona.
He now finds himself with his sixth team, the Washington Wizards. Paired with All-star point guard John Wall, Howard is expected to be a piece that will bring a higher level in the playoffs. With the three-time Defensive Player of the Year averaging 16.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks, he is still quite a force down low. In spite of his fringe All-star performance, the stigma of his childish antics and locker room drama still taint the league’s outlook on Howard.
With everything to gain and nothing to lose paired with the quick evolution into the modern game, Howard is on the bubble this season.
2. Markelle Fultz
Philadelphia 76ers point guard Markelle Fultz was supposed to be the final piece of The Process. In his lone college year with Washington, his average of 23.2 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from the three-point line were tantalizing enough for the Sixers to trade two first rounders just to secure acquiring the promising point guard.
With an NBA ready skill set and expectations at an all-time high, Fultz’s debut last season was not as spectacular as people would hope. With the physical gifts and the talent clearly there, the unexpected chink to his armor was his broken jumper. Rumors and speculation about a shoulder injury altering his shot mechanics or the possible case of the “yips” began circulating around the league. Ultimately, the Sixers shut their young point guard for the season playing just 14 games in.
If being the youngest player ever in the NBA to record a triple-double is not enough of a hallmark for Fultz’s untapped potential, then this should be either a redeeming or bust-defining season for the 20-year-old.
1. Kawhi Leonard
One of the best two-way players in the league, moving the then-San Antonio Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors may be one of the boldest moves of the offseason. The former NBA champion was traded along with fellow Spur Danny Green for Raptor All-star DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a first rounder. Talking about it now, it felt like the transition was seamless, but in reality, the Kawhi Leonard saga was mired in controversy.
Before finding a new home in the North, Leonard was an indispensable piece for the Spurs. He was the franchise cornerstone moving forward, with the golden era Spurs Big Three finally slowly coming to an end. Last season, a quad injury derailed most of the two-time All-star’s season, playing only nine games. In relation, how the organization handled the medical procedures regarding the injury and how his teammates reacted on his inability to play eventually led to a deteriorating relationship in Texas.
Given a clean slate in Toronto, he is gifted an opportunity to recoup his bearings from his injury and his brush with the Spurs. However, things are tricky this time around for both the Raptors and Leonard.
Without a doubt, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is a top five talent when healthy. This season, his performance needs to prove that he is back at 100 percent. Aside from that, with Leonard being in his contract year, he can eventually walk out of Toronto as a rental and head for free agency. With a well-documented desire to play for a Los Angeles-based franchise, the Raptors are on a mission to woo their prized acquisition to stay for the long haul.
While Leonard and the Raptors are currently on a mutual proving phase, this year will be pivotal for the former Finals MVP and his present franchise.