— When a player thrives following a year most observers would classify as less than outstanding, most refer to that excellent campaign as a “breakout,” as though the player in question went home during the offseason, climbed into a cocoon and emerged a few months later as a completely transformed performer.
There are instances in which players make massive, unexpected leaps between one season and the next (call it “The Cocoon Effect”), but there are many other instances where clear warning shots for an impending eruption emerge during the final months and weeks of the regular season.
Here are five players who could make the leap in 2009-10:
Andrea Bargnani, Raptors
He's just 23, yet critics have been extremely antsy to label the former No. 1 overall pick a bust. In fairness, some of that anxiousness was deserved after the jump-shooting big man averaged 11.6 points and 3.9 rebounds as a rookie in 2006-07, followed by a disappointing 10.2 points (on 38.6 percent shooting) and 3.7 rebounds last season. To throw one more can of aerosol on the bonfire, Bargnani averaged just 9.8 points and 4.3 rebounds through his first 31 games of 2008-09.
But ever since a late-December injury to former starting center Jermaine O’Neal (who has since been traded to the Heat), Bargnani has elevated his game. In his last 44 games, the Raptors’ starting center has been good for 19.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, all while hitting a scalding 44.4 percent from 3-point range.
To be clear, the man nicknamed “Il Mago” (The Magician) still has plenty of tricks left to unveil — he would be wise to start with becoming a more consistent rebounder and defender — but the groundwork is complete for a major step upward in what will be his fourth NBA season.
Rudy Gay, Grizzlies
After a stellar second season in 2007-08 (during which he averaged 20.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks), Gay took a small but noticeable step back in 2008-09, with a marginal decline in virtually every major category (he was averaging 18.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks with six games left to play in the 2008-09 campaign).
In part, those struggles can be attributed to adjusting to talented but ball-controlling rookie O.J. Mayo, whose averages of 18.2 points and 15.5 shot attempts don’t fully reveal the degree to which he monopolizes the brown leather orb. After all, there aren’t stats to reflect time spent dribbling or sizing up a defender, nor is there a category for "He really should have passed that."
Despite the considerable obstacle of competing next to a human vacuum — coupled with Gay’s own unfortunate tendency to drift through stretches of games — the former UConn star appears to have rediscovered his mojo in the closing weeks. In his first three games of April, Gay averaged 26.0 points and 6.7 rebounds. While those numbers represent just a small sample size, they’re not far off from what the 22-year-old is capable of producing once he properly harnesses his extreme explosiveness and occasionally wayward competitive mindset.
Al Horford, Hawks
On the surface, it wouldn’t appear that Horford has made dramatic strides during the 2008-09 campaign. Thus far, he's averaged 11.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 51.6 shooting, after averaging 10.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.9 blocks on 49.9 percent shooting as a rookie.
While that represents a slight improvement, it doesn’t speak to a major breakthrough. What does is what Horford has done since recovering from a knee injury that cost him 12 games in January. Since Feb. 18, the second-year pro has averaged 12.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks, numbers that aren’t mind-blowing, but do put impressive company within reach.
Assuming that his offensive repertoire continues to develop, 17 points and 11 rebounds per game are well within reach in the third season of Horford’s career. Why is that relevant? Because the only player among qualified league leaders who has topped those numbers this season is an individual named Dwight Howard (with Tim Duncan, Chris Bosh, Yao Ming, Pau Gasol and David Lee all coming tantalizingly close).
Gerald Wallace, Bobcats
You could look at Wallace’s scoring dip this season (16.9 points per game in 2008-09 vs. 19.4 in 2007-08) and surmise that he’s taken a step backward, but that would be overlooking the escalation of efficiency he’s shown under Larry Brown. He's the Bobcats’ leading scorer despite averaging just 11.5 field-goal attempts per game. By comparison, the NBA’s leading scorer, Dwyane Wade, is taking a league-high 21.9 shots per game.
Then again, efficiency hasn’t always been Wallace’s strong suit, and it would be almost tragic if a player known as “Crash” somehow became synonymous with caution. But fear not — Wallace hasn’t reigned in his aggressiveness; he is simply learning how best to summon it.
In his last 16 games, the relentless and occasionally reckless forward — who boldly declared to the Charlotte Observer last month that “I just ignore pain now” — has averaged 19.7 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.5 blocks per game, pushing the Bobcats for at least a brief moment into the playoff conversation.
With the Bobcats now close to elimination from the postseason picture — and by extension close to temporarily vanishing from the basketball landscape — Wallace’s performance in 2008-09 isn’t likely to resonate throughout the offseason. However, it can’t be overlooked that at age 26, Wallace’s most fierce and determined season to date could be directly on the horizon.
Monta Ellis, Warriors
By most accounts, if you signed a lucrative contract over the summer, then shortly thereafter violated said contract by getting into a moped accident (leading to a severe ankle injury and subsequent team-mandated 30-game suspension), your season would be considered something of an unmitigated disaster. And considering that Ellis has played just 25 games in 2008-09 and is currently sidelined once again with ankle trouble, his campaign certainly isn’t getting the most encouraging closing chapter.
But finding your way onto the cusp of a competitive eruption isn’t about having the best season imaginable in 2008-09; it’s about providing a startlingly clear glimpse of what’s to come next year.
For a 12-game stretch between March 11 and April 1, Ellis was nothing short of ferocious. During that span, the fourth-year pro averaged 25.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.6 steals, capped off by a 42-point, nine-rebound, nine-assist tour de force in an April 1 game against Sacramento, a contest that admittedly featured very little defense, but still showcased an offensive-minded 23-year-old guard on the brink of something formidable in 2009-10.