This is just a quick look at 5 players who are facing the most pressure to improve next year in no particular order. None of this is to say that these players are not already good, or that they are busts or anything. Quite the opposite actually, these are guys that have been successful and due to their success they are under a lot of pressure to make the next step into being a true superstar.
Most importantly, I do not expect any of these guys to be finished products this coming season, just need to keep making strides.
It is a little bit hard to believe that a 21-year old who averaged over 20 points per game on a 54.3 TS% is in need of a big improvement, but as of now, he is very one dimensional. He doesn't rebound hardly at all, doesn't really pass the ball very well, and can't shoot 3s, and he did not make much of a step forward as a defender last year (although he is already a solid defender.)
To be clear, even if Wiggins were to make literally no improvements to his game he is a very solid player, not just anyone can score a (fairly) efficient 20 per game in the NBA. Wiggins right now looks like he could be headed towards being a slightly better version of DeMar DeRozan, which is really good for anyone who isn't one of the most hyped players in recent memory. When considering that the Wolves are likely to try and win some actual games this season as well, Wiggins needs to start showing that he is more than just an isolation scorer.
Likelihood of happening: HIGH. I believe in Wiggins, I expect him to be awesome this season.
I nearly left Giannis off this list altogether with his new contract being for just about 20 million per year, which significantly lowers the pressure on him as he already has his extension, and it is likely to be a bargain no matter how much he improves. That said, Giannis received his extension to be the player that was on the court after the all-star break last year when he averaged 18.8/8.6/7.2 per game with (usually) great defensive play.
They felt so comfortable giving Giannis the big contract because he finally showed that he was really putting it together after coming into the league as one of the NBA's rawest players. And even though the contract is quite a bit smaller than it could have been (making expectations that much smaller as well) he is under pressure to show that those 28 games last year were no fluke.
Likelihood of happening: VERY VERY HIGH. I watched a ton of the Bucks last year, what happened after the break was real.
Andre Drummond has made steady progress every year of his career, and he may be too good already to appear on this list given that he was 2nd in the NBA in defensive win shares and had the best non-Rodman rebounding season in history while being the best player on a playoffs team. But still, the Pistons signed him to a max extension, and anybody who watches the Pistons knows that despite how good he already is, Drummond could still be so much better.
He regularly showed flashes of being a rock solid post up option, most notably with the occasional LeBron like pass, and he occasionally showed how dominant he truly could be on defense. Given that he was just 22, it is ok that they were all flashes, but the Pistons have built their team the way they have because they believe Andre will become more than an all-star, and it is time for some of those “flashes” to become just “regular things”. Also, free throws.
Likelihood of happening: Moderately High. Andre has made improvements every year in the league. If he was younger I would have more faith in him, but the fact is that he is about to enter his 5th year, and most guys don't have super drastic changes to their games at this point but rather more subtle improvements.
I don't think Andre is “most guys” so I still lean towards him making the step, but everyone likes to believe their guy is the exception to the rule.
Russell had an up and down rookie year where he looked an awful lot like a rookie point guard often but occasionally showed just what he is capable of. With Kobe now gone, the spotlight is going to be much brighter on the Lakers young point guard. And with Byron Scott gone, there will be fewer excuses available for Russell.
The Lakers are essentially hoping to hand the keys of the franchise to Russell and Ingram, and Russell needs to show some improvements this year to reinforce the belief they have in him.
Likelihood of happening: High. Russell was brilliant at times last year when he was really given free control of the offense, and he has enough vets around to help keep the load from getting too heavy. He seems to be in pretty much the perfect situation to thrive now, and if he does struggle again it will be time to worry a bit about him.
He is a bit of an odd fit here, since his ceiling is much lower than the other guys on this list, but given that he totally bombed out in free agency while guys like Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe got paid huge amounts, it has suddenly become clear that Waiters could well be fighting for his NBA life this year in Miami. On the plus side, he is with a great organization with great coaching, and there is a sudden gaping hole for the skills he should bring to the table.
In the case of Waiters, this season actually could be a make or break year for him. He could be awesome and show everyone that in the right situation he can thrive, or he could prove everyone right and show that he just is not a quality NBA player and/or not willing to change his game to become one.
Likelihood of happening: Moderately low. I want to believe in Waiters, I've never owned land on Waiters island, but I've often prospected there. The main worry I have with him is that he played with LeBron James, and then Durant/Westbrook, and in neither place was he willing to learn to freaking shoot corner 3s and work his tail off on defense to work with two generational talents.
JR Smith learned to play defense with LeBron for goodness sake. That makes me worried that Waiters is a lost cause, but I still can't help but think of how talented he is. I may be sailing away from Waiters island, but I'm not over the horizon yet.
What do you think? Which of these guys will break out? Which ones won't?